NEW YORK -- The consensus among the Mets as they fled Shea Stadium on Saturday afternoon was that the game they are to play Sunday afternoon is different from each of the 147 games they already had played. They just didn't know how to put it in words.

It isn't a must-win game -- even the drive-time alarmists wouldn't use that term. And the Mets weren't inclined to characterize it as a critical game, either. Even after losing to the Phillies yet again on Saturday, their lead in the National League East hardly is uncomfortable at 4 1/2 games.

Still, a strong sense of "we better win one" surfaced during the postmortems of Saturday's 5-3 defeat -- if not for mathematical reasons, then for the benefit of the Mets' sense of self. Somewhere in the recesses of their minds was an awareness that they could oppose the Phillies in the postseason.

And, as one of the Mets acknowledged, "You don't want any team to think they have the upper hand to this extent, especially if you might see them in the playoffs."

"If they do make the playoffs, we'll probably sweep them -- as crazy as this game is," Paul Lo Duca said, smiling.

But it was in July 2006 -- after the Mets twice had beaten the then-formidable Astros -- that Lo Duca said his team was protecting its postseason by making it more difficult for the Astros to reach October.

That hardly is what the Mets have done this year. They're almost escorting the Phillies to the NL Wild Card berth. Half of Philadelphia's last dozen victories have come against New York -- all in a 19-game sequence.

"We're not making it hard on them," Shawn Green said.

As vexing as this loss had been -- the Mets reaped no benefit from a brilliant performance by Pedro Martinez and shot themselves in their fleet feet a few times -- they didn't stew as much as they looked toward Sunday and reasoned how beneficial it would be to relax the hold the Phillies seem to have on them.

"You don't want this carrying over," Marlon Anderson said.

The Phillies' grip is tight and -- after having exploited the Mets' bullpen again on Saturday -- even stronger. The Mets and Phillies have played 17 times this season, and Philly has won 11 games. More to the point, Philadelphia has won the seven most recent engagements. The Mets have won 10 of their 18 most recent games, but six of the eight losses have come against the Phillies.

"They have our number right now," David Wright acknowledged without a tone that suggested concern. "[Sunday] is, as every game is, our biggest game of the year."

It was a variety of reasons that led to the unsettling loss -- bullpen trouble that was related to outfielder miscalculation, unwise baserunning, continued inability to pound the Phillies' bullpen as other teams do and -- in at least one instance -- a peculiar strike zone.

This loss was a team effort. The most glaring shortcomings were those of Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes. Beltran misread a bloop in the first inning that led to the lone run Martinez allowed in six sensational innings. Worse yet, he misjudged a line drive to left-center field in the eighth inning hit by Jimmy Rollins -- yes, him again -- off losing pitcher Jorge Sosa. The ball became a triple and produced the decisive runs.

And Reyes blundered on the basepaths. His attempted steal of third in the sixth inning produced the third out of the inning -- with Wright at bat, no less.

Beltran, who routinely plays abnormally deep, said he had moved in before Rollins' hit to guard against the type of hit that fell in front of him in the first. He dismissed the bright sunlight and the contrast it created with a shaded area behind the plate.

"I just got a bad read," Beltran said. "As soon as I took a step in, I knew it was wrong. ... I'd rather have a ball fall in front of me instead of over my head."

Reyes simply decried his own indiscretion.

"Not a good play at all," he said. "No doubt about it."

He said a double steal -- Luis Castillo was on first base -- would have put two runners in scoring position with Wright, the team's leading run producer, batting.

"We play aggressively. That's our game," Wright said. "But you don't want to be running into outs. We do play aggressively. I've stolen third with two outs this year."

But not with David Wright batting.

The Mets had their way on the basepaths early on. They stole four bases in the third inning, when they scored twice against Kyle Lohse. But catcher Chris Coste caught Reyes in the fourth inning, too, and he nailed Ruben Gotay for the second out in the sixth.

The bullpen shortfall this time was the responsibility of Pedro Feliciano and Sosa (9-7). Feliciano allowed a leadoff double and an unearned run in the seventh inning, and he gave up a leadoff home run to Aaron Rowand in the eighth that tied the score.

Some players wondered why Feliciano had started the eighth inning against the right-handed-hitting center fielder. But he had struck out Chase Utley, Pat Burrell and Ryan Howard in the seventh after an error at first base by Green on a ball hit by -- who else? -- Rollins had allowed the second run to score. Moreover, Mets manager Willie Randolph said he needed to save Aaron Heilman for the ninth inning because closer Billy Wagner needed a day off.

Sosa's mistakes were worse than Feliciano's. Summoned following Rowand's home run, Sosa walked his first batter, pinch-hitter Wes Helms, retired two batters -- one on a sacrifice bunt -- and walked Pete Laforest with Rollins, the Phillies' primary MVP candidate, on deck.

Unable to recover from the bullpen meltdown, the Mets squandered, for the second time in two days, an opportunity to reduce their clinching number to nine. They also gained nothing but some sense of encouragement from Martinez's brilliance against the most productive batting order in the league. He threw 68 strikes among 98 pitches, walked none and stuck out nine, equaling his high in his previous 15 starts.

However, the Mets did little well after his departure. They managed two baserunners after the sixth inning -- both in the ninth -- against four Phillies relievers. They might have had a leadoff baserunner in the ninth, but pinch-hitter Anderson was called out on strikes by Dan Iassogna on a pitch the Phillies acknowledged was well outside the strike zone.

Anderson was ejected almost immediately after his first word of dispute.

"It's unfortunate we have to play in these circumstances day in and day out," Anderson said, without saying the word umpire. But later, he said Iassogna instantly had brought up past arguments, adding, "But there are repercussions only for what the players do on the field."

Anderson's ejection followed, by one game, Lo Duca's. And Wright was thrown out in the previous series against the Phillies, two days before Anderson's slide into second base became a final-play issue.

"We've got a nice little streak going getting guys thrown out," Wright said.

But it's the streak against the Phillies that is more conspicuous -- and, to some, more troubling. But not to all.

One Met said, "[The Phillies] save their best bullets for us and then have nothing left."

That may be the case; the Phillies lost seven of 13 between their two series against the Mets.

But the Phillies are 2 1/2 games closer in the NL East than they were Wednesday night. And they have one game remaining against the team they're tying to catch.

Not everyone in the Mets' clubhouse is concerned.

"You win the division or you win the division," Wright said, "whether it's by 10 games or whatever it is now. We're in the driver's seat. No one in here is going to panic."

Just the same, winning on Sunday would be good for their mental health.