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04/29/09 7:39 PM ET

Missed opportunity as Mets fall late

Santana outduels Johnson, but Marlins get to Putz

NEW YORK -- In the days when Dwight Gooden regularly abused the National League, the Mets all but assumed his starts would yield victories, even when circumstances were adverse. So when a loss did occur, it was more than a loss.

"Because you have higher expectations on Doc's day, it's like a compound fracture," Ron Darling suggested once in 1986. "You feel broken in two places."

So it was on Wednesday afternoon at Citi Field. On a day when Johan Santana started and the Mets assumed the best, the worst happened. In a second successive disturbing loss, they heard their expectations snap and their aspirations crack. Not only did they lose, they didn't win a Santana start. And that isn't recommended.

"All losses are equal" is how the saying goes. "Some losses are more equal than others" is how it is. This loss, 4-3 to the Marlins, has the same numerical value as the 11 that preceded it this season. But for now -- and probably until the Mets take a bus to Philadelphia on Thursday afternoon -- it warrants boldface type and an underscore. And some whispered words of four-letter length.

No matter the programmed denials -- "You hurt any time you lose, no matter who the starter is," J.J. Putz said -- this one stung even more than Tuesday's unbecoming 7-4 loss, if only because it pushed this misfiring team's record to three games south of the baseball equator. But at least one of the Mets acknowledged, albeit in a whisper, that it was crucial to win Santana's starts.

The Mets didn't win because Santana surrendered two runs early -- one on another home run by Jorge Cantu -- Putz (1-2) surrendered two more late and their batting order squandered opportunities all day long to beat starter Josh Johnson, closer Matt Lindstrom and two setup relievers.

Santana did his job -- the Marlins' offense was silent in his final six innings. Putz didn't; he walked the first two batters in the eighth inning and eventually allowed a ground ball by Cody Ross through the middle of the Mets' double-play-depth defense that provided the tying and decisive runs.

The Mets' offense produced one hit in 11 at-bats with runners in scoring position and left 14 runners on base, seven in its last three turns at bat.

Manager Jerry Manuel seemingly ignored the bottom-line implications of his team's fifth loss in its past nine one-run games, a loss that put the Mets closer to last place than first in the National League East after 22 games. Manuel said he found encouragement in his team's approach with runners in scoring position even though their swings produced 11 outs (including one double play).

"Our at-bats were the grinding type rather than the give-up type," Manuel said some 18 hours after he had bemoaned his hitters' approach. "I think we're really close."

Manuel had made a similarly optimistic assessment of David Wright two days earlier; Wright was getting closer, the manager said. Then, on Wednesday, Wright took two called third strikes -- one in the ninth inning -- with runners in scoring position, grounded into a double play with runners in scoring position, walked once and singled once.

But it was the manager's assessment of a different situation -- one that developed with two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth inning -- that created a stir among the Mets and some observers.

Manuel assigned what proved to be the game's final at-bat to Omir Santos, as the rookie catcher pinch-hit for Ramon Castro. Santos, who had started the four previous games in place of injured backstop Brian Schneider and hit a grand slam Monday, popped up in his 36th big league at-bat for the 27th out.

"I thought Santos had a better shot," was Manuel's explanation. "When you have a little shorter swing, you have a better chance against a guy throwing in the upper 90s [mph]."

Castro had earlier contributed two singles and one RBI in his first two at-bats against Johnson, who throws in the upper 90s.

Santos had been catching a reliever in the bullpen when he was summoned to bat. He hadn't expected the assignment. Neither had Castro, whose spoken reaction was, "Jerry's the manager."

None of the intrigue would have developed if the Mets had done more against Johnson (six innings, nine hits, a walk and three runs), or if Cantu hadn't morphed into Keith Hernandez. The former third baseman twice denied hits with handsome plays at first base. Both times, in the second and seventh innings, the Mets had runners on second and third with two outs. In each instance -- the first against Jose Reyes and the second against Ryan Church -- Cantu moved to his right, made a play and threw to Johnson for the third out.

Add those plays to the three home runs he hit in a four at-bat sequence that spanned the Tuesday and Wednesday games.

Cantu's home run in the first followed a triple by Cameron Maybin and a sacrifice fly by Wes Helms. The Mets produced a run in the bottom of the inning on a triple by Reyes -- his second of the season, and the team now has 11 -- and a sacrifice bunt by Alex Cora. They tied the score in the fourth on the second of Fernando Tatis' three hits, his stolen base and Castro's single.

Tatis hit his first home run in the sixth -- it was ruled a home run after the umpires reviewed replays at the request of the Marlins -- creating the lead Putz didn't protect.

"Those two walks killed us," Putz said. "They wouldn't chase.

"This one's on me. It's a waste not to take advantage of a start like that."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.