By MIKE FITZPATRICK
AP Baseball Writer
NEW YORK -- A few months ago, Carlos Delgado looked finished.
Strikeouts, popups and untimely double plays. Batting in the middle of the New York Mets' lineup, he was destroying one potential rally after another. Talk-show hosts and headline writers were ready to run him out of town, and Shea Stadium fans were chanting "Dump Delgado!" nearly every night.
Now, just imagine where the Mets would be without him. Delgado's incredible hitting tear has New York in first place, confident it can avoid another September collapse.
And those thunderous, echoing chants have turned to "M-V-P! M-V-P!"
"It's pretty cool. I'm not going to lie to you. But then, I'm not going to get caught up in that," Delgado said this week. "We've got some work to do. But it's a lot nicer than the boos, I'll tell you that much."
With 24 homers and 69 RBIs in his last 67 games, Delgado's remarkable resurgence has been nothing short of a Met-amorphosis.
After struggling through the worst season of his prolific career in 2007, which ended when he broke his left hand on the final day of the season, he got off to a horrendous start this year. Dropped as low as seventh in the order, Delgado was batting .228 on June 30 and it appeared he'd never again be the fearsome slugger who carried offenses in Toronto -- or anything even close.
Now in his mid-30s, surely he was in the midst of a swift decline. All the telltale signs were there: Delgado was late on inside fastballs, so he started rushing his swing to get the bat head through the zone. That caused him to commit too early and chase pitches way off the plate.
When he did make solid contact, balls died on the warning track. Decreased bat speed, it seemed.
Against left-handers, he was completely lost. And he rolled over pitch after pitch with an uppercut swing, hitting harmless grounders directly into the defensive shift on the right side.
"I'd like to forget the first couple months of the season," he said.
But just when everybody outside the Mets' clubhouse had given up on him, Delgado broke loose and became one of the most dangerous hitters in baseball.
"I worked on the basics," he said. "For a long time I was looking to get my timing down. I was able to find that happy zone where I was seeing the ball good and I was getting ready to hit before they threw the ball. So, I don't want to make it sound like it's too simple -- but it was simple. It's just, get your timing down.
"Still the same stance. Still the same swing. Nothing drastic."
Maybe not, but the results have been.
Delgado is batting .310 since the start of July, boosting his season average to .264 with 35 homers and 104 RBIs. He homered twice in consecutive games this week to give him four multihomer games in a span of 13. And his seven multihomer games this season match Dave Kingman's club record set in 1976.
"When somebody says that he might be done or something, that's a bunch of hogwash," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said. "He just stayed right with it and he's found his swing. His bat's quicker, he's seeing the ball better, he's hitting the ball to all fields."
And coming through in the clutch.
Delgado had two colossal homers and four RBIs in Sunday night's 6-3 win, preventing a three-game sweep by the Phillies that would have left the teams tied for the NL East lead.
He went 5-for-5 with a game-ending single Aug. 21 against Atlanta, then hit two late homers on Aug. 27 to rally the Mets past Philadelphia and added a go-ahead shot in the eighth inning Sept. 1 at Milwaukee.
"Everybody wants to talk about how he's resurrected his career. This guy's been doing this every year for his career -- minus last year when he was hurt, he was playing with injuries, things like that," teammate David Wright said. "This year is the norm for Carlos Delgado. Last year was a fluke. This isn't a fluke."
The turning point was probably June 27, two days after Delgado's 36th birthday. That afternoon, he homered twice at Yankee Stadium and set a team record with nine RBIs in the opener of a two-ballpark doubleheader.
Eight days later, the Mets (82-63) started a 10-game winning streak that pulled them into a first-place tie. They are 48-28 under interim manager Jerry Manuel, who took over when Willie Randolph was fired June 17.
"Delgado had to hit. It had nothing to do with me," Manuel said recently. "I just wanted him to be more selective than anything else."
Even Delgado's defense has picked up at first base. He's counseling pitchers on the mound and providing steady leadership for a Mets team using youngsters more than expected.
In the dugout, he still writes in his black-and-white notebook, jotting down pitch sequences and chronicling his at-bats. It's information he can refer to later.
Now, it seems likely the Mets will bring back Delgado next season. They have a $12 million option on his contract with a $4 million buyout.
"Last year was a very difficult year for him," buddy Carlos Beltran said. "The younger guys, they listen to him. He doesn't talk a lot. But he always finds a way to say something when it's the right time."
Riding Delgado's big bat, the Mets have flourished despite key injuries to Billy Wagner, John Maine and Ryan Church. They've won 20 of 27 to open a 3 1/2-game lead over second-place Philadelphia with 17 to play.
Seventeen. That's how many games were left when the Mets began their epic meltdown last season. They had a seven-game cushion before going 5-12 down the stretch and allowing the Phillies to overtake them for the division crown.
Afterward, Delgado acknowledged the Mets lost focus and took a playoff spot for granted. They're determined not to let history repeat itself.
"We think we're the team to beat. We think that what happened last year is not going to happen again and we're very confident that we can get this done," said Delgado, who has 466 career homers. "It's definitely a different atmosphere here, a different feeling than what it was last year."