NEW YORK – A city can yearn for a postseason. A stadium about to be demolished can seemingly summon a wisp of magic from its creaky wood and concrete. A beleaguered organization can believe its time has arrived to eclipse the richer, more popular team on the other side of town.
Then one single baseball decision must be made, based on an amalgam of scouting reports and statistical analysis, and none of the yearning or magic or beliefs mean a thing. The decision produces an outcome, and it's goodbye New York Mets this season, goodbye Shea Stadium forever.
All because it was goodbye baseball when Florida Marlins pinch-hitter Wes Helms drove a slider by reliever Scott Schoeneweis into the left-field seats to lead off the eighth inning, snapping a tie and sucking the oxygen out of the 56,059 fans who did not want to have to tell co-workers, kids, grandkids or anyone else that they'd seen the last game played at the 45-year-old stadium.
Why Helms was batting and why Schoeneweis was pitching can be debated until Mets fans file into their new Citi Field next season. Bottom line: The reasoning was sound – sound enough that interim manager Jerry Manuel will be rehired next season – yet the result was disastrous.
Dan Uggla followed Helms' shot with one of his own against Schoeneweis' replacement, Luis Ayala, and about 15 seconds later in Milwaukee Ryan Braun belted a two-run home run that snapped the Milwaukee Brewers' tie with the Chicago Cubs. The die was cast. The Mets were done, 4-2. The Brewers would be the National League wild-card representative. Shea bye, bye, shweetheart.
"I'm heartbroken," Mets third baseman David Wright said. "This was a failed opportunity."
The Mets didn't hit well enough to overcome a patchwork bullpen whose most important piece – closer Billy Wagner– missed the last eight weeks of the season because of an elbow injury, and whose primary replacement, Aaron Heilman, was dreadful. So the bullpen woes extended from the back of the game to the middle innings. The Mets blew 30 saves, the most in baseball, and although this debacle didn't add to that total, it sure felt like it to the players who exchanged hugs and cell numbers before packing up to go home.
"We knew we had people out of place in the bullpen," Manuel said. "We knew we weren't on all cylinders. You roll the dice and make decisions. Sometimes you come out looking good, and sometimes, well, … "
When the only options are poor and poorer, it makes a manager and his pitching coach look dumb and dumber.
Right-hander Brian Stokes pitched a scoreless seventh inning after Mets center fielder Carlos Beltran had tied the score 2-2 with a home run in the sixth. The Mets had momentum. But Stokes didn't come out to begin the eighth because Marlins' left-handed hitter Mike Jacobs was leading off. Stokes had faced Jacobs twice before, on Aug. 9, and Jacobs had doubled and homered.
Mets pitching coach Dan Warthen held a piece of paper with that very information on it when he and Manuel decided to go to Schoeneweis to begin the eighth. The same piece of paper included this information: Jacobs was 0 for 8 against Schoeneweis.
Not that the Mets' braintrust believed Jacobs would step into the batter's box once the pitching change was made. They fully expected Helms to pinch-hit, which would remove from the game the dangerous Jacobs, who has 32 home runs and 93 runs batted in. Furthermore, Helms was 0 for 2 lifetime against Schoeneweis.
Until Schoeneweis lobbed a slider that hovered over the middle of the plate like a toy helicopter and Helms crushed it 390 feet into the seats. Manuel trudged to the mound, took the ball from Schoeneweis and handed it to Ayala, another hit-or-miss reliever, who promptly gave up the homer to Uggla.
The episode is proof the Mets don't belong in the playoffs. They didn't completely fall apart like they did a year ago. No, this time they were ravaged by injuries that transformed the most regimented part of the game – the relay-like handoff from seventh-inning specialist to situational left-hander to eighth-inning specialist to closer – into a nightly horror show.
Maybe the bullpen woes shouldn't have impacted the offense as well, but they did.
"It did make hitting harder on a daily basis," Beltran said. "You like to think that when you take a lead into the late innings, it will be protected, that you've done your job as hitters. We were never sure enough was enough."
General manager Omar Minaya and owner Jeff Wilpon said they will meet in the next few days. They will offer a contract to Manuel, who became interim manager when Willie Randolph was fired in July and went 55-38. He energized the clubhouse and seemed right at home.
"I think Jerry did a great job, and I'll communicate that to Jeff when we meet," said Minaya, who recently signed a four-year extension.
Next on the agenda? Relief. Blessed relief. Perhaps the Mets will chase Francisco Rodriguez, who will be the premier closer on the free-agent market. Perhaps they will acquire a closer in a trade. And while they are at it, they ought to add setup relievers as well.
"You can't make excuses in this game, you never can," Beltran said. "But I could feel for the coaches the last couple months. The late innings were very tough."
All the way through the last day.