If you want the Mets to go after a big-name pitcher this season - if, in other words, you want ownership to open up the coffers and spend some dough - then you need your favorite team to establish itself as a bona fide contender.

The kind of club that could make the leap from bubble to bubbly with the addition of such a pitcher.

In order for that to occur, the Mets must start playing better on the road. The quest for legitimacy starts Friday night, with Johan Santana taking on Yovani Gallardo and the lowly Brewers in Milwaukee. After three games at Miller Park, it'll be three against the National League West-leading Padres at PETCO Park.

The Mets entered last night's series finale against the Phillies with an 18-9 record at Citi Field. On the road, they are 6-14.

"Until we do better at that, we're not going to get to where we want to go," Jason Bay said.

Strong starting pitching this homestand drove the Mets back over .500 and saved Jerry Manuel's job, but we all recognize that the rotation remains the team's Achilles' heel. "We're always going to be looking to add to our starting rotation," Omar Minaya said Thursday.

An unusually buyer-friendly market appears to be developing. You know that Roy Oswalt wants out of Houston. Cliff Lee, said by friends to be unhappy in Seattle, figures to be shipped out by the dramatically underachieving Mariners, the third time Lee will have been traded in a year's time.

Baltimore's Kevin Millwood will make a nice pennant-race pickup for someone, and perhaps Cleveland's Jake Westbrook will pitch better with a transition to the NL. The Astros also have former Phillie Brett Myers on a tidy one-year deal.

Don't count on Oswalt coming to Flushing. The Mets aren't. Like most clubs, they're not convinced that Astros owner Drayton McLane will pull the trigger without finding a team that will both take on Oswalt's money - the righthander makes $15 million this year and $16 million next year, with a $2-million buyout on a $16-million team option in 2012 - and give up top-shelf prospects. Such a team likely doesn't exist.

Lee would be the dream acquisition, especially with the Phillies having traded him last winter. The Mariners aren't quite ready to deal him yet. When they are, however, the Mets could be in the mix, with the Angels, Dodgers and Reds other candidates. The same goes for Millwood, Westbrook, Myers and whoever else becomes available . . . if they can play better on the road while maintaining their home superiority. A .500 road mark would get it done, the Mets believe.

They've talked about it in the front office and in the clubhouse. They've wondered whether the team needs to cut back on its pregame batting practice during road trips. They've noted that they hit much better at pitcher-friendly Citi Field (.350 on-base percentage, .421 slugging percentage in 1,012 plate appearances entering last night's rain-delayed contest) than on the road (.287-.351 in 688 plate appearances).

"This is just off the top of my head; I think we might be trying to do too much from a hitter's point of view on the road," Manuel said. "The ballparks that we've played in have been somewhat small. You can't wait to elevate the ball, to hit it out, those types of things.

" . . . When we get back here, we just say, 'Hey, we've just got to put the ball in play, move runners.' "

Alex Cora dismissed that argument as well as the "too much work" notion. "Just we haven't found a way to win a game," the veteran said. "A bunt here, a bunt there, and in the worst-case scenario, we're playing .500 ball."

Eh. The Mets have been outscored 104-80 on the road. That's a lot of bunts.

But they do have to find a way, if they want to find a pitcher. What better place for a reboot than Milwaukee, where the Brewers are 6-15 at home?

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