K-Rod says Mets will win NL East

NEW YORK -- Francisco Rodriguez has a message for the Philadelphia Phillies and the rest of the NL East.

"Of course, we're going to try to win the division. Of course, we're going to be the front-runner. Of course, we're going to be the team to beat," he said Saturday.

Four days after agreeing to a $37 million, three-year contract, K-Rod was confident the Mets will put consecutive September collapses behind them and overtake the World Series champion Phillies in ruling the NL East.

"I don't want there to be a controversy or the other ballclubs in that division to take it personally or take it in a bad way," he said. "If they ask me, 'Oh, which ballclub is going to win the National League East?' It's going to be the Mets. Easy question."

In 2007 and 2008, the Mets treated their fans much the same way Lucy dealt with Charlie Brown trying to kick a football: They promised everything would be different this time only to yank the ball away at the end. September leads evaporated, and they were eliminated on the last day of the regular season.

On Thursday, Phillies ace Cole Hamels took a shot at the Mets.

"For the past two years they've been choke artists," he said on WFAN radio.

Philadelphia's Jimmy Rollins began the verbal sparring before the 2007 season when he said the Phillies were the team to beat in the division -- even though the Mets came within one win of reaching the World Series the previous year.

"Everybody knows what happened, unfortunately. They didn't get the job done. Unfortunately, you know, it happens," Rodriguez said Saturday from Venezuela during a conference call. "We cannot be living with the past. We've just have to get that behind us and get focused."

In a span of four days, the Mets reached a $37 million, three-year deal with K-Rod, acquired J.J. Putz from Seattle and exiled three of the guilty, trading Aaron Heilman, Joe Smith and Scott Schoeneweis. The Mets want to forget a season in which they blew 29 of 72 save chances.

Rodriguez saved a major league record 62 games for the Los Angeles Angels last season and says he's ready for a changed atmosphere at Citi Field. He was animated with the Angels, and is looking forward to the energy of the Mets' fans. He wants to earn their respect.

"New York's atmosphere is totally different. The fans are really passionate," he said. "A lot of players like to be on that stage. I'm the kind of guy that likes to be on the big stage."

He's not used to charged-up fans at home.

"In Anaheim, they're more calm," he said. "They're really relaxed when they're watching the game."

Already a three-time All-Star, Rodriguez turns 27 next month. He claimed his drop in velocity last season was caused by his development of a changeup. He tried to throw all his pitches at the same arm speed.

K-Rod thinks his velocity will be back up next year.

"People, they're looking at velocity and not worried about what I've done," he said. "To me it's not a concern. It's not something that I really worry about right now."

He joins fellow Venezuelan Johan Santana on the Mets, and can sense the excitement when "walking the street, going to the mall, doing groceries."

At a dinner with the Mets last Sunday night, he spoke with Santana, who had called team executive Tony Bernazard.

"They told me all the best things of New York and some of the bad things, too," he said. "Like I say, he gave me a little advice."