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09/25/08 12:57 AM ET

Mets let key opportunities slip away

Club now tied with Milwaukee for NL Wild Card lead

NEW YORK -- They'll tell you not to panic yet. But if not now -- when? The Mets have never appeared more vulnerable than they did on Wednesday, considering both their position in the standings and their actions on the diamond. Their 9-6 loss to the Cubs, a blemish that could have been avoided, knocked them one rung down the National League Wild Card standings, where they now rest tied with the Brewers for the top spot. And their chance to catch the Phillies in the NL East has now grown rather slim.

"It is critical that we do a better job," manager Jerry Manuel said after Wednesday's loss, a 10-inning affair that twisted the NL playoff race into its tightest knot yet. "At this juncture, it was probably our toughest defeat."

The crushing ones always seem that way. Consider the perspective of outfielder Daniel Murphy, who watched perhaps the game's defining moment from the apparent safety of the third-base bag.

Murphy had tripled to lead off the ninth inning against Cubs reliever Bob Howry, then sat there waiting for the inevitable: a hit, a fly ball, something -- anything -- that would send him home as the winning run.

"We've got three of the best hitters in baseball coming up," Murphy said. "Give me that situation 10 more times, and I'll take it every time."

Three times, on this night, would have to suffice. The Mets put runners on the corners with no outs in the seventh inning, but they couldn't score a run off reliever Kevin Hart. They did likewise in the eighth inning, but couldn't produce any more offense off rookie Jeff Samardzija. And then they watched Murphy clamber to third base with no outs in the ninth.

Moments later, David Wright struck out.

"I fouled some pitches off that I should have put in play," he said.

Samardzija then intentionally walked Carlos Delgado and Carlos Beltran, before Ryan Church -- hitless in four previous at-bats -- grounded into a fielder's choice.

"I had a situation to come through, and I just didn't do it," Church said.

That left it up to catcher Ramon Castro, who struck out on three pitches. And so Murphy, no longer full of hope, trotted back to left field instead of home plate.

"Man, that's bad," Manuel said. "We've got to find a way. We've got to keep pushing, we've got to keep pressing. We've got to find a way."

Time is running short, but it's not yet the enemy of the Mets. They remain tied atop the NL Wild Card standings, and that much can't be stressed enough. If the Mets win the rest of their games, then they will make the playoffs -- possibly even in a matchup with these Cubs. But their margin for error has been reduced to zero. One more slip -- just one more loss -- could be enough to ensure a second straight forgettable September.

Given the success of their bullpen in this game, the Mets couldn't quite afford to lose it. Despite struggling mightily in recent games, Mets relievers performed admirably against the Cubs, allowing a run only in the seventh -- when Brian Stokes was undermined by an infield hit -- and in the 10th.

The latter score came off Luis Ayala, the closer in place of the injured Billy Wagner. A Ryan Theriot single with two outs kept the Cubs in contention, before Derrek Lee blooped a double in front of Church to plate the winning run.

What pained the Mets far more, however, was all that had happened earlier in the night. The Mets came into Wednesday's game with a plan, fully aware that Carlos Zambrano, the Cubs' starter, would not approach 100 pitches. This was nothing more than a tuneup for Zambrano, the pitcher probably entrusted to start Game 1 of the NL Division Series on Oct. 1 at Wrigley Field. And so the Mets attempted to practice patience, to drive Zambrano's pitch count higher and knock him out of the game as early as possible.

It worked. Zambrano walked three Mets in the third inning, all of whom scored on Delgado's grand slam. And so by the fifth inning, he was done, and the Mets enjoyed their first and best opportunity for success.

They scored just once more the entire game.

"We knocked out a pitcher who I think is one of the best in the game," Wright said. "And to throw that away and really get nothing out of it -- that hurts. We've lost some late. We've lost some tough ones. But we did exactly what we wanted to do, and didn't take advantage of that."

Part of the problem was what Manuel called a "geeked up" Oliver Perez, who gave back all four runs of their lead in the fifth inning. Perez, like Zambrano, couldn't complete five innings, instead thrusting the Mets into a battle of the bullpens. Which is precisely where they did not want to be.

And so the Mets are here again, back in the spot where they were after 161 games of last season. They remain in control of their own destiny, as they continue to remind anyone willing to listen. But for how long? One more defeat could prove downright infelicitous. So they can only hope that Thursday and Friday and Saturday will be different.

"When tomorrow comes, hopefully the sun comes up," Manuel said.

He laughed, with perhaps more than a bit of resignation in his tone.

"It might not, you know?"

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