PITTSBURGH - The clubhouse attendants lingered in the hallway beneath PNC Park Sunday, hands in pockets, waiting for a signal to resume packing the Mets' belongings.

But Terry Collins had something to say. After watching his team absorb a 9-1 drubbing by the Pirates, he kicked out the attendants and shut the doors.

"This is not about who's not here," Collins said. "This is about who is here. If they're here, they're good enough, so we've got to start playing like it."

In a game the Mets needed to win just to avoid a three-game sweep, injuries forced Collins to send out a starting lineup missing half its regulars.

The Mets lost for the fifth time in six games and did it in an unsightly way. In three games, the Mets were outscored 21-4 and the offense racked up a staggering 36 strikeouts. That total included 14 Sunday, 12 against lefthanded starter Francisco Liriano (2-4).

Three of those strikeouts came in the second inning, when the Mets put runners on second and third with none out, then failed to put another ball in play. They came away with nothing.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

A strikeout ended a threat in the fifth, when the Mets scored before loading the bases. But they failed to pile on as John Mayberry Jr. fanned for the third out.

"You tend to press," Michael Cuddyer said. "Any time you don't want to do something, you keep telling yourself not to do something . . . [and] it ends up happening."

Collins sensed that energy from the dugout. The time had come. Soon it would be his turn to talk. "What always happens when you go through a tough time is that they want to be the guy that breaks it open instead of just doing their part," he said.

The Mets have endured poor hitting for much of the month. But with the pitching staff hitting its first rough patch -- Collins wondered if it's the ravages of a "dead arm" period -- the Mets have left themselves no margin for error.

Jonathon Niese (3-5) was battered for four runs and seven hits in 42/3 innings, the second time in the series that a Mets starter (Matt Harvey) was chased before five innings.

Mets videos

"There's no need to panic," said Niese, who has a 9.00 ERA in his last three starts.

Andrew McCutchen blasted a two-run shot in the fifth. One inning later, Collins intentionally walked him and Starling Marte made the Mets pay with a three-run shot that put the game out of reach. It was that kind of weekend for Collins.

On Saturday, he learned that David Wright's absence will be lengthened by a bad back that could have long-term implications. On Sunday, a hamstring injury kept Lucas Duda out and Juan Lagares' lingering right elbow woes prompted Collins to rest him, too. Both could be out again Monday when the Mets begin a six-game homestand.

"You talk about the stage where we are right now," Collins said shortly after his clubhouse meeting, "the one thing we cannot afford to have happen is to lose one of those two guys or both those guys for a month in exchange for two days."

The manager stopped short of calling the upcoming games a critical stretch. He noted that 117 games remain.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

His players struck similar notes.

At 24-21, the Mets are 21/2 games out of first, currently lifeless but far from dead.

"Everything he said to us, I was thinking it," Niese said. "At this point, it's about execution. We can't feel sorry for ourselves. We've got to step it up and execute."