Friday September 26th, 2008

The ball had not yet stopped rolling in shallow right field, and Jose Reyes had not yet finished scampering home with a broad smile and the winning run, but already the Mets' sigh of relief could be heard from Queens to Milwaukee. The Mets' electric 7-6 win over the Cubs gave their rain-soaked fans a happy ending to a dreary evening that threatened to turn downright depressing had they not been able to steal a win against a less than imposing Cubs lineup.

After Wednesday night's demoralizing 10-inning loss in which they squandered a five-run lead and what was left of their advantage in the wild-card race, Mets manager Jerry Manuel gave his team a blunt message for its final four games: Get it done.

That they did, but not before surviving another shaky outing by their bullpen (Ricardo Rincon surrendered a go-ahead three-run home run on his first pitch of the night in the seventh inning) and overcoming a slumbering offense that mustered just two hits through the first six innings before waking up in time to produce four runs and eight hits over the last three frames.

"I believe we're ready to take off," said the always optimistic Manuel afterward. "I really believe that. Our fans won't let us get away with anything else."

The Mets enter Friday in the exact same position they did a year ago: three games against the Marlins at Shea Stadium that will, in all likelihood, decide their season. "That's the way it came out," said Beltran afterward. "It would be great to be five or six ahead, but we're not. You're going to have pressure, and you're going to feel it, but that's normal. It's good pressure."

1. The Mets need to play smarter.

There were ominous signs throughout the game that indicated the Mets were fortunate to escape with a win. And if they continue to play with such a glaring lack of good sense, they will find themselves home once again this October with no one to blame but themselves.

There is no greater example than the play sure to make every highlight reel across America. With two out in the eighth inning, Ryan Church scored the tying run on a single to right field by Mets catcher Robinson Cancel. Church somehow managed to avoid the tag of Cubs catcher Koyie Hill then lunged to touch the plate just before Hill could put a glove on him. The Houdini-like escape will make for a great montage moment someday, but it represented just the latest of a glaringly bad sequence for Church and another example of questionable decisions by the Mets that could endanger their playoff hopes.

With Church at the plate and Beltran on first following a two-out single, Church got ahead in the count 3-1 only to chase ball four way out of the strike zone, a disturbing lack of plate discipline that at least two other Mets had exhibited earlier in the evening in key spots. Church recovered to line a single to left, but when Beltran broke for third a few pitches later, Church held his ground at first base. When Manuel was asked after the game what he thought of Church's slide, Manuel's first words were instead about Church's mistake. "I wanted to strangle him," said Manuel. "He should have been on second."

"He yelled at me," said Church, who admitted he froze and should have taken second. "All my focus is on doing what I'm supposed to do there and the next thing I know I blink and [Beltran] is gone." So when Ramon Martinez singled later in the at-bat, Beltran scored but Church advanced only to second.

On Cancel's hit, Church paid no heed to third base coach Luis Aguayo (which may have been a godd idea, considering the shaky judement Aguayo displayed on Wednesday night). "I was going no matter what," Church said later, reasoning that a wet field and wet ball would make it difficult for Kosuke Fukudome to throw him out at home. Except Fukudome's throw had Church out by 10 feet. His Fred Astaire routine got him home safely and out of Manuel's doghouse, but it was strategy that was questionable at best and boneheaded at worst, and could prove eventually prove costly if it's repeated.

Then in the ninth, after Reyes led off with a single, rookie Daniel Murphy struck out attempting to bunt him into scoring position. The only problem: Murphy had been instructed to swing away once the count reached 2-and-2. Reyes, meanwhile, had taken off to try and steal second, and easily had the bag swiped. "Uh, no, he was not supposed to be bunting with two strikes," said Manuel. "That's all I'm going to say about that."

2. The real Cubs were absent.

The team the Mets beat Thursday night was not the team that has romped to a NL-best 96 wins and it is surely not the team they may very well face in the Division Series next week. Cubs manager Lou Piniella's starting lineup did not include Derrek Lee, Reed Johnson, Alfonso Soriano, Geovany Soto or Aramis Ramirez. It did include five players, not including pitcher Rich Harden, who had hit a combined two home runs all year. Further, Piniella never made any moves to get those bigger names in to the game when they might have crippled the Mets chances. With runners on first and third in the top of the ninth, Piniella called on .216-hitting veteran Daryle Ward to pinch-hit. Ward grounded weakly back to the mound, ending the inning. The Cubs wouldn't get another turn at bat. And Piniella continued to avoid using his shut down set-up man Carlos Marmol, even as a three-run lead evaporated in the seventh and eighth innings, innings that will surely belong to Marmol starting next week.

The Marlins will offer the Mets no such free passes. Said Mike Pelfrey, the Mets probable Friday night starter. "That's the way I should be."

2. The Cubs are extremely deep.

Micah Hoffpauir is a 28-year-old rookie who until this summer had played 613 minor league games and none in the majors, yet he almost single-handedly led the Cubs to victory. He smoked his first major league home run in the first inning, a double in the third, a single in the fifth, another monstrous home run in the seventh that gave the Cubs a 6-3 lead, and a single in the eighth for a five-hit night. The Cubs cruised to the NL Central title without his 'pauir, but they could really use it in October as a big bat off the bench.

4. Pedro Martinez remains a big question mark.

If the Mets get to October, how much will they be able to rely on the 36-year-old Martinez? Yes he struck out nine in his six innings Thursday, but he also gave up seven hits, five walks and five runs. He's likely to face much stiffer competition in the playoffs than the B squad he dealt with Thursday, and will have to look more like the Pedro of old if the Mets are to win their first World Series title since 1986.

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