Weather permitting—and she doesn’t look permissive—I’ll be out at Shea… er, CitiField tonight for the first time, watching Johan Santana try to put a dent in the Phillies‘ three-game lead in the NL East. This has become one of the more entertaining active rivalries in baseball, with the Phillies supplanting the Braves in the crosshairs of Mets fans, both for stealing the division late in consecutive seasons and the way in which they acted while doing so.

It’s the Phillies, however, who have the springtime lead this time around. They took advantage of back-to-back series with the Nationals and Padres to rip off a seven-game winning streak and move into first place. Were it not for blown saves by Brad Lidge on Friday and Saturday in Los Angeles, they might be coming into New York having won ten in a row and with an even bigger lead on struggling Mets and Braves squads.

Everyone knows about Raul Ibanez‘s ridiculous start, with the much-criticized free agent currently leading MLB in slugging and extra-base hits this season thanks to a spike in HR/FB percentage and an improvement in his approach at the plate. What has flown under the radar is how many of Ibanez’s lineup mates are also playing above their heads. I mentioned Chase Utley yesterday, of the .438 OBP, nearly 60 points above expectations. That’s a lot of extra OBP, even if the rest of his line is what was expected, enough to make significant difference in the offense. Carlos Ruiz is hitting .309/.435/.511, an off year for Mike Piazza. Pedro Feliz has completely changed his approach and is at .306/.361/.425 with 18 walks and just 24 strikeouts in 208 plate appearances. Only Jimmy Rollins, a disaster at .222/.261/.322, has been disappointing. He is, in fact, the only Phillie regular who has been a below-average hitter this season.

Put it all together, and the Phillies are on pace to score 889 runs this year, or 70 more than I expected them to. That’s the difference between leading a race and falling off the pace. Because so much of the gap is due to improvements by established veterans—Ibanez, Ruiz, and Feliz are crushing even optimistic projections—it’s not clear to me that this could have been expected, and it’s less clear that it can be sustained. It takes a season, even more, to determine if changes in a statistical profile, or the observable changes in approach that create that profile, are short-term or long-term in nature. For now, we can probably say that the Phillies will land at around 855 runs scored, splitting the difference between their pace and projection.

The Phillies have needed every inch of those 302 runs they’ve scored so far, because their pitching staff hasn’t been good. The starters are 15th in the NL with a 3.5 SNLVAR, a full win behind the Marlins at 14th. Their second-best starter, Brett Myers, is out until at least the tail end of the season following hip surgery, leaving the team without one means of improving that performance. Cole Hamels‘ overall line is inflated by some early problems, but he’s a legitimate front-end starter in a rotation. Behind him, however, you have Jamie Moyer and Joe Blanton, two inning-munching types having bad years trying to keep the ball in the park. Rookies J.A. Happ—tonight’s starter—and Antonio Bastardo have put in good work twice through the rotation. Neither has upside, though Happ, Kevin Goldstein‘s eighth-best prospect in the organization, is likely a back-of-the-rotation guy in the mold of Moyer.

The bullpen, an enormous part of last year’s success, has become a middle-of-the-pack outfit, 11th in the NL in WXRL. Lidge, perfect in save opportunities in 2008, has blown six saves while running up a 7.27 ERA. The long ball, his career-long nemesis prior to last season, has returned with a vengeance, as he’s allowed seven in 26 innings, after just two all last season in 69 frames. Think of player performance as a bell curve—Lidge was far to the left last year, and he’s far to the right this year. Same guy, same basic skills, but this is the range of performance that’s possible for a reliever of his ilk.

The other Phillie who’s well off his game is Rollins, and as Marc Normandin wrote last week, the problem seems to be in his approach, which has become pull-happy from both sides of the plate and is showing the signs of impatience that he’d left behind in the past few years. One of the smartest, best percentage players in the game, you would expect him to correct this and return to his established level. This would have been the conclusion a month ago, and a week ago, and we haven’t seen Rollins change yet. It will, and his performance will help the Phillies compensate, if not entirely, from the regressions you can expect from his teammates.

The Phillies are going to score runs, if not quite as many as they have to date. If they’re to win a third straight NL East title, however, the pitching has to improve. Once he returns from the DL, Lidge has to regain at least his 2007 form, if not that of 2008. J.C. Romero has to pitch well in his return from a steroids suspension. Blanton and Moyer have to keep the team in more games, and someone—Happ, Bastardo, Carlos Carrasco, or a trade target—has to provide above-average innings in the rotation besides. The Phillies don’t necessarily have to go all-out for a repeat, as their core is in place for a few more seasons. Given the price of starting pitching and a thin though improving system, holding on to their top prospects is a better idea than cashing in for a run. They can get to 85 or 86 wins with this team in a transition year, and that might be enough for the NL Wild Card.

