It just isn’t the New York Mets’ season is it? Nothing seems to have gone the way they’ve planned and now they’re sitting eight games behind their archrival Philadelphia Phillies in the National League East.

As a team, they’re falling apart and the Phillies (50-38) have made the division their own. To add insult they’ve taken one of the Mets old fan favorites, Pedro Martinez, and turned him to the dark side. At least New York has the Yankees to stand up and deliver. Even when the games seem desperate the Yanks pull a win out in the end (they really earned that series win versus the Detroit Tigers after the break). It’s the difference between a healthy team and a team beat up with injuries. It’s also the difference between a team with a strong backbone and a team that needs a restructured support system.  It’s the move they made with the Atlanta Braves (the Jeff Francoeur/Ryan Church trade), and the subsequent series afterward that’s been a sign of the times. Coming off the All-Star Break (again, the American League will take home field this season after their 4-3 win), the Mets are going to have to savor those intermittent wins and the prospect of the 2010 season because this just isn’t their year.

Now, I’m not a defeatist. I don’t like to consider myself one; I don’t like to give up on the underdogs. The Mets (43-47) surely are an underdog if I’ve ever seen one, and resurgence along with the hope for a playoff is still possible and would make for a great story. It’s just that you can only give a team the benefit of the doubt for so long before they start breaking your heart.

Is it the injuries? Last year the Mets weren’t without Carlos Beltran or Jose Reyes for more than a week each and they still fell to the Phillies come crunch time. Is it the manager? The same failings that were put on Willie Randolph’s shoulders between the 2005-08 seasons are haunting Jerry Manuel as he pushes on into his second.

I’d blame the history, attitude, and expectations that go along with being the Mets in general, but it’s probably a combination of all of this. The Mets have taken steps in the off-season as they bolstered their bullpen (J.J. Putz is almost back from the DL) and during the past week to strengthen their weaknesses, but their bit players don’t seem to be able to hold up the team.

The Atlanta Braves (45-46) hosted the New York Mets two days after the Midsummer Classic, which made for some interesting fodder for conversation. One of the steps I’ve just mentioned that the Mets have made in bolstering their lineup was the trade in which they received the 25-year-old Jeff Francoeur and cash from the Braves for the relatively young yet injury prone Ryan Church. It’s difficult to say who got the better of the deal, but let’s look first at the careers of these two right fielders, and then how they performed in the series.

Jeff Francoeur was drafted by the Braves straight out of high school. He came into the minors out of Parkview High School in Georgia with a .443 career average and 164 RBIs. He was impressive as a kid and plowed through the minors with the Braves rookie team, A, and AA teams between 2002 and 2005. He was introduced to the Braves as a major leaguer in 2005 and has been a thorn in the side of the New York Mets ever since. His numbers haven’t held up to his rookie and sophomore seasons in right field for the Braves (he hit for a .300 average, 14 homeruns, and 45 RBIs in only 257 at-bats in 2005 and a .260 average, 29 homeruns, and 103 RBIs off 651 at-bats in 2006), but on his career he is a player to have confidence in when he starts in right. On his career, he has earned a Gold Glove award (2007) and has batted for a cumulative .266 average, 78 homeruns, 363 RBIs, and 659 hits. He had a slump of a season in 2008, but should fill in nicely for Church who seems to have his own ups and downs.

The Mets are fickle with their roster, especially in left and right field, so Church was seen as a man they could lean on in right. Fan favorite Xavier Nady replaced Mike Cameron in 2005 but was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2006 (to bring in Oliver Perez and Roberto Hernandez after Duaner Sanchez and Pedro Martinez were sent to the DL with injuries). Shawn Green had a brief stint in right, but failed to live up to any sort of expectation management had for him. When Church was brought over with Schneider from the Washington Nationals for the highly touted prospect Lastings Milledge, fans were hoping to have at least a sense of consistency in right. Of course, these are the Mets and nothing is ever consistent.

Church was drafted in 2000 by the Cleveland Indians in the 14th round and rolled around the minors for four years before being traded to the Montreal Expos in 2004. He struggled with Expos, playing in only 30 games of the 2004 season and finishing his first year with a .175 batting average. He made the move, along with the franchise, to Washington D.C. and played some consistent, yet mediocre baseball. With the Nationals, he hit around a .275 average and hit no more than 70 RBIs in a season. He wasn’t exactly a superstar when he was traded to the Mets and he leaves just as he came in- average- with a career of .273 average, 225 RBIs, and 49 homeruns. He also left the Mets organization claiming that he knows all the Mets signs and would happily offer them to the Braves. He’s older than Francoeur, he’s had a paltry career, and he seems to have an unprofessional attitude. So, hey, good riddance.

It’s appropriate that the Mets squared off against the Braves in the first series after the All-Star break, but the team is still not strong enough to have made this series competitive. The Braves are generally in good health and the Mets are still without their starting shortstop, centerfielder, and first baseman. So, as a consequence, the Braves took the first two games of the four game series (though they may take three and the series depending on Sunday game’s outcome). Oliver Perez started his second game since his DL stint that started in May, and had a chance to win the game (he allowed only three earned runs off five hits), but the Mets bullpen didn’t hold up to the Braves’ ten hits on the day as they suffered their 5-3 loss. It doesn’t help that the Mets couldn’t score a run after the fourth inning. The Mets couldn’t score more than the three off Braves starter Derek Lowe, but at least they scored a run. In game two of the series, they couldn’t even earn three hits. In the game Francoeur had no hits, but a sacrifice RBI grounder in four tries. Church hit in relief, but was walked and scored a run.

The Mets were taken down in the second game 11-0 in what was to be an embarrassment of a game. Starter Jar Jurrens held the Mets to two hits and no runs in six innings and the Braves’ bullpen shut them out the rest of the way. Mike Pelfrey’s earned run average spilled over the 5.00 mark as he earned his fourth loss in six tries. Pelfrey isn’t in a slump, but he does seem to have hit a bump in the road. In this game Francoeur and Church both started. Francoeur never got on base and Church had a hit, yet struck out once.

In the third game, Johan Santana saved the Mets once again. The Mets also figured their offense out in their 5-1 win with nine hits on the day. Santana held the Braves lineup to five hits in seven innings and didn’t give up a run. On the offensive side, Angel Pagan made some noise with his three hits, a run, and an RBI and should be considered the player of the game behind Santana. Luis Castillo, Jeremy Reed, and Omir Santos had an RBI each. And, along the lines of keep tabs, Francoeur earned his second Mets RBI off of one of his two hits, and Church walked twice and earned one hit.

So the Mets won a game, and that’s something to keep an eye on. They may not be as doomed as I’ve projected, but any team is going to win a game here and there (look at the Nationals… They’ve won 26 so far this season). At least they look like they’ve gotten the better of the deal (two Francoeur RBIs to Church’s one), but neither right fielder made any waves or had much influence on the games. The Mets were capable of holding their own, though they won’t have as much a shot through the second half of the season as the Yankees. They will continue forward and Manuel will try to salvage a team that was made invalid through their injuries, though now they chase a Phillies team that scooped up their former Pedro Martinez (is it paranoid to think this move was made in spite of the Mets?). He’s throwing bullpen sessions and may possibly start in relief, but it’s still a shame. All you can say to the Mets right now is good luck. The odds are stacked against you.