If there had been a smaller gap between the Mets and the second-place club in the division, it may have been a different story. But with 10 1/2 games still separating them from their nearest challenger, the Mets were able to shrug off their 11-1 loss to the Pirates on Monday as just another game to forget.
"[Nobody is] panicking," Cliff Floyd said. "We've just got to come out and play ball [Tuesday]."
"I'm not worried," Mets manager Willie Randolph said. "You'll never see me worry, never see me panic."
Perhaps not, but the Mets couldn't help but sweat a little on a steamy July evening at Shea Stadium, a Fireworks Night contest where only half of the pyrotechnics were provided by the technicians out beyond the center-field wall.
Before breaking the game open with eight unanswered runs against the Mets bullpen, the Pirates first got to surprise starter John Maine, who was recalled from Triple-A Norfolk to pitch in place of the ailing Pedro Martinez, for three runs in 4 2/3 innings.
Informed by team officials of his pending promotion late Sunday night, Maine (0-2) arrived in New York on Monday and raised eyebrows in both clubhouses, who had expected long reliever Darren Oliver to throw the first pitch of Monday's contest.
With a change necessitated by Martinez's aching right hip, the Mets felt Maine -- who happened to be on turn at Norfolk -- would be better suited to give a longer performance. For four innings, they appeared correct.
Making his second start in a Mets uniform, Maine allowed just one hit over that time span and enjoyed an early one-run lead en route to a career-high seven strikeouts, recording one more than he had in his first Shea start May 2.
But the good news came to a halt in the fifth, as the Pirates dealt the first blows toward breaking out of their recent slide.
After recording the first out of the inning, Maine walked Jeromy Burnitz and then allowed a two-out single to catcher Ronnie Paulino. Pirates pitcher Paul Maholm then worked a six-pitch walk to load the bases, a cardinal sin that Maine admitted "shouldn't happen."
Randolph would later speculate that Maine had been winded from running out a ground ball to end the fourth inning.
"It looked like he just hit a wall," the manager said.
Maine denied that, instead questioning if his own aggressiveness had been up to par as in the first four innings.
|"[We'll panic] when we lose the lead. "We've got to keep playing, man. We can't worry about that stuff. We know what's at stake. They caught a bonus tonight: they didn't get Pedro."|
|-- Cliff Floyd|
Whatever the reason, Maine then walked leadoff hitter Jose Bautista to score the tying run, before allowing two more runs on a Jack Wilson single to left that was bobbled by Floyd for an extra base, chasing Maine after seven hits and bringing in Oliver after all.
"After the first batter I walked, I got into a hole, and it was tough for me to get out of," said Maine, who was not told if his performance merited another start.
The Pirates opened up the game with a five-run seventh inning, as reliever Chad Bradford -- carrying a 15-inning scoreless streak into Monday's action -- allowed singles to the first three batters of the inning, bringing home Pittsburgh's fourth run on Bautista's second RBI of the game.
Loading the bases to try to coax a one-out ground ball from outfielder Jason Bay, the All-Star outfielder instead made Bradford and the Mets pay, launching a two-run ground-rule double over the head of Carlos Beltran in center field.
Freddy Sanchez hit a sacrifice fly and Burnitz added a run-scoring single as Pittsburgh completed batting around against reliever Pedro Feliciano, who watched the game become more of a rout in the eighth when he allowed back-to-back home runs to Ronnie Paulino and Nate McLouth.
"It surprised me I got hit that bad," Feliciano said. "But what can you do? You've got to go away and get them [on Tuesday]."
The late rallies by Pittsburgh's offense made less of an issue of the Mets' silence against Pittsburgh starter Paul Maholm (3-7), who limited New York to just one run for the second time this season, picking up his first victory in four decisions.
In Maholm's first effort at Shea Stadium on May 4, the rookie left-hander held the Mets to a run on eight hits, but suffered a 6-0 defeat. Pittsburgh provided adequate run support the second time around, as Maholm held the Mets to just Carlos Beltran's third-inning sacrifice fly over a six inning, 116-pitch effort, scattering seven hits while the Mets finished 0-for-12 with runners in scoring position.
"We had opportunities," Randolph said. "You can't miss opportunities like that."
Still, even with their sixth loss in seven games marked in the season ledger, the Mets refuse to acknowledge the blinking red button in the room. It's too early and their cushion too big, they say, to even entertain thinking past "tomorrow's another day."
"[We'll panic] when we lose the lead," Floyd said. "We've got to keep playing, man. We can't worry about that stuff. We know what's at stake. They caught a bonus tonight: they didn't get Pedro."
Bryan Hoch is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.