NEW YORK - As the New York Mets continued their stunning meltdown last night, the players and manager Willie Randolph kept a stiff upper lip.
The latest blow was a 3-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals at Shea Stadium.
Coupled with the Phillies' 6-4 win over Atlanta, the Mets' loss dropped them into a tie for first place in the National League East with three games to play. Both teams also remain very much in the wild-card hunt.
The Mets will host the Florida Marlins and the Phillies the scrappy Washington Nationals in three-game series to end the season.
New York's free fall has been amazing. The Mets held a seven-game lead with 17 games to play, but are 4-10 in their last 14 games and have lost four in a row.
This team is obviously feeling the heat emanating from Citizens Bank Park, even though it said all the right things in its somber locker room.
"We're not behind," said third baseman David Wright, who had one of the three hits New York managed against journeyman Joel Pineiro (6-4) in eight innings. "I'm planning on going to the playoffs, and I think every guy in here is planning on playing baseball in October."
What had to be discouraging was that the Mets pulled out all the stops for this game against the defending World Series champions by sending future Hall of Famer Pedro Martinez to the mound.
After being on the disabled list for most of the season recovering from rotator cuff surgery in October, Martinez had given the Mets a needed late-season jolt. He entered last night with a 3-0 record.
Martinez (3-1) pitched a season high of seven innings and allowed all three runs, although only two were earned. He surrendered seven hits while striking out eight and walking one. Martinez threw 105 pitches, 73 for strikes - and still, it wasn't enough.
"I think we're trying to do too much," Martinez said. "Sometimes you have to let go a little."
St. Louis sucked the life out of the dispirited crowd by taking a 1-0 first-inning lead on a single by Skip Schumaker. When the scoreboard showed the Phillies were leading Atlanta, 4-0, in the first inning, that put the fans in an even worse mood.
The Cardinals padded their lead to 3-0 on an RBI double by Albert Pujols and an RBI single by Ryan Ludwick in the third inning.
"I hope we realize soon what we have to do because we're running out of time," Martinez said.
Then he tried to calm a team that seemed filled with anxiety.
"We're not panicking," Martinez insisted. "I've been in worse situations."
The Mets seem shell-shocked, trying to explain how it all got away.
"It's unexplainable," said closer and former Phillie Billy Wagner, who did not pitch last night. "Tomorrow starts a new season, and we can't get caught up in the hype of how bad things have been for us."
It's hard not to.
"It's been a roller-coaster ride and a tough couple of weeks, but we're not behind - that's the bottom line," Wright said.
Yet the Mets aren't ahead, either. They had been in sole possession of first place since May 16.
Now the Mets insist that they are ready for their "new season," which consists of three games.
"I didn't expect to be in this spot, but we are," Randolph said. "We have to fight through it, and we will."
Randolph made that statement with conviction. Whether his team plays the same way will determine if the Mets will be a postseason participant.