Bullpen does Mets in against Bucs

Bullpen does Mets in against Bucs

PITTSBURGH -- An unsettling August acknowledgment came from the Mets on Monday afternoon after another abbreviated workday by John Maine and another flawed performance by their beleaguered bullpen. Against the backdrop of another late defeat, pitching coach Dan Warthen said the club has revised its expectations and its plans for Maine.

Warthen essentially abandoned the notion of Maine moving to the role of closer, and, moreover, he said he didn't expect to see Maine's "all-out max fastball the rest of the year."

The results of Monday -- a 5-2 loss to the Pirates -- and the candor of the pitching coach produced another sobering truth for a first-place team that had nearly run the table during a seven-game road trip. Not only is the expectation that Maine will be a compromised pitcher for the remainder of the season because of his cranky shoulder, but also he is unlikely to pitch deep enough into his starts to minimize the team's reliance on the wobbly bullpen.

So with 36 games remaining in their regular season and a 1 1/2-game margin for error in the National League East standings, the Mets are uncertain about Maine, Billy Wagner, Ryan Church, all residents of their bullpen and, in general, about themselves.

The loss, the result of an implosion in the eighth inning, took little of the glow off the road trip. No matter what happened Monday, winning six of seven was quite beneficial and encouraging. The broader view was quite therapeutic. But the manner of defeat was a reminder of what has gone wrong, and can go wrong again. After winning six games in a row, the Mets still were stung by bullpen shortfall.

"I wish we would have lost 15-0," one of them said. "Just for a change of pace."

A bad bullpen, Frank Robinson once suggested, is like a recurring toothache. No matter how much time passes before a recurrence -- or a poor performance by the 'pen -- the recurrence seems worse. As Robinson had put it, "It seems like it hurts more, even though it doesn't hurt as much, because you've been through it before."

So there were the Mets on Monday afternoon, angst-free after they had been retired in the sixth inning. They were leading, 2-0, and the Pirates hadn't scored in 14 innings. What's to worry? But then Brian Stokes surrendered a two-run home run to Adam LaRoche, and the Mets sensed a twinge in their collective gums.

The seventh inning, shared by Stokes and Scott Schoeneweis was without incident. But Pedro Feliciano and Duaner Sanchez allowed three runs in the eighth -- Sanchez allowing three hits and an intentional walk in a four-batter sequence after replacing Feliciano, the losing pitcher.

For the second time in eight days, the Pirates overcame a late-inning deficit against the Mets relievers, though this one wasn't quite so spectacular as the other. Now the 'pen has an 18-20 record and the team has more scar tissue.

When the Mets were halfway through the winning streak, Carlos Beltran suggested the 7-5 loss to the Pirates at Shea the day before the trip had served as motivation.

"I hope it works that way again," manager Jerry Manuel said.

Then again, the Mets could have won this one with a modicum of timely hitting against starter Paul Maholm and his three successors. But they were hitless in nine at-bats with runners in scoring position and left six runners on second or third base. They made nothing of a leadoff double by Nick Evans in the sixth, though the middle of the batting order -- David Wright, Beltran and Carlos Delgado came to the plate. They had runners on second and third with none out in he fourth and scored only because the Pirates infield was back when Delgado hit a soft ground ball. And their first run, scored in the first, came on an out, Beltran's sacrifice fly, after Wright struck out with runners on second and third.

And who knows what might have happened if Maine's shoulder could have exceeded 96 pitches and kept the bullpen seated? As it was, he allowed two hits and four walks and struck out three in his second straight start of five-innings. He has pitched beyond the fifth once in his six, most recent starts. And that sequence of starts was interrupted by an assignment to the disabled list. He is very much the good soldier, willing to pitch with soreness and stiffness -- he doesn't call it pain -- but he isn't the pitcher he was before these episodes. He threw 41 pitches in the first two innings. His catcher, Ramon Castro, called them "weird." But Maine gained velocity and looked looser thereafter.

"It's a pennant race -- you've got to suck it up," Maine said. "Back-to-back five-inning starts is not what you want. But what are you going to do?"

Warthen said the Mets' medical staff says Maine is not putting himself at risk of an injury by pitching as much as he does. But the shoulder limits his time on the mound and prevents him from getting loose quickly. A reliever can't be that way. Moreover, the acquisition of Luis Ayala Sunday made the possibility of Maine shifting to the bullpen all but dead.

Ayala wasn't among the guilty parties on Monday. Sanchez was the most guilty. Manuel was unsure why, choosing not to believe the posted readings of the PNC radar gun. But Sanchez said, "It wasn't a velocity thing. I got ground balls they didn't go my way. I'm fine physically. My arm feels good ... I can't be like this ... this is not me ... I'm not getting it done."

And neither is the bullpen. And now, with Maine limited in what he can do, he reliance on the 'pen is greater. That makes the Mets less than the sum of their parts.

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