NASHVILLE - Even now, more than two months after the nightmare, Willie Randolph is still trying to come to grips with how it all ended, with how his team blew that big lead and handed the National League East title to the Phillies.
"There's no doubt," the New York Mets manager said yesterday. "We allowed them to win. I respect the way they came on, but we made it easy on them."
The Phils won it on the final day of the season, beating the Mets by a game - 89 wins to 88 - and making a prophet out of Jimmy Rollins, who had famously dubbed the Phillies "the team to beat" before the season.
"I respect Charlie Manuel," Randolph said of the first Phillies skipper to win a division title since 1993. "I respect Jimmy and the way he plays. I can appreciate what he said and the confidence he has. But come on, if we take care of business, they don't win."
Randolph is right.
The Phillies needed a spectacular rally - 13 wins in their final 17 games - to catch the Mets. They also needed the Mets to pull a monumental gag job. The Mets lost 12 of their final 17 to blow a seven-game lead.
While the Phillies went to the playoffs, the Mets became a punch line for late-night comedian Conan O'Brien. Go to YouTube and check out his look at how Mr. Met dealt with the collapse.
No one felt Mr. Met's pain more than Randolph, who recently told the New York Daily News that his team's collapse left him with a "horrible feeling."
Even as he tries to help shape the 2008 roster at these winter meetings, Randolph is still feeling it. He hopes his players are, too.
"They should still be thinking about it," he said. "I'm still dealing with it and flushing it out.
"We all should have learned something from it."
The Phillies learned something from the way last season ended. After several years of flirting with a playoff spot, they finally got one. They learned how to get over the hump. Sure, the Mets helped the Phillies' cause. But winning 13 of your final 17 is nothing to sniff at.
Manuel mentions that whenever someone brings up the reality that the Mets left the door open for the Phillies.
"We won it," he said yesterday.
The Phillies' skipper then pointed out that his club beat the Mets seven straight times in the final five weeks.
"If they win one of those, we don't win," he said.
The 2007 NL East finish figures to stoke the rivalry between the Phillies and Mets. Randolph, who played and coached in the best rivalry in the game - Yankees vs. Red Sox - thinks something is growing between the two teams, although he wouldn't classify the rivalry as fierce.
"Years ago, with a comment like Jimmy made, guys would have taken that personally," he said. "I don't feel like guys took that personally. To have a real rivalry, the kind like you used to see in baseball, you have to have that disdain and hatred. You don't see that anymore in baseball. The rivalry between us is building, but I don't think it's there yet."
To have a rivalry, two teams must be good at the same time. That hasn't happened much with the Mets and Phillies. In fact, 2007 was just the third time that the teams finished 1-2 in the NL East. The other two years were 1986 and 2006 and those weren't close races. The Mets won by 211/2 and 12 games, respectively.
The two clubs seem positioned to go head-to-head for the top spot in the division again in 2008, although only a fool would count out the Atlanta Braves. The Washington Nationals, who are still building for the future, are not ready to win, and the Florida Marlins have once again gone out of business.
The Marlins officially parted with slugging third baseman Miguel Cabrera, one of the best players in the division, yesterday when they completed an eight-player blockbuster with the Detroit Tigers. Lefty Dontrelle Willis, a 22-game winner in 2005, also went to the American League in the deal. Florida's payroll for 2008 figures to be about $15 million.
Not having to look at Cabrera for 18 games is a good thing for the Phillies and Mets.
"Cabrera is still to me one of the top five hitters in the game," Randolph said. "You talk about [Albert] Pujols and [Barry] Bonds and those guys, but I do not like seeing him come to the plate. It's good to get him out of the league. He's a special, special talent."
With the winter meetings ending today, the Phillies and Mets have similar needs. Both would like to add a starting pitcher. While the Phillies are bottom-feeding, the Mets are shooting higher. Randolph said they could still trade for Johan Santana. They could still end up with Dan Haren or Joe Blanton. They could sign Livan Hernandez.
By the time the wheeling and dealing is over and spring training arrives, the Mets hope the nightmare of 2007 will fully be behind them. Randolph hopes it's his club, and not the Phillies, that is the team to beat in the NL East.
And, oh, by the way, did you hear Rollins' latest prediction? One hundred wins.
"That's good," Randolph said stoically. "That's fine."