New York Mets manager Jerry Manuel smiles before a game...

New York Mets manager Jerry Manuel smiles before a game against the Washington Nationals. (April 10, 2010) Credit: Photo by KEVIN P. COUGHLIN

With Jerry Manuel heading into the final season of his two-year contract and the Mets coming off a 70-92 campaign, the biggest question facing this team was how long it would take for the clock to begin ticking on the manager. Yesterday, everyone got the answer - courtesy of Jerry Manuel himself.

There were plenty of targets at which to point fingers after the Mets' 5-2 loss dropped them to last place in the NL East. Johan Santana, Mike Jacobs and Gary Matthews Jr. were booed by the announced crowd of 33,672. But Manuel refused to deflect any of the blame to Santana's inexplicable first-inning meltdown or the feeble performance by his lineup against Livan Hernandez.

The Mets figured the 35-year-old was done last season when they cut him despite barely having enough healthy bodies to field a team. Yet here was Manuel, saying his players' inability to solve Hernandez was all on him. "Today's game was not a good game for us," Manuel said. "I thought we appeared unprepared and I have to take responsibility for that. To not be able to make those adjustments like that, I have to take full responsibility for that."

It was a dicey statement by Manuel, even if he was referring to his team's reluctance to follow the plan of attack mapped out by the Mets' scouting reports. Manuel can't grab a bat and show his players what to do, obviously, against the junkballing wizardry of the ancient Livan. Nor was the game decided by any specific managerial decision, which is what usually draws the most severe criticism for the guy in charge.

But Manuel still decided to absorb the blame and flip the bull's-eye onto his back, where it now will be until the Mets either reel off a dozen wins before May (doubtful) or his tenure ends prematurely (still too early to call).

There didn't seem to be much of an upside on a personal level for Manuel to basically throw himself at the mercy of a media crew snorting for a full-blown Manager Watch and a restless fan base fantasizing for Bobby Valentine. But it also might have been a calculated move by him to get some heat off his players.

Regardless, the Mets' dream of a fast start appears to be fading after a 2-4 homestand. After 2009, if the Mets can't rally around Manuel this year - or simply choose not to - he'll share the same fate as Willie Randolph. The situations are similar. Randolph's club had a brutal schedule for the first 11 weeks, with four West Coast trips. This year, the Mets must endure a trying first month with this week's trip to Colorado and St. Louis, followed by series with the Cubs, Braves, Dodgers and Phillies, and Manuel figures to be on a shorter leash than Randolph.

That's what makes Sunday so disturbing. It's only the sixth game and the Mets came out completely flat. "There's not more pressure on us," Jeff Francoeur said, "but we've got to get the intensity back that we had on Opening Day. We didn't have that today. We just went through the motions."

That can't happen. As discouraging as it was to see Santana serve up that grand slam, they must be mentally stronger. Letting Hernandez prey on that frustration made it way too easy for him. "We've got to continue to fight until we get that tying run to the plate, regardless of what the score is," Manuel said. "Today we didn't do that."

If it continues, there won't be many more tomorrows.

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