NEW YORK -- One team knew since mid-May that it would be here. The other didn't know until the final beats of a 181-day season.

After waiting an extra day for Major League Baseball's three other Division Series to play through, the Mets and the Dodgers hit the spotlight late Wednesday afternoon, to test each other and a couple of the sport's unwritten laws.

And "Play Ball!" arrives not a minute too soon for the Mets, who on the eve of the series opener continued getting beat up emotionally the way no National League foe could touch them during a 97-win season.

Tuesday morning, teammates extolled the big-game mentality of Game 1 starter Orlando Hernandez. Tuesday afternoon, El Duque was on his way to a hospital for MRI exams on a right calf muscle that threatened to keep him off the mound.

The MRI revealed a muscle tear, leading to Hernandez being scratched -- and left off the first-round roster. Rookie right-hander John Maine was assigned to pitch in El Duque's place against the Dodgers' Derek Lowe.

Starting pitchers are always on trial, but a jury of 56,000 will convene in Shea Stadium to also see arguments in two other common postseason cases:

• One, it's not what you have done, but when you did it.
• Two, it all flows from the top.

You've heard various people in the game give the same assessment of the postseason: "It's not the best team that wins, but the hottest team."

That would be the Dodgers, who enter the dance with seven straight victories.

Similarly, teams with dynamic leadoff men live and die by their feet. A short series narrows the focus even tighter on Rafael Furcal and Jose Reyes, the shortstop fuses of the Dodgers and Mets, respectively.

"It starts with Furcal for them," said Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca. "You've got to keep him off base. And the same goes for us -- they've got to deal with Reyes."

Appropriately, Furcal tore through September at a .369 clip as the Dodgers drove down the stretch. His ignition is one element helping convince Los Angeles manager Grady Little that his team is at its peak.

"I don't think we've been this good all year," Little said. "When we won 17 of 18 [July into August], we weren't as good a team as we are now."

Not that the Mets come in stone cold. But after securing their National League East title on Sept. 18, they did struggle through eight losses in 11 games before closing with four consecutive wins.

But "struggle" continued to be the hot-button word in their clubhouse during Tuesday's workouts, to the point that when he heard it, Lo Duca winced and moaned, "Still? C'mon, man.

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"We did struggle for a while. We had a lot of games left, and sometimes it's tough when you have nothing to play for," Lo Duca conceded. "But we felt confident we could get going when we had to."

"We built some momentum by winning the last four," emphasized Mets center fielder Carlos Beltran.

Actually, if the "hot team" theory holds any water, the eventual World Series champion should come out of this series. Of the six other playoff teams, the only two that entered the postseason on a winning note were the Athletics -- but only after losing six of their previous eight -- and the Twins -- but only after losing three of their previous four.

Yet the main distinction remaining between the Dodgers and the Mets is the tenor of their stretches. Los Angeles played a September of must-win games, primarily to vanquish Philadelphia's Wild Card hopes. New York entered September with a division lead of 15 1/2 games.

"When there's nothing to play for, you're not going to play up to your usual level of play," said Mets closer Billy Wagner. "But we kicked it in that last weekend."

Echoing that sentiment, Mets left fielder Cliff Floyd, who still hopes to be in the Game 1 lineup but didn't expect a clear read on his sore left ankle until pregame, said, "We kicked it in and played some good ball at the end."

Considerable history is the Dodgers' ally. Since the 1998 Yankees, 15 teams have captured a division title by a margin of 10-plus games without winning the World Series.

Of those 15 runaway champs, eight didn't even make it out of the Division Series.

"Well, that means that seven did," Glavine, who has been on both sides, said with a wry smile. "You can make arguments either way. People are always coming up with ideas, and 95 percent of them are wrong.

"I can't say I felt better or worse going into the playoffs after a tight race. There's no guarantee either way."

Glavine's 2002 Atlanta Braves were NL East winners by 19 games (over Montreal); they were ousted in the Division Series by San Francisco. In 1993, his Braves went down to the last day to win a division (in pre-Wild Card days); they lost in the NL Championship Series to the Phillies.

"I don't think it matters either way," said the Dodgers' Greg Maddux, who experienced those same seasons as Glavine's staffmate in Georgia. "When we won big, we could line up our rotation [for the playoffs] and get some guys rested. And sometimes, if the other team had to fight down to the finish, we could miss their ace."

"I just don't think it matters who's hot," Wagner said. "Anything you do all year doesn't matter. You could win 162, and the only thing that matters is who wins the next 11. You just have to play the game."

Furcal and Reyes can control the game, which for them would be business as usual.

"You don't change anything. It may be the playoffs, but it's the same game," said Furcal, adding of fellow Dominican and good offseason buddy Reyes, "He's a great player. He's fun to watch."

There won't be any time to ease into this Division Series. Five games don't allow for any shadow boxing. You have to come with your best from the first pitch.

"We don't want to play two in L.A.," said Wagner, thinking to Game 3 and, if necessary, Game 4. "And you certainly don't want to put yourself in a hole of having to win two in L.A."