Phillies-Mets rivalry building in intensity

NEW YORK -- There's no need to hype this series, not now, not anymore. The Mets-Phillies rivalry is under warranty for 2008 and beyond. It has all the trimmings of an old-school turf war, including history (last September), trash talk (see: Jimmy Rollins) and geography (these guys aren't just in each other's faces, they're practically in their backyards).

The three-game series, which begins this afternoon, is irresistible from every vantage point. The Mets are looking to repair the damage from their 11th-hour collapse in 2007, which handed the division to the Phillies despite a seven-game lead with 17 to go. The Phillies predicted it all along, or at least Rollins did, and he's just as confident in 2008, too.

The National League's reigning MVP says the Mets can talk all they want about redemption in the Johan Santana era, but they're still not going to catch the Phillies.

"Last year, when I said we'd beat the Mets, I meant it. There was no doubt we were one of the elite teams," Rollins said by telephone the other day. "This year we have a chance to win 100 games, that's the type of team we have. Once our bullpen gets situated, we're going to win 100 games."

Such talk drives the Mets crazy; they still believe they had the better team in 2007, despite losing their last eight in a row to the Phillies. In fact, some Mets refuse to concede the Phillies actually won the East, contending instead that it was the Mets' own ineptitude that handed Philadelphia the division.

Out front with that opinion is -- surprise -- Billy Wagner, who couldn't care less how his words resound in the Phillies' clubhouse.

"The collapse didn't come because the Phillies beat us, the collapse came because we played bad," Wagner told reporters in Atlanta over the weekend. "The Phillies didn't -- I don't know how to say this -- it wasn't like they beat us. A lot of times we beat ourselves, defense or just not doing things [we'd] done all year."

So it begins again, this time with Oliver Perez facing Jamie Moyer. That's only the first story line. The list of others stretches into infinity, including the possibility of fists being thrown, if not today or Wednesday, at some point during the hot summer.

The topic was first raised by ESPN's Jayson Stark, who in March told Philadelphia radio station WPEN, "There were guys in the [Phillies] locker room the other day suggesting there will be a brawl -- b-r-a-w-l."

The mere suggestion, even thirdhand, was enough to raise the chatter another level. A day later, Pedro Martinez told the New York media, "I don't believe there's a reason to be fighting, but we're over here. Basically, if [they're] going to have to brawl or whatever, we're over here. We'll wait."

Talk about a perfect storm waiting to happen: Pedro and the Phillies were on a path to collide today. It would've been Martinez's turn in the rotation, had he not strained a hamstring last Tuesday against the Marlins. Instead, the injury, unprovoked and unforeseen, punctured the Mets' opening week. They lost three of four games after Pedro went on the disabled list, including a sweep by the Braves in a rain-shortened two-game series.

So the Mets do have other concerns besides the Phillies' rhetoric. Santana was unable to outpitch John Smoltz on Sunday, but even more demoralizing is the state of the rest of the pitching staff. John Maine, whom everyone in the organization is quietly projecting to a 16-18 win season, was shellacked by Atlanta on Saturday, and the back of the rotation remains a question mark with Orlando Hernandez on the disabled list and Mike Pelfrey still looking for a breakthrough performance.

Even Santana's status has raised some eyebrows, since manager Willie Randolph announced his ace will wait an extra day before starting again. Instead of pitching on Friday, on schedule, Santana will face the Brewers on Saturday; the Friday assignment will go to Nelson Figueroa.

So what gives? The Mets aren't saying, exactly. Maybe the juggling is nothing more than a way to start Santana against the Phillies next Friday at Citizens Bank Park. As it is, he's missing the first go-round with the Phillies this week at Shea Stadium. Obviously, the Mets need to throw Santana as often as possible against the National League's most dangerous offense, especially this month.

I enjoy when you pull up to the park at 2 o'clock and there's tailgating going on. … It kind of breaks up the monotony of the season when you know when you go to the park there's going to be some people from Philadelphia there stirring it up.

--Mets 3B David Wright

The two rivals face each other six times in April, which will not only stoke the rivalry, but give both sides a sense of the 2008 chemistry, too. Are the Phillies even better now than in '07, as Rollins claims? Are the Mets damaged from the most prodigious collapse in regular-season history?

No team had ever surrendered a lead that large, that late in the season. It was all supposed to be smoothed over by now, thanks to Santana's arrival, but the Mets know there's unfinished business in the East.

So does the entire Mets community, which will pack Shea Stadium for its final opener before Citi Field is unveiled in 2009. The ballpark will be full of energy and anticipation, even if there's some anxiety mixed in the cocktail, too.

Either way, it makes for a legitimate April showdown.

Rollins at Shea? It's like matter versus antimatter.

"I enjoy when you pull up to the park at 2 o'clock and there's tailgating going on. I like that kind of stuff," said David Wright. "It kind of breaks up the monotony of the season when you know when you go to the park there's going to be some people from Philadelphia there stirring it up. I think it's a good thing."

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