"The designated hitter isn't all bad," Willie Randolph had said Friday before the Interleague series began.
His Exhibit A was the 4 1/3 scoreless innings Oliver provided. The ninth spot in the Mets' order batted three times once he was in the game. No pinch-hitters or pitching changes for the Mets and, more importantly, no add-on runs for the Jays.
"All you can ask for in a game like this when your opponent jumps out early," Paul Lo Duca said, "is a chance to get the tying run to the plate. And we got that mostly because of what Darren gave us."
Moreover, with Oliver taking care of 13 outs, the load on the rest of the bullpen wasn't nearly what it might have been in a National League game. Heath Bell pitched the eighth and allowed a run, the second home run of the day by Vernon Wells. Billy Wagner pitched the ninth as a "he needs some work" assignment. So on a day when the Mets' starter was gone after merely five outs and Duaner Sanchez was having his shoulder and neck examined in New York, Randolph didn't need to summon Aaron Heilman, Pedro Feliciano or Chad Bradford.
"He gave a chance to win today AND tomorrow," Lo Duca said. "You can argue he's pitched as well as any of our pitchers down there [in the bullpen]. He's played such an important role, especially with all the extra-inning games we've played."
What Oliver does used to be a thankless job. Now, at a time when no deficit appears too great and late-inning U-turns are commonplace, there are thank yous spoken and understood.
"There's a great sense of satisfaction," Oliver said. "And you get the respect of the clubhouse. You know they realize when you've contributed."
Given his role, Oliver could do nothing to prevent the Mets' first loss after a club-record nine successive victories on the road, and their second loss in their last 11 games against Toronto.
By the time he threw his first warmup pitch, Hernandez was in position to become "L" Duque, put there by a two-run bloop single by Frank Catalanotto that fell in not-so-short center field, just beyond the sprint and stretch of shortstop Jose Reyes, and a three-run home run by Wells.
The big inning, a weapon that has served the Mets well of late, buried them instead.
And they were down against Roy Halladay, who is pitching as he did when he won the Cy Young Award in 2003. The Mets chipped away at Halladay (9-2), scoring twice in the fourth when David Wright hit a triple that bounced past Wells in center field, once in the fifth when Reyes hit his 10th triple, and once in the eighth when Reyes led off with a single and scored on a double by Carlos Delgado. The Mets loaded the bases with one out after Delgado's hit. They had the circumstance Lo Duca said they sought -- a chance to tie, or even take the lead.
But Justin Speier retired Jose Valentin and struck out Xavier Nady. That chance was their last; B.J. Ryan handled the ninth without incident or a trace of Mets offense.
As it was, they had shown some offense; they had 11 hits, 10 against Halladay. Four of the 10 had come from Reyes' white-hot bat. He extended his hitting streak to 12 games. He now has 28 hits in his most recent 52 at-bats, which yields a .538 average. His season average, .246 before the streak, now is .294. With the Mets seven games shy of the midpoint of their season, he has 94 hits, three fewer than Wright, and he has scored 65 runs, the most on the National League.
But even Reyes wasn't enough after Hernandez (4-7) tried to contend with the game's most productive lineup without command of his fastball. He was removed after the home run by Wells and after his ensuing pitch, to Troy Glaus, prompted Glaus to jump back -- even though it wasn't that tight.
"It was up, but over the plate," Randolph said.
But Glaus took exception -- the pitch did follow a home run, after all. And Hernandez took exception to Glaus. A warning was issued. Pitching coach Rick Peterson had already visited Hernandez on the mound earlier in the inning. Randolph, who had come out to talk with the umpires about the warning, subsequently thought his pitcher was unusually agitated and moved toward the mound to calm him.
Umpiring crew chief John Hirschbeck later said Hernandez was that upset.
Once Randolph reached the mound, the Mets were required to remove Hernandez, because the manager's presence constituted a second staff visit in the same inning. It wasn't as though Hernandez had much more time anyway, not without a fastball.
"But our bullpen was a man short already, and in this league, you can let the starter go and try to find himself," the manager said.
Instead, the Mets found Oliver. Good find.