NEW YORK -- Six games into Operation Payback, the Mets have incurred greater debt. Six games and four losses into what is supposed to be a season of rebirth, there appears to be a scant few renaissance men among the 25 players who queued up on the first-base line Tuesday afternoon to celebrate the beginning of the end -- as it applies to Shea Stadium.

As beginnings go, the one the Mets have produced so far has been unsatisfactory. The two victories against the division's junior varsity, the Marlins, seem like they happened a year ago. And most everything the Mets have done since whipping the Fish has the scent of last season, too; September, last season. Like a madras shirt laundered in hot water, one line is bleeding into another. Where the Mets' 2007 ends and their 2008 begins is difficult to determine.

Unlike what happened in September, it hasn't been the number of losses -- three straight, but who's counting? -- that has these Mets scratching their heads and squirming in their seats. Every team will lose four of six games at some point in the season. They know that. Instead, it has been the performance that has unsettled them, their manager and probably the masses, 56,350 of whom paid their way into Shea to witness the first of its lasts -- the final opening home game.

The 5-2 loss to the Phillies on Tuesday was another game that gave the Mets pause. The ninth successive loss to the Phillies seemed like it belonged to 2007. And the way the two teams operated Tuesday suggested the Phillies are the new Braves, at least they are as the Mets are involved. The Phillies are at their best against the Mets -- see Braves 1998-2000 -- and the Mets are a less formidable opponent when the Phillies are in the other dugout.

Of course, there is no admitting that, six games and four losses into a season, not when 18 confrontations remain and when neither team is stocked with dominating talent. But the Mets did enough wrong, and the Phillies exploited each misstep that lines could be drawn from Tuesday to the Septembers of '98 and '99, when the Braves steamrolled the Mets at every turn.

"We have to start playing better," David Wright said.

He addressed the issue head-on, never rationalizing six games and four losses. He left it to others to lean on the calendar for support. As Mike Piazza said one year when the Mets stumbled in their first weeks, "it's early only if you're winning."

Wright's subsequent thoughts were direct hits as well: "We have to prove to ourselves we can beat them. ... We're a different team from who we were last year. But they have that swagger."

Left unsaid is that the Mets don't. Their swagger, like Peter Pan's shadow, became unattached.

The Phillies probably recognize that, and it makes their swagger stronger.


"It's an early season test, playing the Braves and the Phillies, getting to see how we measure up against the good teams. We've failed the test so far. So we have to start playing better, picking it up in a lot of areas. Nothing drastic, but we have to get better."
-- David Wright

Swagger has no structure, shape, size or scent. It barely has definition beyond being an element of confidence. But it has a place in the game, helping teams with it to beat teams that lack it, helping the team that has it make the play that has to be made when it must be made. Billy Wagner said in Spring Training "teams aren't afraid of us anymore." The Phillies are well beyond that. And perhaps the Mets are ... no, not yet.

Swagger might have played a role in the game's most pivotal play Tuesday. It may have prompted Chase Utley to run a less than straight line toward second base in the seventh inning when he was trying to beat a forceout throw. And lack of swagger may have been a contributing factor in the errant throw made by Carlos Delgado, the one that struck Utley in the middle of the back, allowed two Phillies runners to score and thereby tie the score at 2.

The bases were loaded after Scott Schoeneweis, the Mets' first reliever, surrendered one-out singles by Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino and hit Utley with a pitch. It was the third time Utley had been struck by a pitch, equaling a big league record for one game.

The Mets might have escaped on the ensuing play, a ground ball to first base by Ryan Howard, but Delgado's throw was precisely wrong.

"That's a double play ball," Delgado said. "I'll take that play every time, a hundred times. It wasn't hit too hard, so I had to come in to have a chance."

And when Delgado moved in, he lost what little angle he had to get the ball to Jose Reyes at second base.

"If we were going for a force play, then Jose can come off the base and give me an angle," Delgado said. "But we wanted the double play."

Schoeneweis (0-1) was replaced by Jorge Sosa, who retired Pat Burrell on a fly ball to right that allowed Utley to reach third. A two-out, two-strike single by Jayson Werth scored Utley and pointed out another Mets deficiency. Braves shortstop Yunel Escbar delivered a run in the Mets' 3-1 loss Sunday with a two-out double. Wright has been saying for three days, "We have to start getting those two-out hits."

The Mets had two Tuesday, each with no one on base. Their runs came on a leadoff home run by Delgado against winning pitcher Jamie Moyer (1-0) in the second inning and a bases loaded groundout by Ryan Church in the fourth.

Those runs put Oliver Perez in position to win, something he rarely does against the Phillies. He provided five scoreless innings and two-thirds of a shaky one against an opponent that routinely pounds him. He hardly appeared to be in command by the time he departed. Aware of Perez's history of quick meltdowns, manager Willie Randolph removed his starting pitcher, though Perez had allowed merely three hits -- all singles.

But Perez also was responsible for hitting Utley twice and three walks, two coming after he had retired Utley and Howard in the sixth. Burrell and Werth walked. A balk and the first of two passed balls by Brian Schneider followed before Joe Smith replaced Perez. Smith walked Pedro Feliz, but retired the side with the bases loaded.

But the Mets held the lead in six of their 12 losses to the Phillies last year, so what happened in the seventh and, against Aaron Heilman, in the eighth -- two more runs -- hardly was surprising. The flaw persists. Or is swagger? And the losing -- to the Phillies -- continues.

"It's an early season test, playing the Braves and the Phillies," Wright said, reprising his words of Sunday. "[We're ] getting to see how we measure up against the good teams. We've failed the test so far. So we have to start playing better, picking it up in a lot of areas. Nothing drastic, but we have to get better."