Kirk Nieuwenhuis is congratulated after he hit a solo home...

Kirk Nieuwenhuis is congratulated after he hit a solo home run in the third inning against the Yankees. (June 23, 2012) Credit: Getty Images

The offseason renovations to Citi Field did not include a petting zoo, so in the hours leading up to Saturday night's game, the Mets called around trying to find a suburban home for Little Jerry Seinfeld, aka the team's flapping, clucking, imported-from-Chinatown chicken mascot.

With the remainder of their spare lockers currently occupied by puppies -- one belonging to the long-ago-demoted Manny Acosta -- there is no room for Little Jerry despite his appeal as a good-luck charm.

Tim Byrdak may want to keep him cooped up in the home clubhouse for at least another day. When dealing with the Yankees, it helps to have a little luck in reserve. Before Saturday night's game even began, Mets manager Terry Collins learned that he would be without Frank Francisco -- talk about your karmic boomerangs -- after he injured a left oblique muscle "exercising."

Then there was Ike Davis, who had to be scratched because of a case of food poisoning that grew more severe as the night went on. Later, the Mets watched a 3-0 lead vanish in a blink when Raul Ibañez took Chris Young over the rightfield wall for a three-run homer in the seventh inning.

One out later, pinch hitter Eric Chavez sliced the go-ahead home run a few feet inside the leftfield foul pole. Evidently, the Bronx bandbox is not the only park that plays short at the corners.

And with that, the Yankees survived errors by Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez -- the latter leading to an unearned run -- for the comeback 4-3 victory.

Afterward, Jon Rauch actually had the nerve to describe Chavez's homer as cheap, the same complaint usually made about balls flying out of Yankee Stadium. Rauch should know he can't have it both ways -- especially after he was the one to serve up Russell Martin's walk-off in the Bronx earlier this month. As Rauch stared angrily at reporters, it was clear that Friday's giggle-fest over the chicken high jinks was over.

"It's been a tough series against them," Rauch said. "But we're a damn good team."

But the Yankees are better, and that quick-strike capability is what makes them lethal wherever they play.

As for the Mets, Saturday night's loss exposed a few weaknesses that Collins frets about. After six scoreless innings, Young suddenly wilted in the seventh, and it didn't help that Lucas Duda badly misplayed Nick Swisher's fly ball to rightfield, which was generously scored a double, before the Ibañez blast.

"That's who they are," Joe Girardi said of his Yankees, who lead the majors with 110 home runs. "I can't make them run any faster. But they can hit the ball out of the ballpark and win games."

Regardless of their good-luck chicken, the Mets really don't need to be superstitious. What Collins & Co. have accomplished to this point is very real. They are what their record says they are, and at 39-33, in second place in the National League East, the Mets are in it for the long haul.

Just two weeks ago, the Mets looked wobbly after getting swept out of the Bronx. But they rebounded to win six of the next nine, sweeping the Rays and Orioles in the process. Now they appear prepped to possibly get two of three from the Yankees with R.A. Dickey ready for his prime-time close-up Sunday night on ESPN.

Three weeks ago, they embarked on a 22-game stretch made up entirely of teams over .500, a Murderers' Row that also included the Cardinals, Nationals and Reds. How the Mets emerged on the other side figured to define their season.

Many believed the schedule would break them, that it was too overwhelming a test for a young team not quite ready to be a contender. Instead, the opposite happened. Heading into Sunday night's finale, the Mets are 11-10. They will cross the finish line of this triathlon-like test huffing and puffing but with their playoff hopes intact. And with the woeful Cubs waiting at Wrigley Monday.

"We've got to realize that we've still got a long way to go," Collins said before the game, "and the only way to get there is to compete every night, to continue to shrink down the number of mistakes that we make and continue to grind it out. Then at the end, whatever happens happens."


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