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Mets start 2008 with new attitude, ace

Mets start 2008 with new attitude, ace

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As a battle cry or a marketing slogan, it is quite unsuitable. It has neither the pizzazz of the "Ya Gotta Believe" mantra Tug McGraw stole from M. Donald Grant 35 years ago, nor the ring of "The Team, the Time, the [fill in the blank]" the Mets' marketers created for the 2006 season. This one seemingly comes from Borscht Belt stand-ups, a three-word interjection that, really, has gone unspoken by Mets personnel -- "But seriously folks."

The phrase, however, is fully appropriate, because it covers how the Mets have gone about their business since they reassembled last month, following a winter unlike all but a few others on the game's long history.

They've serious-ed up since their GPS failed them in September and affixed a permanent stain to all involved in the effort that produced only a historic shortfall and months of soul-searching. The clubhouse still frolics -- see Maine v. Perez; Ramon Castro will continue his pratfalls and his assault on the team's olfactory nerves, and Jose Reyes' coast-to-coast smile will be evident from time to time. The Mets have not turned into the Soviet hockey team reincarnate, nothing so rigid.

But they've been turned on to a different mindset by the vexing experience they shared last season. They understand a "But seriously folks" approach will have them smiling come Sept. 28, when the 162nd game comes around again.

They're calling it renewed focus, greater attention to detail, remaining fundamentally sound and taking nothing for granted. All of them are variations on a theme that is not to revisit the sins of '07, particularly the cavalier attitude about losing that, more than any other factor, undermined their considerable talent.

"We realize where that got us," closer Billy Wagner said. "We didn't just come in second last year. We took a step backwards. Nobody's scared to play us anymore. We've got to build that up again."

That process begins Monday, when the Mets open their 2008 season as they ended their 2007 -- against the Marlins. Little other than the opponent will be as it was then. Different site, different stakes, somewhat different personnel -- in both dugouts -- and, the Mets vow, a different approach. Moreover, a different pitcher will initiate their season, and he'll be throwing to a different catcher.

This change of batteries undoubtedly will provide increased energy and reduce the task of overcoming inertia, a force that even the most talented team can find challenging. The genius of Johan Santana at the genesis of the season certainly makes a difference. With apologies to Tom Glavine, Pedro Martinez, David Cone, Al Leiter, Mike Hampton, Bobby Jones and Pete Harnisch, the Mets haven't had an Opening Day starter with the at-the-moment stature of Santana since Dwight Gooden faced the Pirates in the first game of 1986.

"Opening Day has its own energy," David Wright said. "With Johan, there's a jolt. We've watched him down here. Now, you can't wait to see him in a real game."

"We should be scarier with him," Wagner said. "But we shouldn't assume that we will be. Right from the first inning, we have to play with that urgency we all know we didn't have most of last year. But we get 30-35 starts from Johan Santana. That makes us tougher. We can say we have a bigger margin for error because of him. And we do. But we can't start thinking like that."

Santana's first pitch, and maybe 100 others, will be caught by Brian Schneider, acquired for his receiving skills. The only other new man on the field Monday will be right fielder Ryan Church.

Opening Day assignments seldom have bothered the Mets since they learned how to deal with them in 1970. Since losing their first eight openers, they have won 29 times in 38 years, including two of the three years Willie Randolph has managed, and five of the last seven years. Even with those first eight losses, they have the highest Opening Day winning percentage in the game, .630.

And last year, little seemed to bother the Mets until after they had completed a quarter of their season. Their winning percentage stood at .667, and their lead in the NL East was at 2 1/2 games after their second straight victory against the Yankees on May 19. Ten days later, they had a five-game lead and a record 16 victories better than .500. From that point -- and this remains difficult for some of them to fathom -- they produced a 55-57 record.

The problem was that extended mediocrity didn't bother them enough. They appeared indifferent -- to winning and losing -- at times, as if they were waiting for October to right the wrongs of 2006.

"We weren't always upset after we lost games," Marlon Anderson said after he returned to the Mets. He didn't recall a comparable attitude in 2005.

Anderson, a perceptive observer, and others don't believe indifference will exist this season. They've seen greater attention to detail. They've watched Reyes work pitchers in the Spring Training at-bats. Starter John Maine says he witnessed one teammate prod another. And Reyes says the sort of celebrating that irritated the Marlins in the 161st game last year won't happen this year.

Instead, he said, "We'll celebrate after we win."

Pitching matchup
FLA: Mark Hendrickson (4-8, 5.21 ERA in 2007)
Hendrickson has pitched three innings against the Mets. They came in two relief appearances with the Dodgers in 2006 and 2007.

NYM: LHP Johan Santana (15-13, 3.33 ERA in 2007)
Santana has faced the Marlins twice in his career, beating them in each game and allowing 11 base runners and striking out 16 batters in 11 2/3 innings. His ERA against them: 1.59.

Tidbits
Santana has started merely two Opening Day games, beating the Orioles last year and losing to the Blue Jays in Toronto in 2006. His performances in his first games -- whether or not they were Opening Day games -- haven't been consistent with his other work. In the four seasons in which he has been a full-time starter, he has a 2-1 record and 6.10 ERA in his season debuts. He pitched merely 20 2/3 innings in the four games. Each had been staged in a dome or a park with a retractable roof -- two in the Metrodome in Minneapolis and one each in Safeco Field in Seattle and Rogers Centre in Toronto. ... The Mets' Opening Day starter has been left-handed in eight of the last nine seasons -- 2005 was the exception, with Martinez starting. Santana will be the seventh left-handed Opening Day starter in Mets history, preceded by Al Jackson in 1964 and '65, Jerry Koosman in 1978, Randy Jones in 1982, Bobby Ojeda in 1987, Al Leiter in 1999, 2001 and '02, Mike Hampton in 2000 and Glavine in 2003, '04, '06 and '07. ... One player who appeared in the Mets' first Opening Day game against the Marlins -- a 6-2 Mets loss on April 5, 1999 -- has a good chance to play in the second. The Marlins' second baseman and leadoff hitter that day was Luis Castillo, who will be the Mets' second baseman and No. 2 hitter Monday. Castillo batted second and leadoff, respectively, in Santana's other Opening Day starts. ... Wright began last season with a carry-over hitting streak of 13 games. He extended that to 26 games, the longest streak spanning two seasons in club history. He begins this season, having hit safely in his final 17 games last season. The longest intact Mets streaks otherwise are three games long by Castillo and Carlos Beltran. ... Hendrickson never has started on Opening Day. He has started his team's third game three times, the fifth game once and the 16th game last year with the Dodgers after three relief appearances. The Mets haven't faced a left-handed starter on Opening Day since 2002, when they faced Ron Villone and the Pirates.

On the Internet
 MLB.TV
 Gameday Audio
•  Gameday
•  Official game notes

On television
• SNY

On radio
• WFAN 660, WADO 1280 (Sp.)

Up next
• Wednesday: Mets (Pedro Martinez, 2-1, 2.57) at Marlins (Rick VandenHurk, 4-6, 6.83), 7:10 p.m. ET
• Thursday: Mets (Oliver Perez, 15-10, 3.56) at Marlins (Andrew Miller, 5-6, 5.69), 7:10 p.m. ET
• Friday: Mets (John Maine, 15-10, 3.91) at Braves (Tim Hudson, 16-10, 3.33) 7:35 p.m. ET

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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