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The hunt for October

The hunt for October begins Monday at Shea

One of the reasons Aaron Heilman put aside his preference to be a starting pitcher, he said, was an overriding preference to be a member of the 2006 Mets; another was he had no alternative. Carlos Delgado put aside whatever misgivings he had about signing with the Mets a year earlier and embraced the idea of playing with them in 2006 because he saw, in them, an opportunity to play in the postseason. And once the trade was made, he had no alternative anyway.

Country boy Billy Wagner came to the Big City for 43,000,001 reasons -- the one being an enhanced chance to play for a championship. When the Mets proposed more money and more years than the Phillies, what real alternative did he have?

For any number of reasons, the Mets that begin the 2006 season Monday are a collection of players who have no place else to go. They have banded together with one objective in mind -- win. And really, in that regard, there is no alternative either.

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If the Mets are going to win a division championship -- for the first time since 1988 -- this is the year. Not because they're such a powerful force, but no other team in the National League East seems as well equipped. The Braves, though formidable with Bobby Cox in the dugout, are once again diminished; so too the Phillies, only to a greater extent. The Nationals are a third-place team if everything goes right, and the Marlins emerging as a contender is a Fish story.

If not for the Braves' extraordinary run -- it is almost habitual to pick them now -- there would be no alternative but to see the Mets as the favorites in the NL East. To invoke the title of a book not included on Tom Glavine's preferred reading list, these Mets have been "Built to Win."

They have been assembled, at considerable expense, with October in mind. What better way to mark the 20th anniversary of the remarkable '86 Mets than to add another chapter to the club's postseason resume. It's more than Mets nostalgia at work here, though. The Mets want to make 2006 another phase in a monumental business expansion that includes the cable network launched two weeks ago and a new Ebbets-esque stadium due to open its rotunda in 2009. Success on the field will enhance those ventures. What better way to fill the stands of the Son of Shea and attract advertisers to SNY than to play games deep into Reggie's month?

So these Mets have been loaded as few Mets teams have been. They don't have the wall-to-wall talent of the 1985-90 collections or the suffocating pitching of the '69 World Series team and its first four successors. And they certainly don't match the defensive brilliance of the 1999 team. But they have an overall strength in that they have no conspicuous weakness. They can win with speed, long ball or extra-base production, and they are not likely to lose late. Their starting pitching is an uncertainty -- and that's the worst kind of uncertainty to have. But it's not like any other team in the league has the Four Aces lined up.

Moreover, this team appears to have enough players of dominating skill -- Wagner, Delgado, Jose Reyes, Pedro Martinez, David Wright and perhaps Heilman -- to end the Braves' run.

"I think if we just play and don't get caught up in the hype and the Braves thing and just give ourselves a chance, we'll stay close to the top until the All-Star break," Cliff Floyd said. "By then we'll know what we have and we'll make a run. I'm not predicting anything, but I'm not going to be surprised if we get involved in the playoffs.

"We have a lot of weapons. [We] just got to keep 'em working and aimed right."

So the season that is to begin with a Glavine pitch in early afternoon Monday may not end until at least some of the leaves begin to turn. Not since 1990 has a Mets team entered a season legitimately identified as the division favorite. But what does "favorite" get you, anyway? The 1990 team disappeared in September.

Two years ago, owner Fred Wilpon suggested his team would play "meaningful games" in September, a comment he came to regret, because meaningful was out of reach well before Labor Day. There are no predictions or suggestions this year. Goodness knows no one has been foolish enough to utter a guarantee.

But if the Mets aren't playing later than Oct. 1, disappointment is guaranteed.

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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