NEW YORK -- Billy Wagner and Johan Santana were both in the clubhouse during the final moments of Tuesday's game, watching Santana's handiwork melt away at the will of the Phillies. Duaner Sanchez and Pedro Feliciano were observing from afar, their roles having prematurely ended. And Mets manager Jerry Manuel was perched on the dugout bench, stewing over a situation that he couldn't entirely control.
"I was thinking, 'I wish I had my closer available,'" Manuel said. "But I didn't."
He had only a pack of replacements, none of whom could finish the job. And so on a night when the Mets appeared primed to retake first place and put a cap on three weeks' worth of momentum, they instead stumbled backward in an 8-6 loss.
The most obvious problem sat helpless on the bench. Wagner, still battling the effects of left shoulder spasms, told Manuel prior to Tuesday's game that he would follow medical advice and remain idle for another day. Manuel, in turn, called on Sanchez, not Wagner, in the ninth inning, and ask him to protect a seemingly safe three-run lead.
Three consecutive singles later, Sanchez's night was done. He had not recorded an out.
Manuel drew Joe Smith's name from the bullpen lottery next, and though Smith did his job -- he induced a ground ball -- Jose Reyes could not beat Shane Victorino to the second-base bag for the forceout. A run scored, and the Phillies were within two.
Felciano's turn came next. He allowed two straight doubles -- one to So Taguchi, one to Jimmy Rollins -- which tied the game and broke it open, respectively. Then he allowed one more run, giving the Phillies eight of them on the night.
"I obviously made some bad choices," Manuel said of his bullpen management. "It didn't work out."
One potential choice would have been to allow Santana, who threw 105 pitches in eight innings, to come back out for the ninth inning. But Manuel cited Santana's inexperience with heavy workloads as justification for calling on Sanchez instead.
Santana, who allowed two runs on eight hits, said he was fine to keep pitching. He didn't lobby to remain in the game, but he would have -- if only Manuel had asked him.
"I'm not going to go against anything," Santana said. "At the time, it looked like the right decision. I don't know what the results would have been if I had stayed out there for the ninth. But I felt good. We all felt good."
For a time. They looked good for a time, too, spending the first eight innings proving that they could beat the Phillies the same way they've beaten everybody else: with strong pitching, with Carlos Delgado hitting, and with a flawless bullpen to tie up the ends.
The first two of those pieces fell into place early, when Santana gave the Mets a vintage Santana start, and Delgado gave them the necessary offense with a two-run homer in the third inning. Ramon Castro, continuing to justify his increased playing time, provided a two-run homer of his own in the sixth, and the Mets, with a four-run lead, appeared primed to reclaim first place for the first time since April 19.
One criticism of the Mets throughout their 10-game winning streak this month was that they had done it against teams -- specifically the Rockies and Giants -- who ranked far below the National League's elite. So the fact that the Mets were playing strikingly similar baseball against the Phillies Tuesday night was encouraging. For a time.
But then they reverted back to the Mets of last year -- the Mets who constantly came close, only to watch their leads slip away. The culprits were different -- this time it was Sanchez, in lieu of Wagner -- but the end result was the same.
"I'm not making any excuses," Sanchez said. "I've got to be ready anytime I'm in the game."
Yet he could not stop the Phillies' onslaught. No one in the home bullpen could, and that, for the Mets, is a problem. It's not that the bullpen has been bad -- during one July stretch, the Mets had recorded 21 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings in relief, and they entered Tuesday's play with a 1.93 bullpen ERA over their past 10 games. But they have faltered when the Mets have needed them most. Specifically, against the Phillies.
Dating back to last Aug. 27 -- the root of the team's late-season swoon -- Mets relievers have produced a 7.18 ERA in 57 2/3 innings against their rivals. The Phillies, meanwhile, with three spotless innings of relief Tuesday, lowered their bullpen ERA in those games to 2.63. So it's no surprise that the Phillies have won most of them.
There were other problems Tuesday, as well. Endy Chavez, who couldn't remember the last time he had been thrown out at home plate, was gunned down twice. And their two home runs aside, the Mets could not completely capitalize against Phillies starter Joe Blanton.
But don't tell them that, because they know they should have won this game. This was the type of win that could have proven their superiority over the Phillies. Instead, they were left to wonder for another day, another week, perhaps even another couple of months.
"Sometimes, you're going to have games like that," Santana said. "Unfortunately, it came out on a bad day, in a bad situation. We're battling for first place here."