DETROIT -- Eighty-one down, 81 to go, and here the Mets stand: third place, with a winning record, well into their most difficult stretch of the season. But there is more to it than that. They are playing without David Wright and Ike Davis, two of their best three power hitters. And yet over the past nine weeks, the Mets are 36-27, posting one of the league's best records.
So the Mets did not fret following Thursday's 5-2 loss to the Tigers because, in many ways, it was the mulligan that they deserved. Their offense had overachieved to such an extent during the team's recent four-game winning streak that they could afford a solitary glitch against Justin Verlander, one of the game's best pitchers, at Comerica Park.
They hiccuped and still they displayed some positive signs. The Mets swarmed Verlander, even if they did not overwhelm him in the same fashion they had other pitchers in recent days. If not for Mike Pelfrey's career-high five walks resulting in his briefest outing since April, the outcome may have been different.
As it was, the Mets muttered few complaints.
"We feel pretty good," catcher Josh Thole said. "As we should."
They feel good because they began a daunting 16-game stretch leading up to the All-Star break with consecutive series wins against two first-place American League teams -- all on the road. And they feel good because even in Thursday's defeat, they forced the game's hottest starting pitcher to labor, never quite allowing the game to slip out of hand.
"We had the utmost respect for them going in," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said, "but I didn't know they were that good."
Most of the significant damage against the Mets came in the third inning, when Pelfrey's free passes finally doomed him. After walking Jhonny Peralta to load the bases for the second time in three innings, Pelfrey allowed a sacrifice fly to Alex Avila and an RBI single to Ramon Santiago. Another run came around on Angel Pagan's throwing error, and that was enough. More than enough, really, despite the continued efforts of a record-setting offense.
Coming into the game with more runs over a four-game span than any team in franchise history, the Mets managed to tax Verlander early, forcing him to throw 98 pitches over the first five innings. Though Jose Reyes led the attack, doubling to lead off the game, walking in the third inning and singling in the fifth, he also made two outs on the bases. The Mets squandered their best rally in the fifth inning, putting runners on the corners with one out but not scoring. They touched Verlander for only one run, on Daniel Murphy's homer in the second, but they also created plenty of opportunities.
There was a play at the plate in the seventh inning, for example, when Tigers left fielder Brennan Boesch gunned down Lucas Duda attempting to score on Thole's fly ball. There was a two-out rally in the fourth inning, a pair of stray doubles off Detroit's bullpen late in the game, and Carlos Beltran's solo homer in the eighth. But the Mets simply could not replicate the offensive barrage that saw them pound out 69 hits and 52 runs over their previous four games. Nor did anyone expect them to.
"We were facing one of the best pitchers in the game," Beltran said, shrugging it away.
Of greater issue were the struggles of Pelfrey, who walked the bases loaded in the first inning, allowed Austin Jackson's RBI single in the second and was unable to complete five innings for the first time since April. Over 100 pitches by the fifth, Pelfrey actually limited the damage, considering the 13 baserunners against him. But that was all in relative terms.
"You're happy we had a good road trip," said Pelfrey, the losing pitcher in both defeats. "We won two series from two very good teams. But I want to get in on the winning, too."
Others could more clearly discern the context of Thursday's loss. Six games into the stretch that was supposed to break them, the Mets are playing, unquestionably, their best baseball of the season. Nothing easy lies ahead, with a Subway Series looming this weekend and a West Coast trip leading into the break. But the Mets are confident now in ways they could not have imagined one week ago.
"Right now, we're feeling good," Reyes said. "I know we lost this game, but we won two out of three. Every time we win two out of three, we're going to be in good shape."
"Even today, you face Justin Verlander," manager Terry Collins said. "Whether he had his good stuff or not, he's still an outstanding pitcher and we battled him."
So the Mets took solace on their plane ride back to New York City, believing their offense and pitching still have plenty left to give.
"I think we did pretty good," Beltran said, "even though we lost."
He felt positive. They all felt positive. Now officially halfway through the season, in fact, sitting in third place, the Mets have rarely felt better.
"If you didn't have respect for the Mets going into this game, there's something wrong with you," Leyland said. "It was very impressive. I mean, I was surprised myself."