NEW YORK -- Statistically speaking, the Mets currently possess the worst bullpen in the Major Leagues -- and by a significant margin. Their offense has hit fewer home runs than all but two Major League teams, partially because the Mets are playing without three of their projected Opening Day starters. In 51 games, they have given up 24 more runs than they have scored.
But the Mets still sat five games above .500 even after Thursday's 10-6 loss to the Phillies, which saw them cough up another late lead and lose another winnable game against a division opponent. Manager Terry Collins shrugged his shoulders earlier this week when asked how the Mets have been able to do it. There is no logical explanation, which is why this team still has more than its share of skeptics.
Most have rightfully focused on the bullpen, which entered Wednesday's play with a 5.06 ERA -- more than half a run worse than Philadelphia's 29th-ranked 'pen. The culprits have been many, and Bobby Parnell immediately set about increasing that number in the seventh inning, entering with a man on base and serving up Carlos Ruiz's pinch-hit, game-tying two-run homer.
"It's not fun," Parnell said. "Unfortunately, the ballgame didn't go our way, and maybe that was the turning point. I hate that, but I've got to shake that off."
Up and up the bullpen ERA climbed from there. In the eighth, Jon Rauch gave the Phillies their first lead when he allowed consecutive singles to Juan Pierre and Hunter Pence and a sacrifice fly to Shane Victorino. Then Tim Byrdak walked the leadoff man in the ninth inning, leading to his first run allowed in 15 outings. Then Ramon Ramirez gave up hits to all three batters he faced, including a three-run homer to Jimmy Rollins to seal the game. Then Chris Schwinden allowed the Phillies to pile on, serving up a run-scoring double to Ty Wigginton and a two-run single to Victorino.
By game's end, New York's relievers had swelled their collective ERA to 5.45, nearly a full run worse than that of any other bullpen in baseball.
"It is frustrating when you go out there and don't do your job," Rauch said.
The Mets fought back for three runs of their own in the bottom of the ninth, but their bullpen ensured that it was not nearly enough. They had plunged the Mets into too deep of a hole, after Dillon Gee and Lucas Duda put them in prime position to win their seventh game over the Phillies in nine tries this season.
Gee was sharp early, allowing nothing more than Wigginton's solo home run over the first six innings. And the offense backed him to a reasonable extent, scoring once on David Wright's double in the first inning and twice on Duda's home run off Cliff Lee in the sixth -- his first career homer against a left-handed pitcher and his first of two on the night.
"Obviously Cliff Lee's an outstanding pitcher," Duda said. "It's just one of those things. I swung at the first fastball I saw and connected, and it went out."
But after Gee served up a two-out double to Brian Schneider on his 110th pitch in the seventh, Parnell entered and gave up Ruiz's pinch-hit blast. The rest fell into place for the Phillies soon after that.
"I figured he's my hottest hitter, and we've got a man on second and we need to score a run," Phillies manager Charlie Manuel said of the decision to use Ruiz, who had not played since Sunday due to a strained right hamstring. "We needed to get at least one run."
Instead, they scored two as New York's bullpen continued to scuffle, then another seven in the eighth and ninth innings.
Aside from the obvious points of concern, the Mets' relief woes are troubling because the bullpen is the one area in which they spent significant money last winter. General manager Sandy Alderson signed closer Frank Francisco to a two-year, $12 million deal, for example, but Francisco has responded with sheer inconsistency. Alderson inked Rauch to a $3.5 million pact and traded for Ramirez, but neither has established himself as a reliable setup man.
Parnell, meanwhile, has been somewhat inconsistent of late, giving up at least one run in three of his last six outings. Other than Byrdak, who has thrived in a more specialized role this season, the Mets have not seen a single reliever in their bullpen prove reliable over long stretches.
That has been a major issue.
"It's all about pitching," Collins said.
Collins also admitted that the Mets are "tired" after playing 20 games in 20 days, winning 10 of them but dropping several other winnable contests. A much-needed off-day is scheduled for Thursday, before the Mets descend into one of their tougher stretches of the season against the Cardinals, Nationals, Yankees, Rays and Reds.
They can only hope their bullpen will be up to the test.
"This is baseball," Gee said. "Everybody has ups and downs, and tonight just happened to be a down night for the bullpen. They've had stretches where they've been unbelievable, so that's just how the game goes."