Play Ball!

Published 11:57 pm Sunday, April 5, 2009

CINCINNATI (AP) — No matter what happens on opening day, the New York Mets know they’ll be judged on what happens much farther down the road.

See you in September.

The team with back-to-back September collapses isn’t worried so much about getting off to a good start Monday in Cincinnati’s fickle April weather — falling temperatures and rainy skies. Instead, the Mets are already looking toward those games played with autumn poking around the corner.

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‘‘We don’t want the same thing that happened last year to happen again this year,’’ said left-hander Johan Santana, who will start the opener. ‘‘We’re committed to win, and that’s what we’re going to try to do tomorrow. And hopefully that will be the case throughout the whole year.

‘‘We’ve got new guys coming in that know exactly what they have to do and what it takes to do their jobs, and they’re going to support us trying to win.’’

Santana was referring mostly to the bullpen.

The Mets were knocked out of contention in their final game at Shea Stadium last season, finishing a collapse they’d seen before. In 2007, they were up seven games in the NL East with 17 to go, but went 5-12 the rest of the way and missed out.

Last year, they were up by 3 1/2 games with 17 to play, then went 7-10 down the stretch to miss out again. The bullpen was the main culprit, blowing an league-leading 16 games after the All-Star break and 29 overall. The Mets set out to fix that problem by bringing in closer Francisco Rodriguez, who led the majors with 62 saves in 69 chances with the Angels, and J.J. Putz, who had 15 saves in 23 chances with the Mariners.

While the starting lineup gets introduced during the customary pregame festivities on Monday, it’s the bullpen that will be front-and-center as the game — and the season — wears on.

‘‘What we hope to do is have a lead at some point to where we’re watching the bullpens, because we feel very good about ours at this point,’’ manager Jerry Manuel said.

The Reds’ outlook is like the opening day forecast — very cloudy. Eight straight losing seasons have chipped away at Cincinnati’s fan base. The Reds traditionally sell out for opening day, then rarely the rest of the way. Last year, they had only four capacity crowds in their 42,000-seat ballpark after the opener.

So, this one day is special, regardless of the weather.

‘‘Opening day is gorgeous,’’ second baseman Brandon Phillips said. ‘‘It’s nice to hear when they call your name out (during pregame introductions) and the crowd cheers for you. That’s a beautiful thing. I love it. I love to see how much support the Cincinnati fans give us. I wish we could be sold out more often.’’

This is a transition year for the Reds, who traded Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn last season. Many fans will still wear their jerseys to an opener that underscores the franchise’s work-in-progress nature. The Reds are counting on a dependable rotation, with Aaron Harang starting the opener, and young players like Phillips, Joey Votto and Jay Bruce to eventually lead them out of their deepest rut in a half-century.

‘‘We’ve got to move in a better direction and be that group of guys that puts us over the hump and gets us over .500 and, eventually, into the playoffs,’’ Votto said.

For the Mets, there’s no ‘‘eventually’’ involved. After those two late-season meltdowns and the bullpen upgrade in the offseason, another near-miss with the playoffs would be devastating.

‘‘The games in April are just as important as the games in September,’’ general manager Omar Minaya said.

Not really. Not for this team, anyway.

Notes: The Mets got down to the 25-man limit by optioning OF/1B Nick Evans to Triple-A Buffalo and placing RHP Tim Redding, LHP Billy Wagner and OF Angel Pagan on the 15-day disabled list, retroactive to March 27. … OF Gary Sheffield, who chose the Mets over the Reds and other teams, is expected to be limited to a pinch-hitting role on the opening road trip. Sheffield, a DH for Detroit last season, was released by the Tigers late in camp. He has 499 career homers. … The Reds optioned RHP Homer Bailey to Triple-A Louisville, the biggest of their final roster moves. RH Micah Owings won the fifth starter’s spot despite a strong challenge from Bailey, who kept the Reds considering the move until the final day. … Owings will start the final game of the series against the Mets, giving RH Bronson Arroyo a few extra days to rest his right hand, which is bothered by a flare-up of carpal tunnel syndrome. Arroyo is scheduled to pitch next Sunday against Pittsburgh.