© 2006 MLB Advanced Media, L.P. All rights reserved.
ST.LOUIS -- Suddenly, and almost without warning, the Mets have reached critical mass in their drive to win the World Series.
A team that resided in first place since the third day of the regular season and owned a double-digit lead in the National League East from June 22 on, finds itself trailing the Cardinals, 2-1, in the NL Championship Series after Saturday night's 5-0 loss at Busch Stadium.
Never have the Mets faced this kind of adversity all season: a must-win situation in Game 4 on Sunday night, with untested Oliver Perez on the mound against Cards rookie Anthony Reyes.
"We're under pressure now, because this time of year you can't afford to get into any kind of losing streak," said Mets second baseman Jose Valentin. "It's not a long season anymore. It's only a week -- a seven-day season. In our situation right now, we can't afford to lose anymore."
The Mets led Game 2, 6-4, heading into the top of the seventh inning on Friday night at Shea Stadium, and for a variety of reasons, the series turned at that juncture. Since then, the Mets have been outscored, 10-0, have only five hits -- all singles -- and just three runners in scoring position.
Billy Wagner couldn't preserve a tie in the ninth inning on Friday. Fifteen-game winner Steve Trachsel allowed 10 of the 12 batters he faced on Saturday to reach base before he was knocked out of the game by a shot back to the box off the bat of Preston Wilson that left a contusion on his right thigh.
Valentin, David Wright and Endy Chavez have combined to pound out just three hits. Wright, who was the lifeblood of the franchise all season and a possible NL MVP candidate, is 0-for-9 in the series.
Injuries to Cliff Floyd, Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez have left the Mets vulnerable at the worst of times.
The Mets are hitting .196 as a team and the pitching staff has a composite 4.50 ERA in the three games, and that includes Tom Glavine's 2-0 beauty in Game 1. Everything that could go wrong in the last 12 innings has gone wrong.
"That's baseball, you know what I'm saying?" said Omar Minaya, the general manager and architect of this team. "We'll get it back going. Once you get a victory, it could totally change."
The Mets had a 97-75 record this season, tied with the crosstown-rival Yankees for the best in Major League Baseball. The Yanks, though, went out in the first round against the rampaging Tigers, who swept the A's in the American League Championship Series on Saturday and are back in the World Series for the first time since 1984.
If the Mets are going to join the Tigers in the Fall Classic, they will need to get back the momentum the Cardinals seemed to steal from them late Friday night.
"We've been in tougher spots than this," Mets second-year manager Willie Randolph said. "We feel like we're in pretty good shape, even though we're down 2-1. Things could change real, real quick, so we'll get some rest tonight and I guarantee you we'll be ready to play [Sunday]."
The fact is, the Mets have been in no tougher spot than this all season, at least not with so much on the line.
Have the Mets had to overcome injuries? Certainly. Have there been big regular-season series along the way against the Yankees, Braves and Cardinals? Sure. But the Mets haven't had to play a game with their proverbial backs to the wall. Not like the 83-win Cardinals, who fought for their playoff lives the last two weeks of September and only captured another NL Central title when the Astros lost on the final day of the season.
"Well, it depends how you look at it," Randolph said. "We're down 2-1, and obviously if we go out and win the next few games, we'll be back in it. And if we win three, we'll go to the World Series. That's the way I'm looking at it."
But the question is, is that the way his players are looking at it?
There was a solemnity to the Mets' postgame clubhouse on Saturday night.
"This is the playoffs," Wright said. "Every game is significant. We definitely don't want to fall down, [three games to one] with [St. Louis ace Chris] Carpenter lurking. Teams fall behind. It happens. There's nobody in here panicking."
"We just have to go out and win," added Carlos Delgado, who is leading the club with a .364 average this series. "If we put pressure on ourselves, what's that going to do, make us play better?"
It could all change, of course. With one well-pitched non-Glavine start, with one well-placed Delgado smash. But there must be a sense of urgency now in the Mets camp. If not now, when?