NEW YORK — Now living in the Netherlands, lifelong Mets fan Austin Dooley does everything he can to follow their games.

He clicks onto the Internet to listen when working late. He stays awake into the wee hours to watch on his computer. He e-mails pals back home in New York to keep up.

But with his favorite team on the verge of yet another tumble into never-never land, it's not easy.

"Oh, man! They're doing it again," he said Monday from Connecticut, where he's doing business in international shipping. "This is brutal."

He's not alone.

Because at a time when the first-place Mets and their rooters should be looking forward to the last two weeks of a playoff race, they're looking back and wondering: Is another collapse coming?

Almost everyone in baseball remembers last September. Leading the NL East by seven games with only 17 to play, the Mets pulled a historic fold and lost the division to Philadelphia.

Manager Willie Randolph reported to spring training insisting the meltdown was a thing of the past. He was fired in June and is long gone; the doubts remain.

"That's a big subject here," manager Jerry Manuel said before Monday night's game at Washington. "It's, unfortunately, just a part of who we are as long as we're in a race and competing. Until we win it or get into the playoffs, that's something we have to deal with."

"I haven't addressed it — not recently," he said. "I hope I don't have to address it. If I have to, I will. I don't have a problem with it."

Already minus injured closer Billy Wagner, the Mets' shaky bullpen broke down over the weekend, resulting in a lot of booing at Shea Stadium and two late losses to Atlanta. There have been 27 blown saves, 11 in the ninth inning.

The Mets lost 7-2 in the series opener in Washington on Monday night and saw their lead over the Phillies drop to one-half game. The division has been tight all season — the Mets' 3 1/2-game edge last week was their largest this year, and there's a decent chance only one NL East will make the playoffs.

The Mets won't get much of a break the rest of the way, playing 17 games in 16 days without a rest. Along with Washington, they finish with the Braves, the NL Central-leading Chicago Cubs and Florida.

Despite Carlos Delgado, David Wright and Carlos Beltran topping 100 RBIs and ace Johan Santana amply justifying his multimillion dollar signing, there doesn't seem to be a lot of consumer confidence.

The Mets' flagship radio station WFAN was flooded with calls Monday from panicky fans. A poll on WCBS asked listeners whether they thought "the Mets will blow their lead and lose the division to the Phillies for the second year in a row?" — as of late afternoon, 69 percent said yes.

Others are taking note, too.

Back in their clubhouse after beating Milwaukee in the first game of a doubleheader Sunday, the Phillies waited for the Mets' score. Hearing the news, a couple of Phils gently clapped.

Philadelphia spark plug Shane Victorino tried to play down references to his team's late rally last season.

"We've put that behind us. A lot of people bring that up, and it's in the back of our heads," he said. "We have to worry about this year, go out there and go out and get what we're trying to achieve. We have to keep plugging along."

The Mets are trying to take the same approach. Not so easy to do for a team with something to prove — and to erase in the wake of last year's staggering 5-12 finish.

Not so simple when fill-in closer Luis Ayala, Aaron Heilman, Pedro Feliciano, Joe Smith and most everyone else in the bullpen seems to struggle in key spots.

"We can't sit and say, 'OK, you go get this inning, you go get that inning, you go get this inning, and it's over,"' Manuel said during the weekend. "We're not in that position, unfortunately."

Which doesn't make it any easier on fans like Dooley.

He's working in the New York area this week before heading back to the Netherlands, and had tickets for Friday night's game. Typical of the Mets' luck of late, it was rained out and he missed his last chance to see them in their final season at Shea.

Even so, he'll be watching on TV — at a more reasonable hour — over the next few days. Watching, and hoping.

"I didn't have to see it last year," he said. "They're just showing me what I missed."