David Wright #5 of the New York Mets celebrates the...

David Wright #5 of the New York Mets celebrates the win with manager Jerry Manuel. (April 5, 2010) Credit: Getty Images

Jerry Manuel started the first day of what could be his final Opening Day as Mets manager by deftly handling a gentle peppering of questions from the media before his team's 7-1 win over the Marlins Monday.

It wasn't a Tiger Woods-style inquisition, but it was informative.

How does he deal with the pressure of being Mets manager? ("The easiest part is the game.") What is his biggest concern? ("My bullpen.") How 'bout this weather? ("Beautiful day. Couldn't ask for a better day.")

He really couldn't have. Manuel's shaky bullpen was never truly tested because the Marlins' relievers turned a one-run game into a five-run game in a display of pitching and pickoff-throwing ineptitude.

Seriously. Two relievers could not master the art of making a pickoff throw to first in the Mets' four-run sixth and were charged with errors.

It was during that inning - which also featured a dropped throw by first baseman Gaby Sanchez for a third error - that we recalled one of Manuel's pearls of pregame wisdom.

Speaking of his "work-in-progress" bullpen, Manuel said: "I think most teams have that same issue."

In that one sentence, Manuel reminded reporters, and Mets fans, and perhaps certain members of the team's jittery front office, and possibly even himself, that the Mets aren't the only team with pen problems.

The Phillies will start the season without injured Brad Lidge and J.C. Romero. The Braves are counting on the creaky tandem of Billy Wagner and Takashi Saito. The Marlins showed the usual middle-relief woes of a low-payroll team.

Manuel is honest about what he has: Other than Francisco Rodriguez and Pedro Feliciano, a whole lot of wishin' and hopin'. Spring training was supposed to sort out who can help and who can't. The Mets put off the decisions as long as they could, but baseball's rules forced them to pick a bullpen before Opening Day.

It is not an inspiring group. That's why a 20-year-old with 10 games above Class A ball made the squad.

"I was hoping I could come out of spring and identify some things," Manuel said. "Didn't quite happen the way I wanted it to happen."

So the pivotal moment in Monday's game seemed to be coming when the Mets had a 2-1 lead after 5 1/2 innings. Johan Santana was done after 103 pitches. A scoreless bottom of the sixth would have forced Manuel to choose among his underwhelming middle men to try to get to K-Rod.

Lefthander Hisanori Takahashi and righthander Fernando Nieve were warming up. Takahashi was floating what looked like eephus pitches in the bullpen. Nieve was throwing much harder. Not a tough choice with the Marlins' righty-heavy lineup.

Then the Mets put up four in the sixth and Nieve started the seventh with a 6-1 cushion. In a bullpen without roles other than the closer, the former waiver-wire pickup jumped to the head of the trusted line with two scoreless innings.

"I think that's huge for us for our bullpen to come in and give up no runs," Manuel said. "If we can get into that type of mode, I think it breeds confidence throughout the team that if we get a lead, we feel very confident and comfortable that we can hold it."

Could they have held a 2-1 lead? We'll never know. But we'll find out in the next 161 games, and we'll find out whether Manuel, who is signed only for this season, will be in the Mets' dugout on Opening Day 2011.

As Manuel said, he couldn't have asked for a better day. All he needs now is about 89 more just like it.

Newsday LogoSUBSCRIBEUnlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months