Mets still have something to prove

NEW YORK -- Every day, it seems, the Yankees plunge deeper into a crisis that has already reached doomsday proportions. The New York Daily News identified the Bombers' current stretch of games against the White Sox, Mets and Red Sox as "The Dirty Dozen" -- the 12 games that not only will make or break their season but also could render Roger Clemens' return meaningless and maybe even cost Joe Torre his job.

Meanwhile, the Mets keep winning games in a steady, somewhat monotonous blur. Fresh off their taking two of three from the Brewers this past weekend, the Mets have the National League's best record and are on a pace to win 103 games. Barring some catastrophic slump or run of injuries, it's almost impossible to think the Mets won't make the playoffs.

But you'd hardly know there's been a baseball coup in New York. The Yankees still generate more back-page headlines, even in a state of decline. For the first time since interleague play began in 1997, it's the Mets, not the Yankees, who'll be in a dominant position during a Subway Series. But that hasn't changed the perception that the Bombers, for better or worse, are the more compelling news story.

Yes, the Mets are aware of the continuing fascination with the Yankees. But they have their own agenda -- specifically, an important series with the Braves next week -- and aren't about to complain.

"Granted, we all know we're playing the Yankees, and it's the greatest thing of all. As a kid, you dream of playing the Yankees, Game 7, I'm on the mound facing Mickey Mantle," said Billy Wagner. "Now playing here ... I don't think we take it personal. There's a possibility we could win 50 in a row and they could lose 50, and they'd get the back page. Look, they've won what, 26 championships? You've earned a little bit."

Of course, it's an entirely different conversation if you ask the Mets who they consider New York's best team, let alone the National League's. When David Wright says "our record speaks for itself," he's talking about a starting rotation that has flourished despite injuries to Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez, and an offense that's second only to the Phillies in runs scored, despite the absences of Moises Alou and Jose Valentin.

The fully stocked roster is, in GM Omar Minaya's estimation, "better than last year's" when the Mets got to within one out of the World Series. Mostly everyone picked the Mets to win the pennant in 2007, but they know there's a fairly wide gap between theory and reality, especially as the Braves' resurrection has been sustained and, apparently, real.

That's why the Mets can't get lost in a swirl of hype over an otherwise meaningless interleague series. While the Yankees will be playing to save their season next week against the Sox, the Mets will have three semi-critical games against the Braves. Obviously, it's too early to think of the standings, but the fact that Braves beat the Mets four out of six times in April hasn't been forgotten at Shea.

Minaya is the first to address the growing reality that, unlike 2006, when his team had finished crushing the East by midseason, a long, difficult fight looms with the Braves.

"That's obviously a better team than last year," said the GM. "With that manager [Bobby Cox] and that bullpen, they're not just playing better, they're just better, period."

Maybe it's healthier for the Mets to sweat during the regular season. Look at what happened to them the first time they were challenged in 2006 -- beaten by a Cardinals team with an inferior record in the League Championship Series, unable to cash in on the home-field advantage in Game 7. Somewhere in the Braves' thought process is the belief that the Mets, for all their talent, still haven't proved they can handle pressure.

To that, however, the Mets can point to last weekend's series against Milwaukee, during which the Brewers had baseball's best record. The Brewers insisted this was no showdown -- "it's just three games out of 162" said manager Ned Yost -- but the Mets admitted they had a larger vision of the series.

"When the best team in baseball comes to town, you don't just hold your own, you want to send a message," said Minaya. "We did that, especially the last game [a 9-1 victory that followed a 12-3 flogging]."

The Mets took two of three, and like Minaya said, finished the series with an exclamation point. Oliver Perez limited the Brewers to just one hit in eight innings, paying one more dividend on Minaya's gamble when he acquired the left-hander last year. Watching Perez and his funky, practically undetectable slider, it's hard to believe this is the same pitcher who was 2-10 with a 6.63 ERA with the Pirates in 2005. But Perez is averaging a strikeout an inning, thanks to the slider that's once again being thrown for strikes.

"[Perez] always had great arm action, great arm speed, his ball was always alive," said a scout. "But he didn't have a consistent release point until now."

Perez is making Minaya look like a prophet, although the GM just laughed when asked for a prediction for the Mets' upcoming series with the Yankees and Braves.

"We just want to win some games," he said.

Smart, safe and under the radar. Sort of like the Mets themselves.

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