It seems like all the Mets’ storylines for two and a half years now have been controversial, and about the players as people rather than as baseball players. They’re chokers, they have a history, the manager has to go because he’s not a leader, this guy isn’t a winning player, that guy isn’t hustling. It has to be exhausting for the players; as someone who regards baseball players as highly-accomplished professionals, I know the nonsense that surrounds a high-profile team gets tiring for me. Being in the middle of it has to be frustrating.

The story is actually much simpler than this. One of the oldest stories in baseball is that the best players get blamed for a team’s failings. So it was that David Wright was the locus of blame in April, and even now is not getting full credit for the fantastic season he’s having. So it is that Jose Reyes‘ sore legs have become the biggest story in town, and now push the player to the DL for at least two weeks. So it was that Carlos Beltran, an under-appreciated player throughout his career who does everything on a baseball field and singlehandedly pushed the 2005 Astros to the World Series, became the target of a Steve Phillips jeremiad. All that’s left is to blame Johan Santana for not winning games 0 to -1, becoming the first pitcher to win despite zero run support by so dominating his opponents that the official scorer docks the other guys a run on general principle.

As long as the Mets run up a .360 OBP as a team, though, they’re going to be dangerous. The perception that they have offensive woes is entirely tied to how CitiField has played. They have a terrific offense, seventh in the league in runs while playing home games in a park that doesn’t allow homers. Gary Sheffield has shut up those of us who felt he had nothing left by hitting .259/.394/.455, and if that line for a player with his defense and speed isn’t exciting, it’s a lot better than what, say, Daniel Murphy (.247/.330/.370) has provided. Murphy might be one of the few outfielders in baseball worse than Sheffield, too. In addition to their great core of talent, the Mets have the benefit of their best bench in years, with Sheffield, Alex Cora, Jeremy Reed, and Fernando Tatis to call on.

Like the Phillies, the Mets’ rotation has one stud lefty and a lot of question marks. All of the Mets starters after Santana have pitched better after brutal starts, and Livan Hernandez has quietly been a legitimate mid-rotation starter, to the surprise of everyone who watched him make a run at the hits-allowed record a year ago. John Maine and Mike Pelfrey have ERAs a bit lower than how well they’ve pitched, however, and there’s very little sense that this is a strong rotation. The $36 million version of Oliver Perez would help, but he’s weeks away from contributing following a flare-up of patellar tendonitis while on rehab. There is increasing pressure to get into the pitching market, even to trade stud Fernando Martinez, who has been getting a look of late. Omar Minaya has to avoid that temptation—the Mets don’t need to cash in their chips for 2009, although there’s a chance that Minaya does. The potential is real for a Grady Sizemore-level mistake, without the caveat that the franchise was at least notionally in danger of being eliminated and therefore had no need for prospects.

Rather than the rotation or lineup, Minaya should continue to work on his bullpen. Bobby Parnell and Pedro Feliciano are making more appearances at Citi than jet exhaust, and the pressure on them will increase in the absence of J.J. Putz. This was always going to be a staff, with its collection of six-inning starters behind Santana, that needed lots of bullpen innings to succeed. Relievers are the easiest things to find, year in and year out, and the cheapest additions at the trade deadline. The Mets will need another power arm to help out in the seventh and eighth, and picking one up would back up an overworked pen. The alternative is to return to the way 2007 and 2008 ended, an outcome that would almost certainly mean changes in Queens.

The neat thing about this rivalry is that it features two clearly flawed teams who have such similar structures. Any list of “best core talent” will include both of them. The rotations are similar, down to the presence of Hamels and Santana, respectively, as well as the collection of relative no-names that follow each. The Phillies had a better bullpen in ’08, and the Mets have had the better one in ’09. Both teams can steal bases at a high percentage. Both play good defense, with Gold Glove-caliber defenders at a couple of spots, and with other good ones elsewhere. Even Ryan Howard, for the Phillies, has shown improvement this year, becoming more comfortable on throws. The two teams are evenly matched, a fact hidden well by the two home parks and the success the veteran Phillies have had so far.

In 2007, the Mets went 6-12 against the Phillies, If they’d gone 7-11, they would have won the division. Last year, they went 11-7 and it wasn’t enough, as they finished in second by three games. The head-to-head matchups between division rivals aren’t everything, but they do help, and the ones between these two have provided some of the best games of recent seasons. Here’s hoping for another one tonight.