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Mets aren't wilting in critical stretch of schedule Columnist @HalBodley
ST. View Full Game Coverage PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Mets were swept by the mighty Yankees over the weekend in New York and the buzz around the Big Apple is the club's surprising 2012 sprint out of the gate was merely a mirage.

The thud you heard was the Amazin's crashing back to earth, to reality.

Not so fast.

If this rugged segment of the Mets' schedule is supposed to determine whether this young team is for real, New York is refusing to show it's not. Not just yet.

From the Yankees to the Rays, the Mets are being tested by two of Major League Baseball's premier teams. And more to come.

Or put it this way: Between June 1-24, every team the Mets play was at or above .500, as of the close of play Tuesday.

When the Mets lost to the Yankees, 5-4, on Sunday it was their sixth setback in seven games.

Just as they were billed for a last-place finish in the National League East before the season began, they were expected to be out of contention when they finished a three-game series with the Yankees at Citi Field on June 24.

That's why Tuesday night's 11-2 thrashing of the Rays at Tropicana Field was so significant. It was the Rays' most lopsided defeat at Tropicana Field since a 10-0 loss to the Yankees on April 10, 2010.

To put it bluntly, the way the Mets rebounded from those excruciating losses in the Subway Series was impressive.

They used a hunt-and-peck offense to take a 3-2 lead, then blasted the Rays with six runs in the seventh inning, all coming with two out. Ike Davis' three-run homer off J.P. Howell was the big blow.

The loss dropped the Rays into a second-place tie with Baltimore in the American League East, while the Yankees, who stormed from behind on Alex Rodriguez's grand slam for a 6-4 conquest of Atlanta, took over sole possession of first.

"The thing that makes this team fun to be around is that they just don't get down about it [tough losses]," said manager Terry Collins. "We had that tough series against the Yankees, and we're on the plane headed here -- I talked to some of the guys, and they were upset about the way the games went in New York, but they knew they had a challenge here in Tampa Bay.

"We'll continue to fight, continue to battle and, hopefully, some of our guys will start getting better."

The lopsided win couldn't have come at a better time for this young team.

Wednesday night, knuckleballer R.A. Dickey, who's tied for the NL lead with nine wins, faces the Rays' David Price, who's tied for the AL lead with eight victories.

On Thursday, Johan Santana, of no-hit fame, goes against Tampa Bay's Jeremy Hellickson.

By the time that afternoon game ends, there should be a better understanding of how good the Mets can be.

Or how well they handle these difficult tests.

"It doesn't get any easier," said Collins. "After we leave here, we have three with the Reds and three against Baltimore, before we meet the Yankees again. We'll know a lot more about this team after that."

The Mets, like the Rays, are proving a competitive team can be built by not necessarily having the top payroll.

New York's payroll was slashed by over $50 million for this season, the largest one-year reduction in baseball history.

And it's well known the Rays, with one of the lowest revenue streams in the Major Leagues, have made the most out of the fewest dollars for years, including 2008 when they went to their first World Series, and 2010 when they won the AL East.

Collins said the trademark of his team is that even when they suffer tough losses, "They just keep coming back and worry about tomorrow."

Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon says the way the Mets have been playing this year has the Collins trademark all over it.

Maddon should know because he served as Collins' bench coach with the Angels for three seasons (1997-99).

"Look at the Mets and, obviously, there are a lot of names you don't recognize, but I have so much respect for where they're at based on their pitching," Maddon said. "Maybe their offensive numbers aren't really high, but that tells me they're playing hard and right. A team that pitches well and plays the game hard is always scary."

And he saw firsthand Tuesday night -- in a distasteful way.

"We've remained good friends, and I've been reading a lot about his team," said Maddon. " It's easy to see how it's getting better. It has T.C.'s stamp all over it, his method of play."

The Mets are now 33-29, in third place behind first-place Washington and Atlanta.

Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Jordany Valdespin, Lucas Duda, Josh Thole -- yes, they are unfamiliar names by Major League standards.

And even with All-Star third baseman David Wright, Dickey, Santana, et al., these youngsters are probably not good enough at this stage of their careers to make the postseason.

But they flash energy and a spirit that should help them earn their stripes for the future.

They more than demonstrated that on Tuesday night.

Just ask the Rays.

Hal Bodley, dean of American baseball writers, is Correspondent Emeritus for Follow him @halbodley on Twitter.

New York Mets, R.A. Dickey, Lucas Duda, Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Johan Santana, Jordany Valdespin, David Wright