Like a pennant race without the pennant

Terry Collins and Jose Reyes. (New York Mets)
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The race is on for the New York Mets, after a decision came down from on high to do whatever it takes to finish third.

The idea is that following three consecutive seasons in fourth place, a third-place finish can be considered progress. Or perhaps Mets brass watched the Olympics, where third place earned a medal, but fourth place didn't.

It should be a battle to the finish, with Tuesday night's game in Philadelphia just the start of a huge number of games with significant third-place ramifications.

The Mets enter the critical three-game series against the Phillies trailing the Phillies by two games for third place. This took quite a bit of slumping by the Mets, who led the Phillies by 9.5 games back on July 7. But in the time since, the Phillies are 24-18, the Mets 13-30.

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Squint and you can almost see the upcoming series as similar to the vital games played between the two clubs late in the 2007 and 2008 seasons, a pair of pennant races where the Phillies barely triumphed. Chase Utley is back for the Phillies and hitting, as is Ryan Howard, to an extent. Jimmy Rollins has been the post-peak version of himself after a miserable first month. Cole Hamels pitches Wednesday.

The Phillies, as a whole, have enough talent to make third place difficult for the Mets to reach, even if the Mets stop playing .300 ball, as they have over the past quarter of a season. That makes beating the Phillies in head-to-head matchups vital; by the time the Mets see the Phillies again for three games at Citi Field starting on September 17, the race could be decided, making those games meaningless.

It would be foolish to dismiss the chances of the Miami Marlins, currently sitting in fifth place, just 1.5 games behind the Mets and 3.5 behind the Phillies. The Marlins have struggled all year, save a 21-8 May that provided brief, false hope. But the Marlins, too, have some players who can carry the team down the stretch. With nine more games against the Mets, starting with three in Miami beginning August 31, and six against the Phillies, they could be a dark horse to take the third-place title.

The biggest threat in the Miami lineup has to be Giancarlo Stanton, who leads the team and the National League with a .601 slugging percentage. He's supported by Jose Reyes, who has overcome a difficult first three weeks to post his best season, save 2011, since 2008, while already playing in 127 games, or one more than he played in 2011. The pitching, expected to be a strength at the start of the season, has faltered among starters, but the bullpen has improved dramatically, posting a 2.44 E.R.A. in the second half after a 4.65 effort in the first half.

The Mets actually finish their 2012 season with three games in Miami on October 1-3. The games can provide a neat counter to the final series of 2007 and 2008, when the Mets hosted the Marlins each time at Shea Stadium, falling in the campaign's final contest each year to lose out on a playoff spot.

Maybe it was just a question of lowering the bar all along.