Mets brass owe their fans another ace

NEW YORK -- Betrayed by their allegiances, battered by a franchise forever leading the league in broken hearts, Mets fans tiptoed into the 2010 season terrified of their pitching staff. They were afraid Mike Pelfrey was not a credible No. 2 starter, and it turns out they were right.

Mike Pelfrey is not a credible No. 2. He's a credible No. 1.

Pelfrey has arrived as Johan Santana's equal and then some. He proved why Thursday night, when he didn't have his A-game against the Phillies and still shut them down for seven innings, still put them on the bus without a single Citi Field run to their name.

Jose Reyes continued rediscovering himself as a leadoff man, delivering three hits and the two-run double that sent Cole Hamels to the showers, and the Mets had a three-game sweep of Philly, a fifth straight victory over a 2009 World Series participant and a reason or three to ask their owner to step up to the plate.

Jeff Wilpon knows how the saying goes: You help those who help themselves. The Mets are helping themselves. They beat Phil Hughes and CC Sabathia, and then they shredded the two-time defending National League champs by a 16-0 count, shutting out an opponent in a three-game series for the first time since the miracle maneuverings of 1969.

"It's the most amazing series I've ever been a part of," Jeff Francoeur said.

So Wilpon needs to make something crystal clear to his general manager, Omar Minaya. In the coming weeks, when the Astros and Mariners cry uncle and begin shopping Roy Oswalt and Cliff Lee for real, Wilpon has to send Minaya into the marketplace with the understanding that the Mets will pay for that third elite starter required to reach October and beyond.

If the Astros and Mariners aren't ready to surrender just yet, they're ironing their white flags. Oswalt has asked to be traded to a team with a championship-ready roster, and Lee wants to be a free agent as much as LeBron James does.

Off the unmitigated disaster that was 2009, off the kind of gutless finishes to 2008 and 2007 that inspired Hamels to call them choke artists, the Mets need to get one of the two, Oswalt or Lee.

Oswalt for $43 million, or Lee for a lot more long-term money than that.

Reached by phone, neither Wilpon nor Minaya would comment on their desire (or lack thereof) to land the type of starting pitcher who would notarize the Mets as true-blue contenders. But if Joe Torre's Dodgers are already inquiring about Oswalt and Lee, the Mets shouldn't require engraved invitations to do the same.

Soon enough it won't be the time or place to ask David Wright and Francoeur to do more. Wilpon will be the one charged to provide an offensive spark -- with his checkbook.

Before Wilpon and his father, Fred, worry about building a new arena for the Islanders, they should build a viable contender for their fans.

Yes, the Wilpons have spent on talent. But it's just their luck that they do business in the one baseball market in America where a $136 million payroll can feel $70 million short.

Two seasons back, the Yankees missed the playoffs for the first time since '93 and laid out $423.5 million on Sabathia, Mark Teixeira and A.J. Burnett. The Mets completely disintegrated last year after playing their final Sunday rounds of '08 and '07 Greg Norman-style, and they responded by declining to pay $90 million for John Lackey.

Pelfrey has bailed them out with his 7-1 start, with the ability to shrug off a rain delay of nearly two hours and, with his B-plus stuff, to reduce the same opponents that drilled him in Philly to a sorry junior varsity lot.

"I thought he was overmatching a good hitting club," Jerry Manuel said, "and you don't see that often. … He feels good about Mike Pelfrey, and that's good for us."

Good for Manuel, too, who has likely bought himself a month or more of breathing room. But the mission statement isn't supposed to be about saving desperate managers or finishing the year a few games over .500.

It's supposed to be about winning the whole thing for the first time since 1986.

Even if Carlos Beltran helps the cause when he returns, championships aren't won by outfielders coming off serious knee injuries. They're won by able-bodied pitchers, especially in ballparks where herculean homers go to die.

Lee's pending free agency complicates matters, and Oswalt has a full no-trade clause and an owner, Drayton McLane, who's a pain in the rump to deal with. Nobody said this would be easy.

The Mets positively cannot trade Ike Davis, and they'll fight like hell to keep Jenrry Mejia. But when asked if Mejia represented an untouchable, a source familiar with the Mets' thinking said, "Nobody's an untouchable."

To convince Oswalt he can win it all in Queens, Minaya might have to sweet-talk him harder than Donnie Walsh has to sweet-talk LeBron. So be it. The Phillies landed Lee and Roy Halladay when they had to, and now the Mets are on the clock.

The Hisanori Takahashis and R.A. Dickeys of the world have helped return the Mets to relevance, but it's hard to imagine either beating the Yanks or Rays in Game 6 of the World Series.

Joe Girardi won a title last year with three championship-grade starters, and right now the Mets have two. Jeff Wilpon and Omar Minaya owe it to their rejuvenated team, and their beaten-up fan base, to go get the third.

Ian O'Connor is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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