Mets play as if they've given up the ghost

Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca sits in disgust in the dugout after losing to the Cardinals.

NEW YORK - In mid-September, the Mets were cruising in front like a really fast horse running against a relentless opponent that simply did not have enough speed to keep up. Then, they lost three straight to the Phillies. They managed to lose five of six to the Nationals while giving up an insane 53 runs in the losses to the team that had been the lowest scoring in baseball.

Suddenly, the team that had been in first in the National League East for 146 days was staring at the possibility of losing the division and even missing the playoffs entirely in the five-team (three in, two out) scramble that is the East, West and wild card.

That relentless team 120 miles to the south put up four runs before the Meta batted last night at Shea Stadium against the Cardinals, six runs before the Mets got their second hit.

The Phillies had owned the Mets in September, but the Mets still owned the division lead. Now, that suddenly was in peril.

It is Shea's penultimate year, as the new stadium, scheduled to open in 2009, rises beyond centerfield. Looking much as Veterans Stadium did at the end, Shea has the appearance of a place that time forgot, its interior looking like something from a Third World country, its exterior peeling and forlorn. Last night, it seemed half empty, even though the announced attendance was 48,900.

Perhaps the fans were waiting for the postseason, the new park or something they could not define. Maybe they just didn't want to be accomplices to the meltdown. They were handed neither rally towels nor towels to cover their faces.

Before the game, Mets catcher Paul Lo Duca was asked how he was dealing with a slide that was closing in on historic.

"Can't sleep," he said.

Lo Duca might have used up all his luck on the first Saturday of May in 2005 when he backed the 50-1 winner of the Kentucky Derby. Lo Duca's friend, jockey Mike Smith, told the catcher his mount, Giacomo, was live that day. The Mets remain alive, in theory.

The plodder to the south has finally caught up. The Mets lost, 3-0. The Phils beat the Braves, 6-4. The teams are in a dead heat, three games from the finish line. If it is still a heat by Sunday night, the winner will be determined in a one-game playoff Monday at Citizens Bank Park.

"Guess we have a new season, start from scratch," Mets manager Willie Randolph said before he even sat down in the interview room. "That's the way we are now, assuming the Phillies win [the game ended as Randolph walked in]. We don't care . . . We're tied now, so now we got three games to get it done . . . We didn't expect to be in this spot right now, but we are."

The Mets struggled against starter Joel Pineiro, once quite successful, but more anonymous lately than the driver of the 7 train that runs on the platform beyond the grandstand. He gave up only three hits in eight innings and threw only 93 pitches. One-time Met Jason Isringhausen pitched a perfect ninth to get the save, his 31st in 33 chances, the best ratio in the NL. The game was over in 140 minutes.

Mets leftfielder Moises Alou was working on a 30-game hitting streak, the longest by a New York player (be he Yankee, Met, Dodger or Giant) since that streak from the summer 1941, the one in which Joe DiMaggio matched the Eagles' score from Sunday. Alou's streak ended following an 0-for-3.

Third baseman David Wright was hitting .386 over 13 games and had just become the first Met to get 100 RBI in 3 straight years. He got the Mets' only hit in the first four innings.

For the Mets, though, this has really not been about hitting. Their pitching, their calling card, has fallen apart down the stretch.

On this night, the Mets "ace" was pitching. Even if it was only his fifth start of the year, after undergoing rotator-cuff surgery last October, Pedro Martinez was 3-0. Even without the velocity, you still figure he is the guy on his way to the Hall of Fame, with that 4.5/1 strikeout/walk ratio, that 209-92 record. What he does not have is much velocity. His changeup is still a killer, but his fastball looked a bit closer to his change than it should have. And the Cardinals hit it.

The Cardinals got an unearned run in the first after second baseman Luis Castillo dropped an easy ground ball by the bag that should have been a force. That set the stage for a two-out RBI single by rightfielder Skip Schumaker. In the third, Albert Pujols doubled in a run and rightfielder Ryan Ludwick singled in another.

The Mets went down meekly all game, looking very much like a team that has seen a ghost but can't find any way to wake up to find out it's not real. The few loud sounds from the stands were boos. And even most of those were half-hearted, except when poor Randolph came out to speak with Martinez in the seventh just before he threw the last of his 105 pitches.

"It's unexplainable," Mets closer Billy Wagner said. "I've never seen anything like this before . . . We have to quit worrying about the things that have happened the last couple of weeks."

As Wagner talked, Randolph walked by and said to no one in particular, "We're going to win this thing."

Convincing oneself that it will get better must be a real test of the power of positive thinking.

"We'll reflect and reminisce later on after we win," Randolph had said earlier.

Wright had an idea.

"There's two choices, roll over and start making vacation plans for the offseason or battle like hell and win this thing," he said. "We still feel like this is our division."

The Mets had only to look across at the third-base dugout to see their role models. Last year, the Cardinals lost seven straight in late September and nearly blew the NL Central. They survived. Then, they beat the Padres, Mets and Tigers to win the World Series.

The message? The regular season does not matter in the postseason - if you make the postseason. How you get in is irrelevant - if you get in. *