CINCINNATI -- Aiming to ease the strain on several of their starting pitchers, the Mets plan to tackle at least the next few weeks of the season with a six-man rotation.

Jeremy Hefner will join the rotation Sunday in Washington to make the new alignment possible. But there's a catch: knuckleballer R.A. Dickey will not be affected by the change, continuing to start every fifth game while the rest of the rotation slots around him.

"We think this is really going to give us the best chance to compete at the level we want to compete," manager Terry Collins said. "We're going to play some teams that are going to be playing for something very, very special, so we want to make sure we're running the best guys out there."

For weeks, Collins and pitching coach Dan Warthen searched for a way to give Johan Santana and Chris Young extra rest in their first seasons back from major shoulder surgeries -- in Collins' words, "to make sure they stay healthy throughout the remainder of the season." Collins and Warthen also wanted to find extra rest for Jon Niese, who has endured injuries or inconsistencies in each of the last three Septembers.

But the Mets did not want to alter the schedule of Dickey, who seems to thrive on regular rest -- and who could be gunning for some weighty individual accolades down the stretch.

"We just want to keep him on the same pattern," Collins said.

The new rotation will also allow the Mets to dilute the workload of rookie Matt Harvey, who only has about 30-40 innings remaining before he reaches his team-imposed cap. Pitching every sixth -- and sometimes every seventh -- game should allow Harvey to finish out the season despite his innings limit.

"I'm a competitive guy, so I don't want to get shut down at any point," Harvey said. "But ... the six-man rotation, I have no say in any of that. When they tell me to throw, I'll throw. When they tell me not to, that's a time to rest."

As the new rotation shakes out, Harvey will start Thursday against the Reds as previously scheduled. Santana, Niese and Hefner will start this weekend's series in Washington, before Dickey comes back on regular rest to open next week's homestand Monday against the Rockies.

Mets get chance to see if Shoppach is good fit

CINCINNATI -- Kelly Shoppach knew the Mets had interest in him over the winter, when they first inquired about the veteran catcher. So he was not entirely surprised when, months later, the Mets claimed him off waivers and acquired him in a trade with the Red Sox.

With the Mets, Shoppach will play mostly against lefties, giving the front office an opportunity to evaluate whether he would be worth pursuing as a platoon mate for Josh Thole next season.

"I'm really excited another team has interest in me," Shoppach said. "That makes me feel great as a player. But I want to win ballgames. It's no fun to have any type of individual success if you don't get to share it with your teammates. And if you're not winning ballgames, you don't get to have that opportunity.

"I'm not saying anything that's revolutionary here. I just want to be around a fun environment, and what makes it fun is winning ballgames."

Due to his strong career numbers against left-handed pitching -- most strikingly, an .894 OPS -- Shoppach should start behind the plate regularly with southpaws on the mound. But although Shoppach gained some experience catching Tim Wakefield during Spring Training with the Red Sox in 2005, manager Terry Collins does not plan to pair him with knuckleballer R.A. Dickey at this time.

Atop lineup, Baxter can once again spark Mets

CINCINNATI -- The last time Mike Baxter batted leadoff, he made a crashing catch against the outfield wall, displaced his collarbone, preserved Johan Santana' no-hitter and missed nine weeks.

Manager Terry Collins did not expect anything quite so dramatic when he slotted Baxter leadoff for Wednesday's game against the Reds. But he did hope that Baxter's presence would spark the Mets' sluggish offense, while simultaneously breaking up their left-handed bats.

"If you go back before Mike got hurt, he was leading off," Collins said. "We played pretty stinking good, so I'm giving him another shot."

Baxter's presence atop the lineup also allowed Collins to shift shortstop Ruben Tejada to the two hole, which he considers Tejada's ideal slot. Baxter entered the day with a .422 on-base percentage in 89 at-bats, tops on the team.