'Unfinished business here'

Posted: March 25, 2007

PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. - The New York Mets played themselves back into their city's Yankee-dominated baseball consciousness in 2006.

They had the best record in the National League and got back to the postseason for the first time since 2000.

But the lasting memory of 2006 isn't all the excitement that was produced in Shea Stadium. It's the disappointment that filled the old ballpark on the night of Oct. 19.

The underdog St. Louis Cardinals rallied to beat the Mets, 3-1, in Game 7 of the National League Championship Series. The Mets' dream of making the World Series died when Carlos Beltran took a called third strike with the bases loaded to end the game.

"We came one hit away," manager Willie Randolph said. "What I reflect on is the positive stuff. It just wasn't meant to be, but I'm proud of what we did. Now, you start over from scratch. You throw it away, leave it alone, learn from it, and get ready for the next one."

Pitcher Tom Glavine says the Mets will be ready for the next one. Their season opens a week from tonight against the same Cardinals club that beat them in the league championship series.

"There's some unfinished business here," Glavine said. "It's mostly a quiet, understood thing, but there's no question it's a motivator for us."

Closer Billy Wagner concurred.

"We know how close we came," he said. "We know the feeling. We feel we were the better team. We just didn't execute, and that's something that drives us."

The Mets have a star-studded lineup and say they can repeat as NL East champions. But they have challenges, particularly with their starting pitching rotation and bullpen. Both units could be really good. Or both could be something else. In the end, pitching will determine the Mets' fate, but that doesn't make them unique.

"Every year it's the same," Glavine said. "Whoever pitches best wins."

The Mets have some tremendous resumes in their starting rotation, but all come with fine print.

Glavine is 10 wins shy of 300, but he's 41 years old. Orlando "El Duque" Hernandez, 40, doesn't have the dazzling stuff he once did, and has had trouble with nagging injuries. Pedro Martinez had rotator cuff surgery in October. If all goes well - and rotator cuff injuries always come with a big if - he could be back by August and be the team's big second-half pickup.

The bottom of the rotation has big potential in John Maine, Oliver Perez, and possibly top prospect Mike Pelfrey, but consistency is an issue.

"The rotation is a huge question mark," Glavine admitted. "We have to stay healthy. No team goes through a season with just five starters, but hopefully we won't need 13 like last year."

At the start of the season, the bullpen will be without two of its top arms in setup men Guillermo Mota and Duaner Sanchez. Mota is serving a 50-game suspension for failing a steroid test, and Sanchez is still recovering from a separated shoulder suffered late last season. Sanchez could be ready by the end of April.

The Mets still have Aaron Heilman and Pedro Feliciano in the bullpen, and they traded for hard-throwing Ambiorix Burgos and signed lefty Scott Schoeneweis, a graduate of Lenape High School.

"We're missing key guys [Sanchez and Mota] in the bullpen, so that will be a concern early in the season," said Wagner, who converted 40 of 45 save chances last season. "If we're in it when they come back, our stock goes way up."

Wagner said the Phillies have the best team in the division on paper, but he flatly says, "If we stay healthy, I think we should win the division."

The Mets' strength is their lineup. Leadoff man Jose Reyes is one of the most exciting players in the game. He hit .300 with 19 homers, 81 RBIs, and a league-best 64 stolen bases last year. Third baseman David Wright is a rising star. Beltran and Carlos Delgado are already there. Catcher Paul Lo Duca is a strong field general. Beltran, Reyes, Wright and Delgado all finished in the top 12 in NL most valuable player voting last season.

The Mets struggled against lefthanded starting pitching last season, going 25-22 overall and 11-15 after the all-star break. The addition of righthanded-hitting leftfielder Moises Alou should help in that area.

These are high times for the Mets. They have impressive young talent (Reyes and Wright) that has already arrived and more on the way in Pelfrey and Philip Humber. They have big revenue streams in a cable television network in which they own a share, and a new stadium that will open in 2009. Their owner (Fred Wilpon) is spending more than $110 million to put a winner on the field, and general manager Omar Minaya is as creative as they come.

Clearly, getting to the World Series is this team's goal. The Mets would have gotten there last year if Beltran had gotten a hit in that final at-bat of Game 7 of the league championship series.

That reality fuels this team's drive.

"Last year left us knowing we can do it," Delgado said. "It's a friendly reminder. But we know we have to earn it. Even though we have the same core players, we have to perform and earn it."

Contact staff writer Jim Salisbury

at 215-854-4983 or jsalisbury@phillynews.com.

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