Mets are finally finding their level

NEW YORK -- The answer that will save the New York Mets' season isn't anything that a middling deal by Saturday's trade deadline will fix. If anything, the sooner the Mets realize no cavalry is about to come riding over the ridge to save them -- no Roy Oswalt or Prince Fielder or Wally Backman vaulting all the way up from Brooklyn to light a fire by tossing over the clubhouse buffet the first day he replaces Jerry Manuel -- the better off the Mets will be.

The only thing that's going to save the Mets' season is the guys they already have.

It's not the sexy answer. But if the Mets are suffering from anything truly disastrous right now, it's the lingering idea that those surprising days when their record peaked at 11 games over .500 represented who they really are -- rather than the entertaining, always battling but ultimately average ballclub they looked like again Wednesday night while rallying but ultimately losing 8-7 in 13 innings to the St. Louis Cardinals.

"It's nice to battle back ... [but] I've said it 1,000 times: Moral victories don't help us in the standings," third baseman David Wright said.

The Mets spent just four days in first place this season, only to hear people ignore how they did it or yelp about how the Mets' just-finished 2-9 West Coast swing knocked them back in the standings. You'd have thought the Mets had spent 100 days at the top and the World Series was supposed to be their destiny.

Wednesday's game was another perfect example of how up-and-down the Mets' season has been.

Red-hot ace Johan Santana gave up a buzz-killing six runs on eight hits to the Cardinals in the first inning alone -- both career highs. He surrendered a total of 13 hits, another career worst, in just 5 2/3 innings pitched, and most of the Cardinals' hits were ropes.

The beatdown wasn't what any of the Mets expected from Santana. He came into the game with an 0.71 ERA in July, and Mets backup infielder Alex Cora, speaking before the game, talked hopefully about how the Mets still could climb back in the National League East race by continuing to build off Tuesday's slump-busting 8-2 win. As Cora spoke, many of the other Mets were hurrying around getting ready for the game, kidding each other. The mood was upbeat. It seemed like the grim cloud that had hung over them out west had lifted now that they were finally back at Citi Field and their offense had broken out.

Cora said, "I was joking with someone yesterday that our team batting average was lower than our pitching staff's ERA was on the trip -- that's how bad our hitting was -- and look, we're still only 6 1/2 back in the division race even after a 2-9 trip? We'll get back in it. We've got Johan going tonight, and if we win this, all of a sudden we're looking at a sweep of this series. And we're on our way back."

Then Santana went out and got rocked. The Mets rallied but fell short. Wright sounded a little impatient afterward that a win-one, lose-one team is what the Mets are. But they were never worldbeaters.

People forget the Mets' Opening Day first baseman was Mike Jacobs, who's not even with the team anymore. The Mets also have gotten rid of two-fifths of their expected starting rotation. They can't throw out a lineup as good as the NL Central-leading Cardinals can day after day with sluggers Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday in the middle of the order, or a one-two starting pitching punch of Chris Carpenter and Adam Wainwright. (It was Pujols who drove in the Cards' winning run with two outs Wednesday night.)

The Mets have hung around in the NL East because journeyman knuckleballer R.A. Dickey started the season 6-0 and first-year regular Angel Pagan is hitting over .300 and rookie call-up Ike Davis has been a pleasant surprise. Wright's fast start (since faded) temporarily covered for how badly Jason Bay has struggled to hit and all the games Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes missed.

The unexpected -- the good and the bad -- has been the only real constant of the Mets' season. Quite often, it's been the surprises in their lineup who have carried them and their expected stars who have most often disappointed them.

So you can blame the job Manuel has done -- and he'll pay by getting fired at the end of this season -- but the Mets' front office and ownership deserve it more. The Mets should have known better than to think they could contend with Oliver Perez and John Maine in the starting rotation; enough critics screamed it wouldn't be good enough way back in spring training. And sure enough, it wasn't.

Mistakes have been made, all right. But the Mets shouldn't compound them now by coughing up one of their top prospects by Saturday's trade deadline for some meaningless deal meant to show they haven't given up. Given the Mets' historically bad luck, who really doubts that Oswalt's bad back would give out or Fielder would turn into the second coming of Mo Vaughn (the Bad Mo, I mean) even if by some miracle either one did end up in Flushing?

The Mets are what they are. An incredibly game team. And a flawed team. And the long season exposes both.

Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow her on Twitter.

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