ST. LOUIS -- Left-hander Pedro Feliciano had set consecutive franchise records for relief appearances the past two seasons. Yet the most durable pitcher in the New York Mets' bullpen could not be summoned by manager Jerry Manuel on Friday night with the bases loaded and one out and the Mets clinging to a one-run lead in the seventh inning.
Feliciano was in the visitors clubhouse at Busch Stadium, where he required intravenous fluids for a stomach ailment and "looked like death," according to right fielder Jeff Francoeur.
In Feliciano's place, the next-best left-handed option, Raul Valdes, on loan from Tabasco in the Mexican League and less than a week into his major league career, served up a grand slam to Felipe Lopez.
In an instant, the longest feel-good stretch of the Mets' season ended at slightly more than 15 innings. The Mets ultimately lost, 4-3.
The defeat undoubtedly intensifies the chatter regarding Manuel's job security and whether Bobby Valentine or Bob Melvin ought to replace him, although such speculation may be at least a few weeks premature.
After Mike Pelfrey's confidence-building performance Thursday in the franchise's first shutout in 81 games in Colorado, the venue shifted to Busch. And Oliver Perez was duplicating Pelfrey's performance and outpitching 2009 National League Cy Young runner-up Chris Carpenter.
That is, until everything abruptly unraveled.
With Perez nursing a 1-0 lead, David Freese opened the bottom of the seventh by reaching on an infield single, when shortstop Jose Reyes couldn't muster enough zip on his throw after fielding the grounder deep in the hole.
Cardinals left fielder Joe Mather followed with a sacrifice bunt. And that prompted Manuel to lift Perez at 97 pitches -- content with the performance from the southpaw, who had owned a 6.78 ERA in 15 starts since signing that three-year, $36 million contract extension in February 2009.
Cue the second-guessers, assuming they still care enough to tune in.
"That's not my decision," Perez said. "That's the manager's. That's why he does his job. I think we did everything we can. That's a tough loss."
Right-hander Fernando Nieve entered and got ahead in the count, 0-2, to the next two batters, both pinch-hitters. The third pitch to Skip Schumaker plunked him in the left foot. Nieve then lost slugger Matt Holliday, who had been out of the starting lineup because of illness. The walk to Holliday, who re-signed with the Cardinals for seven years and $120 million, loaded the bases.
"We tried throwing a 'back-foot' slider, and unfortunately it hit his back foot," catcher Rod Barajas said of Schumaker's plate appearance. "We were just trying to get it down and in the dirt and tried to get him to swing over it and we just pulled it a little too much. With Holliday, we just didn't make that good pitch."
Manuel returned. With Feliciano unavailable, Valdes entered. The switch-hitting Felipe Lopez, whom Manuel wanted to bat right-handed to enhance the chance of a double play, belted his fifth career grand slam -- and first since April 24, 2008, off then-Met Aaron Heilman, in relief of Perez. Back then, Lopez was playing for the Washington Nationals.
"I tried to go down and in with it, and the ball just stayed out there," Valdes said through an interpreter. "That's what happens."
Said Feliciano: "I wish it was me. Tomorrow I'll be there."
So now the Mets are 3-7, which douses the enthusiasm of Perez's performance.
Regardless, Manuel is not believed to be in imminent danger. And, to borrow a loaded word, his team did "battle."
Trailing 4-1 after Lopez's grand slam, the Mets placed two runners in scoring position with one out in each of the final two innings.
The first effort was fruitless. Jason Bay, the $66 million addition the Mets chose to pursue over fellow free agent Holliday, struck out to remain stuck at two RBIs for the season. Fernando Tatis, hitting for Mike Jacobs after Cardinals manager Tony La Russa inserted left-hander Dennys Reyes, then lined out on a stellar play by Freese at third base to end the threat.
The Mets placed the tying run at second base in the ninth.
With two runners in scoring position and one out after Gary Matthews' double, pinch-hitter Frank Catalanotto delivered an RBI single for his first hit in nine at-bats this season. Reyes followed with a run-scoring groundout, which also advanced Angel Pagan, who pinch-ran for Catalanotto, to second base.
"We don't want to sit here and say all the time we're taking positives away," Francoeur said. "But there are so many good things that happened tonight. Hopefully we can start putting that together."
Said Manuel: "You have to applaud the fight. We have, at least in these first 10 games, given ourselves a shot and haven't been able to come away with anything significant. I think if we continue to do that, it will eventually turn for us. If we continue to keep this attitude and fight, and bring it every day, some things are going to start going our way."