Mets already facing possible lost season

Crazy, isn't it, that the Mets could find themselves in a critical series just two weeks into the season?

But there's no ignoring the obvious: the team with the National League's highest payroll has already lost its first three series, and is poised to get smoked again this weekend against the Cardinals.

How else to describe the Mets' chances when Johan Santana, who starts on Saturday, is sandwiched between Oliver Perez (6.35 ERA) and John Maine (13.50)? The Mets had hoped for a quick start to spare themselves a renewal of last year's misery; instead, they're 3-5 and in the middle of a run of six straight series against teams that finished with better than .500 records last year.

The road from here to oblivion looks wide open, so here's one possible remedy: cut the losses on Maine and replace him with Jenrry Mejia. The 20-year-old rookie has so far been wasted in middle and long relief, a shame considering he has the team's best swing-and-miss stuff, with an upside that neither Maine nor Perez can match.

Jerry Manuel intends to give Maine one last audition on Sunday, but talent evaluators say that unless the right-hander can miraculously add 5-6 mph to his fastball, it's possible his best days are already behind him.

One scout noted how Maine's once-mighty 94-mph fastball has been replaced by a tepid change-up as his "out" pitch. The right-hander is barely reaching the high 80s now, which would suggest he's never fully recovered from shoulder surgery in 2008.

The Mets haven't disclosed what Plan B looks like should Maine fail this weekend. The most logical replacement, Nelson Figueroa, was inexplicably jettisoned, and is now pitching for the Phillies. So why not Mejia?

The Mets are afraid of rushing the kid, of over-exposing him this early in his career. He has, after all, shown flashes of immaturity in the past. Last June, Mejia was so angry after allowing a home run at Class AA Binghamton he deliberately overthrew the next pitch, strained the middle finger of his pitching hand and was promptly disabled for seven weeks.

Mejia seemed to handle his most recent setback with greater poise: he watched calmly as Chris Ianetta launched a 10th-inning walk-off home run, giving the Rockies a 6-5 win. That was the Mets' fourth straight loss, all of which occurred after the return of Jose Reyes to the lineup.

Reyes, fully recovered from thyroid problems, hasn't given the Mets the bounce they were hoping for. And Carlos Beltran is at least a month away, maybe more. If Mejia is sent to the minor leagues, the Mets will all but announce they're finished for 2010, which is precisely the message they can't afford to send to their fans.

Then again, Manuel did a pretty good job of raising the white flag -- and putting his own job in jeopardy -- last Sunday, when he said the Mets were "unprepared" to hit against Livan Hernandez.

The Nats' No. 5 starter, whose 5.28 ERA from 2006-2009 was the worst in the majors (minimum of 100 starts) was nevertheless able to shut the Mets down for seven shutout innings -- out-pitching Santana, to boot. Manuel lashed out at his team for not having a better plan against Hernandez, which only served to underscore a long-standing indictment against Manuel himself:

He has so far been unable to motivate the Mets, faring no better than Willie Randolph. Most baseball people believe that if/when Manuel is fired in May, he'll be replaced by the steady, but uncharismatic Bob Melvin. A more intriguing choice would be Wally Backman, but he doesn't start managing the Class-A Brooklyn Cyclones until June. And without any major league experience, Backman would represent too much of a risk even to the publicity-starved Mets.

The best option would be Bobby Valentine, but the fact that the Wilpons have already passed on him suggests they haven't got the stomach to handle Valentine's energy, his brains and his ego. Nor does ownership want to pay their next manager $3-4 million, which is what it'd cost to lure Valentine out of the ESPN studio.

It sounds like they worst kind of dejà vu for Mets fans, who could use a little good news. Mike Pelfrey's performance in a 5-0 win over Colorado on Thursday offered some consolation. And David Wright seems to have his home run muscles back.

Still, the rotation is too weak to mount a significant winning streak, reason enough to let Mejia begin his major league education.

There's a risk, it's true, but the Mets played it safe all winter with their pitching, sticking with Maine and Perez instead of taking a run at, say, Joel Pineiro. Look how that's working out.

THE YANKEES' DILEMMA:

Javier Vazquez didn't help himself on Wednesday when he complained about Yankee fans booing him. He called the crowd's response "unfair" after he was knocked out by the Angels in the sixth inning of a 5-3 loss.

The public's unhappiness wasn't over just one game, of course. New Yorkers are still waiting for Vazquez to repay the debt from Game 7 of the 2004 AL Championship Series, when he allowed Johnny Damon a second-inning grand slam that sent the Red Sox to the World Series.

Yankee officials are worried that Vazquez will continue to struggle with an impatient and unforgiving fan base. But the real issue is whether Vazquez can find his missing fastball. He was clocked mostly between 88-89 mph against Anaheim and was otherwise unable to put away hitters in favorable counts.

In 11 instances Vazquez was ahead 0-2 or 1-2, yet he gave up five hits. The right-hander says, "I'm 33, not 23" which might mean he's worn down from a decade of blowing hitters away - only Randy Johnson registered more strikeouts between 2000-2009.

There's still time, of course, but unless can get his fastball back over 90 mph, the booing will be the least of his problems.