Collins: 'They don't give up'

NEW YORK -- The relief corps has not exactly been stellar, having penned an MLB-worst 4.94 ERA.

The fielding has looked shoddy at times.

And, no, the New York Mets do not hit left-handed pitching particularly well. In fact, they are 12-20 when the opposing team starts a southpaw, a stat manager Terry Collins said opposing teams likely will look to exploit during the second half.

Yet the Mets have a 46-40 record at the All-Star break, despite dropping their second series to the lowly Chicago Cubs in the past two weeks with a 7-0 loss Sunday afternoon at Citi Field.

If the playoffs were to begin Tuesday (not the All-Star Game), the Mets would have come within a half-game of the newly instituted wild-card game.

Who saw that coming, especially given the uncertain contribution of Johan Santana, returning from shoulder surgery?

"I think we are where we are because these guys grind it out, which we ask them to do," said Collins, arguably destined to be the NL manager of the year. "They come every night. They play nine innings. They play hard. They don't give up. They try to have quality at-bats.

"One of the things we've talked about is not giving up at-bats. You'll see a lot of times where a game may be out of control and all you want to do is get it over, and guys will go up and take a three-pitch at-bat just to put the ball in play -- 'Hey, let's go get them tomorrow.' And these guys haven't done that."

Sunday's two-hour, eight-minute game aside, that's certainly true. In fact, the Mets work the count so much and stress on-base percentage, they have seen the most pitches in the National League this season.

Past regimes have tried to preach plate discipline and drive up opposing starters' pitch counts. Other organizations preach it, too. So why has it finally become ingrained in the Mets' psyche?

Collins praised hitting coach Dave Hudgens' contribution. Collins noted that for two straight spring trainings, Hudgens never made a Grapefruit League road trip. Instead, Hudgens would stay behind with the hitters not scheduled for the trip and drive the plate-discipline point home.

"I don't know how we've completely done it, and I'm not sure we've done it as much and as well as we'd like it to be with certain guys," Collins said. "But one of the things we tried to do when we first came in, in spring training the first year, we had this idea. And obviously the guy who's got to sell it is Dave Hudgens. ... If they don't necessarily buy into the idea, but they start to see it work, all of a sudden it starts to carry on. And now we've certainly made it a policy in the minor leagues that in order to move up, your on-base percentage has to go up. So that's helped."

The Mets have a critical stretch of their schedule right after the break. They open the second half in Atlanta, no longer a house of horrors, but nonetheless a vital series with Atlanta occupying second place in the NL East, a half-game ahead of the Mets. Before returning home to face the Dodgers and Nationals, the Mets travel from Atlanta to D.C. for a meeting there with the first-place Nats.

Collins said the starting pitching is what has driven the Mets, and what must continue to perform if the Mets are to realize their once-seemingly improbable ambition of reaching the postseason.

The manager added that the returns of Frank Francisco (strained oblique) and Jason Bay (concussion) for the July 17-19 series at Washington should help, too. Collins also is hoping for big second-half contributions from Ike Davis and Lucas Duda.

"As we start to get into this, we've got to start hitting throughout [the lineup]," Collins said. "And, you know, we've got Jason Bay coming back. We keep talking about a right-handed bat. We've got a right-handed bat. We've just got to get him back in the lineup and get him going."

Given that the Mets are six games over .500, is anything short of a postseason berth now a major disappointment? Probably so. But Collins said it is too early to declare that.

"It's July 8," Collins said. "Oct. 3 is too far away to decide how I'll be feeling on Oct. 3. I know right now we're in a hunt. And we like our chances, because we like our club. If our pitching holds up, I think on Oct. 3, we're going to feel pretty good about whatever happens.

"If for some reason we don't make the postseason, I don't know if you can say how you'll feel at that time, because we may have some disastrous things happen in the second half and still finish two or three games out of the wild card and say, 'Boy, you know what, we played pretty good in that second half [under] the circumstances.'

"It's difficult to answer right now."