ST. LOUIS -- The Mets did little right Monday, and they walked out of Busch Stadium knowing it. Critical stretches call for superior play. This is a critical stretch.

But instead, stuck in a state of perpetual anxiety, where every day really matters, the Mets made this particular Monday one to forget. Errors will do that, and the Mets committed three of them at Busch Stadium, losing to the Cardinals, 7-1.

Yes, the Cardinals. The same Cardinals who own the top spot in the National League Wild Card standings -- a perch the Mets covet. For all the hype surrounding this past weekend's Subway Series, these games weigh double on the Mets' collective psyche. So Monday night's defeat seemed particularly punishing.

Said manager Jerry Manuel: "We didn't do too much of anything right."

Manuel, in fact, had a checklist.

"We didn't do too much defensively," he began.

Those particular troubles surfaced in the second inning, when Luis Castillo had a ground ball skip over his glove and between his legs, allowing Yadier Molina to score. Later that inning, John Maine threw an errant pickoff throw into the foul ground of right field, and in the fourth, David Wright made an off-balanced throw well high and wide of the first-base bag. That one, too, led to a run.

And so Manuel continued.

"We didn't do too much offensively," he said.

Not against Kyle Lohse, a pitcher the Mets battered for 11 runs in 13 1/3 innings last year when he was with the Phillies. On this night, the only run they scored was thanks to Rick Ankiel, whose throwing error allowed Andy Phillips to cross home.

And still Manuel continued.

He rambled down his list, making sure to blame himself and his coaches, too -- not that any of them could have helped. Maine didn't have anything resembling his best stuff, the offense didn't have anything resembling their best punch and the defense didn't have anything resembling its best performance.

All of which left Manuel with only one conclusion.

"We didn't do much of anything tonight," he said.

They lost is what they did, dropping ground in the still-infantile NL Wild Card race and beginning this eight-game road stretch in precisely the wrong fashion. Following these four games against the Cardinals, the Mets will head to Philadelphia to take on the division-leading Phillies. If they lose too many, the damage could be hard to overcome.

Yet the greater problem on this night was not that they lost, but how they lost. This one was a resounding defeat, offering little reason to be certain that the Mets are ready to rebound.

Manuel has been quick to note throughout his managerial tenure that physical errors are bound to happen, just as they did on this night. But these weren't all physical -- Wright certainly would have been better off not making his throw to first -- and they weren't the only problems.

Even before the errors, Maine was struggling, walking the leadoff man and allowing the first four Cardinals to reach base. Two of them scored, and the Mets never recovered.

"It was just bad," Maine said, with a bluntness he reserves for only his worst outings.

"I had nothing, and you could tell," he said. "My arm felt heavy."

Catcher Brian Schneider didn't notice any marked drop in velocity, even though Maine said he felt awkward as far back as his pregame bullpen session. Maine is among the Mets' most consistent strikeout pitchers, but he punched out only one batter. And that, in turn, reduced his margin for error.

"They hit a couple of balls hard, but for the most part, it was a couple of flares and a bunch of ground balls," Schneider said. "That was the name of the game all night."

By the time the defense began betraying Maine, the outcome was becoming certain. The errors only sealed his fate, ensuring that Maine would be gone after four innings and 81 pitches. It was sloppy baseball at a time when the Mets can least afford it.

"[The coaching staff has] got to get out, we've got to be conscious of it," Manuel said. "We've got to remind them how important it is to play good defense. And we've got to make some adjustments, so to speak. Maybe guys aren't as fresh as I think they are."

The Mets can only hope that's not the case. Freshness is a precious commodity, and the Mets need it as much now as ever. Because they need wins now as much as ever.