CHICAGO - From all directions, Mets manager Terry Collins faced harsh realities Wednesday night. And when all of them came into a play in a frustrating 2-1 loss to the Cubs, he was left to answer for his decisions.

Matt Harvey tossed seven shutout innings but was pulled after 100 pitches, a concession to the Mets' desire to protect his arm in his first year since Tommy John surgery.

"Yeah, it's hard," Collins said of pulling Harvey, who tied a season high with nine strikeouts. "But it's going to be hard all year long."

So, instead of leaning on his ace for one more inning, Collins turned over a 1-0 advantage to a burned-out bullpen. It ended in the ninth, with closer Jeurys Familia issuing a bases-loaded walk to Chris Coghlan that forced in the winning run.

Soon, Collins faced questions for waiting until the bases were loaded before deploying Familia. Had he considered starting the ninth inning with his best reliever instead of struggling setup man Carlos Torres?

"No, no," Collins said. "I did not."

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With Torres on in the eighth, Dexter Fowler's RBI single erased the 1-0 lead that Harvey had left behind. Torres started the ninth and loaded the bases before Collins came to get Familia.

With one out, and the Mets in a five-man infield, Familia issued the decisive walk.

The Mets (20-14) dropped their third straight game. They must win Thursday to avoid a four-game sweep at the hands of the Cubs. Also, they must now look over their shoulders at the hard-charging Nationals, who loom just 11/2 games back in the NL East.

"Nine times out of 10, it's going to work," Harvey said of Collins' decision to go to the bullpen. "Tonight, it didn't."

Collins' decision-making wasn't the only culprit.

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The lineup continued its struggles, blowing a chance to seize control in the first inning, when they loaded the bases with nobody out and came away with nothing. On a windswept night at Wrigley Field, the Mets would pay the price.

A Michael Cuddyer groundout scored the Mets' only run in the sixth. "We're going to put up runs," Harvey said. "We're in a little bit of a rut right now. But obviously, everybody goes through that."

Still, because of Harvey, the Mets found themselves six outs away from a victory. But ultimately, tradition and custom steered Collins away from taking action.

For all of the information and new-wave thinking that has infused the game, skippers remain a slave to an outdated line in the unofficial handbook of game management. No matter the situation, managers generally refuse to use their closers in non-save situations on the road.

Collins proved no exception.

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With the score tied 1-1 entering the ninth, his thoughts centered on getting the most out of a burned-out bullpen, one that was essentially down three bodies.

Rookie Hansel Robles had thrown 48 pitches over his last two games and the erratic lefty Alex Torres had thrown 34 pitches the night before. Neither were at Collins' disposal, along with Buddy Carlyle, who is bound for the disabled list.

But because the Mets' Triple-A affiliate is in Las Vegas, there wasn't enough time to send a replacement for last night's game. The wasted roster spot burned the Mets.

With only Sean Gilmartin and Erik Goeddel left in the bullpen behind Familia, Collins' primary concern was getting as much as he could out of Carlos Torres.

So, the righthander began the ninth, with Collins shying away from having to keep Familia in the game were the Mets to push ahead.

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"You're asking for a two-inning save," Collins said in explaining his thought process. "That's something we haven't done."

In his previous start, a loss to the Phillies, Harvey pitched with two extra days' rest. He looked uncomfortable.

"His sequences aren't completely to where they're going to be," pitching coach Dan Warthen said. "That's why I think he's still got room for improvement in a lot of areas."

Last night, while pitching on regular rest, Harvey responded to a return to routine.

His command appeared sharp. He threw tight sliders and curveballs. And with both weapons at his disposal, he mixed them effectively.

Twice, he got Cubs phenom to strikeout on nasty sliders. By the end of the night, he had lowered his ERA to 2.31. Yet, he didn't get enough support to win.