Bullpen falters late, Mets fall to Marlins

Bullpen falters, Mets fall to Marlins

MIAMI -- John Maine wasn't yet an afterthought when Joe Smith took the Dolphin Stadium mound on Monday night, but his time in the spotlight had clearly passed. The worry over Maine's stiff right shoulder could wait until after the game, because, frankly, the game produced its own set of worries. The Mets were ahead, then they were tied. Then they were ahead, then they were tied.

Then they were behind. And they stayed behind for good.

Smith, the fourth reliever to pitch after Maine exited, threw eight pitches in total, two of which the Marlins redirected into the outfield for hits. And just like that, the Mets were headed to a 7-3 loss, and the Marlins lurked inches away in the National League East.

And Smith was left wondering about the pitch that Dan Uggla hit.

"It didn't go, obviously, where I wanted it to go," Smith said.

No, but it went precisely where Uggla wanted it to go -- right up the middle, deep enough for Josh Willingham to score from second base. Willingham had greeted Smith in the eighth inning with a double, then stood on second representing the tying run.

"That," Smith said, "was just a bad pitch."

Smith then threw three balls and one strike to Uggla, who is precisely the type of hitter who excels with three balls and one strike to his credit. So even though Smith's fifth pitch to Uggla wasn't necessarily bad, the outcome certainly was.

"It's hard to pitch when you fall behind," Smith said. "Especially when you're missing your spots."

And so the Mets missed an opportunity. Though Uggla's hit only tied the game, Scott Schoeneweis entered and allowed consecutive singles to Wes Helms, Cody Ross and John Baker -- the second of which put the Marlins ahead for good. Three more runs scored in the inning, but they were hardly consequential. The Mets had lost a game in the Florida heat, a game in the standings and, perhaps, something more.

Perhaps they've lost Maine.

Though he cruised through his first four innings, Maine -- who revealed afterward that he entered the game with shoulder pain -- faced trouble when pitching coach Dan Warthen noticed a hitch in his mechanics during the fifth. After a quick check, Maine served up a home run to Baker, and one batter later was out of the game.

"It's not a bad decision," Maine said. "They're trying to protect me."

The Mets called it a precaution, and Maine called it smart. In the context of the season, it seems precisely that, but in the context of this game, it put the Mets in a bind.

The Mets entered Monday's action without the services of Aaron Heilman, who threw 57 pitches last Saturday against St. Louis. Which meant that when Maine left, manager Jerry Manuel was forced to call on Carlos Muniz, who promptly allowed the tying run to score.

Thus began the bullpen sequence, from Muniz to Pedro Feliciano to Duaner Sanchez to Smith and Schoeneweis. Some performed their jobs effectively. Others did not. And Smith, who has produced a 13.50 ERA over his last five outings, was left to chew on the loss.

"They didn't hit him very hard," Manuel said. "The results weren't what we would like them to be, but he didn't really get killed."

Nor did the Mets -- at least not until the later stages of the eighth. The Mets showed their newfound resiliency again on Monday, surrendering an early lead but grabbing it right back. Fernando Tatis, the newly minted starting left fielder, provided early offense with an RBI triple and a run of his own. And in the eighth, he hit a ground ball that Uggla misplayed into a run-scoring fielder's choice.

But a short bullpen and Maine's short start combined to stack the odds against the Mets. And so the Marlins -- who are in this divisional race every bit as much as the Phillies -- pounced upon the Mets. The Marlins are now one game out of first place.

And the Mets will return to Dolphin Stadium on Tuesday night with a chance to erase what the Marlins accomplished on Monday. Provided they make a few changes first.

"In order for us to be a good team, in order for us to do what we need to do, in games that we play like this, you'd like to shut down the opposition," Manuel said. "You're not going to score every night."

Nor are you going to prematurely lose your starting pitcher every night, either. These are the hiccups that happen over the course of a season. The Mets can only hope that this latest hiccup is nothing more than that.

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