MIAMI - Despite a break in the schedule, the Mets boarded a late-night flight to Florida after Wednesday's 5-2 loss to the Braves at Citi Field rather than take a leisurely trip the next morning for the weekend series against the Marlins.
A few members of the traveling party suggested that the day off in Miami was supposed to be a reward at the end of a long season, but it was difficult to tell if they were joking. Obviously, September was not a great month for the Mets the previous two years - especially the final week - and this one is no exception, albeit for different reasons.
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After 153 games in 2008, the Mets were 86-67 and held a half-game lead over the Phillies in the National League East. They wound up losing two of three to the Marlins and crashed to an 89-73 finish, a full three games behind Philadelphia.
At the same mile-marker in 2007, the Mets were 85-68 with a 1½-game edge over the Phillies. That year, it also was Florida that provided the dagger, winning two of the last three games to knock the Mets to 88-74, putting them a game behind Philadelphia.
So with the fortunes reversed this season and the Marlins still barely alive in the wild-card race, the Mets have a chance to put a serious dent in those slim playoff hopes - if not eliminate Florida - this weekend. But when that scenario was pitched to Jerry Manuel, the usually wisecracking manager barely showed a hint of a smile.
"We won't have champagne over there," Manuel said, "or anything like that."
Manuel understands there is nothing left to celebrate this season besides the end of it, which mercifully comes for the Mets a week from Sunday. They arrived in Florida having lost 13 of 16, and at 65-88, the Mets could fail to reach 70 wins for the first time since 2003.
Incredibly, Art Howe had back-to-back seasons of 66-95 in '03 and 71-91 in '04 before he was canned, but Manuel won't have that luxury. Howe was axed with two years and more than $4 million left on his contract. After Manuel dusts himself off from the rubble of this season, he'll be a lame duck in 2010 with no extension in sight.
Manuel barely made it to the end of this year, and his players - healthy or not - didn't do him any favors with a pathetic stretch run. David Wright, Carlos Beltran and John Maine made it back for the final weeks, but the absences of Carlos Delgado, Jose Reyes and Johan Santana still left the Mets woefully undermanned.
Now, it seems, they take the field as a collection of mercenaries, each trying to salvage something for themselves in the last nine games.
"It's no fun when you're trying to play for moral victories," Wright said. "But it is what it is. We've put ourselves in this position, so we've got to finish it out as strongly as we can. Hopefully on a positive note and give us some momentum going into next spring training.''
After Wednesday's loss, Manuel described some of his players as mentally beaten down by the losing as well as the long year: Wright, Mike Pelfrey, even Jeff Francoeur, who is fighting to the finish with a torn ligament in his left thumb.
"It's tough," Pelfrey said. "It's like going to work every day and having a bad day. It's not fun."