ST. LOUIS -- Billy Wagner stood on a dugout step, surveying the Busch Stadium landscape, as the Cardinals took batting practice before Tuesday night's Game 5 of the National League Championship Series, the Mets and Cardinals locked at two games apiece.

A man who goes to work at closing time, with pulses pounding and everything on the line, Wagner was the first Met out of the clubhouse, eager to get on the field and get busy.

"As a closer," Wagner said, "you stay at a high level all year long. Every game is like a playoff game in the ninth inning. So what I've found is that my adrenaline level is about the same in the postseason. It just comes down to making good pitches.

"I like to come out, get a feel for things, watch BP. Then I'll go through my routine -- watch the first inning in the dugout, go do my stretching, then head out to the bullpen, usually in the top of the third inning, and watch the game from there. It helps you keep in the game, stay on top of things."

Wagner hasn't appeared at closing time since his nightmarish finish to Game 2 at Shea Stadium on Friday, when the Cards raked him for four hits and three runs in two-thirds of an inning, taking a 9-6 decision. As difficult as it was, Wagner met with the media after that game.

"When you do your job, it's no big deal," said the man with 324 Major League saves in a career that began in 1995 with Houston. "When you don't get it done, you've gotta take your beating. It's not fun, believe me. But it makes it that much more satisfying the next time you get it done."

Thirty-five years old and signed through 2009, Wagner has baseball philosophies that have been years in the making, drawing on such sources as Xavier Hernandez, Roberto Hernandez, John Franco, Trevor Hoffman and Tom Glavine.

Glavine, Tuesday night's starter, has been especially beneficial to Wagner in dealing with the special challenges presented by New York. His 40 saves this season represented the second-highest total of his career; he produced 44 for the Astros in 2003.

"Having Glavine around has helped me tremendously," Wagner said. "I've known him for a long time, and good times or bad times, he's the same. 'Take your beating,' he'll say after a bad one, 'but don't ever overreact.'

"Xavier Hernandez [with Houston in '96] taught me how to stand in front of the media and be accountable. Roberto Hernandez [with Philadelphia in '04] was a big influence. I've talked to Trevor and Johnny Franco a lot, too. Even though their styles of pitching were a lot different from mine, I learned a lot from them. I wasn't brought up to be a closer. I began as a starter, so that mentality is something I had to learn, and they were great to me.

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"What impresses me about Trevor is he's never changed in the 11 years I've known him. We played together in Japan in '98, and I watched everything he did. We all compare ourselves in Trevor. When I got to 300 saves, I thought it was a pretty good accomplishment -- and then I realized he was almost 200 ahead of me.

"I called him when he broke Lee Smith's [career saves] record here in St. Louis, and told him how happy I was for him. He's always made me feel good about myself, and that's one of those things I'm trying to do with the younger guys now, reinforcement-type things. I'm not always going to be the closer. It's good to pass things on to the next guy."

El Duque on schedule: Mets general manager Omar Minaya called Orlando Hernandez's World Series prospects -- should the Mets get there against Detroit -- "viable" on the basis of the veteran right-hander's impressive, pain-free 72-pitch bullpen session on Sunday night. It was his first test since injuring his right calf running on Oct. 3.

"With El Duque, anything is possible," Minaya said. "Here is a guy [with] a long history of being around big games and being around comebacks, just his overall defection from Cuba and coming here."

The injury forced Hernandez to miss the NLDS against the Dodgers -- he was scheduled to pitch the opener of that series -- and the NLCS, causing further complications in a rotation already missing Pedro Martinez.

Acquired from the Diamondbacks for pitcher Jorge Julio in late May, El Duque was 9-7 in 20 starts for the Mets, with a 4.09 ERA. His 112 strikeouts in 116 2/3 innings indicate that there is nothing wrong with his stuff, even if you don't believe he actually turned 37 on Oct. 11, as officially recorded.

Free agency beckons: Never one to lose a step on the competition, Minaya began looking in earnest at potential free agents late in August, and those discussions with scouts and associates will intensify soon.

"We are pretty much focusing on guys we want, who we are going to highlight, who we are going to go after," Minaya said. "We sat down and had some coffee this morning and have a better idea who we're going to focus on.

"When the bell rings, we're going to have a plan like we've done the past two years. We're going to be focused on who we want, and we're going to go after those guys."

Ahead of schedule: When he assumed the GM job on Sept. 30, 2004, Minaya anticipated that it would take "somewhere between three and four years" to get the Mets in the position they were on Tuesday -- two wins away from a World Series.

He was taking into account the strength of the NL East, headed by perennial powerhouse Atlanta along with the Marlins and Phillies, along with the condition of the Mets' roster, the farm system and the potential of free agency filling needs.

"You're looking at a team that [was in] last place or next-to-last place ... to get to where we are today -- with injuries and all those things -- it's going to take somewhere between three and four years. So I guess we're ahead of schedule."

Green light for candidates: With coaches Manny Acta and Jerry Manuel apparently attracting some interest for managerial openings, Minaya said he has made calls on behalf of members of his coaching staff and encourages them to pursue such openings.

"I have been contacted by clubs and they have interest in some of our coaches," Minaya said. "I have told some general managers that they can interview them even as we go through this run, or interview them between series. It's fine. What I do not want is an interview during the day of a game."

Floyd could DH in World Series: The Mets certainly don't want to get ahead of themselves, but if they do make it past St. Louis to arrange a World Series date with the Tigers, Cliff Floyd's left Achilles tendon strain could be sufficiently healed to at least take some swings as the designated hitter in Detroit.

"We're hoping Cliff is going to be back to play every day," Minaya said, "and that's a possibility. We're hoping for that. We still have to go out there and win games.

"I told Cliff all along, 'You're going to be big. At some point in time, you're going to be big. Just get ready, when your time comes. Get ready, you're going to be big.' But then again, I tell that to a lot of guys."