Mets should have slammed NL East door long ago

Fingers crossed, prayers muttered fast and furious, the Mets begin a critical series Thursday night against the Marlins, hoping to address two pressing questions:

Is the worst of their near-historic collapse over? And, were they really as awful as they looked?

The answers, respectively, are: too soon to know and, incredibly, yes.

The Mets' 8-4 win over the Nationals on Wednesday night created some leg room in the NL East as the Phillies finally lost to the Cardinals. With their lead now back to 2½ games, the Mets are hunkering down for the final 11. They've been either strengthened or scarred by the stunning slump, during which they committed 16 errors in seven games. But either way, no one is minimizing its severity.

"We need to get this straightened out or we're not going to be playing in October -- bottom line," Paul Lo Duca told reporters after Wednesday's game. "We'll see what we're made of."

There's good news, though, in the form of Tom Glavine and Pedro Martinez, back to back, against a Marlins team the Mets have beaten seven of 11 times this season. If the tempest really has run its course, the remainder of the regular-season schedule looks like a layup as the Mets have seven games with Florida, three more with the Nationals and a makeup game with the Cardinals. They play their last seven at Shea Stadium.

In fact, this final stretch was supposed to be two weeks of calisthenics for the Mets, busywork in preparation for the Division Series. But that was before the Mets got swept by the Phillies at Shea last weekend, then bottomed out by losing their first two games in Washington. Sandwiched in between was Willie Randolph's closed-door meeting before Tuesday's game, after which the players huddled in private for 40 minutes.

It was the first players-only meeting of the year; that should tell you how smoothly (or smugly) the Mets had been floating through the summer. But their inability to beat the Phillies, initially an embarrassment, turned into a crisis and brought Philadelphia to within 1½ games of first place. With their lead almost blown, the Mets turned a desperate gaze toward Mike Pelfrey on Wednesday night.

The rookie responded with five-plus strong innings against the Nationals, and Moises Alou, who'd tweaked the same left quadriceps muscle that kept him on the disabled list nearly three months this summer, delivered three key hits. Still, the sudden and precipitous dive was a wakeup call for a team that'd been underperforming for most of the season.

It could even be a red flag for the playoffs. With eight straight losses to the Phillies still in their heads, the Mets obviously are hoping to avoid Citizens Bank Park next month. The Phillies have consistently outperformed and outhustled the Mets since the All-Star break despite the huge gap in talent and payroll.

In fact, the Mets' recent surpluses have yet to produce a world championship, or even a pennant, only an asterisk: They're rich but unfulfilled. Opposing executives say the Mets have been exposed as potentially soft -- yet again. They were the overwhelming favorites to make it to the World Series in 2006 but, despite having the home-field advantage, fell to the Cardinals in Game 7 of the NLCS. And this year, they've struggled to play even .600 ball, and likely will end up with 5-7 fewer wins than in '06.

General manager Omar Minaya frequently says, "We knew this year was going to be tougher," but one scout flatly disagreed, saying, "that [Mets] team should be up by 20 games. No one should even be close at this point."

So who's to blame? Take your pick; it's a buffet table of second-half flaws. Randolph, ever-stoic in the dugout, could've been more emotionally involved while his team looked so anxious, although he disputes the notion that he lacks passion. The manager told the New York Times that while the Mets were losing, "I had every one of them in my office and I challenged them. I got close to their faces. I told them what I expected from them."

To be fair, Randolph would've never been in such a predicament if John Maine, who coughed up a 4-0 lead en route to a 9-8 loss to the Nationals on Tuesday, didn't have a 6.16 ERA since the All-Star break. And if Jose Reyes' second-half average wasn't 46 points lower than the first half. And if Guillermo Mota (6.02 ERA) and Scott Schoeneweis (27 walks in 54.1 innings, 5.30 ERA) weren't so ineffective.

It was Minaya -- not Randolph -- who turned Mota and Schoeneweis into fixtures, giving them two- and three-year contracts, respectively. It was the front office, not Randolph, that allowed Chad Bradford to defect to the Orioles last winter as a free agent. But the decision to keep using Mota, in particular, the most unpopular player at Shea these days, has been the manager's.

Obviously, there'll be a reckoning if the Mets blow this lead, although it's anyone's guess who'll be held accountable. But history says there's no reason to obsess over a doomsday scenario. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, no team that's led its division or league by seven games with 17 to play (the Mets' position as of Sept. 12) has failed to make it to the postseason.

But it's not enough just to get to the Division Series, not when the Mets have the league's biggest payroll and best-looking roster two years running. That's why the meltdown could've been the best thing that ever happened to them. Or the worst. With 11 games to go, we're about to find out.

Bob Klapisch is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.