NEW YORK -- One poorly placed pitch wasn't enough to keep Paul Lo Duca out of the Mets lineup. Neither were four poorly placed pitches, for that matter.

Lo Duca was back in the lineup on Monday, less than a day after taking a Chien-Ming Wang pitch off his left elbow -- the fourth such occasion he's been nailed there this season.

"Paulie's pretty tough," said Mets manager Willie Randolph. "He took a pretty good shot off the elbow."

Lo Duca was back in his customary two-hole for the second straight night, after settling lower down the lineup for most of the past two months. Randolph had penciled him into the lineup before even talking to Lo Duca, judging his readiness more on reputation than fact. Lo Duca wasn't so sure, until after icing the elbow and taking some non-compromised swings in the batting cage.

"It depends how much [pain] you can tolerate," Randolph said. "It's a bruise, so it's basically the discomfort of swinging the bat. If you can tolerate whatever pain you feel, you can play."

Outfield issues: Former top prospect Lastings Milledge's strained right foot is slowly healing, according to Mets general manager Omar Minaya. Milledge resumed baseball activities on Friday for the first time since injuring the foot with Triple-A New Orleans, and could begin a rehab assignment with Class A St. Lucie as early as next week.

Starting left fielder Moises Alou isn't faring quite as well. Alou is currently rehabbing with a physical therapist in New York, and when the program is finished -- likely sometime next week -- he will travel to Florida to begin his rehab. The possibility of Alou returning before mid-July remains slim.

As for the recently maligned Carlos Beltran, he'll continue to play through his strained left quad, and Minaya said he has no plans to give his center fielder some rest. Even if -- or when -- Alou and primary backup Endy Chavez are healthy, that situation isn't likely to change.

"If we had a 50-game lead," Minaya said, "you'd have to consider that."

Stiff competition During a losing stretch of this magnitude, the blame game knows no bounds. And while most of its targets can be helped, the schedule assuredly cannot.

The Mets are smack in the middle of a month that, heading into the year, appeared to be their toughest, and is certainly panning out that way. The Tigers, Dodgers and Yankees were all playoff teams last year, as were the team's three upcoming opponents, the Twins, Athletics and Cardinals. Only the Padres are missing from last year's postseason crew -- the Mets don't see them until a West Coast swing in mid-July.

Aside from the Cardinals, whose post-World Series troubles have been, well, troubling, the rest of that pack is right back on pace. The Yankees are now 9-1 over their past 10 games, with the Dodgers and Tigers a combined 20 games over .500 heading into Monday's play. Both of those teams hold the Wild Card lead in their respective leagues -- and both sport better records than the Mets, despite New York's first place standing.

"Not to use this as an excuse, but we haven't been playing the Bad News Bears," said first baseman Carlos Delgado. "It's been a tough stretch. Everybody in this room will tell you that over the course of your career, you're going to run into some stretches like this."

Coaching Manuel: Pardon Mets bench coach Jerry Manuel if he's got one eye trained on Baltimore.

With the Orioles in search of a new manager after dismissing Sam Perlozzo on Monday, Manuel is a potential candidate for the job. Though Minaya said he has not yet been contacted regarding his bench coach, Manuel's managerial history -- he was American League Manager of the Year while with the White Sox in 2000 -- could warrant a call.

"Jerry Manuel deserves to manage in this league," Randolph said. "I would hate to lose him, of course, but he's a solid baseball man."

Coming up: Johan Santana, the premier second-half pitcher in the game, hasn't won in three starts since May 28. But it still is the first half. He has beaten the Mets in his two starts against them in 2002 and '04. The Mets won 11 of the first 14 games in which they were opposed by a left-handed starter this season. They have lost the subsequent seven. Jorge Sosa starts for the Mets in the 7:10 p.m. ET game.