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Shaky first frame does in Livan, Mets

Shaky first frame does in Livan, Mets

NEW YORK -- The number hung prominently in the Sunday night air, as if Citi Field were Indy -- "500." In a house that clearly was divided, the number prompted hope and dread at the same time. The Mets and Yankees approached it from decidedly directions, the Mets seeing it, preceded by a decimal, as the symbol of mediocrity and a measure of how much they have back-peddled of late; the Yankees seeing it as an objective and hoping to embrace it as a milestone achievement.

And in the end, the Mets' ongoing moonwalk brought them precisely where they didn't want to be, at the juncture of 37 victories and 37 losses. The Yankees prevailed at every turn. This Subway Series tilt brought two 500s and no 50-50 split for New York's two baseball teams. And this three-night, intra-city exercise produced nothing approaching an even split.

The Mets were thoroughly vexed by their 4-2 loss Sunday and by the Yankees' sweep of the three-game series. With poor performance, they made their final Interleague foray for 2009 a no-win situation in every way. Their winning percentage dropped to .500, a danger zone according to manager Jerry Mnauel, and they were the victims when Mariano Rivera earned the 500th save of his storied career.

Although their winning percentage is at the break-even point, the Mets' glass appears to be half-empty. They demonstrated more resistance Sunday than they had in the three previous engagements with the Yankees, but that only fed their frustration and sent them to Milwaukee with a cynical self perception that can undermine them as much as disabled list assignment for another front-line player.

Manuel had said he would search for a bridge for the purpose of jumping if his team fell to .500. And after three games in Milwaukee, the Mets play a makeup game against the Pirates on Thursday. He need not search; Pittsburgh proper has 88 bridges.

In too many of their 47 seasons-plus, the Mets have viewed a .500 winning percentage as an objective -- something to be pursued, even celebrated. In some seasons, the mark of mediocrity was seen as the unreachable star. It wasn't supposed to be that way this season though, not with K-Rod and Citi Field and all those aspirations born in February and March.

But now as June's door is closing, the Mets are reeling. They doubled their offensive output of the previous two nights, but lost for the fifth time in six games against the Yankees nonetheless. Their 16th loss in 25 games since they ended their prosperous May with a 28-21 record put their overall winning percentage where it hadn't been since their 26th game May 6.

Yet remarkably, they are the second-place team in the National League East, and their deficit appears manageable, 2 1/2 games.

"Yeah," said Alex Cora, "so now they should leave the records out of the standings and just put the 'games behind.'"

A poorly played top of the first was the Mets' undoing in this one. An ill-advised play by Daniel Murphy at first base and, three batters later, Murphy's inability to handle a low throw set the stage for the three runs the Yankees scored against losing pitcher Livan Hernandez before the Mets' offense took its first swing at winner Chien-Ming Wang.

With Derek Jeter on second base, Murphy tried for an out at third on a ground ball by Nick Swisher. His well-intended, double-clutched throw arrived late, and the Yankees had two of the eight base runners Hernandez would allow in seven innings. Mark Teixeira became the third when he doubled into the left-field corner for two runs -- Fernando Tatis kicked the ball around for a while as Swisher scored without a thrown. Three batters later, Teixeira scored on a sacrifice fly by Jorge Posada, and the Yankees had, in one, six-batter sequence, as many runs as the Mets would score in the series.

Murphy had his reasons. He had heard Jeter's wheels were hurting, he had shaded Swisher toward third base. He wanted to deny the Yankees and break their spirit. He wanted to energize his own team. But Manuel was certain "The [proper] play was to first base."

With the Mets' offense so compromised, Manuel has spoken repeatedly of the need to play better fundamental baseball. He has said, "We need to play perfectly." But perfection rarely is the result when it also in the objective. And with Mets, flawless execution is more fantasy than fact.

Manuel had Argenis Reyes pinch-hit for Hernandez in the seventh inning when the Mets trailed, 3-2, and had a runner on first with none out. He needed small-ball execution from a player who has little else to offer offensively. Reyes bunted too hard and to the third base side. Alex Rodriguez made a splendid play, and Jeter made a clutch short-hop pickup of his throw. The Mets didn't score in the inning -- and not because their disabled list is overpopulated.

They still trailed by one run in the ninth when Posada hit a soft pop to short center. It appeared to be a playable ball for either shortstop Cora or second baseman Luis Castillo. Neither came very close, and Posada's presence on base evolved into the Yankees' fourth run when Francisco Rodriguez walked -- of all people -- Rivera, who never had reached base in a regular-season game.

No one confused perfection and the Mets' execution in the ninth.

"Nobody wants to make a mistake," Hernandez said.

But the mistakes continue, and the offense sputters at best. The Mets had nine hits in the series. Their margin for error is so thin it has no other side.

Manuel acknowledged perfection is more readily produced when no one is striving to achieve it. But he also says it is necessary given the roster attrition.

"We have to find a way, regardless, to play somewhat mistake-free fundamental baseball," he said.

If not, .500 may become a target for Mets.

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

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