There were signs of a potential New York Mets’ collapse in 2007 before the final week of the season, but it was the six losses in their final seven games that ultimately doomed them.
They seem to have gotten a head start on a late meltdown this season.
Coming off yet another blown lead by their much-scrutinized bullpen, the Mets will hope to start a more successful final week on Monday night when they play the first of four critical games at Shea Stadium against the NL Central champion Chicago Cubs.
New York (86-69) had a two-game lead in the NL East heading into the final week of 2007, but ended up a game behind Philadelphia in the standings, completing a monumental September breakdown where the Mets blew a seven-game lead with 17 games to play.
It looks like history may repeat itself this season, as the Phillies have come on strong, winning nine of 10 to turn a 3 1/2-game deficit on Sept. 11 into a 1 1/2-game lead heading into the final week. The Mets are 4-6 over the same stretch, and though they retain a 1 1/2-game lead over Milwaukee in the wild-card race, the memories of last season’s collapse are lingering in New York.
That’s even more evident after a disastrous defeat on Sunday. The Mets led Atlanta 4-2 in the seventh but the team’s shaky bullpen lived up to its reputation, allowing a run in the seventh and four in the eighth of a 7-6 loss.
“It’s kind of a shocking thing. No explanation. Our starting pitchers and offense have carried us,” said Scott Schoeneweis, who took the loss after giving up two runs in the eighth. “If not for them we would not be close to where we are. At some point we’ve got to hope it turns around late in the game.”
If the scene looked familiar, that’s because it was. New York’s bullpen - which has been without closer Billy Wagner since early August - gave up five runs in the ninth last Sunday in a 7-4 loss to Atlanta at Shea. Since Sept. 10, the Mets’ relief corps is 2-3 with a 7.92 ERA.
They’ll try to turn things around against Chicago (94-60), which clinched its second straight Central Division title on Saturday. The Cubs kept winning on Sunday, beating the Cardinals 5-1 despite resting nearly all of their regulars.
The victory over St. Louis put Chicago just a win away from locking up the NL’s best record and home-field advantage until the World Series. Even if the Cubs wrap that up on Monday in New York, manager Lou Piniella said he’d like to play his regulars in the final week as his team faces the playoff-contending Mets and Brewers.
“If we need to rest a player here or a player there, that we can do. I just can’t play the lineup like we’re playing today the rest of the week,” Piniella said. “It just wouldn’t be fair to the (contending) teams and it wouldn’t be fair to us because we haven’t clinched home-field advantage yet either.”
The Cubs will send Jason Marquis (10-9, 4.39 ERA) to the mound in the series opener. Marquis has alternated wins and losses in his last four starts, but has pitched fairly well, sporting a 2.45 ERA without allowing a homer in 25 2-3 innings.
He’s had a problem with walks, however, and has given up 10 free passes in his last two starts. He gave up five in 5 1-3 innings Wednesday, and allowed three runs in a 6-2 loss to the Brewers.
Marquis hasn’t faced the Mets this season, but he’s 0-2 with a 7.71 ERA in his last three starts against them.
Rookie Jonathon Niese (1-0, 4.09) will counter for the Mets, and he’s coming off an outstanding performance in his second career start. Niese pitched eight innings, striking out seven and allowing just six hits, in a 5-0 win over Atlanta on Sept. 13.
The Mets were swept in a two-game series at Wrigley Field in late April, the only time they’ve faced the Cubs this season.