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Mets face the bullpen blues

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NEW YORK – So, after a meeting in manager Jerry Manuel's office Sunday afternoon that included general manager Omar Minaya and pitching coach Dan Warthen, it was left to Mr. Met, the team mascot, to announce how the club intends to resolve its current pitching crisis.

"It's Pedro and Santana,'' the rotund one said, scratching at one of his seams, "and pray for manana.''

Mascots by definition are prone to hysteria. General managers, meanwhile, are paid to keep their heads while those around them are losing theirs, which is why Minaya appealed for calm in the wake of double-barreled bad news Sunday, the worst of which was not another blown game by a Billy Wagner-less bullpen, but that the Mets are on the verge of shutting down one of their most reliable starters, John Maine, perhaps for the season.

"We'll find a way,'' Minaya said after a 6-4, 10-inning loss to the Houston Astros in which right-handed reliever Aaron Heilman gave up the tying run on hits to the only two hitters he faced and left-handed reliever Pedro Feliciano served up game-deciding home runs to Darin Erstad and Brad Ausmus, two guys who combined have hit one more home run (5) this season than Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano (4).

"Whether it's John Maine or not, I have a lot of confidence in our options, whether it's the kids or other guys, we'll get the job done,'' Minaya said.

Already missing closer Wagner, whose scheduled return is more rumor than reality, the Mets need a win Monday to salvage a split against Houston, then begin a stretch of 11 straight games against playoff contenders, book-ended by series against their closest pursuers, the Phillies, who drew to within a half-game of New York with an extra-innings win over the Dodgers.

Minaya was not yet prepared to confirm what Manuel had raised as a strong possibility, that Maine, who has a bone spur in his right shoulder that is impacting his rotator cuff, may be forced out of the rotation. Maine is tentatively scheduled to pitch Friday night in Miami in the opener of a three-game series against the Marlins. And while the right-hander, who was rocked for eight runs in 5 2/3 innings Saturday night in his third appearance since coming off the DL with a strained rotator cuff, insisted Sunday he can pitch through the pain, the Mets appear unwilling to let him prove it.

"We'll have to monitor that, keep an eye on that,'' Minaya said of Maine after emerging from a postgame chat session with his manager and pitching coach.

"We just have to continue to do what we've done all year, go to the kids if we have to. The reality is, the solution is not out there as far as a trade, there's not going to be a guy who can make a difference.''

Minaya left open the possibility that the Mets could enter a waiver claim for a pitcher, but that becomes problematic when their rivals are in a position to block a claim.

"That being said, I feel like the team is here. We've got the guys who can get it done,'' he said.

"I mean, we hope that he does (pitch), but if he can't, we've got good options. We've got good kids in the minor leagues, (Bobby) Parnell and (Jonathan) Niese, we have (Brian) Stokes, we have other guys we've used in the past, (Nelson) Figueroa, those guys.''

Niese and Parnell started the season in Double-A before being promoted to Triple-A New Orleans. Niese, a 21-year-old left-hander, is 5-1 with a 3.65 earned-run average in six starts for the Zephyrs, while the right-handed Parnell, 23, has struggled, with a 1-2 record and 7.43 ERA. Stokes, meanwhile, was called up two weeks ago from New Orleans, where he'd started, and was put in the bullpen, where he has allowed two runs over his last 8 1/3 innings.

Martinez and Johan Santana are scheduled to pitch in that order in a two-game series against the Phillies that begins Tuesday night. Mike Pelfrey, the second-year starter who is 12-8 and the team's most consistent starter behind Santana, goes Monday against the Astros, but he already has thrown more innings (154) this season than any other in his pro career, Martinez missed two months with a strained hamstring and has been pitching well of late, but his health is an ongoing concern.

"We hope (Maine) can pitch, but if he doesn't, we'll make the adjustment,'' Minaya said. "We’ve been making them all year. That's one thing about this team. It seems we've found the guys to get the job done.''

That premise is being challenged by the bullpen. Wagner, whose last save came July 29th, continues to have swelling in his left elbow. This, after experiencing shoulder tightness in Cincinnati right after the All-Star break, then forearm tightness that caused the Mets to place him on the DL retroactive to Aug. 3. He was to have rejoined the team last Monday in Pittsburgh, but he experienced elbow pain in a rehab appearance and no one is predicting with any confidence when he'll be back.

"It'll be some time this year, whether it's the middle of September, we'll see,'' Minaya said.

In his absence, the Mets first turned to setup man Heilman as a replacement closer. In his first appearance in his new role, he came in with a four-run lead against the San Diego Padres and gave up a three-run home run to Jody Gerut in a game the Mets subsequently lost.

Things have not improved since. Heilman gave up a first-pitch double to pinch-hitter Geoff Blum, then a single to pinch-hitter David Newhan that scored the tying run Sunday. Blum was thrown at the plate trying to score, but Heilman was lifted to unforgiving boos from the Shea Stadium crowd.

In his last 20 appearances, Heilman has allowed 16 earned runs on 21 hits in 18 2/3 innings, for an ERA of 7.71.

"We keep wondering why Heilman gets hit,'' Warthen said. "He's really got good stuff. He's had success. We keep waiting for that to happen again, for him to find himself and have the confidence he once had. He's just making bad pitches right now.''

The Mets called up rookie Eddie Kunz, a hulking 6-5, 265-pounder with a heavy sinker who hadn't given up a home run since his freshman year at Oregon State. Kunz gave up a home run to Chase Headley of the Padres in his second appearance, was knocked around for three runs by the Pirates in his fourth, and was sent back to the minors.

For the time being, the ninth inning belongs to Luis Ayala, who last saved games with any regularity in 2002 with Saltillo in the Mexican League. That's where Minaya, then with the Montreal Expos, found him, and on Aug. 17 Minaya made a waiver deal for Ayala with the Washington Nationals for a player to be named.

Ayala, who blew out his elbow pitching for Mexico in the World Baseball Classic in 2006, picked up his first save Friday night, one night after earning his first win as a Met against the Braves, and after a scoreless ninth Sunday, he has yet to be scored upon in four appearances.

"Right now these guys have done a decent job,'' Warthen said. "They're all trying to stay together and pull for each other, and that's what we want them to do. But as far as easy, no it's not easy.''

The Mets have lost 15 games in which they were tied after seven innings. They've lost eight games in which they've led after eight innings. Of Santana's eight no-decisions, six were in games in which he left with a lead.

For a team that is trying to live down last September's epic collapse, these late-inning meltdowns do not inspire confidence. Minaya prefers to focus on the team's survival instincts.

"If you would have told me we'd lead with five weeks left in the season and we had Moises Alou, Ryan Church, (Luis) Castillo, Pedro (Martinez), those guys out for long periods of time, I would have signed up,'' he said. "And I'm still signing up.''