Mets

Palladino: Mets’ Mirage Vanishes

Daniel Murphy #28 of the New York Mets walks off the field as the Los Angeles Dodgers celebrate their victory at CitiField on July 22, 2012. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

Daniel Murphy #28 of the New York Mets walks off the field as the Los Angeles Dodgers celebrate their victory at CitiField on July 22, 2012. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)

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‘From the Pressbox’
By Ernie Palladino
» More Ernie Palladino Columns

It is over now, this fleeting concept that the arrow might continue pointing upward for the Mets.

Of course, the bottom had been falling out before yesterday’s 8-3, 12th-inning slap from the Dodgers. But it wasn’t really official until the final out of their ninth loss in 10 games, a setback that sent them below .500 for the first time this season.

About the best that can be said about their fall under .500 is that it took a long time to get there. It was the Mets’ longest game time-wise this year. Four hours, 43 minutes were more than enough time for half the 31,000 attendees to flee Citi Field, even as the teams entered the 12th at 3-3.

But then the ugliness that underscored even the good times cropped up before the 15,000 or so diehards. The bullpen — namely Ramon Ramirez — couldn’t find a third out. And the Dodgers scored and scored, and scored again, and again, and again. Five runs with two down.

Unless something truly dramatic happens over the next two months, Mets fans have little to hope for now. Thoughts of just a .500 season could become little more than a pipedream very, very soon.

The Dodgers’ first three-game sweep in New York since 2002 proved that. All the ills that threatened to undermine the season came out, from Sunday’s implosion by a dicey bullpen entity, Ramirez, who could at one point take care of a tough lefty, but now seems defenseless against them, to the overall health of the pitching staff, to the Mets’ lack of power.

Jon Niese did a nice job, providing seven innings of three-run ball without walking anyone. But as things stand, he and R.A. Dickey and maybe Chris Young are about the only live arms in that rotation, what with Johan Santana sitting on the DL and Dillon Gee likely gone for the season. With the probable end of 41-year-old Miguel Batista’s Mets career — they designated him for assignment after Saturday’s mess — Terry Collins doesn’t even have a veteran stopgap on the roster.

And the way Dickey has thrown in his 20 1/3 July innings, it appears he may be on the way down. The 13-1 record remains impressive, but it’s the recent stats, namely a 6.64 ERA the past month, that indicates he may have exhausted his prosperous and inspirational run.

Ramirez’ issues in his 1 2/3 innings of work Sunday simply underline the need for bullpen help, a commodity GM Sandy Alderson should no longer try to secure before the trade deadline for the short term, but for the future.

Though the hitters produced just three runs despite 16 hits Sunday, it’s hard to blame a lot of the cumulative troubles on the offense. It came back twice on Friday and Saturday. Didn’t roar back, as one might like, since this team has left the copyright on late-game lightning to others. But they still made things close.

Saturday’s 8-5 loss was a one-run game thanks to Daniel Murphy’s RBI triple and Kirk Nieuwenhuis’ run-scoring groundout in the eighth. But they couldn’t pick themselves off the mat after Dickey gave up a two-run homer in ninth-inning relief.

They scored runs in the fifth, sixth, and seventh to make Friday’s game a one-run affair, but when the surprisingly productive Jordany Valdespin moved into scoring position in the ninth with one out, the clutch personality that marked their first half abandoned them in a quiet strikeout/popup ending.

Sunday? Well, a five-run 12th was just too big a hole for anyone to escape.

So, it is safe to say the wonderful fantasy that ended with the Mets challenging for a playoff spot appears over. The whole season could be irretrievably in the dumpster by as early as Wednesday, when the division-leading Nationals leave town.

The first-half doubters happened to be right this time. The Mets’ ills were too plentiful, too serious, to dodge forever. They were going to catch up to them someday.

Sunday’s loss made it official. The mirage of success has vanished. The troubles have made up the stagger on the pluckiness. They’re in the lead now.

And the Mets, game though they may be, are simply not strong enough to overcome them.