NEW YORK -- Looking through the Astros' order, trying to navigate his way out of Sunday's 10th inning with a bullpen pieced together almost daily, manager Jerry Manuel didn't anticipate having to jerk his head up so suddenly and change course.

Brad Ausmus had one home run this season. But Pedro Feliciano served up a slider to give the Astros catcher just his second long ball.

"You are like, 'We can get one back,'" Manuel said, watching Darin Erstad approach the plate with two home runs on the season. "Then, 'Boom,' there's another one."

Erstad's blast -- courtesy of another Feliciano slider -- pushed Houston's lead to 6-4, the final margin in the Mets' second consecutive loss to the Astros. It was also their fifth loss to Houston in six games this season, so Manuel would have to place credit in their corner for executing their plan, especially the Astros' bullpen, which retired the Mets' last 15 batters.

On the other hand, Feliciano didn't execute Manuel's plan. And as the Mets approach September, with the Phillies not far behind in the National League East standings, it's not the time to miss spots or mishandle at-bats.

But while the Mets have admittedly hit a funk as of late, producing 10 runs in three games against the Astros, they are currently right where they want to be: in first place.

"We have played, for a long period of time, good baseball," Manuel said. "You're right, right now is not the time to not be executing pitches or having quality at-bats. It's just not the time, but we are in a good spot. We are still in a good spot."

Oliver Perez put the Mets in a position to win Sunday's game, lasting 6 1/3 innings, striking out eight and leaving with his team up, 4-3. Perez's only struggle came in one inning, the fourth, when Hunter Pence's 18th home run of the season tied the score at 3.

Carlos Beltran, who drove in three runs, reclaimed the lead in the fifth inning with his second home run of the game. The Astros responded to tie the score via a David Newhan pinch-hit RBI after Aaron Heilman relieved Perez with one out in the seventh.

It was the beginning of a tough day for the Mets' bullpen. But their relievers won't dwell on the past for a lack of pride. They believe they have come through on other occasions.

Lagging vs. lefties
The home runs Carlos Beltran hit against Randy Wolf on Sunday were just the third and fourth he has hit against left-handed pitching this season. Before Sunday, he had 127 at-bats against left-handed pitchers, so his home run rate against them was merely 1.58 per 100 at-bats.
Year
HR
AB vs. LHP
Rate/100 AB
2005
2
130
1.54
2006
8
166
4.82
2007
11
158
6.96
2008
4
129
3.10
Total
25
583
4.29
"We aren't going to be perfect out there," Heilman said.

Manuel is still searching for the hot reliever to stick into games in the latter innings, just as he's waiting for the Mets' bats to turn around in time with the pitching.

Every team goes through a stretch like this, the Mets manager said, where certain facets of the game don't match up at opportune times. During this series, the Mets have had streaks of 20, 14 and now 15 batters retired to either open or close a game.

Combine bullpen miscues and a lukewarm offense, and room for error has quickly dissipated. At the same time, the Mets have won 10 of their past 13 games.

"Teams sometimes go through a stretch where you aren't quite clicking on all cylinders," Manuel said. "We've played pretty good baseballs in this stretch, so eventually things were going to slow down for us."