CINCINNATI - When the moment finally arrived, one that had been decades in the making, Mets manager Terry Collins found himself in the embrace of his coaches.

In his three stops spread over more than 20 years, the postseason had eluded baseball's oldest manager. But when the chase ended Saturday night, in a 10-2 victory over the Reds that sealed the NL East title, Collins left the dugout, stood to the side and applauded the team that had brought him to the promised land.

"It's worth all the time, all the effort, all the news conferences, all the things you do. This is the culmination of it all," said Collins, 66, who is in his 11th season as a manager after debuting with the 1994 Astros. "We've got to have a little fun, relax tomorrow. But right now, we've got to get home-field advantage."

The Mets have a half-game lead over the Dodgers, their likely NLDS opponent.

Collins has maintained a stoic facade. Even as the Mets inched closer to their first playoff berth in nine years, he kept his focus on the present.

Until Saturday night, his managerial resume had been riddled with second-place finishes with the Astros and Angels. He knew the pain of a collapse; he had experienced that with the 1998 Angels. The baseball lifer knew better than to jump the gun.

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But in some ways, the players saw right through it. "You could just see it in his eyes, the way that he went after this. Again, we go out there and play hard for our fans, for this organization, for Terry Collins, for our coaching staff," David Wright said. "I'm very proud of Terry, I'm very proud of these guys."

Finally, Collins could let that angst go, at least for a few moments, as he stood drenched in a clubhouse filled with cigar smoke and sprays of champagne.

"Terry did a super job holding the team together for as long as he did," said general manager Sandy Alderson, who has remained noncommital about Collins' future in the organization. "And then taking advantage of some additional personnel late in the season, managing the pitching staff."

Indeed, Collins found himself charged with keeping the Mets afloat until the trade deadline, when Alderson swung the deals that revived a moribund offense. Collins did all of that while also managing the workloads of the Mets' talented young arms.

"It really was an incredible job in that area, not to mention keeping everybody on an even keel day after day," Alderson said. "At the end of July, we lose that series to the Nationals, we're six back. It's an incredible run from that point in July [beginning July 31, the Mets have gone 36-17 to the Nationals' 25-29]."

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True to form, Collins quickly shifted gears. Less than an hour after clinching, with smoke still lingering in the clubhouse, he retreated to his office to meet with coaches -- the same ones who had hugged him in the dugout -- already plotting how to get the Mets through another day.