Not so long ago, it was a pretty good baseball argument:

Phillies or Mets? Ryan Howard, Jimmy Rollins, and Chase Utley or David Wright, Carlos Delgado, and Jose Reyes?

The back-and-forth sniping between the division rivals ratcheted up the intensity, giving the debate an added urgency. It wasn't quite as nasty as the old Buddy Ryan Cowboy-bashing - really, "the team to beat" was sort of a silly boast by Rollins - but it added a little zest to an otherwise bland baseball rivalry.

When the Phillies open a three-game series tonight at Citi Field, the debate will have been at least temporarily resolved.

The Phillies won the World Series last year, giving their fans the last word. Throw in MVP awards won by Howard, Rollins, and Cole Hamels (in the postseason), and the Phillies have cornered the market on bragging rights over this generation of Mets.

For now. And that is what makes a great rivalry so much fun. This thing can turn around at any time. Although the Atlanta Braves are inserting themselves into the mix, the Phillies' chances of repeating still hinge on their ability to hold the Mets at bay.

The fates of these two teams, with their all-star infielders and lefthanded aces and news-making closers, are still hopelessly, delightfully intertwined.

It would be tempting to present this series as a chance for the Phillies to deliver a knockout blow to the reeling Mets. It would also be disingenuous.

The Phillies, playing exceptional baseball on a so-far-successful road trip, hit New York with a three-game lead in the division. The Mets are without Reyes, whose nagging injuries are becoming a real issue, and J.J. Putz, the ballyhooed setup man they traded for as part of their off-season effort to match the Phillies' bullpen.

If the calendar said September, a sweep would be a major blow to the Mets. But it is June, and the best the Phillies can hope to do is win another early round in what figures to be a full 15-round bout.

Remember, the Phillies' biggest lead over the Mets last season was just four games - and that was also in June. They slumped and wound up having to chase the Mets down from behind again.

What the Phillies can do here is deliver a message: They are not going to count on another Mets collapse this September. By winning two or three games in New York, the Phils can sail along, maintaining their lead and adding to it where and when they can.

For those still pinching themselves in the wake of that long-awaited championship, there is something surreal about watching this team conduct business every night. With the starting rotation finding its rhythm, the Phillies are playing exceptional defense and getting more than enough offense.

Those question-mark areas that always seemed to go sideways in the past? It is astonishing how much has gone right: replacing Pat Burrell with Raul Ibanez, watching Hamels and Howard in vain for signs of post-contract complacency, counting on Utley and Pedro Feliz to return from injuries, and relying on young homegrown starters in J.A. Happ and Antonio Bastardo.

We are getting a taste of what it has been like to be a baseball fan in New York and Boston for the last decade or so. Following a winning team with a strong nucleus, good chemistry, and committed ownership turns out to be even more fun than it looked from afar.

The Braves became aggressive in recent days, apparently seeing opportunity in the injuries and issues facing the Phillies and Mets. And that's fine. The more intense the pennant race, the better. But until the Braves' moves lead directly to a move in the standings, this still feels like another race between the Phillies and Mets.

Both have problems with their shortstop-leadoff guy: advantage, Phillies. Rollins is already better than Reyes. His track record says he'll come out of this slump and have something to say about the race. Reyes' hamstring injury could drag him down all season.

Both have comings and goings at the back end of the bullpen: advantage, Mets. Francisco Rodriguez has been exactly what the Mets lacked, a shut-down closer, while Brad Lidge has been anything but perfect. The loss of Putz and the return of J.C. Romero to the Phils narrows that gap.

Both rely on the same core groups that were such fun to debate a year or so ago. Advantage, Phillies - and not just for this season, in which injuries have hampered Delgado and now Reyes. Howard, Rollins, and Utley have made a strong case for putting this argument to rest for good.

If you're the Mets, or one of their fans, that has to sting. And the joy that brings Phillies fans? Well, that's what this rivalry is all about.

Contact columnist Phil Sheridan
at 215-854-2844 or psheridan@phillynews.com.
Read his recent work at http://go.philly.com/philsheridan.