Billy Wagner’s 45th and final pitch yesterday, about 20 too many under normal circumstances, was smacked by Chase Utley past the outstretched glove of Carlos Delgado and into right field, taking with it the last vestige of the Mets’ firm control of the National League East.
They have a precarious two-game lead over the surging Phillies, is what they have, all they have, after being swept here in a four-game-series brew of bad performance and worse luck. Beyond that, they have three games in more hostile and typically, for them, unhappy territory, Atlanta, starting tonight, among other urgent issues.
Foremost among them: no reliable setup man for the closer, Wagner. No fireballing phenomenon to pitch by his own rules, like the one currently electrifying the Bronx every couple of days.
In the aftermath of a crushing 11-10 Mets defeat here yesterday, a game they should have won, needed to win, deserved to win, was the inescapable feeling that in the now likely event of a divisional race to the end of September, no Joba for the Mets equals mission improbable.
Hyperbole in the wake of calamity? Perhaps, but the sight of Wagner, alone in the middle of a largely vacant Mets clubhouse and also in accepting the blame for perhaps the worst regular-season defeat of the Omar Minaya-Willie Randolph regime, somehow made Manager Randolph’s decision to use Wagner for two innings simultaneously cautious and desperate.
Under the circumstances and given his alternatives, you could say it was the only choice he had.
“That’s what he gets paid to do,” Randolph said, noting that Wagner hadn’t pitched in the series. “He was ready for it.”
Mind you, not that he volunteered for it.
“Told,” Wagner said to the question of whether he had made a request to start the eighth with the Mets just having been gifted five runs on two hits by the Phillies’ bullpen for a 10-8 lead. But because Wagner, as much as anyone in the Mets’ clubhouse and more than most, is a standup guy, he also said: “I should be able to do that.”
The result, on the other hand, spoke for itself.
Due south from where Joba Chamberlain and the Yankees were tidying up in the Bronx, sweeping the Red Sox in a comparatively brisk 3 hours 1 minute, American League baseball came here in all its messy, excruciating glory, exactly four hours’ worth that saw the Mets spot the Phillies leads of 5-0 and 8-5 and still have a four-game divisional lead in their closer’s hand, albeit that one crucial inning earlier than usual.
In effect, Randolph was subscribing to the Bill Jamesian approach of going with his strength when the situation most demanded it. He could have used Aaron Heilman, but the Phillies had Utley, Pat Burrell and Ryan Howard due up and Heilman, after too many untimely home runs surrendered this season, inspires little confidence.
Pedro Feliciano, another candidate from the coalition of the willing but not entirely able, had already pitched two innings. Guillermo Mota was no doubt dismissed as detrimental to the condition of Randolph’s stomach after the roller coaster he’d ridden.
Much better last season while on performance-enhancing drugs, Mota has been Minaya’s least admirable maneuver during his three years as general manager. In fact, the bullpen Mota was re-signed to fortify now threatens all the fine work done by Minaya in putting the Mets on the postseason map.
He allowed the very useful Chad Bradford to slip away to Baltimore last winter and was unlucky with the health of Duaner Sánchez. He made a shaky call on Ambiorix Burgos at the expense of a useful pitcher, Brian Bannister. Scott Schoeneweis has been a certifiable bust.
When it all shook out yesterday, when Randolph considered the consequences of losing after the Mets had climbed out of a rare hole dug by Orlando Hernández, he called on Wagner and said, It’s all on you.
Wagner proceeded to give up Burrell’s second home run of the game with one out in the eighth and a two-out walk to Aaron Rowand, elevating his pitch count past 20. In the ninth, Jayson Werth dunked a single into left field, and stole second and third without a throw. Wagner needed a strikeout against Tadahito Iguchi but didn’t have enough left in the tank to get it. Iguchi singled to left and stole second too. Jimmy Rollins was walked intentionally. Here came Utley. There went two games in the standings, from four to two.
There, in all likelihood, went Wagner’s availability tonight in Atlanta, where the Mets will start a rookie call-up from New Orleans tomorrow and where Pedro Martínez will meet them today for a bullpen session that will determine the next step in his return from surgery last summer.
Unfortunately for the Mets, he won’t be staying — in the bullpen, that is. That’s not his job, and, worse, there is no Joba.