We hear the Phillies look better, feel better, are better, and will remain better than they were last season. But, as usual, we're still waiting to see the evidence: enough wins and a position atop the National League East.

It's still early. Still too soon to allow trepidation to permeate Philadelphia's hopes and expectations. But it's not too soon to point out that, even while the Phillies entered last night 19-12 since the all-star break and hot enough to be one of the better teams in the majors, all the heat and euphoria they have generated still have them looking ahead at the New York Mets and mired in yet another dogfight over a postseason berth.

Neither Phillies general manager Pat Gillick nor Mets GM Omar Minaya could be reached by phone yesterday afternoon to talk about their respective teams. For once, believe it or not, this would be a good thing.

Both teams are winning, but not as much as they should. Losses have ranged from the unexpected to the inexcusable. Pitching has been suspect. Hitting has been sporadic. And the last thing anyone wants to hear is the same old song and dance about injuries, the what-can-go-wrong-will-go-wrong adage or "It's still August, so there's plenty of time."

Been there, done that.

This is the time, folks. I'm not talking about a time for losing to the likes of the Washington Nationals. Take a trip north to New York, hear the rumblings out of Shea Stadium, and you'll learn all is not well with the team there.

One pitcher in New York, John Maine, has been a shell of himself since the all-star break, going 3-3 with a 6.31 ERA in seven starts. Another, Oliver Perez (3-2, 4.33), hasn't been much better. Tom Glavine is a senior citizen. The oft-injured Pedro Martinez has yet to make his season debut and has garnered little faith. More than a few have contemplated plots to get hold of the aging El Duque Hernandez's birth certificate. And enough have wondered why a few other Mets - namely, Shawn Green and Carlos Delgado - have even been allowed to suit up because of their shaky play.

Yet here we are, a little more than six weeks away from the playoffs, with the Phillies looking just like we thought they would.

A second-place team. Trailing the Mets.

Destined to miss the playoffs for the 14th consecutive year because of their inability to take advantage of opportunities.

You can't just smell blood during this time of year; you've got to have a vampire's mentality and drink it. It should be easy to do with Cole Hamels, 4-1 with a 3.12 ERA in his last seven starts before last night, acting like an ace, and closer Brett Myers finally off the disabled list.

As of last weekend, nobody but the Yankees was better than the Phillies offensively. There's little reason to believe that will change. So under most circumstances, this would be a cause for celebration.

Except it isn't.

I respect Gillick when he says, "We've got to take it one game at a time," as he told me last week. We all know he's correct when he points out all the injuries afflicting the Phillies, which, under different circumstances, would warrant understanding and patience. But the Phillies can't expect compassion when a division crown is within their grasp.

The Mets have been reduced to relying on the heroics of Moises Alou (.583 batting average and nine RBIs in three games) and youngster Lastings Milledge to light a fire under their team, praying others will come on eventually.

Meanwhile, the Phillies are lurking, scheduled to play the Mets seven more times before the season expires, holding their destiny in their hands.

Mets manager Willie Randolph has reportedly said, "We're not hitting, pitching or playing the way we're capable of."

Neither are the Phillies. Yet Philadelphia is still in the playoff picture, in position to live up to Jimmy Rollins' proclamation that, indeed, they are the team to beat in the NL East.

No one knows if such bravado will lead to something special.

We just know this much: Looking at the state of the Mets, why shouldn't it?