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09/23/08 1:17 AM ET

Mets lose ground after loss to Cubs

New York 2 1/2 games behind Philly after Niese struggles

NEW YORK -- At this juncture of the Mets' uneven 2008 season, optimism may be hard to come by. They aren't playing well, their bullpen is struggling, and they are compromised at second base, in the outfield, on the bench and in their rotation.

And yet a thread of optimism was quite evident after their latest defeat, on Monday night. After a 9-5 loss to the Cubs, the Mets spoke as though their final six games would be played in accordance with the tenets of their best-case scenario. But the best-case scenario has been an infrequent visitor to Shea Stadium this month, as it was last September.

"If we win the rest of our games, nothing else makes any difference," one player said late on Monday after the impact of the third straight defeat already had been calculated. The arithmetic offered hope in one area only -- the National League Wild Card race, even though the loss had undermined the Mets in that pursuit as well.

And yet, the optimist said, "The Brewers can win the rest of theirs and we're in anyway."

Monday's loss, the fifth in nine home games this month, combined with the Phillies' victory, put the second-place Mets 2 1/2 games behind the NL East leaders. And worse, it reduced the Mets' margin over the Brewers to one game in the Wild Card race. And by losing to the NL Central champions, the Mets allowed the Cubs to clinch the best record in the league, and made it likely that if they do win the Wild Card, their postseason opponent will be those same Cubs.

The Mets, though, painted a better picture for the rest of the week.

"We have to take advantage of where we are," David Wright said, looking beyond the disappointment that filled the foreground. "We're in the driver's seat. We're in control. All we have to do is play our game."

His meaning was understood, but the Mets' margin for error has been reduced to this -- one more loss and one more Brewers' victory, and they have no advantage. Two more losses, and the comparisons with 2007 will be more valid than they are now.

"I don't like to group the two years together," Wright said. "There's a separation."

But, he added, "One missed opportunity, you can learn from that. Two missed opportunities and, obviously, you have a problem."

Wright wasn't borrowing trouble, and there was no need to; the Mets had enough on Monday night. In their third loss in three games against the Cubs this season, they trailed, 8-2, after five innings, and never really endangered the Cubs' lead thereafter.

The game turned in the fourth inning, when winning pitcher Jason Marquis hit a grand slam off losing pitcher Jonathon Niese. The Cubs scored six times in the inning and once in the fifth to take their six-run lead. The Mets, who led, 2-1, before the Cubs rallied, didn't score again until Wright hit his 33rd home run, with a runner on base, against Marquis in the seventh. The Mets put two runners on after Marquis' departure, but Neal Cotts retired Ryan Church on a popup to end the inning.

Niese (1-1) probably cost himself a chance to start the 161st game of the season, on Saturday against the Marlins, with his performance -- seven hits, two walks in three-plus innings -- in his third big league start. Half of the 18 batters he faced reached base, and a third of those scored. This, despite his pitching a clean first inning and retiring three of four in the third.

The Cubs started an exclusively right-handed batting order, aside from Marquis, and he drove in five of the nine runs. They adjusted quickly to Niese's left-handed curve. Marquis hit a hanger for his second home run of the season and the second grand slam by a pitcher against the Mets this season. Felix Hernandez of the Mariners hit one against Johan Santana on June 23. The Mets have allowed three home runs by pitchers this season.

That the opposing pitcher had inflicted the damage made the damage seem worse, the Mets acknowledged, but their outlook remained positive.

"I'm feeling pretty confident we'll get in [the postseason]," manager Jerry Manuel said. "I like what I see, [players] scratching and clawing. I think we'll do real well from this point all the way till the end."

He is taking nothing for granted, of course, but he was speaking of the postseason and how a team with zero margin for error and forced to play to the end of the regular season often prospers in the postseason. He thought that would apply to the Mets.

