At the beginning of the season, there were plenty of people who expected the regular season to be a formality for the Phillies. A nuisance they needed to put up with. An extended scrimmage to get ready for the real fun in October.

Based on recent results, and the sentiments expressed by manager Charlie Manuel in the Big Apple on Wednesday night after his team seemed to sleep-walk through more than a week's worth of the schedule, that just might have included some of the folks on his active roster.

Tell them what they won, Bob! An all-expenses-paid, summer vacation including first-class air travel and four-star hotels! Shop, dine and see the sights in the biggest cities in the USA!

It's not turning out that way, of course. The first order of business for any team with championship pretensions is to win the division. That guarantees an invitation to the tournament. Anything can happen after that.

Manuel preached in spring training that the National League East was much improved. Managers always say stuff like that. Nobody paid much attention.

Well, guess what? It's almost June and the division is the only one in baseball that doesn't have a team with a losing record. If that doesn't get the attention of the defending NL East champions, the fact that the Mets won the series that ended at Citi Field last night should. That they're in Florida tonight and then travel on to Atlanta before returning home should underscore the point.

The Mets have been an up-and-down team so far. But there are some solid reasons to believe they might have turned a corner.

Some mistakes were made coming out of Port St. Lucie. Mike Jacobs and Fernando Tatis were splitting time at first base. That was rectified 2 weeks into the season when Ike Davis was summoned from Triple A Buffalo to play every day. John Maine and Oliver Perez were handed spots in the rotation. Both are on the disabled list with no reason to expect their spots will be waiting for them when they get healthy.

Hisanori Takahashi has pitched six shutout innings in each of his last two starts, which just happened to be against the teams that met in the World Series last fall, the Phillies and the Yankees. "He's in the rotation and it will be tough to get him out," said manager Jerry Manuel.

The Marlins are always dangerous and their lineup should become more formidable in the next few weeks when they're expected to bring up superprospect Mike Stanton from Double A Jacksonville. Through 42 games, he was batting .312 with 17 homers and 44 RBI for the Suns.

The Braves, despite a string of nagging injuries, had won six of eight to pull within 2 1/2 games of the Phillies going into last night. Their lineup features Jason Heyward, one of the most exciting young players to arrive in years.

Even the Nationals are no longer pushovers. And they're just waiting for righthander Stephen Strasberg, the first overall pick in last June's draft, to make one of the most anticipated big-league debuts in recent memory. The latest speculation centers on the June 8-10 series against the Pirates at Nationals Park.

On paper, the Phillies are still the best team in the division. But as the old saying goes, games aren't played on paper. Their division is pretty good and might be on the verge of getting better.

If anybody still thinks they can just la-di-da their way through the regular season, they could be in for an unpleasant surprise when the days get shorter and the temperatures start to dip in the fall.

AROUND THE BASES

Rays, eh?:

Tampa Bay will have its first themed road trip of the season when the team leaves for Toronto on Sunday. All players and staff will be wearing hockey sweaters. Manager Joe Maddon said it was a nod to Canada and the start of the Stanley Cup finals.

Vocabulary test:

Brewers manager Ken Macha got a vote of confidence from owner Mark Attanasio over the weekend. The first opportunity for most of the Milwaukee media to ask him about it came when the Brew Crew opened a homestand on Tuesday and Macha quickly tired of the tone of the inquisition.

"To have any negative questions in this meeting today is poppycock," Macha huffed.

Poppycock?

Bring 'em up:

The Pirates may well endure a record 18th straight losing season this year, but they probably won't do it with the same names and faces. All indications are that righthander Brad Lincoln, third baseman Pedro Alvarez and outfielder Jose Tabata will be brought up from Triple A Indianapolis before the end of next month. The delay, of course, is to make sure the top prospects don't qualify for salary arbitration a year earlier than necessary.

The big 0:

Indians righthander Justin Masterson is 0-11 in his last 16 starts. On Monday he needed 44 pitches just to get through the first inning and, not surprisingly, was gone after four innings. He didn't seem too upset about his latest setback, though.

"I felt pretty good and thought this might be the night. But then I got out there and it turned out not to be the night," he said.

Oh.

What's in a name?:

The Yankees are the defending world champions. The Mets are a mess. Right? Going into play last night, both teams were 17-14 since April 23.

Cliff Lee note of the week:

The Mariners lefthander is one of just three major league pitchers who currently has more than 25 strikeouts and no more than two walks. The others are relievers Jonathan Broxton, of the Dodgers, and Luke Gregerson, of the Padres.

Incredible stat of the week:

Cubs closer Carlos Marmol has faced 103 batters this season and struck out 49 of them. That's a mind-boggling 47.6 percent.

Wait for it:

Rockies righthander Ubaldo Jiminez (9-1, 0.88) is scheduled to face Giants righthander Tim Lincecum (winner of the last two NL Cy Young Awards) on Monday afternoon at AT&T Park.

PHACTS AND OPINIONS

Reds-faced:

When the Phillies had five players leading at their positions in the first All-Star balloting results released this week, it inevitably recalled 1957 when eight Cincinnati Reds were voted into the starting NL lineup: second baseman Johnny Temple, shortstop Roy McMillan, third baseman Don Hoak, catcher Ed Bailey and outfielders Frank Robinson, Gus Bell and Wally Post.

Subsequent investigation revealed that more than half the ballots came from Cincinnati. A local newspaper, the Enquirer, distributed preprinted ballots with the Reds players already written in. There were rumors that some taverns wouldn't serve Hudepohl, the local brew, to patrons until they voted. Commissioner Ford Frick stepped in and appointed Willie Mays and Hank Aaron to replace Bell and Post and took the decision-making process away from the fans.

Reds first baseman George Crowe had to be really miffed. Even though the fix was in and he led the team in homers and RBI that year, he lost out to Stan Musial.

The fans got the vote back in 1970 and safeguards have been put into place to make sure this never happens again. Still, just 4 years ago, eight of the nine AL starters were with either the Yankees or Red Sox.

Scoreboard watching:

Before games at Citi Field, the Mets display their all-time franchise leaders in a variety of categories on a continuing loop.

Couldn't help noticing this week that three of New York's top six career leaders in saves also played for the Phillies. Billy Wagner is fourth with 101, Tug McGraw fifth with 86 and Roger McDowell sixth with 84.

McGraw is also fourth in Phillies history (94) and Wagner eighth (59). McDowell, who was with the Phillies from June 1989 until July 1991, had 44 saves in a Phillies uniform.

Minor promotion:

The Clearwater Threshers had planned to give away Pat Burrell bobbleheads last season, honoring the 2008 world champions. Oops. The Tampa Bay Rays objected, citing an arcane rule that prohibits other major league names or brands from being marketed in their territory.

Now that the Rays have released Burrell, can the Phillies' Florida State League affiliate proceed with the promotion? Uh, no. "Unfortunately, the same rule applies [even though Burrell is no longer with Tampa Bay]," Threshers general manager John Timberlake said in an e-mail.

Running the gauntlet:

The Phillies don't face a team that currently has a losing record until they host the Indians on June 22.