FLUSHING -- It was the top of the eighth, and the Mets' season had been reduced to two innings. Tied with the Brewers in the Wild Card chase and tied with the Marlins in the final game of Shea Stadium, and with the Brewers tied with the Cubs in Milwaukee also in the top of the eighth, the Mets called upon Scott Schoeneweis to retire lefty Mike Jacobs. Only Schoeneweis wouldn't face Jacobs, as Fredi Gonzalez, scrapping for the win, replaced him with the right-hander Wes Helms.
Though it's been made entirely clear that Schoeneweis should never, ever, ever face a right-handed hitter, Jerry Manuel had to leave the southpaw in to face Helms. Schoeneweis rewarded his manager's faith with a gopherball that Helms bashed 390 feet into the left-field picnic area. Luis Ayala replaced Schoeneweis in the most appropriate way, by allowing a home run to the first batter he faced, Dan Uggla.
Meanwhile, half a country away, CC Sabathia, the anti-Schoeneweis, was dealing. Sabathia plowed through the Cubs in the top of the 8th the way he's plowed through most of the National League since joining the Brewers, and by the time Ayala finished the top of the eighth in New York, the Brewers had put up two runs on a Ryan Braun home run in Milwaukee. Mets down, 4-2. Brewers up, 3-1.
Jose Reyes doubled and
Carlos Beltran walked in the bottom of the 8th shortly after the out of town scoreboard switched from "9" to "F" in the Milwaukee game. Sabathia finished the game, because Sabathia only pitches in nine-inning increments.
Back in New York, with the game on the line, Carlos Delgado, the guy who more than anyone epitomized the Mets' 2008 turnaround, smacked one to left field. The knuckling liner appeared to beguile Josh Willingham, and for a brief moment, there was still hope. But Willingham settled under it and dismissed the Mets' threat.
Oliver Perez's gutsy 5 1/3 innings on short rest? Gone.
Beltran's game-tying blast in the bottom of the sixth? Worthless. The Mets' rollercoaster season? Disappeared into the ether.
Goodbye, Shea Stadium. Goodbye, 2008 season. Goodbye, Jerry Manuel?
Maybe, though that seems unfair. Using Schoeneweis in that spot might have been an inexcusable gaffe, but it's not like Manuel had a whole slew of better options in the cupboard.
Let's say an architect designed you a house and the contractor you hired built it exactly to the blueprints. A few months later, the house falls down. Who's to blame?
"The team that was out there this year probably wasn't as good as the team last September," said Omar Minaya. "We had Ramon Martinez at second base. We had Daniel Murphy, who wasn't even on our depth chart in Spring Training. We had Bobby Parnell pitching big innings".
Manuel, 55-38 since taking over for Willie Randolph on June 17, had to rely time and again on pitchers like Schoeneweis, and in the last game of the season, needed
Robinson Cancel and
Marlon Anderson to pinch hit. The final three Mets' hitters of the 2008 season?
Damion Easley and
Ryan Church, who had struck out in his last six at-bats. Suboptimal.
Now Jerry's sitting in limbo and Minaya has a brand new four-year contract extension. Just saying's all.
Minaya, after the game, praised the work Manuel did in 2008, and said he'd be talking to team ownership this week and would like to shore up the managerial position as soon as possible. He complimented Manuel again and again, but was careful not to endorse him. Manuel did, however, receive an endorsement from a player that's been a whole lot more consistent than the Mets' GM.
"He should be back," said Beltran. "He's a great man, and he did everything possible to try to make us earn a spot in the playoffs. He did his part."
Somewhere in Shea Stadium on Sunday there was a whole ton of fine champagne, on ice, waiting to be sloshed about the Mets' clubhouse. And up until the 8th inning, there was a halfway decent chance the Mets would be popping those corks.
Not to be. I wonder what happens to that champagne now. Is it donated to charity? Handed off to the loyal Shea employees forced to stick with these Mets until the bitter end? I have no idea. All I know is I want a bottle or two. Mets fans could use a drink right now.
But if you do pour one or four or fifteen back to help yourself through that brutal conclusion, don't use one word. Don't call it a collapse. This season was different from the last, and these Mets don't deserve to be fettered to their brethren from a year ago.
Last year's team lost six of their last seven and 12 of their last 17. This year's team merely middled to the finish, going 10-10 in their final 20 games and 6-6 in their final 12. Not good, for sure. If you want to be a playoff team, you've got to do better than that. But I'm not calling that a collapse. This was the Epic Middling. A rollercoaster ride that crashed on its final turn.
Of course, it would have been nice if they would have managed more than five runs in three games against the Marlins.
Last year's finish prompted me to write this column, one that, at least based on e-mail responses, resonated with Mets fans as thoroughly as anything I've written.
This year? Screw it. Where's that champagne?