Mets let late lead slip away

Mets let late lead slip away

NEW YORK -- In the end, it wasn't the Yankees who did in the Mets on Sunday. It was the Mets who beat the Mets. And that's what made the day so disappointing and the weekend so unrewarding for the team that had visions of something significantly better when this Interleague interlude began.

Even after the Mets had lost two of the three intracity games, even after they had lost the third installment, 5-3, they still spoke of the one that got away. And that one was a sweep.

"I felt we could sweep them," Willie Randolph said, no, declared.

Yes, the Mets, still in the earliest stages of a planned renaissance, had dared to think of taking three from the Yankees, not because they had proven last July that a sweep was possible, but because they had come to believe in themselves to that degree.

"We can compete with anyone," Doug Mientkiewicz said.

And given the Mets' energy, enthusiasm, budding confidence and the first of signs of necessary arrogance, they took it one step further. They thought they could sweep anybody, even a superior team that, entering the weekend, had won 10 of 11 games.

Well, they have talent, and they are confident. And they already are brazen.

Now if they can just catch the baseball.

It came down to that again Sunday, just as it had Friday night. What separated the Mets from the sweep they had envisioned were errors on successive ground balls in the sixth inning Friday night and errors on successive plays Sunday.

It was Kaz Matsui and Mientkiewicz on Friday and Jose Reyes and David Wright on Sunday. They all had a hand -- and a flawed glove -- in the weekend that didn't work.

On this day of below-average defense, Pedro Martinez had put the Yankees' paternity in question with seven solid innings -- four hits, one walk, one run. But because the Yankees had done what they always do against him -- inflate his pitch count -- Martinez was gone by the top of the eighth when the Mets' victory plan went awry. Thirty-one pitches in the scoreless first meant Martinez wasn't there in the eighth.

Then again, he plays neither shortstop nor third, and the game turned at those positions.

The decisive rally began after Martinez's successor, Dae-Sung Koo, had retired his first batter. Wright misplayed a ground ball hit by Tony Womack. He made the best of a tricky hop, but never controlled the ball.

"Errors are part of the game," was repeated in the Mets' clubhouse after the game, as if it were the team mantra. They all wanted to absolve their second-year third baseman.

But Wright had none of it.

"This one is on my shoulder," Wright said. "My error opened the door.

Some Mets said they could feel the karma shift almost immediately. And when Reyes' error followed, karma slipped into its road grays.

Pinch-hitter Ruben Sierra hit a ground ball that second baseman Miguel Cairo handled cleanly behind second base. He made an unhurried flip to Reyes, who was facing center field with thoughts of spinning and, with his marvelous arm, making the unlikely double play and offsetting the effect of his teammate's error. But Reyes never caught the flip.

Reyes thought a double play was possible, even given his angle. It's part of being bold. Anything is possible, even a sweep.

"Sometimes, he's too quick," Randolph said of his shortstop. "He's young and enthusiastic. And he trusts his arm. He plays at high speed. We have to slow him down."

   Jose Reyes  /   2B
Born: 06/11/83
Height: 6'0"
Weight: 175 lbs
Bats: S / Throws: R

The game slowed down for a moment while Derek Jeter pinch-ran at first for Sierra, Roberto Hernandez replaced Koo and karma changed dugouts.

In the best-case scenario, Hernandez would retire Alex Rodriguez and Hideki Matsui and leave the rest for Braden Looper. But before he threw a pitch, Womack and Jeter broke. At first blush, it appeared the Mets broke down. Wright didn't cover third base and Piazza stood with arm cocked.

But Randolph later explained that Wright was not to vacate his position -- and give A-Rod a wide open left side -- if he thought there was no chance to catch Womack. And there wasn't -- Womack and Jeter had walking leads, and Hernandez (2-2) never checked.

"We were yelling 'Step off, step off,'" Randolph said. "David did the right thing."

Piazza's preparing to throw made it look wrong.

Still, the Mets had a two-run lead and A-Rod's soiled reputation as a crunch-time hitter in their favor. And when Rodriguez fouled out to Mientkiewicz, they could have walked Matsui intentionally and faced Bernie Williams with the bases loaded, but Randolph feared Bernie and didn't want the bases full. Still, the Mets thought they were almost home-free when Rodriguez was retired.

Turned out, they weren't even home. When Matsui lined Hernandez's second 1-2 pitch to left field -- four inches above Wright's glove, Shea Stadium turned into Yankee Stadium East. The largest Shea crowd in almost 40 years, 55,953, showed itself to be predominantly Yankee.

"It was like that during the [2000] World Series," Piazza said, and he made a sour face.

Wright had made one, too, as Matsui's hit traveled beyond his reach.

"Maybe I catch that if my grandmother didn't smoke," Wright said. "My uncle always used to say, 'If she didn't smoke, we'd all be taller.'"

If Eric Valent's ancestors had been cheetahs, perhaps the Mets right fielder could have denied what happened next -- Bernie Williams' run-scoring double into the right-field corner and karma snickering in the third-base dugout. The Mets would have liked it if he -- or she -- had accompanied them to Atlanta.

"It would have been nice to win this one and go on the road happy," Randolph said, feeling the Mets' growing pains. "It really doesn't change things. We could have swept them and wouldn't have proven anything. But it would have been nice to do. You learn from games like this -- win or lose -- you learn in the tough ones. So that's good. But it would have been nice. Either way, you have to turn the page. But it would have been nice."

Wright says "Flush it" rather than "Turn the page." And he and Piazza flushed it as they groomed themselves, side by side, using the shower room mirror to make eye contact.

"Mike was trying to make it easier for me," Wright said. "But I'm OK. I flushed it."

They all tried to make it easier for the shortstop and third baseman.

"Without 'em," Cliff Floyd said. "We wouldn't be where we are [a 23-21 record, identical to the Yankees'] and we wouldn't be going very far."

An uncommonly good trip to Atlanta and Miami, and the Mets could come home as a first-place team.

That's probably not going to happen. They could have sweep the weekend and didn't. These Mets aren't there yet.

"But we have [to move] forward no matter what happened today," Floyd said. "And we're going to ride it out with these two dudes. They're going to be really, really good players. And we're going to be a good team."

Marty Noble is a reporter for This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.