By Ernie Palladino
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The Mets beat up the Pirates and Phillies last week. Now, having started their series against the Cubs, the question is whether they can sustain the success without a real leadoff hitter.

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Sitting at 28-30 after Tuesday night’s loss in Chicago, the top spot in the Mets’ lineup is shaky.

Juan Lagares, the swift and nifty-fielding starting center fielder, went to the 15-day DL with an intercostal strain that could sideline him even longer. Chris Young can hit there, but he hasn’t been consistent. Their only other true leadoff hitter, Eric Young, Jr., is out of action with a hamstring issue.

And who the heck knows what Matt den Dekker will contribute over the long haul?

While it’s true that few teams turn on the state of their leadoff hitters, there’s no doubt the Mets could use a good table-setter right now. Lagares had been doing the job, hitting .288 with two homers and 18 RBIs. Those numbers are good enough to prove that the team’s hitting problems didn’t involve the very top of the lineup, but the supposed sluggers beneath it.

Now, it is ever more important for those hitters to do what Wilmer Flores provided in Philadelphia on Monday; namely, a little power for some quick runs. In their 11-2 win over the Phillies, Flores belted a grand slam from the No. 7 hole to break Monday’s game wide open in a six-run ninth.

Flores had six RBIs in that game, while den Dekker, just called up from Triple-A this weekend, scored a run on David Wright’s double in the sixth. In that game, the top of the lineup produced. But it won’t perform consistently unless Terry Collins finds a permanent guy in the leadoff spot quickly.

On Tuesday night, den Dekker went 2-for-5 with a run and a stolen base out of the leadoff spot.

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If Ruben Tejada excites anyone, that person will be the first. Young, another candidate, is down to .195, which is not exactly the kind of numbers one wants to see up there. Or anywhere, for that matter.

Bobby Abreu has leadoff experience and is hitting a healthy .309, but the 40-year-old no longer possesses the stamina to play more than a handful of games in a row.

That brings us to den Dekker, who was just 1-for-5 offensively on Monday, but contributed so much more with his glove. Of course, a player doesn’t have to bat leadoff to be a good defensive player. But den Dekker, who was once held in higher regard than Lagares, did rob Ryan Howard of a second-inning homer, and then pegged Reid Brignac at home in the third.

That alone should entice Collins to stick him in the lineup and hope for the best offensively. Right now, it appears den Dekker is their best option up top.

Looks can be deceiving, though. The Phillies are just awful, even worse than the Mets. So don’t judge anything the Mets did offensively by that five-game series.

Still, having a steady presence in the leadoff spot, as Lagares had become, can only help a squad that must improve its hitting over the long run. Den Dekker’s hit, after all, started a key rally which Daniel Murphy and Wright continued on Monday to set the stage for the blowout. His overall play earned him a start atop the lineup on Tuesday.

We’ll see where that spot goes from there.

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