LAST THURSDAY, PHILLIES lefthander Cole Hamels said the New York Mets had been "choke artists" for the past 2 years.

Mets closer Francisco Rodriguez (aka K-Rod), doesn't think it will happen next season.

On Saturday, just 4 days after signing a 3-year, $37 million deal with the Mets, Rodriguez said:

"Of course we're going to be the front-runner. Of course we're going to be the team to beat.

"I don't want there to be a controversy or the other ballclubs in that division to take it personally or take it in a bad way. If they ask me, 'Oh, which ballclub is going to win the National League East?' It's going to be the Mets. Easy question."

The Mets have spent a lot of money hoping to make the righthander's prediction come true.

They signed K-Rod as a free agent last Wednesday and then, hours later, acquired righthanded setup man J.J. Putz from Seattle. In the process, they traded away Aaron Heilman, Joe Smith and Scott Schoeneweis, who were responsible for 12 of the Mets' 29 blown saves last season.

Last season, K-Rod saved a major league record 62 games for the Los Angeles Angels. The three-time All-Star said he's eager to pitch in front of New York fans, who he expects will be a bit more lively than those in California.

"New York's atmosphere is totally different. The fans are really passionate," he said. "A lot of players like to be on that stage. I'm the kind of guy that likes to be on the big stage."

K-Rod will share that stage with starters Johan Santana, Mike Pelfrey and John Maine. And Putz, whom he seems particularly eager to work with.

"We'll get our chemistry going," Rodriguez said. "He's going to set up. He's going to be the one to get the ball to me in the ninth inning. They've got to go through him first. That's a one-two punch that I really like."

K-Rod's right about Putz - and about the Mets' talent overall. On paper, they do indeed look like the team to beat in the East. But they looked just as good going into last season.

And we all know how that turned out. *

- Tom Mahon