NEW YORK -- The man responsible for the core of the roster believes the record, 28-22, is not somebody's idea of a hoax. These New York Mets, Omar Minaya maintained, do not represent another prank cigar ready to blow up in the fan base's face.
"I think they're going to be in contention all year," Minaya said by phone, and it wasn't clear if the executive was speaking with his heart (he still counts many former Mets colleagues as friends) or his head (the Mets just beat his current team, San Diego, three out of four).
But 50 games deep into 2012, with the National League East wide open and with the Philadelphia Phillies losing yet another star, Roy Halladay, to a long-term injury, the thought of the Mets surviving this unforgiving 25-game stretch and making the playoffs in a season offering an extra wild-card berth is not quite as absurd as, say, Manchester City winning the Premier League.
Yeah, stranger things have happened in sports. Any Citi Field mention of the P-word, playoffs, does not necessarily require a Jim Mora voice-over.
"There's no clear-cut team in the division that I'd say is much better than the Mets," said Minaya, senior VP of baseball operations for the Padres. "So if they stay healthy, with two wild cards, I think it's realistic for them to make the playoffs. There's a lot of talent there and the young guys will get better."
From here to June 24, the Mets are staring down a Murderers' Row of Phillies, Cardinals, Nationals, Yankees, Rays, Reds, Orioles, and more Yankees, enough to turn any manager's head 50 shades of gray. But Terry Collins' hair can't get any whiter, not after a lifetime in a game that can be so impossibly cruel. He has seen too much to run scared from the possibilities.
In a quiet moment outside of his clubhouse Tuesday afternoon, before his Mets beat the Phillies 6-3, Collins was asked if his team -- the one with Ruben Tejada, Josh Thole, and Jason Bay in the lineup -- had enough talent to reach the postseason.
"Sure," he told ESPNNewYork.com. "If we're healthy, yes. We can't lose David (Wright) for a month, and Jason Bay's got to get back, and we've got to get Ike (Davis) going. So the answer to that is, yeah, we've got it here. We've just got to get 'em going."
The Mets keep losing players to injury, if only for the sake of old times. Justin Turner went down Monday, forcing Wright to play shortstop and throwing a spotlight on the fact the Mets have played a parade of novices at the sport's signature position. Had newbie Omar Quintanilla not come through in a big way Tuesday night with three hits, smacking two leadoff doubles and scoring both times, Collins might've been tempted to pull Bud Harrelson out of his luxury suite.
Only Quintanilla, who stepped to the plate with a .213 career batting average, embodied exactly what these Mets have been under Collins, a guy who was supposed to be presiding over a last-place team ... even before the injuries. The Mets weren't supposed to have enough pitching or depth or defense to field a winner, and that blinding hangover from the Madoff mess was expected to linger for a season or two.
"But we said in the beginning of spring training that we think we have a better club than people thought, and we've proved that," Collins said. "Now we've got to maintain it.
"It means making sure Johan [Santana] stays healthy. It means finding a fifth starter who gives us those innings we need. We've got to get our shortstop back, we've got to get our left fielder back. There are a lot of pieces that need to be in order for us, but there's no telling what will happen."
Hours after the Mets finally fired that Memorial Day downer, Manny Acosta, Collins watched his newbie starter, Jeremy Hefner, homer for his first big-league hit. Better yet, the manager pinch-hit for his pitcher in the sixth and watched Scott Hairston send a two-run shot whistling over the wall.
The Mets endured a 64-minute rain delay in the eighth, put away Philly, and brightened the mood enough for GM Sandy Alderson to confirm his team will engage in contract talks with Wright, scheduled to be a free agent after the 2013 season. Of more immediate consequence, the Mets gave themselves a chance Wednesday to win the first of eight series that will make or break them -- with the smart money likely on break.
Of course, Collins isn't betting that way. "Everybody's going to go through a rough time," he said. "If we maintain it, hey, we've competed in our division. Anybody can do it. Look at the Arizona Diamondbacks last year. They got hot, they stayed healthy, they played great in the second half, and they won.
"I think we can do it. I think we can. Again, as long as we continue to not get too beat up, we'll be fine."
Collins was out of his pregame news conference, on his way to BP, when he was asked if he wanted his players -- players who haven't even gotten out of May -- to start believing they can win a bid to the October tournament.
"We talk about it every day," the manager said. "We talk about it all the time. ... You've got to believe you can win. You've got to believe you can execute. We don't want anybody to think they're not supposed to win.
"If we have a bad night, get beat 14-7 or somebody comes back on us and scores three, if there's anybody in that locker room who says, 'Who cares, we're not supposed to win,' I don't want them in there."
The Mets have been living on two-out hits and runs, and nobody has a clue how long that will last. But these two things are certain:
1) If the season ended today, the Mets would be in the playoffs.
2) The Mets have a better record than the Yanks, who are spending an additional $100 million-plus on players.
Sometimes teams that are supposed to win don't, and sometimes teams that aren't supposed to win do. The Mets might be wiped out by the last week in June, or they might emerge from this treacherous portion of their schedule a certified postseason contender.
If the baseball gods play fair, Mets fans will get the latter. The last thing they need is another exploding cigar.