Two nights after they had hazed their rookies, forcing them to wear swimming gear through airports and to the team's hotel, the Mets are back in the deep end, perhaps in need of a lifeguard rescue. The team that executed a U-turn after a change of manager early in the summer now is in need of another reversal and some semblance of run production.
Their offense -- what's was left of it -- couldn't produce a run, much less a margin for error Tuesday. So the Mets were forced to move from where they had spent most of the previous five weeks. They were served an eviction notice by the Nationals, by Odalis Perez of all people. And now they have no margin for error in the pennant race either.
The 1-0 defeat, their fourth loss in five games, changed them into leaders in the National League Wild Card competition, though no one embraced baseball's safety net. The Mets' focus is on the Phillies and the NL East. Their lead in the division Monday and their deficit now are identical fractions. But the half-game that separates them from the first-place Phillies certainly appears to be more imposing. The Mets appear to be anything but.
They have lost three straight games for the first time since the first days of August when they were swept by the Astros, and they have scored merely two runs in their last 23 innings. And now their offense has lost one of its secondary, but still important contributors, Fernando Tatis. He suffered a separated shoulder trying to make a play on a ball that turned the game in the Nationals' favor.
So the Mets limp forward, having lost on successive nights to pitchers they pummeled last week at Shea Stadium. John Lannan limited them to one hit in seven innings Monday. Perez was twice as generous, allowing two hits in his first seven innings Tuesday. The Mets face a rookie Wednesday night, Shairon Martis. But their starter is Brandon Knight who has no victories in a sporadic big league career.
The Mets tried to make the best of their circumstances. Carlos Delgado, his bat quieter these days, said that had he been offered in April the standing the Mets have now, he would have accepted it "any day of he week." But his comments didn't acknowledge how the Mets had arrived at this juncture -- by losing four games to the Phillies in the standings in seven days.
Mostly, the Mets reacted to this latest loss with words of what must be done, rather than words of what they hadn't done.
"We have to find a way," Delgado said.
And David Wright said: "We'll find out what we're made of," and, "It doesn't matter what Philadelphia does."
Those were the echoes of '07, when a seven-game lead with 17 games remaining proved insufficient. The lead was 3 1/2 games with 17 to go last week.
Wright characterized the latest problems as "a bump in the road," an analogy his manager had used prior to the game.
"Hopefully, it's a little bump and not a hill," Jerry Manuel said.
The bump was made more noticeable by Perez. Not only did he pitch effectively, he hit the ball Tatis failed to catch. The play happened with losing pitcher Mike Pelfrey needing one out to close out the fifth inning. Tatis, playing left field, dove for the ball, landing on his shoulder as the ball bounced past for a double. After a delay, Pelfrey walked Willie Harris on four pitches, and Cristian Guzman doubled to left-center, his ninth hit in his 16 most recent at-bats against the Mets.
Pelfrey (13-10) acknowledged the down time caused by the injury to Tatis -- the Mets pitcher did throw pitches to his catcher during the delay -- had interfered with his rhythm and led to the walk that afforded Guzman a chance.
"But I shouldn't have walked him," Pelfrey said.
A margin for error would have made the walk less damaging.
The Mets didn't even threaten against Perez (7-10) until the sixth when they had two runners on base. Wright hit a line drive deep to left the Harris caught after a run, a leap and a prayer. The left fielder temporarily lost track of the ball before he made his umpteenth brilliant catch against the Mets in two seasons.
"Great play. Turned out to a game-changing play," Wright said.
The Mets had a chance to score in the eighth, as well, after Perez had allowed one-out, pinch-hit singles by Ramon Castro and Robinson Cancel. But left-hander Mike Hinckley retired Jose Reyes and, with runners on first and third, struck out Ryan Church to end the inning.
And Carlos Beltran hit a ball to the warning track in center that Lastings Milledge caught -- he plays even deeper than Beltran -- for the second out in the ninth against closer Joel Hanrahan. But none of it worked. The Mets were shut out for the sixth time, the second time by the Nationals by a 1-0 score. They had four baserunners against a pitcher who had allowed 43 in his first 21 2/3 innings against them this season. It also didn't make sense.
"Some days you get hits, some days you don't," Wright said.
But this was the Nationals. Some days you gets lots of hits.
It all happened after a team meeting, called by Manuel. He thought the Mets needed to be reminded of how well they had played to reach first place. He delivered that message, and they listened and lost.
"I won't be selling CD's of the speech I made," the manager said.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.