Consider yourselves lucky, Met fans. Last year at this time you were 3 games under .500 (42-45), in 4th place, 6 1/2 games behind front-running Philadelphia, en route to oblivion in the second half of the season, buried under an avalanche of injuries. This year at the break, despite losing two straight series at Citi Field, the Mets sit 8 games over .500 (48-40), just 4 games in arrears of Atlanta, with Carlos Beltran finally returning, hopefully a fully-healed Jose Reyes set to go in San Francisco, and some pitching help more than likely on the way.

The biggest difference in the Mets this season is the depth of the organization. No, they still do not have as deep or rich a farm system as other teams do, but they are and have been much better equipped to overcome injuries this year. Where there was Anderson Hernandez, Ramon E. Martinez and Wilson Valdez last year, there is Ruben Tejada this year. Five different players – Carlos Delgado, Daniel Murphy, Fernando Tatis, Nick Evans and Jeremy Reed – handled first base last year. Ike Davis can handle things all by himself this year. For Omir Santos, there’s Josh Thole, who has 9 hits in just 17 AB, including 4-5 with 3 RBI as a pinch-hitter. Chris Carter, Jesus Feliciano and others have had their moments as well. R.A. Dickey was superb with 6 straight wins before faltering the last couple of starts, and Jenrry Mejia, though likely miscast in his role out of the bullpen, showed glimpses of what he can become.

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The Mets have to do several things better in the second half if they want to have a chance:

# 1 – They have to be a better team away from Citi Field. The Mets are 18-24 on the road, but since they were 8-18, they have gone 10-6. However, 6 of those 10 wins came against Baltimore and Cleveland in inter-league play. Yes, I know, the Orioles just swept Texas in a 4-game set, but when the Mets played the O’s and Indians, neither team could get out of their own way. They were gimme wins. The Mets will be tested right out of the break – 11 games in 11 days in San Francisco (4), Arizona (3) and Los Angeles (4). The Dodgers (10 over .500) and Giants (8 over) are both strong teams at home, and 62% of the Diamondbacks’ wins have come at home. Not easy.

# 2 – They have to fare better in divisional games. The Mets are just 19-20 against their foes in the N.L. East, just 6-12 on the road. They have some time to regroup, as they don’t resume divisional play until August 2, when they have a tough 6-game trip to Atlanta and then Philadelphia.

# 3 – They have to find the recipe (key late hit, tough late pitch) to become better at closing out close games. More than half of their games (47) already have been 1 or 2 run decisions, and the Mets are only 19-28 – 10-15 in one-run games, 9-13 in two-run affairs.

First half MVP

With all due respect to All-Star 3B David Wright, Angel Pagan wins this honor hands down for his overall consistent play since the start of the season. Pagan finished the first half strong with 4 multi-hit games, and batted .484 (15-31) over his last seven games, with 3 doubles, 2 HR and 1 triple. Pagan has the highest batting average in the N.L. from the 7th inning on – .376 – and is 3rd in the N.L. and 4th in the majors with a .391 average hitting with RISP. And he’s also swiped 19 bases, tied for the team lead with Jose Reyes and 4th in the N.L. Even with Carlos Beltran now back, Pagan will get plenty of playing time if he continues these numbers. The first series with the Giants is a good indicator. Pagan and Jeff Francoeur will split right field between the righties (Lincecum and Cain) and lefties (Zito and Sanchez), and there’s no way Beltran will play all 4 games so Pagan will fill there as well. In Manager Jerry Manuel’s situation – stay hot, you play – if not, you pay.

No, there’s no way that Reyes should have been batting right-handed against righties and trying to play through a minor (which could become major) oblique injury. But don’t blame the Mets for not having learned their injury lessons from last season, rather blame them for their handling of Manuel’s situation. The Mets were cautious with Beltran, even when a lot of people wanted to see him here sometime during the homestand just completed. Manuel has no safety net. When asked earlier this season if he thought he had to make the playoffs to keep his job, Manuel emphatically said yes, and the front office said nothing to contradict him. Under those circumstances, he’s going to do what he feels he has to (and can) do, and if someone’s available, he’s going to use him. Considering all that’s gone wrong (Perez, Maine, Beltran, no 8th inning man, etc.), Manuel has earned his stripes to have this team where he does. The Mets could rectify the situation – but they haven’t.

What the Mets HAVE done well:

— Since May 22, they have hit .307 with RISP, 2nd best in the majors.

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— Met pitchers have held the opposition to a .230 batting average with RISP, the 3rd lowest mark in the majors.

— Met pitchers have also posted the 3rd lowest batting average (.197) with RISP after the 7th inning.

— The Mets have shutout their opponents 13 times this season, tops in the majors.

— They are 2nd in the majors with 84 stolen bases (Tampa Bay has 107).

What the Mets HAVE NOT done well:

— Hit with RISP during their recently completed 2-4 homestand – 7-51 – a .137 clip.

— Clutch and late – the Mets are batting just .198 with RISP after the 7th inning, the 3rd worst mark in the majors.

And a couple of notes on hot-button topics before we leave:

— Two wrongs don’t make a right. The whole idea of the baseball All-Star game determining home-field advantage for the World Series is a ridiculous farce to begin with. And no, Stephen Strasburg should not be there to further the folly. The powers-that-be are dopes to allow this to continue, but that’s baseball. Strasburg is well sheltered in Washington, so I asked several of his teammates recently about his thoughts on the matter. To a man they said he’s a good kid who “gets it” and he was embarrassed to be in the middle of a maelstrom. Way to make your brightest young stars feel uncomfortable. All for an exhibition game that holds the fate of the 7th game of the World Series. Yeesh!!

— The whole LeBron James fiasco was sad, pathetic and embarrassing. Exactly what’s wrong with sports these days. I’ll leave you with this – in the twilight of his great career, Larry Bird was asked what he thought of various veterans trying to position themselves to join contenders for possibly a final shot at that championship ring that had eluded them. Paraphrasing here, Bird replied that he always thought the idea was to get drafted by a team and build a champion by making those around you better players, which he did rather nicely during his time in the NBA. What a concept!! You can probably cut a little slack for some great players (Malone, Barkley, etc.) who’ve more than paid their dues and gone ringless, but as great as he is, LeBron is nowhere near that territory at the moment. And boy, did that ever come across loud and clear during this whole sorry process over the last couple of weeks. Double yeesh!!

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C U in the City by the Bay
Eddie C.