- Johnette Howard, ESPN.com columnist
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NEW YORK -- The losses are blending together now, one atop the other. The New York Mets' clubhouse was silent and nearly empty Saturday after they lost for the seventh time in eight games since the All-Star break. And by the time the Mets got back to the ballpark Sunday morning, manager Terry Collins wasn't mincing words either. Nothing had changed. The Mets' season suddenly feels on the line after the lost weekend they just had against the Los Angeles Dodgers, and it's not even August.
All the fun stuff that happened so far -- from R.A. Dickey having the season of his life at age 37, to the pet chicken that reliever Tim Brydak brought to the clubhouse as a joke before the Subway Series after closer Frank Francisco called the Yankees "chickens" -- were good times. But all of that, like the Mets' strong place in the wild-card race, now seems like a very long time ago.
"Hopefully we can hang on," a frustrated Dickey said Saturday -- only to see the Mets rally to tie Sunday's game in the ninth but then belly flop to an 8-3 loss in 12 innings, opening the floodgates for the Dodgers because of a couple of defensive plays they didn't make and some shaky pitching by Ramon Ramirez that sent them to their 10th loss in their past 12 games.
"They're all 'need' games [now]," Collins said even before the game, knowing the Mets' deficit in the wild-card race had ballooned from a half-game down to five games back since they returned from the All-Star break a little more than a week ago.
"Yes, it is startling," Collins allowed.
Jon Niese did a good job Sunday trying to avoid a Dodgers sweep. But as if to make the disintegration that's going on for the Mets feel near complete, this time their usually good offense was more to blame. The Mets couldn't get to 1-6 Dodgers starter Nathan Eovaldi, even though Collins had stacked his lineup against the right-thander, noting that left-handed batters were hitting .320 against Eovaldi this season. But again and again, the Mets couldn't buy enough clutch hits.
"It didn't 'feel' like we didn't get them -- we didn't," Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy tersely said after the 4-hour, 43-minute migraine was through.
Collins hasn't been content to just fill out the lineup and then hope for the best as the Mets have continued to lose. That's not his style.
Behind the scenes he had been trying to snap his players out of their daze, barking, "Nobody's going to feel sorry for us. Everybody's got injuries. Everybody's got problems." And although the details got bulldozed under Saturday by the expected news that Johan Santana was going on the 15-day disabled list with a sore ankle -- further rattling an already slumping Mets rotation that had lost Dillon Gee a week earlier following surgery to fix artery damage in his pitching shoulder -- Collins managed all weekend as though the both games were indeed late September must-wins.
Long before he rolled out Dickey to pitch the ninth inning Saturday, he sent up rookie Jordany Valdespin, whose electric, late-inning, pinch-hit homers changed some games for the Mets this year, way back in the third inning, figuring -- what? That as badly as the Mets have been going, they needed some kind of spark, any kind of spark?
"That's exactly what I was doing -- just seeing if we can get something ignited here," Collins nodded.
People outside the team might've said it was "only" the third inning. But for this Mets team that can't buy a win, it felt like Inning 75 of their swoon, another link in their ever-lengthening chain of disappointments. What was different about Sunday's loss was it flipped the script. For most of this bad streak, it has been the Mets' starting pitching that faltered, and that led to the Mets' league-worst bullpen being overused. But then they finally got good pitching from Niese (seven innings, no walks, only three earned runs) and now the offense couldn't buy a big hit?
"It's no fun," Collins conceded.
And to think at several points, the snake-bit Mets' luck seemed to be finally changing. A fourth-inning double by Murphy just nicked the chalk down the right-field line and he came around to score their first run. Then, in the ninth, Dodgers first baseman James Loney bobbled a weak bouncer by Ike Davis (who had another brutal game) and settled for an out at first that allowed Tejada to score from third, tying the game at 3.
But when the 12th rolled around, Davis didn't throw out Tony Gwynn Jr. at first base when Gwynn was merely trying to sacrifice bunt Loney to second. On the replay, it looked as though Gwynn was out by a hair.
But Collins said he wasn't going to bellyache about one umpire call. Not after Matt Kemp got on base on a fielder's choice and pinch-hitter Mike Treanor brought them galloping home to start the Dodgers' game-deciding, five-run outburst that also featured a ball that Mets right-fielder Lucas Duda lost in the sun.
The Mets dragged themselves off the field. They fell to 47-48 overall, dropping them below .500 for the first time all season. And nothing gets easier for them from here.
They'll be without Santana until early August, at minimum, and probably without Gee for the rest of the year. When division-leading Washington visits Citi Field for a three-game series that starts Monday, the Mets' patchwork rotation will still be relying on yet another surgically repaired starting pitcher, Chris Young, and then planning on starting emergency call-ups Jeremy Hefner on Wednesday and Matt Harvey on Thursday, when the Mets travel to Arizona.
That's the start of a daunting 11-game trip that also takes them to division-leading San Francisco and San Diego.
Maybe the Mets will somehow hang on in the wild-card race. Maybe not.
But their stalled season is clearly at a crossroads, all right.
The Mets' season feels like it's on the line, and it's not even August.