Not enough of the season has passed at this point for the Mets to regard any game against any opponent as "a statement," but this one, the one that became an unpleasant 9-6 loss to the Braves, moved in that direction once Smoltz had been discharged with one out remaining in the sixth. If not a statement, a victory would have been at least an understood message.
And when it wasn't, the Mets felt its sting and had no means to salve it.
Sting was the word. Willie Randolph and his players used it and its conjugated cousins in their hushed postmortems.
"This one stings a little bit more than most," Scott Schoeneweis said. "Because we had the lead."
Shawn Green acknowledged that losing after Smoltz had been overcome "stung."
And Randolph, through an expression of exasperation, said, "We were in our place. You want to hold serve at home. They beat us twice [in three games] down there [in Atlanta]. We wanted to do that here, and once we got ahead of Smoltz. ... It stings. It would have been a good one to win."
Instead it was a bad one to lament.
The bullpen, still a work in progress, had endured an afternoon of regress. And there was no egress from the predicament it caused. Schoeneweis and Aaron Heilman surrendered three-run home runs in the seventh and eighth innings, and what might have an uplifting demonstration of resilience by the Mets deteriorated into their fourth defeat in six games against Atlanta.
The home runs, hit respectively by Edgar Renteria and Kelly Johnson, created the deficit that left the Mets in second place with, perhaps, some second thoughts about the Braves. For the second time in three weekends, the Braves took two of three games. In each series, the Mets held a lead late in the third game. In each third game, the Braves beat Heilman in the eighth inning.
An hour after the game, Heilman, though showered and dressed, took a seat on the clubhouse sectional as his teammates left for their homes.
"You can't take today into tomorrow," Heilman said as he tried to purge the day's events. "It's not fun, not enjoyable."
Heilman (1-2) had started the eighth as the third of five Mets relievers who followed Tom Glavine. His first batter, Jeff Francoeur, could have been an out. But his end-of-the-bat squib created a deceiving short hop for Jose Valentin and trouble for Heilman. Randolph, his second-base sensitivities in place, considered it a difficult play. The official scorer considered it an error. Each had a point.
|"You lose a game like this and it hurts. You battle back against a tough pitcher like Smoltz, you want to make it stand up. We could've and we didn't. It's hard playing the would've-should've game."|
|-- Tom Glavine|
The second one, Renteria's, was even more damaging, though, because it offset the effect of the Mets' five-run surge against Smoltz in the sixth and told the Braves they still had life.
Again, the defense could have been better. Ambiorix Burgos had replaced Glavine to start the seventh and retired his first two batters. Pinch-hitter Scott Thorman stood between the Mets and a quick return to the dugout. His fly ball to the wall in right might have been caught by Green; it nearly was. And Green called it, "a play I should have made" -- not that it would have been easy. But he made an awkward and seemingly mistimed jump. The ball glanced off his glove, and Thorman was on second with an appropriately scored double.
"The most frustrating thing in the game," Green said, "is not making a play and having it hurt the team like it did."
Randolph summoned Schoeneweis to face Johnson -- lefty vs. lefty. And though Schoeneweis did come back from a 3-0 count, he walked Johnson.
"Unacceptable," Schoeneweis said.
He fell behind Renteria, too, 1-0. Then the game changed.
"He was dead sitting on it [a sinker], as they all do," Schoeneweis said. "It's my job to keep them off."
The two home runs that came in a nine-batter sequence produced more runs than the Mets had allowed in all but two of their first 16 games. (And -- not too incidentally -- the Braves' run totals in the victories Friday and Sunday -- seven and nine -- are the two highest allowed by the Mets thus far.)
And the home runs obscured what had been a rousing rally against Smoltz, one that had put Glavine in position to gain the 294th victory of his career. A three-run triple by Jose Reyes, the critical hit, followed a run-scoring single by Valentin and preceded a run-scoring single by Paul Lo Duca.
"When Jose put us ahead," Glavine said, "you're feeling confident. With our bullpen ... "
The Mets' other run had come in the fifth when Green hit his second home run; he hit one Saturday, too. It was the Mets' second hit, and it offset the first-pitch-of-the-game homer Johnson had hit off Glavine, reprising what Johnson had done two weeks earlier against Orlando Hernandez.
The next time, Johnson won't see a get-ahead fastball, no matter the scouting report says.
It was one of a myriad of plays gone wrong and not made. Glavine didn't get a bunt down in the third. The Mets had three hits in 11 at-bats with runners in scoring position and left 10 runners on base. David Wright had an unproductive day at the plate, committed an error and heard some jeers.
And they let the Braves get off the mat.
"You lose a game like this and it hurts," Glavine said. "You battle back against a tough pitcher like Smoltz, you want to make it stand up. We could've and we didn't. It's hard playing the would've-should've game.
"The Braves lost something last year they want to get back. They're going to be around all summer long. And you don't want to let them get any ideas now."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.