Tale of two teams

The Baltimore Sun

The back pages of the New York tabloids are considered prime real estate for the Yankees and Mets, but only when they're living right. It's no place for a struggling team to reside. The streets tend to get a bit too rough.

There goes a big division lead. And there goes the neighborhood.

If the Mets were seeking more attention from the local media than normally given to their crosstown rivals - like brothers vying for the affection of their overbearing, ink-stained parents - they found the wrong kind. A five-game losing streak that ended last week reduced their National League East lead from 6 1/2 to 1 1/2 games over a five-day span. The Philadelphia Phillies are breathing so heavily down their necks, it's affecting the flight of the baseballs at Shea Stadium.

"Every game is the biggest game of the year from here on out," Mets third baseman David Wright said after Wednesday's victory over the Washington Nationals. "Hopefully, with this one, we can take a nice, deep breath and start a nice roll."

It sounded good in theory, but the Mets squandered a lead the next night and lost to the Florida Marlins. They needed Friday night's win to remain 1 1/2 games ahead of the Phillies going into last night.

Listing the problems could take longer than a charter flight to the West Coast. The pitching has been horrible, blowing four-run leads in the first two games against the Nationals. The defense committed 10 errors in two games last week. And for whatever reason, shortstop Jose Reyes - the Mets' leadoff hitter and an NL Most Valuable Player candidate - was batting .240 in September and mishandling ground balls with alarming regularity.

At least the schedule favors them. They have four games left with the Marlins and three with the Nationals, the two worst teams in their division, plus a makeup game with the St. Louis Cardinals, who faded from contention in the NL Central as injuries and distractions mounted.

"We're in the thick of a race now," outfielder Shawn Green said. "It's not just win a couple of games and it's over. We've got to kick it into gear and play quality baseball the rest of the way."

Green's message already was heeded by Moises Alou, who established the longest single-season hitting streak in Mets history at 25 games with Friday night's RBI single. He had been tied with Hubie Brooks (1984) and Mike Piazza (1999).

But even Alou has become a concern. He left Tuesday's game with a strained left quadriceps, the same injury that sidelined him for 11 weeks earlier this season. He limped back into the lineup Wednesday and had three hits.

The Mets will be careful with Alou the rest of the way after watching him run gingerly Wednesday. Manager Willie Randolph removed him from the game early.

Meanwhile, pitcher Orlando Hernandez has tendinitis and a bunion on his right foot and will remain in a walking boot for at least a week. He's prohibited from running or throwing off a mound.

"I'm not happy," he said. "I have no answers. Maybe after seven days, I'll have a little answer."

By then, the Mets could have a big problem - trying to set their playoff rotation without knowing Hernandez's status. They won't commit to him without proof that he's healthy.

"We're not just going to go cold turkey," Randolph said. "That's not smart."

Neither is going in the wrong direction in September.

The Yankees have fixed their compass. They were 14 1/2 games out of first place, and tied for last, in the American League East on May 29. They began yesterday only 2 1/2 games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox, winning two of three at Fenway Park last weekend and sweeping the Orioles while the Toronto Blue Jays were sweeping the Red Sox.

Leaders in the wild-card race, the Yankees want a 10th consecutive division title.

"The worst words in baseball, without a doubt, are 'On pace for,' " shortstop Derek Jeter said. "You play the games for a reason. It doesn't matter how a team is playing in April or May. You have to play 162 games and see who comes out on top."

The Yankees could get there behind their starting pitching, which has been on a roll, and 22-year-old rookie Joba Chamberlain, who has thrived as the eighth-inning setup man. Or they could ride an offense that was on pace - with apologies to Jeter - to score 952 runs, which would match the 1996 Cleveland Indians for the 25th-highest single-season total since 1900.

The schedule also is kind to the Yankees, whose last six games are against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and Orioles - the two worst teams in their division.

At least the Mets have something in common with the Yankees these days.

Yankees manager Joe Torre can relate to the heat that Randolph, his former third base coach, is beginning to feel - including criticism that he's not tough enough on his players. The broiler was turned up pretty high on Torre two months into the season.

"I think the team knows what they need to do, and I think a big part is, if they look and see their manager worried about it or distressed about it, they'll feel worried about it," Torre said. "It was the same thing they were saying here. Sometimes, when you want something really bad, you start skidding a little bit."

It wasn't long ago that the Mets figured to wind up in the playoffs. Now they're trying to avoid a ditch.

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