MIAMI -- Over a roughly two-hour span at the Winter Meetings in December, Mets general manager Sandy Alderson thoroughly and convincingly addressed his team's bullpen, a source of consternation over the previous year and the club's most pressing offseason need. The Mets traded for Ramon Ramirez. They signed Jon Rauch. And they also signed Frank Francisco, installing him as closer shortly thereafter.
Now, that group is in flux. Francisco took his second defeat in three games Sunday, and was ejected in an 8-4 loss to the Marlins, putting his future as closer in doubt. It is mid-May, and Francisco's ERA stands at 8.56. He has blown two of his 10 save opportunities and allowed runs in eight of his 16 appearances.
With those numbers as a backdrop, the Mets plan to discuss their closer situation prior to Monday's game against the Brewers.
"I've got eight options, or however many guys are down there," manager Terry Collins said Sunday evening. "But I'm not going to address that right now. The emotions are running a little high tonight, and that's not a very good time to make a decision."
Given a two-run lead in the ninth, Francisco entered and promptly allowed a leadoff triple to Emilio Bonifacio, walked John Buck and gave up a pinch-hit, run-scoring single to Greg Dobbs. Collins walked out to the mound to pull his closer at that point, but Francisco did not leave the field. Instead, he stalked directly toward home plate, pointing and yelling at umpire Todd Tichenor.
Tichenor ejected Francisco, even though the closer was already out of the game.
"I thought I was hitting my spots pretty good," Francisco said. "I wasn't getting the calls."
Buck disagreed, calling one pitch to him "pretty low" and another one "borderline." Even Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen disagreed with his closer, saying that Francisco's most significant problem was an utter inability to throw his secondary pitches for strikes.
In any case, as the Mets have made a habit of doing lately in their own comeback victories, the Marlins took advantage. After relieving Francisco and giving up Jose Reyes' game-tying sacrifice fly, Manny Acosta walked Hanley Ramirez, hit Austin Kearns with a pitch and served up a walk-off, first-pitch grand slam to Giancarlo Stanton.
"Any time you see the other team lose their cool like that, you know we're in the driver seat," Stanton said. "You just have to stay calm."
The ninth-inning rally spoiled what would have been another uplifting late victory for the Mets, who tagged Marlins closer Heath Bell for two runs in the top of the inning. Just as he did last month in a walk-off victory at Citi Field, Justin Turner keyed that rally with a long at-bat off Bell, eventually hitting a two-run, pinch-hit double on Bell's seventh pitch.
The Mets had taken their first lead during a two-run rally against Carlos Zambrano in the fourth inning, but could do no further damage against Miami's starting pitcher. As soon as their own starter, Jon Niese, left the ballgame in a haze of flu-like symptoms, the Marlins tied it on Buck's two-run homer off Ramirez.
The Mets and Marlins traded zeroes in the eighth, then traded chaos in the ninth. Afterward, Collins freely admitted his concern.
"This is two tough losses here with the lead, and they played their hearts out again today to come back in the game," Collins said of his team. "But we'll address it tomorrow."
If the Mets do decide to make a move at closer, Rauch and Bobby Parnell would be the obvious candidates to take over for Francisco. In addition to boasting closing experience with the Nationals, Twins and Blue Jays, Rauch is off to a strong start in 2012, throwing a scoreless inning Sunday to lower his ERA to 2.93. Parnell, meanwhile, struggled mightily during a test run at closer late last season, but may be the team's most-improved player over the first six weeks of this season. Statistically speaking, he has been the Mets' best right-handed reliever.
Both Rauch and Parnell have pitched better than Francisco, who signed a two-year, $12 million deal as a free agent this winter. Though that was by far the most lucrative free-agent contract Alderson has given out in two years with the club, the Mets are in the business of winning games -- not salvaging contracts. Collins will have free reign to make a change at closer if that is what he sees fit to do.
"He's the boss," Francisco said. "He can do whatever he wants. I'm here to help the team, and I guess I'm not doing that."