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Mets, Phillies in NL East showdown

Repeat after the Mets, who with a hand on their hearts, say this is NOT the most important weekend in the franchise's history -- even if it feels that way.

The Mets are trying not to flaunt their newly acquired street cred, which how first-place teams are supposed to act. But who's kidding whom: this is the NL East's version of an early Armageddon. This is the re-designed Mets against the Phillies, the reigning National League champs who've just happened to fling their division rivals around like inflatable dolls since 2007.

But there's talk of a coup coming out of Flushing and it's more than just hype. The Mets finished off a 9-1 homestand, their best work in over 20 years, propelling them into first place. For once, they're the hottest team in the East, which should make for terrific theater over the next three days.

"Now I get to experience a Mets-Phillies series that means something," Jeff Francoeur said, voicing a sentiment heard all around the clubhouse after the Mets finished off a sweep of the Dodgers on Wednesday.

No one was talking tough or talking trash about the Phillies - the Mets have too much respect for their Turnpike rivals to let this get ugly (at least for now). But everyone knows the season's first test has finally arrived.

Tonight, rookie Jon Niese faces Kyle Kendrick, who blew up in a five-run inning against the Diamondbacks in his last start. Saturday's matchup is a perfect storm of pitching, as the Mets' hottest starter (Mike Pelfrey) faces the National League's equivalent of a machine (Roy Halladay). The Mets then throw their best pitcher (Johan Santana) against Jamie Moyer on Sunday night.

Crazy, isn't it, that the Mets could even think about holding their own in Citizens Bank Park, which historically attracts the league's most virulent anti-Met crowds. The Mets themselves expect nothing less than wall-to-wall hostility and scorn, given how the Phillies have embarrassed them in the last three seasons.

Indeed, while the Phillies have had to deal with health issues - Brad Lidge, Jimmy Rollins and Joe Blanton are all on the disabled list - they proved on Wednesday they're as fierce as ever. They came back from a 4-1 deficit in the ninth inning against Tim Lincecum, beating the Giants, 7-6 in 11 innings. Before boarding a charter flight from San Francisco, Ryan Howard put it best: "This was a good win to go home with."

"(The Mets) are in first (place)," is what Cole Hamels added. "So now we have to take it from them."

The surge started 10 days ago, when the Mets were just 4-8 and, as Francoeur admitted, "dead." The talk-radio chatter wasn't just negative, it was toxic. Jerry Manuel was a dead man(ager) walking, the target of a disgusted fan base that wanted his job, his head - any and all body parts.

GM Omar Minaya was No. 2 on the hit list. His crime was farther-reaching, failing to reverse a slide that began with the last pitch of the 2006 NL Championship Series. But two things happened to change the current calculus.

The first was the call-up of first baseman Ike Davis, who played an instrumental role in the Mets taking 3-of-4 from the Cubs. That was the Mets' first series victory of the season and it signaled a subtle shift in the team's fortunes.

Manuel noticed how the Mets were playing with more "life" and "energy" - a turnaround that continued with a three-game sweep of the Braves. By then it was obvious another weapon was emerging. Pelfrey, whose 5.03 ERA last year hung over him like an anvil, was suddenly throwing unhittable splitters to go with his 93-mph two-seam fastball.

Together, those two pitches have ruled the lower half of the strike zone, allowing Pelfrey to put together a streak of 24 scoreless innings. As much as the Mets remain psychologically dependent on Santana, it's Pelfrey who actually represents the more tangible hope against Halladay -- especially in Citizens Bank Park., which according to 2010 park-factor calculations, is third in the NL in runs and fifth in HRs.

Pelfrey is inducing nearly twice as many ground balls as Santana this year - his ground ball/fly ball ratio is 1.00, compared to Santana's 0.55. The big right-hander, who was coached by noted sports psychologist Harvey Dorfman over the winter, seems to have conquered his anxiety problems, and is as focused as ever.

So when Pelfrey said, "I know I'm going to have to pitch a great game" to beat Halladay, his words flowed with confidence, not fear.

This is just part of the reason why Mets fans have a glimmer of hope. The Mets, after all, hadn't won 9-of-10 at home since 1988, and before that, 1969, two landmark seasons in the franchise's history.

No wonder the Mets' Q-rating is on the rise; fans are once again wearing the light blue caps with the orange "NY." Even the haters have backed off in their vendetta against Manuel and Minaya, a fact that hasn't gone unnoticed by the GM.

"It's always good when people can say, 'there's potential here, this is a good team,'" Minaya said earlier in the week. "I'll say this: it feels great, but I know things can change in a week, too. So the danger is in letting what people say or write sway the decisions you make."

Still, Minaya had no illusions about his job security coming into the 2010 season. Manuel, whose contract expires this October, has an even smaller margin for error - he was probably one long losing streak away from being fired. But if that was true, does it means the Mets' seven straight wins have earned the manager greater equity with ownership?

It's not impossible to think the Mets are in the process of earning Manuel a contract extension, although that's a conversation neither he nor Minaya is willing to have. Not now, not yet.

There's still a small miracle to work in Philly this weekend, where the first-place Mets are determined to put their street cred on display. If that isn't a sign of the apocalypse, then what is?