Mets swept away in heartbreaker
Wagner can't finish job as division lead drops to two games
PHILADELPHIA -- The Mets' landscape is conspicuously different now, altered by events of the last four days -- four unrewarding days that produced a forgettable -- and forgotten -- loss, then an exasperating loss, followed by a maddening loss and finally, Thursday afternoon, by an excruciating defeat.
What might have been a four-game lead with a win in the series finale now is half that; what could have been a two-team race -- or no race at all -- now is a three-team affair.
"This series obviously changes everything," Shawn Green said, and that didn't quite cover it.
Only everything has changed since Sunday morning when the Mets were wondering whether they would play their September in cruise control. They led the National League East by seven games then, and they could provide a dozen reasons why neither the second-place Phillies nor the third-place Braves would overtake them.
All that has changed. The Mets' push to a second straight division championship has made an unexpected U-turn and done so quickly, as skid marks are evident everywhere. None is more noticeable than the latest one, the dizzying 11-10 loss the Phillies pinned on them and closer Billy Wagner on Thursday.
The last time the Mets were swept in a four-game series was Aug. 30-Sept. 2, 2004, by the Marlins. They were swept in four by the Phillies the previous season. Their record against the NL East in 2007 now is 25-25.
Outplayed in every phase of the game in the series -- and not particularly fortunate, either -- the Mets saw their lead reduced to its lowest point since July 16.
Indeed, the four-game sweep it secured changed everything -- even the way Mets see themselves.
"And maybe that's a good thing," Marlon Anderson said.
He wasn't sure, so the "maybe" was required. The Mets aren't sure of much these days, least of all themselves, after being outplayed and out-clutched for four days.
As much as they recognized the Phillies' inspired play and high-cailber execution, their postmortems were touched words that sounded like self doubt and, to a lesser degree, self pity. "How could this happen?" and "We're disappointed in ourselves?" were heard in their clubhouse. So too was Paul Lo Duca's "Everything they hit fell in" and David Wright's "They got a lot of breaks."
The most defiant the Mets got was when manager Willie Randolph said: "We won't fold any tents."
The Mets never saw any of it coming, but what surprised them most, it seemed, was their own inability to prevent the stampede.
"I was pretty sure we'd win this one," Lo Duca said. "We understood how big it was, the difference between a two-game lead and four games."
And the Mets acted on that understanding. They showed up Thursday, albeit a tad late. They showed resistance, they showed resolve. It wasn't enough a showing, though, and ultimately, they were shown up. They were put on their heels by a marauding team that now is on their heels in a difference sense.
"Unfortunately, we let everybody back in the door," Green said. "It brings Atlanta back into it as well. It's going to go down to the wire. It's frustrating from our perspective knowing we could have come in here and really made it difficult on the Phillies and Atlanta."
Now the difficulty seemingly is theirs. They take their five-game losing streak -- it equals their longest this season -- and their sapped closer to Atlanta, where too many of their recent seasons have been damaged beyond repair. They will play three games against a team that has beaten them eight times in 12 games this season and in a park where they have lost 21 times in 26 September games.
Moreover, none of pitching matchups favors them.
"It's a challenge. This is what a pennant race is," Randolph said.
The Mets have allowed the Phillies back in the race, just as the Phillies allowed them back in the game Thursday. An inadequate start by Orlando Hernandez put the Mets in arrears, 5-0, through three innings. The Mets' body language suggested a sweep was likely; three runs in the fourth inning against Kyle Lohse and two in the fifth against Geoff Geary constituted evidence to the contrary.
But the Phillies turned on seldom-used Aaron Sele and scored three runs after two out in the fifth, the first two scoring a soft singles by Carlos Ruiz and pinch-hitter Shane Victorino. Ruiz's barely carried beyond the pursuit of second baseman Ruben Gotay, Victorino's exploited the unnecessarily deep positioning of Carlos Beltran in center field. No one complained about the third run-scoring hit -- through the middle -- by Jimmy Rollins.
The Mets overcame all of it with a rousing rally in the eighth that produced five runs, a 10-8 lead and the first call for Wagner in six days. Their five-run rally against three Phillies relievers featured critical hits by pinch-hitter Anderson and Endy Chavez -- his single through the middle against Antonio Alfonsecca drove in the seventh and eighth runs -- and five walks. One walk, an intentional one, put the potential go-ahead run, in the person of slumping Jose Reyes, on base. Reyes did score, after executing the front end of a double steal and the Phillies' inability to handle the ball cleanly. And an infield out by Carlos Delgado scored Chavez with the 10th run.
Wagner had a two-run margin for error. "He was rested," is how Randolph explained his decision to summon his closer with six outs needed. Wagner hadn't had a six-out save in six years. He still doesn't. And now he may be spent for at least the first game against the Braves. The pitch Chase Utley hit to drive in the decisive run in the ninth was Wagner's 45th.
But before Utley produced the Phillies' ninth victory in 15 games against the Mets, there were other notable contributions. Pat Burrell, responsible for one of the three home runs against El Duque, hit his second home run of the game, his fourth of the series and the Phillies' fourth of the game, in the eighth. It was his second home run against Wagner this season and the 41st of his career against the Mets.
The rally in the ninth was a team effort, including two runs, three hits, one walk (intentional), three stolen bases and only one throw from Lo Duca -- had no chance on any of the others.
"I was so focused on the hitter, I'm not worried about that [the stealing]," Wagner said. "They took advantage of that."
"Billy's slow to the plate," Wright said.
The Phillies were aware of that.
"Sometimes he doesn't even look over," manager Charlie Manuel said.
No one could argue with either assessment.
Wagner allowed a soft leadoff single to by Jayson Werth in the ninth. After he retired Ruiz, Werth stole second and third on successive pitches, forcing the Mets' infield to play in; not that it mattered. Tadahito Iguchi's single to left would have reached he outfield against normal-depth defense. Iguchi stole second, allowing the Mets to walk Rollins, but putting the league's leading hitter at the plate. Utley scorch a single to right, and Iguchi beat Chavez's strong throw to the plate.
"It's a shame," Lo Duca said.
"Pretty incredible, the emotional swings were so dramatic," Green said.
"We went from smiles to just silence," John Maine said. "The dugout got quiet."
But 29 games remain, enough time for more change.
"We're still being chased," Lastings Milledge said.
"We're still in the driver's seat," Wright said, though they may be squirming in it.
"Our lead went from seven to two games pretty quick," Tom Glavine said. "It could be back to five next week. But we have to start playing better."
But it was Lo Duca's words that captured the moment and the Mets' angst: "It would have been a huge win."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.