Because of those road successes, they could swallow the unsettling defeat they endured Wednesday night without triggering a gag reflex. They could essentially dismiss a 6-5 loss to the Reds as a speed bump on the highway to October. They could roll with what might have been a damaging blow in other circumstances.
The Mets had acknowledged what they had done in those 10 days away from home, but they didn't fully appreciate it until Brandon Phillips hit an 0-2 pitch from Billy Wagner into center field with two outs and the bases loaded Wednesday night. Brilliant performances on the trip had provided a margin for error, 9 1/2 games wide. But not until Wagner served up the error was that margin embraced.
"Nothing wrong with 9 1/2 games," Tom Glavine said as he headed for the clubhouse exit Wednesday night. "This is why you want to win every game, so when you get one like this, it doesn't sting too much."
Make no mistake, this one smarted. It stung enough that Wagner's signoff was, "Baseball stinks, and thank God for tomorrow." It stung enough that the clubhouse was subdued after a raucous game that featured a cycle by Jose Reyes and what appeared to be a game-winning home run by Jose Valentin.
It stung so much that blank stares were more common than "look-you-in-the-eye" acknowledgement. But no matter how great the sting, the proviso stood -- 9 1/2 games. The Mets gained no ground. What they lost was the ground they could have gained. And who's going to gnash teeth about that in the third week of June?
"You still want to win," Randolph said.
And no one suggested otherwise. But he knew that there was no reason for gloom. The 9 1/2-game lead shined like a beacon. Each team in the division lost; the Mets actually gained.
"I guess it could have been worse," Wagner said, though he didn't say how. He was down because of his own struggles -- two walks and two singles after two outs -- and because he had added an unwanted coat of taint to what would have been a fun evening.
An unusually large midweek crowd, 49,758, had been energized by the ninth cycle in the club history -- completed in the eighth inning -- and Valentin's two-run home run against Chris Hammond in the three-run seventh. And when Wagner struck out his first batter, Felipe Lopez, and retired Ken Griffey Jr. on one pitch, Shea Stadium was poised to party like it was 1986.
"I messed up a good night," Wagner said.
He walked Austin Kearns on five pitches, and pinch-hitter David Ross on six, prompting moans from the crowd and thoughts of Braden Looper and Armando Benitez. A roller down the third-base line by pinch-hitter Rich Aurilia became a "Doug Sisk Special" -- a ball barely hit that barely traveled, and barely could be played.
David Wright picked it up with his bare hand. The second-guessers said he should have let it roll. The guys in the home uniforms didn't agree. The bases were loaded. A swinging strike, a strike looking and a foul by Phillips followed.
"I wanted to go up that ladder on him," Wagner said later. "With the fastball I had tonight ... "
His voice tailed off.
"Once I had two outs, I was one pitch away from ending it," he continued. "But that's where it stayed -- one strike away. He had to win."
Wagner (3-1) was unable to convert a save opportunity for the fourth time this season and took his first loss as Met. He hadn't allowed a run in 12 appearances (13 1/3 innings).
"The last out shouldn't be that hard," he said.
He had arrived at the park feeling "not too good." He left feeling worse. But the 9 1/2-game lead was intact. Not only did the Mets lead their division by a wider margin than any other team entering play Wednesday, but no team other the Indians -- fourth place in the American League Central and 11 1/2 games ahead of the last-place Royals -- was further ahead of its closest pursuer than the Mets were.
"It's a nice cushion," Wagner said. "And it'll feel softer tomorrow."