Mets stumbling toward finish line

Mets stumbling toward finish line

NEW YORK -- Waves of worry washed over Shea Stadium on Wednesday night, when the Mets slipped closer to the once implausible. Yet another loss to the Nationals had seriously imperiled their lead in the National League East. Anxiety and a sense of doom had inched even closer than the Phillies. And solutions were in shorter supply than victories.

The Mets have been in first place since May 16, and they're quite familiar with the surroundings. On Wednesday though, they found little comfort there -- or anywhere, for that matter. "Right now, we don't," said Carlos Beltran, as he and his mates executed a synchronized squirm.

"We're not comfortable where we are or [with] how we're playing," Billy Wagner said. "How can we be?"

Their 9-6 loss and the Phillies' victory against the Braves had reduced the Mets' lead in the division to one game and, as David Wright said, reduced their season to four games. It frustrated, disappointed and riled them. But it was the sameness that disgusted them and made the evening even worse.

Said Wagner: "It's like the opposite of icing on the cake."

Another loss to the Nats, another early lead squandered and another bullpen breakdown. Assembly-line losing.

There's no good way to lose; that was reaffirmed on Tuesday night, when the Mets' ninth-inning charge fell one run short and produced little lasting impact. But there are worst ways to lose. And that became evident on Wednesday, when a 5-0 lead proved insufficient -- just as a 4-0 lead twice proved inadequate last week in Washington.

"It does make you sick when you see the same thing over and over," Wagner said. "It's driving us crazy."

The loss to the have-not Nats, the Mets' ninth loss in 13 games since their lead was seven games, produced an improbable three-game sweep and allowed the dogged Phillies to move closer to first place than any team has been since May 16, the day the Mets moved in. It also kept the Mets' clinching number at four.

And, oh, how it troubled them.

"To constantly go out there and battle and have nothing go your way," Wagner said, "you get fed up."

The game produced the second loss this season in which the Mets led by five runs. But more generally, it was the continuing collapse of a bullpen that made it worse.

"Where does it end?" Wagner wondered.

Philip Humber, making his first big league start, was responsible for the first five runs. But Joe Smith, Pedro Feliciano and Wagner combined to allow the final four to Washington for a total of 56 runs -- the number of runs the Mets have allowed in six games (five losses in 10 days) against the Nats, the lowest-scoring team in the big leagues.

"Nobody can believe it," Beltran said. "We had a great start and a terrible finish."

That assessment involved only the 158th game, but it could have applied to the season, as well.

The Mets were unable to take advantage of three home runs, two by Beltran and one by Moises Alou, who extended his hitting streak to 30 games.

In that regard, the game was reminiscent of the losses the Mets suffered against the Nationals nine and 10 days ago in Washington. This time, they scored in each of the first four innings, creating leads of 5-0 and 6-2. Beltran and Alou hit home runs in successive at-bats against Nats starter Mike Bacsik in the first inning, producing three runs. Beltran's was his 31st, a team high; Alou's was his 13th -- the homer also extended the longest hitting streak in franchise history, the longest of his career and the longest one in the Majors this season.

Luis Castillo drove in a run in the second inning, and Beltran hit his second home run, leading off the third. Ryan Church hit a two-run home run against Humber in the fourth before Alou drove in a run to reinstate the four-run lead.

Humber started the fifth, but he was removed after three batters, with one run in and no outs in the inning. Smith came in and allowed two singles that enabled the two runners he inherited to score. Feliciano gave up a double to Wily Mo Pena that allowed Smith's runners to score. Wagner surrendered his runs in the ninth.

Humber's start had produced less of a pitching line than the Mets needed -- four innings, six hits, five runs and two walks. But the rookie hardly was seen as the primary guilty party. The bullpen has a rap sheet six-weeks long.

"You don't want to feel that way," Tom Glavine said. "But once they start running around the bases, you feel, 'Here we go again.'"

It may not be the self-fulfilling prophecy at work in the Mets' minds, but it's something akin to it.

"It seems to me, we're all waiting to lose," Paul Lo Duca said.

And not waiting that long. The poison from the 'pen works quickly.

The Mets are in considerable danger. As Lo Duca pointed out on Tuesday: "A lot of teams are creeping up on us."

The safety net that is the NL Wild Card may not be available to the Mets if they keep falling.

Wright took the positive approach on that one, essentially dismissing a Wild Card berth as a potential means of reaching the postseason.

"We win four games and none of this matters," Wright said, as if four victories were in the offing. "As poorly as we've played, the beautiful thing is, if we win four games, we win the National League East. We have a four-game season. The first 158 games don't mean anything now. We have a one-game lead, and that's enough to win the division."

The first of the four is the makeup game against the Cardinals on Thursday night, with Pedro Martinez starting.

Some of those who participated in the Mets' ill-fated postseason foray in 2006 were a tad rankled in March, when Martinez, still in the early stages of his convalescence, urged his teammates to "keep it close," and he promised to push them "over the top" once he resumed pitching.

Now that scenario is in place. Martinez can help save the season -- so long as he holds off the Cardinals and the Mets' bullpen.

A call to the 'pen is inevitable, though. They all know it. And, probably, they all fear it, too.

"We better find a way to get some outs," Lo Duca said. "We better change things quick, or in five days, we'll all be home for the winter."

Yes, the Mets are a worried team.

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