For a team used to making miracles, conjuring up a disaster had an especially bitter taste. With a sloppily played 8-1 loss to Florida and the Phillies' 6-1 win against the Nationals, the Mets' season ended about a month too early. The loss capped an agonizing stretch of two and a half weeks in which the Mets played some of the worst teams in the National League and still played their worst baseball of the season.
Few can escape the blame game. Willie Randolph might have to update his resume, and that doesn't seem unreasonable. He relied too much on veterans all season, playing them over more talented youngsters. His team showed a lack of discipline -- not running out ground balls, making foolish outs on the basepaths -- that always gets pointed out during struggles. He mismanaged his bullpen all year -- how else can you explain Guillermo Mota ever pitching with a lead -- and tired out the relievers so much that they could hardly lift their arms by season's end.
Randolph can say he did his best with the hand he was dealt -- even though he didn't -- and that sheds some light on Omar Minaya's flaws. This is a team that, like it or not, was built to win last year. Its apex may end up being Endy Chavez's catch in Game 7 of the 2006 National League Championship Series. The team's failure to better that had plenty to do with Minaya's roster decisions heading into 2007. He traded away capable relievers in Heath Bell and Royce Ring. He swapped American League Rookie of the Year Candidate Brian Bannister. Wouldn't he have wanted all three when the wheels came off the Mets' pitching staff in September? Moises Alou and his $8 million was fine when he was on the field, but he only played half a season. There is no excuse for any Major League team putting David Newhan in left field. Carlos Delgado and Shawn Green both turned in seasons that didn't even approach their remuneration. Paul Lo Duca was a defensive and offensive liability. With some creativity, Minaya could have upgraded those positions.
At some point, the players just have to perform. Who gets a free pass? David Wright and Carlos Beltran. That's the end of the list. Jose Reyes stunk for much of the second half. If he put as much energy into his baserunning as he did into his dances, maybe he wouldn't have invited the scorn of the Mets fans who booed him throughout Sunday's loss. Lo Duca hit into a ton of double plays, didn't hustle and couldn't get his on-base percentage above .310. Carlos Delgado was a shadow of his former self. Luis Castillo is a singles hitter who doesn't get on base that much anymore and who lacks the blistering speed that made him an asset in years past. That's a long list of problems for the Mets' payroll and resources.
Then look at the pitching staff. Pedro Martinez did all he could in a return from a rotator-cuff injury. Glavine had a good enough year but got only one out in Sunday's drubbing. His ERA approached infinity in his final three starts. Oliver Perez seemed to alternate dominant starts with wild starts like the one he put forth Friday. Orlando Hernandez represents the Alou of the pitching staff: Fine when healthy, but not healthy enough. John Maine pitched his heart out but control problems kept him from being a top-notch pitcher. In the bullpen, Billy Wagner and Aaron Heilman rarely got big outs and found little support behind them.
What now for the Mets? Could anyone blame them if they fired both Minaya and Randolph with a desire to start fresh? That probably won't happen, but it could be considered. The 2008 squad probably won't include Lo Duca, Green or Castillo. The Mets have an option on Alou, and all the other regulars are signed. As for the pitching staff, how long can it exist without a true ace? Will trucking out the likes of Hernandez and Glavine lead to anything but another 88-win season.
The good news? The Mets play in the National League, where a collection of No. 3 starters can still leave a team on the precipice of the playoffs. They'll be able to compete even if future versions are flawed. Their dreadful play to close this season gives them a head start on making sure those flaws are minimal.
Photo of the Mets dugout in the 9th inning and photo of a dejected Mets fan after the game by AP/Kathy Willens