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Mets' pitchers struggle in loss

Mets' pitchers struggle in loss

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NEW YORK -- The veteran pitcher approached the rookie with right hand extended. He had empathy in his expression and a slap in the face in mind. A disarming smile appeared on Tom Seaver's face, as he reached Jon Matlack and welcomed him to the Won-Nothing fraternity. Matlack had pitched so well and, for the first time, lost, 1-0.

A variation on that theme happened on Saturday afternoon 25 feet from when Seaver had tried to ease Matlack's pain 34 years earlier. Billy Wagner approached Joe Smith, smirking and ready to welcome this rookie to the big leagues. No matter that Smith already had 42 days and 18 appearances in the bigs. In Wagner's mind, Smith hadn't passed any sort of initiation until Saturday, when he served up a grand slam to Milwaukee's J.J. Hardy.

"Welcome to the big leagues, Joe Smith," Wagner said. "Now, you've only got 100 or 150 more of those."

Baseball can be cruel; teammates, particularly those who share the same bullpen, can be crueler.

Smith smiled, shrugged his shoulders and went on with his life.

"The test is tomorrow when I get ... I hope I get in there again," Smith said.

The caustic commiserating occurred during the postmortem of the Mets' loss to the Brewers on Saturday. A game that was hardly going the Mets' way deteriorated into a 12-3 defeat. After three defensive lapses contributed to two tainted runs for the Brewers in the fourth inning, the Mets bullpen surrendered five runs in the eight inning -- four on Hardy's slam.

"Not a pretty day," manager Willie Randolph said, and no one argued.

But the Mets walked into their clubhouse afterwards with a 22-13 record and little reason to fret. Likewise, when Smith showered off the first three runs of his big-league career -- Hardy's fourth RBI was pinned on Mets reliever Pedro Feliciano -- he knew he had pitched extraordinarily well in the 17 preceding appearances. That resume formed a backbone that wouldn't allow him to collapse under the weight of one 18-pitch sequence, no matter how ugly it was.

Smith cursed his fate briefly, wondering why his ERA must soar -- from zero to 1.69 on Saturday -- when his father is in the stands, and then, as Wagner had urged, he turned the page.

Mike Pelfrey's 2007 body of work doesn't have that kind of cleansing power or uplift to it.

The page doesn't turn so readily for the Mets' other rookie pitcher. Pelfrey sat two lockers down from Smith on Saturday, and no teammate found it appropriate to "bust him" as Wagner had Smith. The Mets' eighth loss in 16 home games also was Pelfrey's fifth loss in five decisions. It's a different kind of Won-Nothing fraternity.

The course and results of Pelfrey's sixth start were too similar to those of the previous four -- a run allowed in the first inning, a first-inning ERA of 14.40, subsequent improvement and ultimately defeat.

Dispirited, Pelfrey offered this pained lament: "The thing is, I thought I made progress. Paulie [Lo Duca] said I threw great. I feel like I'm getting better. I threw breaking balls for strikes when I was behind and... You know, it'd have been real nice to have something to show for it."

Pelfrey had less to do with the Mets' defeat than Smith, though he was responsible for four runs. Two of them could have been avoided. A breakdown inning by the Mets' defense that included a bizarre sacrifice-fly double play had been a primary element in his undoing. The Mets could have played better in the fourth inning; Pelfrey could have pitched more effectively, too.

The rally began with a single to right by Craig Counsell, one of the eight hits Pelfrey allowed in five innings. Counsell advanced to second on a sacrifice bunt by winning pitcher Ben Sheets and to third on an infield single by Tony Gwynn Jr., a hit that could have been avoided. Gwynn had hit a ground ball almost directly to second baseman Ruben Gotay. Having moved to his right, first baseman Carlos Delgado had no chance to cover first base, and Pelfrey was late arriving at first.

After Pelfrey walked Hardy on four pitches, he appeared to defuse the situation to a degree. Prince Fielder hit a pop into short right field. Shawn Green could have made the play, but Gotay did. And, as Counsell tagged up, Gotay made a poor throw in the general direction of the plate.

Lo Duca cut off the throw 15 feet from the plate as Counsell scored and Gwynn moved to third, and then he threw to second base. Jose Reyes took the throw and began to run Hardy back to first as Gwynn continued toward home. Reyes never checked Gwynn, throwing to first instead. By the time Delgado took the throw, he had no chance to throw out Gwynn at the plate. The 4-2-3-6 play -- too long, too late -- produced the second out after the fact.

"I made a bad assumption that [Gotay] was under it," Green said. "I should have called him off. I don't think [Counsell] tries it if I make the play. I know better; it was 100 percent my fault."

Those runs became critical when the Mets scored their runs in the fifth, the first on a wild pitch by Sheets (3-2) following Green's triple, the other two on David Newhan's first home run -- and his first two RBIs -- as a Met. It was his second pinch-hit home run and the Mets' second this season.

And hardly any of it mattered when the Mets' bullpen surrendered eight runs -- five in the eighth and three in the ninth. Feliciano, who had begun the day with 13 2/3 scoreless innings, was charged with two runs in the eighth. Both scored on hits against Smith, who had pitched 15 1/3 innings without allowing a run.

Summoned after Feliciano had allowed a single and hit Counsell, Smith hit pinch-hitter Gabe Gross and gave up Gwynn's third hit to produce one run. Hardy hit his 11th home run on the first pitch, the second grand slam of his career and the first to occur in a Mets game this season.

"I knew I'd give up a run sooner or later," Smith said. "Not this way, though. I'm supposed to get right-handed hitters out [Gross and Gwynn bat left-handed; Hardy is right-handed]. I haven't given one up to a righty in a long time -- freshman redshirt year, unless you count summer ball. Does that count?"

Smith's parents, Lee and Mike, were in town for the first time.

"The last time my father saw me pitch, I gave up a bunch of runs," said the young reliever. "I might have to send them home."

He smiled as he spoke. The disappointment was dissipating.

"He'll be fine," Wagner said. "That's why I said what I did. He can take it. He's strong."

No one had that assessment of Pelfrey. That he might be discouraged to the point of diminishing returns is a concern, though Randolph did say Pelfrey retains his place in the rotation.

"He can't let that happen," Randolph said of the possibility that his young starter might grow discouraged. "This is the big leagues. He's getting his opportunity."

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

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