'Pathetic' Mets deluding themselves

HOUSTON -- Still in the postseason hunt.

That was an organizational explanation for why 21-year-old outfielder Fernando Martinez was returned to Triple-A Buffalo on Thursday afternoon, as the New York Mets made room for a third catcher with the activation of Rod Barajas from the disabled list.

Still in the postseason hunt.

That was the explanation for why veteran Luis Castillo was in the starting lineup over 20-year-old rookie Ruben Tejada at second base. After all, gotta put the best lineup out there.

Still in the postseason hunt? C'mon.

Fueled by Carlos Lee's three-run homer in the seventh inning off left-hander Pat Misch, the Houston Astros beat the Mets, 3-2, on Thursday. The Mets split four games at Minute Maid Park and still have yet to win a road series against a National League opponent this season.

Afterward, manager Jerry Manuel did not sugarcoat the Mets' woes. He used the word "pathetic" to describe the team's production at the plate. The Mets mustered only three hits -- one by Misch -- and were aided in a two-run fourth inning by Astros shortstop Angel Sanchez missing second base while initiating a would-be double play.

"That's a very poor effort on our part, offensively," Manuel said. "Very poor."

Asked if he liked any player's approach at the plate Thursday, Manuel forced out a faint laugh and said: "Maybe Misch's approach. I think he got a hit with two strikes. Other than that, we've got to do better. Period. We've got to do better. I mean, this is pathetic. We've got to do better."

As for whether the Mets are contenders, here is the reality:

The Mets did not lose ground against the first-place Atlanta Braves, who lost Thursday. Yet the Mets' deficit remains 11 games in the division. Even the Florida Marlins leapfrogged the Mets, dropping New York into fourth place.

The Mets did not lose ground in the wild-card race, either. The Philadelphia Phillies lost to the San Francisco Giants, leaving the Mets still 8½ games behind the two-time defending NL champs. Yet San Francisco is one of the five teams between the Phillies and Mets in the wild-card standings.

And now only 41 games remain on the schedule.

The reality: The Mets (60-61) are closer to the last-place Washington Nationals (52-69) than the Braves (71-50) or even the Phillies (68-52).

The lone baserunner through six innings against Misch came on a two-out double in the first by Hunter Pence.

Misch's second start since a call-up from Triple-A Buffalo abruptly unraveled in the seventh. Sanchez and Pence opened the frame with consecutive singles. After a mound visit by pitching coach Dan Warthen, Lee bashed a first-pitch cutter from Misch to left field to give Houston a 3-2 lead.

"Those two hits were soft. They found the right spots," Misch said about the singles. "And then we kind of decided to go in with Lee. He guessed right and crushed it. I could have gotten it in a little bit farther, but he also opened up and guessed right and got it. That's what he gets paid to do."

Barajas, by the way, went 0-for-3 in his return from the disabled list for a right oblique strain. Castillo went 0-for-4.

Asked under what circumstance he might change his managerial approach to point toward 2011 and the regular use of younger players, Manuel pointed to the official tragic number striking zero.

"Probably when the mathematics say that," he said. "Other than that, I'll continue to feel and believe that we can put a run together. We just haven't done anything offensively. I've got to believe that the history, at least with the players that we've got, that it'll happen for them."

Adam Rubin covers the Mets for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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