PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- The now-traditional St. Patrick's Day caps were distributed to Mets players Saturday morning to be worn in the two split-squad games in the afternoon. The Mets will dress for their Sunday game against the Cardinals as they had dressed for their first 17 exhibition games. And they will change again for their subsequent game. Beginning Tuesday night when the Orioles come to town, the Mets will be wearing their games faces.

The time to get serious nearly is upon them. Manager Willie Randolph said so Saturday.

"We'll start to tighten it up a little Tuesday," were the manager's words, spoken after a day of baseball that was as loose as Sid Fernandez's shirt on Pat Zachry's torso. Lotsa room -- for improvement.

Outcomes of exhibition games rarely matter. And scores are almost always meaningless. But even in mid-March, even in Port St. Lucie, games can be symbolic. And when a team with pitching issues and not an abundance of pitching solutions loses games, 13-1 and 9-0, in one afternoon, the symbolism prompts the manager to speak of getting serious.

The lone off-day of the Mets' marathon March is Monday. Thirteen unimportant games follow before they engage the Cardinals in a game of mathematic consequence on April 1. But Randolph said Saturday, "It's important to play well in them." He expects they will.

The very notion of playing well -- and, more importantly, pitching effectively -- seemed lost Saturday. The team the Mets sent to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to engage the Orioles was shut out and buried; the better-equipped team that avoided that three-hour round trip was buried deeper by the Nationals and scored only on a single by a Canadian-born shortstop named Emmanuel Garcia.

In neither arena did the Mets pitchers fare anything but poorly. The Nationals' 13 runs came against Chan Ho Park and Jorge Sosa, seven in Park's three innings, the others in Sosa's two. And Aaron Sele allowed six runs in the Orioles' first turn at-bat.

Even non-roster rookie Joe Smith, effective through his first five appearances, was battered. Moreover, the Mets committed five errors and allowed seven unearned runs in the two games.

It was as if one game had been played at two sites. Upon his return to Port St. Lucie, David Newhan unwittingly covered both games with his reply to a fan's question about the game in Fort Lauderdale: "David, what was the score down there?" a voice said.

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"A lot to a little," the Mets outfielder said.

Sele's trouble hardly constituted a blip on the Mets' radar. He wasn't/isn't a strong candidate for the final spot in the rotation. And he did retire 15 of the 16 batters that followed the six runs. And the club expected Smith to have one bad day. But Park is the only legitimate candidate for the fifth spot aside from Mike Pelfrey. And Sosa seemingly has a hold on a place in what may be an undermanned Opening Day bullpen.

"If someone like Tom [Glavine] has an ugly day in Spring Training, you forget about it," a veteran teammate said. "But these are veteran guys, trying to win jobs. It doesn't look good to anyone. It is time to pick it up."

Randolph essentially dismissed the poor performances, saying, "They have at least two more starts each. Everything could turn around."

Invoking the wisdom of the Shirelles, he said "Mama said there'd be days like this." And he kiddingly blamed all the runs on the improper shamrock affixed to his team's green caps: "These should be four-leaf clovers; three-leaf clovers aren't lucky."

But scouts from other clubs that have been assigned to the Mets said they had yet to see any one of the three pitchers perform well or progress. And Randolph and pitching coach Rick Peterson were a tad surprised to hear that Park, 33 and a veteran of 12 big-league seasons, had acknowledged feeling pressured by the competition.

Park faced 19 batters, walked three and allowed seven hits, three of them home runs. Six of the nine outs he achieved were strikeouts. And so what? His fastball was ineffectively placed. By this point -- 9 1/3 innings into it -- he ought to be sharper. Randolph called his location "terrible."

Sosa's pitches were up. What's new? He didn't allow a home run this time, but he allowed eight hits in his 15-batter workday. If he's not the long reliever and instead is entrusted with late innings come April, the Mets will be counting the days until Duaner Sanchez's return.

So it went, and so it goes. Orlando Hernandez pitches Sunday against the Cardinals. He has pitched merely two innings in exhibition games so far. He's behind, too. But perhaps he'll try on his game face before Tuesday. It's time to get serious.