Bobby Valentine's cluttered office is a monument to high expectations. There are the autographed photographs of Valentine with Reagan and Bush. There's the framed cartoon depicting three leaders of New York sports in the '90s: Bill Parcells, Pat Riley and Bobby Valentine. There's even a section devoted to Casey Stengel, Gil Hodges and other predecessors.

Finally, among the assortment of magazine covers and newspaper headlines covering the walls, there's the essay entitled "Duty As Seen by Lincoln."

Befitting a man with no small amount of self-confidence, the manager of the New York Mets decorated his office assured he would be around for a while and that in this toughest of towns, he would matter.

Finally, he does.

His Mets have been baseball's best team for the last three months, and as the stretch run to the postseason begins, New York's talk shows are a daily referendum on this most burning of issues: Yankees or Mets?

Unable to match last season's record-setting pace, the Yankees have been forced to take a back seat to New York's other team. Last weekend on WFAN's daily gabfest, a Yankees fan got fed up.

"Hey," he screamed, "the Yankees will be there in the end! And then it'll be just like last season. It'll take Scotland Yard to find these Met fans who are doing all the talking right now."

Listen long enough, and a Subway Series seems not just a possibility, but a foregone conclusion.

"They'd have to shut down Wall Street if that happened," Mets reliever John Franco said.

And why not? The Yankees are sailing toward another division championship and are almost on pace to win 100 games. Remarkably, the Mets are just as good -- 77-49 after last night's 3-2 victory over the Houston Astros at Shea Stadium.

Since June 6, when General Manager Steve Phillips fired three coaches in a move that, in effect, put Valentine on notice, the Mets have baseball's best record at 50-21.

"To me, that's the best team in the National League," Padres third baseman Phil Nevin said.

They trail the Atlanta Braves by a half-game in the National League East, but even if they don't win the division, the Mets could still make their first postseason appearance in 11 years by winning the NL's wild card. At the moment, four teams -- the Braves and Mets in the East and the Reds and Astros in the Central -- essentially are competing for three spots. If the season ended today, the Braves and Astros would have division titles, and the Mets would edge the Reds for the wild-card berth.

The Mets were also close last season until an 0-5 collapse at the end of the season left them a game behind the Giants and Cubs in the wild-card race. In every corner of their clubhouse, the Mets are confident there won't be a repeat of 1998.

"This team is different," catcher Mike Piazza said. "We've got so many veterans that know exactly what they're capable of. It's not going to be a case of someone trying to do things they're not capable of doing or one guy feeling he has to do it all. Last year, the problem was everyone felt they had to get the big hit or the big strikeout."

Even though the Mets came come close last season, Phillips decided his team needed a dramatic make over. When he was done, he'd not only given the Mets a different look, he'd established himself as one of baseball's most astute executives.

He began by re-signing Piazza and left-handed pitcher Al Leiter. He acquired NL steals leader Roger Cedeno and power reliever Armando Benitez for sore-armed catcher Todd Hundley. He signed free agent third baseman Robin Ventura and outfielder Rickey Henderson. And in moves that hardly raised eyebrows at the time, he signed reliever Pat Mahomes to a minor league contract and acquired 40-year-old Orel Hershiser shortly before Opening Day.

After watching a disappointing opening two months, he shook up the club again by firing three coaches. Valentine vehemently disagrees that the firings contributed to a turnaround, but something changed the Mets that weekend they were swept by the Yankees in the Bronx.

Since then, no team in the majors has been better. With Cedeno stealing 58 bases, the Mets already have more than doubled last season's stolen base total.

Piazza and Ventura have combined for 58 home runs and 198 RBI.

At 40, Henderson looks better than ever, hitting .333, stealing 30 bases and scoring 70 runs.

The infield defense might be one of the best in baseball history, especially in the middle where shortstop Rey Ordonez and second baseman Edgardo Alfonzo are a nightly highlight film of acrobatic plays.

"We see them do spectacular things so often that we've gotten accustomed to it," first baseman John Olerud said.

Phillips also constructed one of baseball's best bullpens. Benitez finally has harnessed his 95-mph talents after three inconsistent seasons with the Baltimore Orioles. Dennis Cook is 10-2. Mahomes is a surprising 7-0. And Turk Wendell has appeared in 64 games and compiled a 2.54 earned run average.

Phillips smiles now as he thinks about how things have turned out.

"I think the plan we had in place last winter has fallen into place as we'd hoped," he said. "That's not to say we were the only team with a good plan. We've also gotten lucky."

Cedeno got a chance to play only because Bobby Bonilla got hurt. Alfonzo moved to second -- and became one of the NL's best -- only when Ventura signed. Part-timers such as Benny Agbayani and Matt Franco have contributed big hits as well.

The Mets have been so good that a weak starting rotation hasn't crippled their resurgence. Phillips acquired left-hander Kenny Rogers from the Oakland Athletics just before the trading deadline, but if the Mets make the playoffs, Valentine will have the weakest rotation of any postseason team.

The rotation has forced the Mets to come from behind 39 times behind a great bullpen with a nice mix of youth and experience, speed and power.

"I think the chemistry we have is the most pleasant surprise," Phillips said. "You never know how it's going to fit together until you actually put the guys together. You have a hunch, but you don't know. That's a credit to the players and to the staff. Actually, two staffs. Bobby has created a very good environment that has allowed the team to blossom."

Finally, there's Valentine. One of baseball's brightest minds, he managed the Texas Rangers for eight seasons, earning a reputation as both a terrific manager and as someone with a massive ego.

He may have gotten more out of the cash-strapped Rangers -- who finished with winning records in four of his eight seasons -- than anyone else could have. When he was fired midway through the 1992 season, he went to the minors for a year, to Japan for a year and finally back to the big leagues with the Mets late in the 1996 season. Now, as he approaches his 1,700th game as a big league manager, he finally may have a playoff team.

"He has created a great environment," Phillips said. "He has allowed guys to succeed and gotten the best out of a lot of people. He deserves a lot of credit."

Burned so frequently in New York, Valentine is more careful with his words than he once was.

"I like my team," he said. "I like my team a lot. This is the right attitude and the right amount of talent. Talent and attitude are the most important factors. We've got a real good mix. We've got a lot of big players making big plays."

Asked if this second-half surge has surprised him, he snaps: "You mean, am I surprised I'm still here?"

If he is, he won't say so.

"I have no satisfaction other than seeing games being well played and guys coming out and playing hard every day," he said. "What I'd like to find out is what it's like to be in first place in New York at the end of the season. I think that would be real special."