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Can Mets pitching deliver the goods?

Can Mets pitching deliver the goods?

Thyroid and pink eye episodes have come and gone with no lasting impact. A rehabbed right knee may allow Carlos Beltran to run again one of these weeks. And no new medical malady has beset the Mets in the recent days of this spring of prevention and recovery (emphasis on the latter).

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Full strength, a state of being that eluded the Mets after May 10 last year, is expected to return before Memorial Day. No matter how welcome it may be, though, full strength doesn't appear to be what it was the last time we saw it in Queens.

The Mets could justify thoughts of October baseball on Opening Day each of the last four seasons. The talent level on their rosters put them among the have-lots in the National League. This year, though -- even if Beltran were to check in at Citi Field with medical clearance next Monday afternoon -- the fact that they will be at full strength might not be enough to validate them as legitimate contenders.

What was most needed -- an upgrade of the pitching staff -- wasn't undertaken, much less accomplished. And even with Beltran, Jason Bay, Jose Reyes and a reconstituted David Wright in the daily batting order, the Mets offense isn't likely to have enough sock to compensate for the pitching.

It is a rather inconvenient truth the Mets face. Healthy as they are, they are expected to improve upon last season's 70-92 record. A winning season is within their reach. The Phillies are a superior team, though, and the Braves are well-equipped and motivated to give their manager a happy send-off.

Just the same, the Mets are so accustomed to wishing for injury-free status, they'll accept it now and take their chances with a less formidable roster.

"It would be good to see us play when we don't have 10 guys on the disabled list," Beltran said a few weeks ago.

"Yeah, we'd like to see how that works," Jeff Francoeur said.

Of course, the Mets aren't the only players in Bud Selig's domain chanting the "If we stay healthy" mantra. But they have other matters to ponder, other phrases to speak. "Let's get it right this time" comes to mind. It pretty much covers where they are at this point, three seasons removed from their near-miss World Series endeavor. They righted the wrongs of neither 2007 and 2008 during their banana-peel 2009, and injuries weren't the only reason.

New York Mets
Projected Opening Day lineup
1 SS Alex Cora
2 2B Luis Castillo
3 3B David Wright
4 1B Mike Jacobs
5 LF Jason Bay
6 CF Gary Matthews Jr.
7 LF Jeff Francoeur
8 C Rod Barajas
9 P Johan Santana
Projected rotation
1 LHP Johan Santana
2 RHP John Maine
3 LHP Jon Niese
4 RHP Mike Pelfrey
5 LHP Oliver Perez
Projected bullpen
CL RHP Francisco Rodriguez
SU LHP Pedro Feliciano
SU RHP Ryota Igarashi
MI LHP Hisanori Takahashi
MI RHP Fernando Nieve
MI RHP Jenrry Mejia
MI RHP Sean Green
Full 25-man roster | Depth chart

Implicit in their manager's demand this spring that the Mets play fundamentally sound baseball is that they didn't do so last summer. Throwing strikes, playing better defense and running the bases more intelligently, tenets of Jerry Manuel's 2010 doctrine, are code for "We walked too many," "We kicked the ball around" and "We ran with our heads down and eyes closed."

"Let's get it right this time" constitutes a variation on that theme. And given the Mets' three shortfall runs at October, it is apropos.

Francoeur endured enough of the 2009 season to know what's needed.

"The best way to get past last year," Francoeur says, "is to play so well that no one has any reason to think about it. We don't have to win 25 of our first 30, but that'd be nice. We just have to play well, win series, just get going right from the first day. We can do that."

Manuel said last week, "We've done a good job in those areas. Throwing strikes? OK. Defense? We've been very sound, and baserunning? We've run the bases extremely well."

No member of any team will pronounce that a successful start is mandatory, for fear that baseball's fickle hand might interfere. But in their unguarded moments, these Mets come close to acknowledging the need to overcome April's inertia well before May.

The best way to accomplish a successful start is to pitch well, exploiting the part of the season during which pitchers are said to be ahead of the hitters. Whether the Mets' rotation and bullpen are capable of implementing that strategy is the issue.

Johan Santana is better equipped than he was a year ago to be the leading man. He can staighten his left arm; consequently, his slider slides, and his changeup is more deceptive. Santana, the best pitcher in the league in April and May last year, intends to retain that distinction for six months in 2010. To a man, the Mets are confident Santana will get it right this time.

The issues enter at this point. Mike Pelfrey said in January that he found it odd that the same rotation that was considered good enough to take the Mets to October last spring now is questioned. Manuel and general manager Omar Minaya have both said untold times that the performance of starters 2, 3 and 4 -- Pelfrey, John Maine and Ollie "The Pendulum" Perez -- will determine how competitive the team will be. An implicit message is in those challenging words as well.

The three may begin the season with chips on their shoulders -- better than chips in their elbows --- because of those words. And perhaps that will work in their favor. But the sense in the clubhouse and in the scouts' sections behind the plate this month has been that the Mets need everything to go right with their rotation to challenge the Phillies and Braves. A Cy Young-caliber season from Santana and 45 victories from Pelfrey, Maine and Ollie would afford No. 5 starter Jon Niese time to find himself.

But how do a group of starters not likely to reach the seventh inning accumulate victories when they are backed by a bullpen with no established bridge to the ninth inning? For three seasons, the Mets have been most vulnerable in the seventh and eighth innings. Now, the final days of March are here, and the eighth inning remains unassigned, with the candidates for that assignment, save Jenrry Mejia, unimpressive.

The Mets need more than that to get it right this time.

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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