In the end, Maine comes up short

Maine goes down vs. Dodgers

NEW YORK -- Taking stock of the Mets as they enter the season's most critical five weeks is no easy task. These Mets long ago ditched their blue and orange for shades of gray, which has done little other than muddle predictions and furrow brows.

Sunday's loss, a 6-2 affair to the Dodgers, did little to arrest the confusion. John Maine was once thought to be mediocre, has since bridged the gap from adequate to sensational and now has fallen back to where he began. And his explanation is no more conclusive than his stats.

"Maybe a little bit of luck here and there," Maine said. "Maybe a couple balls would have been hit at somebody two months ago, just not now. But that's the way the game goes sometimes."

On Sunday night, the game didn't follow Maine's intentions. He started out sharp -- and, just as importantly, felt sharp -- breezing through eight outs.

Things faltered a bit in the third, as a two-out walk turned harmful when right fielder Lastings Milledge misplayed Juan Pierre's ensuing hit into an RBI triple.

Not entirely Maine's fault.

He hit Jeff Kent in the earflap to open the fourth, but pushed aside any potential jitters by setting down three straight Dodgers. Then, in the fifth, two soft hits put two on, and another two hits plated them both.

Not entirely Maine's fault.

An inning later the Dodgers doubled their output, plating three runs on four hits and an error. All those runs were unearned, and none would have scored had reliever Scott Schoeneweis not come on and allowed two straight hits of his own.

Not entirely Maine's fault.

So for Maine, it was an exercise in futility. His good pitches did all the damage, rendering his bad ones obsolete. And that forced him to throw so many pitches that he couldn't escape the sixth inning for a sixth straight game.

"The only thing I can really control is what pitch I throw and how I do it," Maine said. "And I felt like I've done a good job of that, but it just hasn't happened."

Maine's cause wasn't helped by the fact that the Mets mustered only two runs off David Wells, both coming on David Wright's early double. Perhaps they could have had a third, but when Milledge blew through third-base coach Sandy Alomar's stop sign -- a late stop sign, as Milledge recalled -- the Mets were left grabbing fistfuls of air.

They had a sweep of the Dodgers in their sights, but couldn't deliver the knockout blow -- which is precisely how this season has gone. Nothing went particularly wrong, but somehow, the whole didn't end up right.

Maine did little wrong on the mound, but his final line -- 5 2/3 innings, nine hits, six runs (three earned) -- was ugly. And the Mets did little wrong, winning the series, but somehow managed to still leave Shea on a bit of a sour note.

"To me," said manager Willie Randolph, "the bottom line is winning the game."

Perhaps these Mets remain cursed by their own talent. After everything they accomplished a season ago, there was a feeling -- more expectation than hope -- that the encore would be even better. And it hasn't been. The Mets have seen 129 games, and 129 chances to slip the division into their back pocket, but a large chunk of that quest hasn't gone according to plan.

Yet who can complain? The Mets remain in first place by an ever-growing margin, and, assuming they don't collapse in this week's showdown with the best of the rest of the National League East, they'll likely coast to a second straight division crown.

They're doing and saying all the right things, and the results have been just fine. And maybe that lack of dominance isn't such a bad thing -- perhaps the Mets don't have to be spectacular for six straight months. They were a year ago, and it won them no ultimate glory, so there's little reason to believe that this season -- currently not as good -- won't yet turn out better.

The ends, as Maine found out on Sunday, don't often make sense in the context of the means. Good pitchers can lose, and good pitches can dunk down in the outfield, one after the other.

"That's what they get paid to do," Maine said of the Dodgers. "They did their job. I felt great. I made some pitches when I had to, but the outcome wasn't all that great."

Luckily, the greater outcome still has another five weeks to take shape.

Anthony DiComo is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.