Recurring Nightmare

Like Bill Murray’s character in Groundhog Day, Mets fans must feel as if they’re going through a series of suicides, from toaster-in-the-bathtub electrocution to a fiery death behind the wheel.

Last night, New York blew a 5-0 lead and lost, 9-6, completing a humiliating sweep of a three-game series at Shea by the out-of-contention Washington Nationals.

The loss dropped the Mets to 4-9 over their last 13 games and a one-game lead over the Phillies, an improbable enough occurrence, considering that they were in first place by seven games at the start of that streak. But even more astounding is that in those 13 games, the Mets have scored 80 runs, better than 6 a game.

That simply hasn’t been enough—not with a demonic, ridiculous bullpen ERA of 6.66 in that time. In 7 of those 9 losses, New York held a lead of at least two runs.

The two questions facing the Mets as they head into the season’s final four games holding a one-game lead: who is to blame, and, assuming they even make it to October, how worried should they be?

As for who is at fault, there is plenty of blame to go around, from Billy Wagner—who had another soul-crushing outing last night, giving up two runs in the ninth—on down. But there is blame, and there is blame.

The Mets’ reliable bullpen options, relatively speaking, are Wagner, Aaron Heilman, Pedro Feliciano, Scott Schoeneweis (now that Willie Randolph is using him correctly, against primarily left-handed batters) and Orlando Hernandez, who provided a scoreless seventh inning, and will be used out of the pen for the remainder of the season. They have combined for 23 2/3 innings of 4.56 ERA pitching during the 13-game period, walking nine and striking out 28.

Then there are the other Mets relievers: Guillermo Mota, Joe Smith, Jorge Sosa, Carlos Muniz, Aaron Sele, Willie Collazo and Dave Williams. They have pitched to an 8.64 ERA, receiving more of the bullpen load—25 innings—while walking 14 and striking out 15.

Certainly, it is unlikely that any of them will see their numbers retired at Shea Stadium. (A bonfire for their jerseys is more likely.)

This stratification was magnified in the Washington series. The first group pitched to a 3 ERA over 6 innings. The latter group pitched 7.1 innings with a 12.27 ERA.

Over the season’s final four games, the Mets starters will be Pedro Martinez, who has mostly been terrific, Oliver Perez, whose 15 wins, 3.32 ERA and 170 strikeouts are all top-10 in the National League, the inconsistent but talented John Maine, and if it should matter, Tom Glavine on Sunday.

On paper, they should match up well with the four probable pitchers they will face. The Cardinals’ Joel Piniero has the lowest ERA, at 4.72. The pitchers in the other three games (against the Marlins) are over 5—two are over 6. The Mets starter with the highest ERA will be Tom Glavine, at 4.14.

But none of these starters is likely to go nine—the four have combined for 96 starts in 2007, and just two complete games. The bullpen will likely be called upon in each of the last four games. And the starters won’t matter if that bullpen can’t get outs.

The next four contests will display exactly what the Mets relievers can and can’t do. Willie Randolph will have to pull out all the stops now. It will be unacceptable to put the season on the line with anyone other than his best relief pitchers, which now includes Hernandez, the Mets’ best starter for much of the year.

They way they’re used and how they perform from this point on should reflect pretty precisely the way the bullpen will be lined up and deployed in the post-season. That is, if the Mets make it.

Recurring Nightmare