PITTSBURGH -- Each spring, Mets outfielders practice taking their eyes off fly balls, glancing quickly to see if a teammate is nearby. Sometimes, such a visual check is necessary. Baseball stadiums can become extremely loud places, especially late in games with the outcome in doubt.
Such a check certainly would have helped the Mets in the eighth inning Monday, when left fielder Mike Baxter did not hear teammate Kirk Nieuwenhuis calling for a routine fly ball. The result was a dropped fly that glanced off Nieuwenhuis' glove for a three-base error, and a 5-4 loss to the Pirates that the Mets could have avoided.
"Totally on me," Baxter said. "It's a bad feeling. I hate the way that it turned out. I wish it was different."
With Jon Rauch pitching, Neil Walker lifted a fly ball to fairly deep left-center field, where Baxter and Nieuwenhuis -- both of whom were playing their first inning on defense after entering in the top of the inning as pinch-hitters -- attempted to snag it on the fly. Nieuwenhuis, the center fielder, called for the ball, but Baxter continued chasing until it struck off his teammate's glove.
Walker raced around to third and, two batters later, Clint Barmes plated the winning run with a sacrifice fly.
"A hundred percent my fault," Baxter said. "It's fundamental baseball. Kirk has the right of way on that ball, so I've got to get out of his way on that. That one hurts."
Though only 14,556 fans filled PNC Park, and though many of them had left by the bottom of the eighth, those who remained made enough noise to mask Nieuwenhuis' call. The rookie lamented afterward that he also could have darted his eyes to see where Baxter was, though such a visual check was not his responsibility. In matters of right of way, the center fielder trumps everyone on the diamond.
"It was pretty loud out there in the outfield, by the stands a little bit," Nieuwenhuis said. "But it's part of the game. You've got to deal with it. It's not an excuse. You've got to do what you've got to do to make that play. It's a routine play."
Mets starter Johan Santana had been resigned to a no-decision an inning earlier, giving back four early runs after appearing, at times, as sharp as he has been all season. Santana struck out four straight batters at one early juncture, but caved for two runs in the fourth inning on consecutive doubles by Josh Harrison, Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez.
The left-hander then coughed up the rest of his lead in the seventh, giving up a leadoff single to Barmes and a two-run, game-tying home run to backup catcher Michael McKenry, who smoked an 87-mph fastball over the left-field wall.
"Every time, it comes down to one pitch," said Santana, who has won once in nine starts despite a 3.24 ERA. "That's what happened there."
"You'll take whatever you can get from a guy like that," McKenry said. "Luckily, he left a pitch up for me."
The Mets jumped all over Pirates starter Erik Bedard in the second inning, batting around and scoring four times. After Ronny Cedeno drove home Vinny Rottino with an RBI double, Justin Turner plated two more runs with his own two-base hit. David Wright capped the rally with an RBI single, punching Bedard's backdoor curveball into shallow right field.
Entering the day with a Major League-leading .412 batting average and .513 on-base percentage, Wright finished 2-for-4 with two singles and a walk, improving those numbers to .415 and .515. But the Mets could not take advantage of Bedard's high pitch count, going down quietly over his final three innings.
Had they been able to tack on runs against any of Pittsburgh's five pitchers, Baxter's misplay might never have happened -- or might not have been so damaging. Instead, the Mets emptied their bench on offense in the eighth, sending Baxter and Nieuwenhuis onto the field for the bottom of the inning.
Even in the game's immediate aftermath, the Mets could hardly harp on Baxter's miscue too much. The outfielder was intentionally walked in the top of the eighth for a reason -- he has established a reputation as one of the National League's best bench players, leading the circuit in pinch-hits and recently helping spark multiple game-winning rallies.
But he is also just 27 years old, and at times that shows. After Baxter jogged in from the outfield, Terry Collins pulled him aside to make sure, in the manager's words, that "it doesn't happen again."
"When you get into these stadiums, especially late in the game, it's going to be a little bit loud," Baxter said. "You have to find a way to not let that happen. That's the bottom line."