2007 Mets Phillies Mets' Lead 2008 Mets Phillies Mets' Lead
9/1 Won @ ATL, 5-1 Lost @ FLA, 12-6 3 9/1 Won @ MIL, 4-2 Lost @ WSH, 7-4 2
9/2 Won @ ATL, 3-2 Lost @ FLA, 7-6 4 9/2 Won @ MIL, 6-5 Won @ WSH, 4-0 2
9/3 Won @ CIN, 10-4 Lost @ ATL, 5-1 5 9/3 Won @ MIL, 9-2 Lost @ WSH, 9-7 3
9/4 Won @ CIN, 11-7 Won @ ATL, 5-2 5 9/4 Off Off 3
9/5 Lost @ CIN, 7-0 Lost @ ATL, 9-8 5 9/5 Lost vs PHI, 3-0 Won @ NYM, 3-0 2
9/6 Off Off 5 9/6 Rain out Rain out 2
9/7 Won vs HOU, 11-3 Lost vs FLA, 6-3 6 9/7 Split DH with PHI Split DH with NYM 2
9/8 Won vs HOU, 3-1 Won vs FLA, 9-1 6 9/8 Off Won vs FLA, 8-6 1.5
9/9 Won vs HOU, 4-1 Won vs FLA, 8-5 6 9/9 Won vs WSH, 10-8 Lost vs FLA, 10-8 2.5
9/10 Won vs ATL, 3-2 Won vs COL, 6-5 6 9/10 Won vs WSH, 13-10 Lost vs FLA, 7-3 3.5
9/11 Lost vs ATL, 13-5 Lost vs COL, 8-2 6 9/11 Off Won vs MIL, 6-3 3
9/12 Won vs ATL, 4-3 Lost vs COL, 12-0 7 9/12 Rain out Rain out 3
9/13 Off Won vs COL, 12-4 6.5 9/13 Split DH with ATL Won vs MIL, 7-3 2.5
9/14 Lost vs PHI, 3-2 Won @ NYM, 3-2 5.5 9/14 Lost vs ATL, 7-4 Won DH from MIL 1
9/15 Lost vs PHI, 5-3 Won @ NYM, 5-3 4.5 9/15 Lost @ WSH, 7-2 Off 0.5
9/16 Lost vs PHI, 10-6 Won @ NYM, 10-6 3.5 9/16 Lost @ WSH, 1-0 Won vs ATL, 8-7 -0.5
9/17 Lost @ WSH, 12-4 Won @ STL, 13-11 2.5 9/17 Won @ WSH, 9-7 Won @ ATL, 6-1 -0.5
9/18 Lost @ WSH, 9-8 Won @ STL, 7-4 1.5 9/18 Won @ WSH 7-2 Won @ ATL, 4-3 -0.5
9/19 Won @ WSH, 8-4 Lost @ STL, 2-1 2.5 9/19 Won @ ATL, 9-5 Lost @ FLA, 14-8 0.5
9/20 Lost @ FLA, 8-7 Won @ WSH, 7-6 1.5 9/20 Lost @ ATL, 4-2 Won @ FLA, 3-2 -0.5
9/21 Won @ FLA, 9-6 Won @ WSH, 6-3 1.5 9/21 Lost @ ATL, 7-6 Won @ FLA, 5-2 -1.5
9/22 Won @ FLA, 7-2 Won @ WSH, 4-1 1.5 9/22 Lost vs. CHC, 9-5 Won vs. ATL, 6-2 -2.5
9/23 Won @ FLA, 7-6 Lost @ WSH, 5-3 2.5 9/23 CHC ATL
9/24 Lost vs WSH, 13-4 Off 2 9/24 CHC ATL
9/25 Lost vs WSH, 10-9 Lost vs ATL, 10-6 2 9/25 CHC Off
9/26 Lost vs WSH, 9-6 Won vs ATL, 5-2 1 9/26 FLA WSH
9/27 Lost vs STL, 3-0 Won vs ATL, 6-4 Tied 9/27 FLA WSH
9/28 Lost vs FLA, 7-4 Won vs WSH, 6-0 -1 9/28 FLA WSH
9/29 Won vs FLA, 13-0 Lost vs WSH, 4-2 Tied        
9/30 Lost vs FLA, 8-1 Won vs WSH, 6-1 -1        

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.