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Manuel's job could hinge on Subway Series

For more than a decade, the inter-league Subway Series has been Bud Selig's gift to New York - a chance for inner-city bragging rights that traces its roots back to the 1950s.

But this year's installment is less about the rivalry than sheer survival for Jerry Manuel. Depending on how the Mets fare against the Yankees, the manager could be fired by Monday morning.

Despite an 8-1 win over the Nationals Thursday night, the situation has otherwise spun out of control for Manuel. Already in the last year of his contract, Manuel been unable to keep the Mets out of last place, watching helplessly as his team plummeted from first place all the way into the NL East's basement last week.

That's not even the worst of it. Manuel now has six games with the Yankees and Phillies that come at the worst possible time for the Mets. They've lost 7-of-10, the pitching staff has a 5.14 ERA in May and David Wright is on a pace for a 220-strikeout season.

Manuel's vulnerability was all but broadcast by the front office earlier in the week, when chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon, GM Omar Minaya and assistant GM John Ricco rushed to meet the team in Atlanta. Behind closed doors, the group spent nearly 90 minutes discussing the Mets' embarrassing start over the first 40 games - at which point Manuel was put on notice: win or else.

Whether it was stated explicitly or otherwise implied, Manuel heard the message. He knows the Wilpon family is desperate for a turn-around, knowing there are no other quick fixes available to the organization.

There's no secret war chest that would fund the Mets' acquisition of, say, Roy Oswalt and his $15 million (pro-rated) salary. Stretched to the limit with a $127 million payroll, the Wilpon family won't even consider signing Pedro Martinez for $3-4 million.

The Mets' most talented player, Carlos Beltran, is still a month away from completing the rehab program on his knee. He's finally running in Port St. Lucie, but not without a brace, and not without pain.

The prospects? The reservoir is already dry: Ike Davis and Chris Carter are on the major-league roster. Fernando Martinez is on the disabled list at Class AAA. Things are so bleak the Mets are giving 35-year-old knuckleballer RA Dickey a look - why not? Dickey couldn't be any worse than Oliver Perez.

So without any other bullets in his chamber, Wilpon has turned his gaze to Manuel. Somehow, the beleaguered manager has to find a way to contain the major leagues' two most dominant offenses - the Yankees and Phillies - which lead their respective leagues in runs.

Manuel's supporters - and there are a few - say it's not his fault Perez and John Maine have become non-factors. And Manuel can only do so much for Wright. If the third baseman is afraid of the ball, as some scouts suggest, following last August's beaning by Matt Cain, then it'll take more than a manager to help him. Wright will need a professional.

Still, it's Manuel who'll pay for the Mets' mediocrity, if for no other reason than his perceived lack of leadership skills. Manuel, intelligent and engaging, has nevertheless been unable to get the Mets to rise above their deficiencies. Instead, they look laid-back, passive in close games, hitting .236 with runners in scoring position. That's a searing indictment of the Mets' lack of edge, which is to say, that one sticks to Manuel.

Thing is, the Mets were supposed to be resurrected in 2010. Johan Santana was coming back stronger than ever following elbow surgery. Wright was ready to shake off the aberration of a 10-home run season in 2009 and Jason Bay, fresh from the Red Sox's Northeast corridor wars with the Yankees, would add an experienced bat that'd been tested under fire.

What the Mets didn't add was pitching, which will inevitably become the battle ground in the post-Manuel war - this one between Wilpon and Minaya. The owner will blame the GM for passing on last winter's crop of free agents, including Ben Sheets and Jon Garland. Minaya, however, knows exactly why none of those players are Mets today: he wasn't given sufficient money to sign them.

But Minaya isn't thinking about the past - he's just trying to avoid firing Manuel in the next seven days. Friends of the GM say he has no appetite to punish Manuel, and has argued on the manager's behalf. Until now, Wilpon has acquiesced, but the precipitous drop in attendance has pressured ownership. More than 7,000 of last year's fans have stopped coming to see the Mets - it's the largest decline by numbers in the big leagues.

The attendance problem has so deeply troubled the Mets, they're giving away free tickets to the Subway Series to former season-ticket holders. The idea is to jump-start the estranged fans' interest in the Mets again, although it'll still take a substantial winning streak to win back many of the disaffected.

No one knows that better than Manuel, who to his credit, has remained cool under fire. He had one inexplicably glib moment this week, emerging from the meeting with Wilpon and Minaya with his arms raised, saying, "I still have my uniform on, don't I?"

That incident aside, Manuel hasn't been bothered by the anvil dangling over his head. If Manuel is sweating possible unemployment, he won't let anyone see it. But it's anyone's guess how much longer Manuel can avoid the inevitable crash. This weekend? Next Friday morning, after the Phillies series?

Here's an even tougher question: just how many games do the Mets have to win to keep Manuel in the dugout? They better consider taking all of them. Anything less, and chances are someone else, probably Bob Melvin, will be there next week.