On Feb. 16, the Mets' soft-spoken center fielder, expounding on the team's acquisition of Johan Santana, threw out an unexpected boast: "To Jimmy Rollins: We are the team to beat," Beltran said. "Let me tell you this. Without Santana, we felt, as a team, that we had a chance to win in our division. With him now, I have no doubt that we're going to win in our division. I have no doubt in that. We've got what it takes." Rollins' response?
"Two things come to mind," he said. "One, there are four other teams in our division who are going to make sure that doesn't happen, and two, has anyone ever heard of plagiarism? That was pretty good, especially coming from him. He's a quiet guy, so it was probably shocking when he said it. Not shocking in a bad way, like 'Wow, I can't believe he said that.' More like, 'Wow, he finally said something because he's a leader on that team and you definitely need to be a vocal leader.'" Is the rivalry peaking?
"I wish I could take credit, but it started on the field," Rollins said. "We had a decent team for a number years. They got better. We got better. Finally last year, both teams came in feeling they could win it. The Braves lost hold, and things went up in the air. It makes you feel like playing for pride for your team and your city. We'll never be Boston and New York, by any means, but the intensity is starting to pick up." Is there more pressure on the Mets or Phillies?
"The pressure is back on them," Rollins said. "They were on paper the best team in the division last year and supposed to win and didn't. They're going to try to prove what happened was a fluke. The spotlight isn't on us. New York is always supposed to be better than any other city. The fans and the media expect that, so the team is going to feel the same way. They're already under the microscope. You go out there and struggle, you'll hear it."
What about Santana's impact?
"However many games he wins and loses, that's his impact," Rollins said. "He can only pitch one game at a time, fortunately. If you play them in a three- or four-game series and he beats you every time you face him, but you win the other two games, you win the series. He's going to be a pick-me-up for their team, but when the season starts, everything is handled on the field. No matter how good you feel, you have to go out there and beat the other team."
"We can 100 games," Rollins said. "Look at what happened last year with all the injuries, different pitchers and uncertainties, and we wound up winning 89 games. There's a number of things that went wrong, and we still found a way to win 89 games. Offensively, we haven't lost anything. We've actually taken a step forward. Pitching-wise, with Brett [Myers] back in the rotation and [Brad] Lidge coming back to being the closer he was, we can seal the deal." Would you have been MVP if you hadn't said what you said?
"Probably not," Rollins said. "It wouldn't have taken away from my season, but just putting it out there and having the added pressure and being able to perform, it definitely helped a lot." Do you feel now that the Phillies are the team to beat?
"There isn't a team in this division or the National League that's better than us," Rollins said. "I'm not saying on paper or anything that we're the best team, but we can play with anybody and that's the bottom line. In '06 and '05, the Mets were the best team hands down, but in '07, I didn't feel that way anymore and I don't feel that way this year."
Ken Mandel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.