NEW YORK -- Anything less than disaster would have been fine.
Sure, the Mets snickered at the thought of a series win against the Phillies. They would have loved a sweep, the type of performance that could knock their division rivals to their knees -- not to mention all but out of the playoff race. But even two wins, or just one out of three, would have been enough to keep Philadelphia at bay -- and, more important, out of mind for most of the summer.
Instead the Mets left town on Thursday chewing on the sour memories of a sweep. It's something the Phillies just don't do -- not here, not at Shea. But Thursday night's 6-3 loss in 10 innings was plenty proof that the divisional winds are painfully changing.
"They came in here and they outplayed us," said closer Billy Wagner. "I think we're all frustrated, and we all understand that we're better than this."
Wagner had shown that he's better than this all season, converting 13 straight saves to open the year. But summoned for four outs on Thursday, the lefty couldn't reach for that perfection, instead serving up a game-tying homer to Pat Burrell to open the ninth.
"He has a one-path swing," Wagner said, "and I threw it right in his path."
Simple enough. Yet simplicity works -- the Mets aren't exactly scratching their heads over the first Philadelphia sweep at Shea in almost three years. They know why it happened, and they know the problems.
First there's the bullpen. Wagner unlocked the floodgates with Burrell's homer, but it was Scott Schoeneweis' 10th-inning performance that dragged them open, with three runs to his credit in one-third of an inning. Not even the untouchable Joe Smith was immune, allowing two of Schoeneweis' inherited runners to score.
So there's the culprit. Sort of. The bullpen's an easy excuse, but the offense was equally helpless on Thursday against a starter who's among the best in the league and a bullpen that's among the worst.
Philly's Cole Hamels lasted seven innings, allowing three runs and 10 hits. Not surprising. Then the bullpen went three, split between a makeshift closer and a pair of relievers with zero Major League experience entering the year.
"Three runs, it's not enough," said third baseman David Wright. "Obviously, our bullpen's been getting the finger pointed at it quite a bit, but it's on the offense. The offense has to do a better job scoring runs."
They did just that in the sixth, with Wright smack in the middle of the joy -- and the controversy. After Carlos Delgado launched a 450-foot moon shot to right, Wright came up and cracked a Hamels offering off what appeared to be the top of the wall. Second-base umpire Mike Estabrook -- a last-minute replacement for scratched crew chief Ed Montague -- initially ruled Wright safe with a triple. But after a scoreboard replay clearly showed the ball bouncing off an advertisement several feet beyond the wall, manager Willie Randolph headed out to argue.
Third-base umpire Bill Miller had seen it all along, according to Randolph, so after the entire umpiring crew convened, it wasn't long before they waved Wright home.
Then it was Phillies manager Charlie Manuel's turn to argue, getting himself tossed in the process. And if Hamels wasn't rattled, his next pitch was, as Paul Lo Duca drilled it to left to give the Mets their first lead.
The back-to-back-to-back home runs tied a franchise record, and marked the first time the club had achieved that feat in over 18 years. But the loss quickly transformed that rarity from a colossal feat to a forgotten novelty. Home runs don't mean much, apparently, if you can't win the game.
"I don't think that means much of anything," Delgado said. "If you waited for that to get you going, you're in trouble."
And so, it seems, the Mets are in trouble. About the only remaining solid segment of the club has been the rotation, and Thursday confirmed that as well. John Maine gave the Mets a third straight brilliant pitching performance in as many nights, even taking a ball off his chest with nary a grimace. There was plenty of effort -- the same kind Tom Glavine and El Duque spent the nights before -- and nothing to show for it.
"Our starting staff pitched their tails off," Wagner said. "The bullpen, we stunk. We didn't hit real well, but tonight we should have won the game. Simple as that."
Yet it's not that simple, or the Mets would have found the answer by now. Instead of flying to Detroit with a healthy division lead and a swelling glob of confidence, the Mets find themselves smack in the middle of a three-team race.
It'll get better. It almost has to, when the lineup heals and the bullpen smooths and all those parts click. But the Mets could have made this title race a laugher.
Instead, on Thursday, no one laughed at all.
"You go through these stretches," Wagner said. "We can't sit here and start listening to the critics saying that we can't get it done. We're a good team -- we know we are -- and we've got to go out there tomorrow and prove it."
Anthony DiComo is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.