NEW YORK -- For all their unexpected successes and apparent overachievements this season, the Mets have yet to fully embrace their glass slipper. Whenever they take one step forward, they typically take one in the other direction. Whenever they take three steps forward, as they have several times this month, they generally dance backward in equal measure.
The Mets hope that will not continue to be the trend going forward, now that they are playing some of their best baseball of the season. But they took at least one sizeable step backward in Saturday's 4-3 loss to the Yankees at Citi Field, operating at less than peak efficiency with their bullpen, defense and lineup.
Much as he did earlier this month in a similarly crushing defeat at Yankee Stadium, Jon Rauch served up the game-winning home run -- this time to pinch-hitter Eric Chavez in the seventh, in front of 42,122 -- the largest crowd in Citi Field history.
"He hit a good pitch," Rauch said. "He takes a panic swing and somehow barreled it. I think everybody in this clubhouse is amazed that he was able to do that with that pitch."
Bad pitch or good one, luck or skill, the Mets could hardly pin this loss entirely on Rauch. After blanking the Yankees for six strong innings, starting pitcher Chris Young walked the leadoff batter in the seventh, allowed a defense-aided double to Nick Swisher and served up Raul Ibanez's game-tying three-run homer, altering the entire course of the game within minutes.
But it was Rauch who ultimately served up the game-winner, throwing a letter-high fastball off the outer half of the plate. Admittedly trying to do little more than protect the plate with his swing, Chavez nonetheless reached out and drove the ball over the left-field wall for a homer.
"Pinch-hitting is hard just in general," Chavez said. "You're just trying to make contact up there, really. The guys in here are just professional. When we get the opportunity to do something, we try to take advantage of it."
Added Mets manager Terry Collins: "I don't think you can classify that as a mistake."
Rauch still might not have become the scapegoat had the Mets cashed in either of their two late opportunities to tie the game, most notably when Jordany Valdespin led off the bottom of the seventh with a double. But after David Wright moved Valdespin to third base on a groundout, Lucas Duda and Daniel Murphy struck out in succession against Yankees reliever Boone Logan, with right-handed pinch-hit candidates Justin Turner and Vinny Rottino sitting on the bench.
An inning later, the Mets put two men on base against David Robertson with one out. But this time it was Turner and Kirk Nieuwenhuis who went down on strikes to end the threat.
The Mets scored their only runs on Nieuwenhuis' solo homer in the third inning, Josh Thole's RBI groundout in the fourth and Young's run-scoring single in the sixth. But facing what he called "the best lineup I've seen of a Yankee team," Collins knew that a three-run lead was not safe. So he bemoaned his club's inability to tack on runs.
"The thing that has saved us thus far has been our two-out hitting," Collins said, "and we didn't have it tonight."
Nor did the Mets enjoy top-flight defense. Carrying a two-hitter into the seventh, Young walked the leadoff batter, then watched Duda misplay Swisher's sinking line drive into an inning-altering double. As much as -- if not more than -- anything else in the game, Duda's mistake cost the Mets when the next batter, Ibanez, curled a game-tying three-run home run around the right-field foul pole.
"I probably won't sleep very well," said Young, who was so sharp over the first six innings. "It was the worst pitch I threw tonight, and it ultimately cost us the ballgame."
"Out of 100 pitches tonight, one mistake," bemoaned Thole, the catcher. "It got us."
It also cost the Mets their chance at a Citi Field sweep, with knuckleballer extraordinaire R.A. Dickey taking the mound on Sunday. Still, even if Dickey loses, the Mets will finish their current stretch of 22 consecutive games against .500-or-better teams with an even record.
Along the way, they have lost more than a few games that they could have won -- with Saturday's defeat the most recent example. The Mets simply hope that, with expectations rising for their team, they will not come to regret those lost opportunities even more in September.