CINCINNATI - What comes next is academic, a mere formality, an exercise in the inevitable.

Yes, the Mets have reached the point of the race where they can coast across the finish line, jogging backward while juggling chainsaws.

By virtue of Friday night's 12-5 thumping of the Reds -- and yet another loss by the down-to-their-last breath Nationals -- the Mets have positioned themselves as the champions-elect of the National League East.

The magic number is one. All that remains is the champagne-soaked coronation, which could take place Saturday, win or lose, in the visitor's clubhouse at Great American Ball Park.

For all the hand-wringing about playing tight, for all the fan frenzy about another heart-wrenching collapse, Panic City has emptied out, a once-thriving metropolis reduced to a ghost town. The Mets have arrived at the brink of their first division crown since 2006, and they did so in style.

Lucas Duda exploded out of his slump by slamming a pair of three-run homers and knocking in six runs, tying his career best for a single game. "It's definitely pretty special," he said. "It's a very exciting time. I'm blessed to be a part of this."

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Noah Syndergaard personified the electric young pitching that has revived the franchise. For the fourth time this season, the rookie reached double-digits in strikeouts (11). His two runs allowed in 72/3 dominant innings were a show of force, a glimpse of the firepower that the Mets will bring with them into their first postseason foray in nine years.

He retired 16 in a row at one point. Even in the later innings, his fastball crackled at 99 mph.

"I felt pretty amazing tonight," said Syndergaard, a virtual lock for the postseason rotation, with manager Terry Collins brushing aside any talk that he could pitch out of the bullpen.

Syndergaard didn't just pepper the Reds with heaters, he spotted them with precision. He changed speeds. And he collected a pair of hits, including a run-scoring single in the second inning that got the Mets started.

"We got our horse tomorrow, [Matt] Harvey, on the mound," Syndergaard said. "I have a pretty good feeling after that we're going to celebrate.''

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The Mets arrived in Cincinnati after winning only three games on their recent nine-game homestand. They made it easy for the more fearful members of the fan base to recount the horrors of 2007.

But on Friday night, the Mets tagged the Reds for 12 runs and 14 hits, with Duda providing the heavy artillery with the 12th multi-homer game of his career.

The first baseman had been flailing, giving the Mets a legitimate reason for concern. His resurgence comes at a good time.

"It's huge," Collins said. "He's a big piece in our lineup. He can do huge damage."

Not that everything flowed perfectly for the Mets.

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Juan Uribe left the game after taking an awkward swing. Later, the club announced that he had aggravated a chest injury suffered earlier in the week. He will miss time.

And the Mets nearly made a mess of things, with the spare arms of the bullpen allowing five runs in the last two innings.

Still, it didn't matter, at least not Friday night. The Nationals already had put themselves on track for an 8-2 loss to the Phillies, with the biggest blow coming on an inside-the-park grand slam by rookie Aaron Altherr.

This was supposed be the Nationals' charmed season, of course. But beginning July 31, they've gone 24-29 to the Mets' 35-17 to turn a three-game lead into an 81/2-game deficit. And now it's the Mets who find themselves stocking up on the accessories of a champion: protective goggles, plastic sheeting and champagne by the crate.

Collins has maintained a stoic public face. He has stayed true to the one-game-at-a-time blather required of a manager. But in his own way, even he had to acknowledge that Mets have reached the brink.

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"It got ugly at the end of the game, I understand that," he said. "We won. That's all I give a [damn] about."