With Joel Pineiro reprising the role that Jeff Suppan played in the Mets' NL Championship Series ouster in 2006, the Cardinals dealt the Mets the most damaging of their 72 losses this season and helped set up a photo finish in the division race and, perhaps, in the NL Wild Card chase, as well.
In town to play one makeup game and not pleased to be here, the Cardinals outplayed the Mets -- as they did four times last October -- beat Pedro Martinez and left their victims for dead. The Mets denied that characterization as they swiftly fled the clubhouse afterwards. They didn't deny the peril of their circumstance-turned predicament, though. Their collapse has been too dramatic to allow that. Instead, they tried to move beyond it.
Minutes after Cardinals closer Jason Isringhausen secured the victory for Pineiro, manager Willie Randolph briefly addressed his players. And his message was simple, forward-looking and positive: "Now we start over. It's a new season. We start from scratch." Later, the Mets skipper walked through the clubhouse and said this aloud to no one in particular: "We're gonna win this. We are gonna win this."
But other comments spoken during the hushed postmortem were shaded with a sense of pessimism not heard in the days that led to this point, not heard while the Mets still held an advantage in the standings.
"If we do go down," David Wright said, "we'll go down with a fight."
"We can't afford to lose another game," Moises Alou said. "We might be out of the playoffs."
"We've made our own bed," Randolph said.
Wright reiterated that the Mets still control their own destiny, but those words didn't seem to fit the occasion. They haven't handled that assignment well as of late. And now they have three days to bounce back -- if they're done falling.
The Mets play three home games against the last-place Marlins, beginning on Friday night. The Nationals, the team most responsible -- other than the Mets' bullpen -- for the fix that the Mets find themselves in, are the Phillies' final regular-season opponent. But the Mets seem to face more adversity. The Phillies are trying to win, and the Mets are trying to avoid an epic collapse, trying not to be consumed by what they have endured to this point.
"You don't want to look at it that way," Randolph said. "God forbid we don't get in, there'll be time to reflect on it. But right now, you have that tunnel vision. You're in game-grind mode. That's what we should have."
That singular-purpose mode didn't work well on Thursday night, primarily because of Pineiro. Imported from the Red Sox over the summer, he made his first career appearance against the Mets a brilliant one. A team that had averaged slightly more than seven runs per game for nine games managed merely three hits -- none by Alou, whose hitting streak ended at 30 games -- in eight innings against Pineiro. And Isringhausen pitched a clean ninth inning.
"We ran into a buzzsaw," Paul Lo Duca said. "He was painting. He was nasty. What are you going to do?"
"We ran into a good pitcher at the wrong time," Randolph said.
Martinez, who pitched deeper into the game -- seven innings -- than the Mets might have expected and who lost for the time in five post-op starts, deferred to Pineiro, too.
"Give a nod to the other pitcher," Martinez said.
Pineiro (7-4) had walked one and struck out six. The Mets put one runner on second base -- Wright doubled in the first -- none on third and never had two baserunners at one time. Martinez (3-1) allowed seven hits -- two each to David Eckstein and Albert Pujols -- walked one and struck out eight.
Moreover, he kept the Mets' beleaguered bullpen out of the game until the eighth inning. But an error by Luis Castillo in the first helped create an unearned run, driven in by Skip Schumaker. And two innings later, Pujols drove in a run with the first of his two doubles, and he later scored on a single by Ryan Ludwick.
Martinez faced Pujols in the seventh with two runners on, but only Randolph consulted with him on the mound.
"I didn't want him to pull me," the ace pitcher said.
"I knew he was close to his [pitch] limit," Randolph said. "I wanted to make sure he felt all right. I knew he wanted Pujols after the two doubles."
Martinez retired Pujols on a fly ball with his 105th pitch.
Pineiro knew how to pitch with a lead, given the Mets' circumstance. They tried to be patient, hoping to create baserunners. He exploited their strategy and threw early strikes.
"We run into a performance like that after what we've been through?" Lo Duca asked rhetorically. "You kidding me?"
The Mets were incredulous. They finally got a well-pitched game, and they don't hit. They lamented the timing and the result.
Tied for first or not, Wright said: "It's still our division. The bottom line is we're not behind."
No, they're even. The Phillies, though, seem more even.