PHOENIX - The next eight days should answer a few questions about these Mets.
By the end of this West Coast swing, it should be clear whether they finally will break free from their pattern of second-half swoons. If the Mets are to finish the season strong, they must hold steady on a road trip that will take them through four cities.
Through stop No. 1, they have proved equal to the task, recording a 9-5 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks on Sunday to take two of three games at Chase Field.
The challenge gets stiffer Monday night when the Mets begin a three-game set against the NL West-leading Dodgers, who have won 37 of 45 to turn a 91/2-game deficit into a 71/2-game lead. But the Mets will arrive at Chavez Ravine having shown signs that a strong finish could be within reach.
"Just sound baseball right now," Ike Davis said. "We're coming up with some big hits when we need it. People are taking the extra base and playing aggressive. We're making the pitches when we need them and getting the double plays to get out of innings."
But the starting rotation has been blitzed with injuries, and the team learned Sunday that Jeremy Hefner might be headed for the DL. The righthander would join David Wright, whose hamstring injury could cost him the rest of the season.
Yet the Mets have shown signs of weathering the storm.
In Jonathon Niese's first start since June 20, the Mets helped make him a winner by taking advantage of mistakes.
With the bases loaded in the first inning, Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt let Mike Baxter's two-out grounder trickle into rightfield, an error that gave the Mets three runs. Anthony Recker followed with a double to make it 4-0.
Niese, who allowed four runs in six innings, allowed a three-run blast to Aaron Hill in the third that cut the Mets' lead to 5-4. But pinch hitter Andrew Brown's three-run homer in the seventh put the game away.
Perhaps most importantly, Niese pitched pain-free for the first time since early in the season. "I'm glad it felt good today," said Niese, who was shelved with a partial tear in his rotator cuff. "We'll see how it feels tomorrow, but I'm anticipating everything should be fine."
Meanwhile, rookie Wilmer Flores has helped the Mets deal with the absence of Wright. Flores hit his first career homer and tied Mike Jacobs' franchise record with nine RBIs in his first nine games. A young Mets fan caught the memento and happily traded it to Flores in exchange for a signed baseball. Flores intends to give the keepsake to his mother.
"It's an amazing feeling," said Flores, 22. "I'm so glad to be here and I'm just trying to keep doing work."
The re-emergence of Davis ultimately might save the Mets. After reaching in all four of his plate appearances Saturday, Davis got on base in his first four plate appearances Sunday. He singled, scored three times and worked three walks, including one against lefty Joe Thatcher. Since returning from his month at Triple-A Las Vegas, Davis is hitting .300 with a .467 on-base percentage.
So the Mets arrive at Dodger Stadium on Monday winners of five of their last six. And although their playoff hopes are slim, finishing with a respectable record remains a reality.
"We've got to have some success," Terry Collins said. "We're going in to play the hottest team in baseball. It's not going to be easy, but we'll get on the plane with a smile on our face."
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