Atlanta - After suffering the most devastating defeat imaginable, the Mets

today are fully aware how their 2001 season will end - without the reward they

had coveted and almost had come to expect, and with a sense of suffocating

frustration that, three days ago, they couldn't have fathomed.

They can avoid that fate only if the remainders of their season and the

Braves' are more implausible than the ninth-inning fold they executed yesterday

that whiplashed their resolve.

The Mets were saturated with a sense of finality in the minutes that

followed their stunning 8-5 loss to the Braves, in which they blew a 5-1 lead

in the ninth. They boarded their bus knowing its destination, their midtown

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hotel, and that of their season, nowhere. "It's a lousy way to end our season,"

Todd Zeile said.

Bobby Valentine, his upper lip stiff, thought of the third game of this

series and said: "We'll see what we can get out here tomorrow." He offered no

public words of concession and no private words to his players. "They'll digest

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it," he said. "Words aren't going to help them digest it."

But Zeile and others discounted the games the Mets are obligated to play,

knowing that a five-game deficit in the standings is too great an obstacle to

overcome in seven games. And the abject failure of Armando Benitez and John

Franco to protect a 5-1 lead with three outs to go - and a 5-2 lead with one

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out required - damaged the Mets' resilience.

"We've come back from a lot," Franco said. "But I don't know how you get

over this."

With the Mets leading 5-4, Franco threw a misplaced 0-and-2 fastball that

Brian Jordan grandly slammed to complete the seven-run inning and end the game.

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That came after Benitez faced seven batters, throwing nothing but fastballs

for 29 pitches. Five of the seven reached base and scored.

Franco faced two batters, falling behind pinch hitter Wes Helms 3-and-0

before walking him on a 3-and-2 pitch. He threw two low changeups to Jordan

before the Braves' weekend warrior hit what Franco repeatedly called "a stupid

pitch" over the left-centerfield wall for the second slam he has allowed in his

career.

The manner of overall failure created all kinds of parallels to past

horrors of the Mets versus the Braves.

For the second time in a week, Benitez squandered a lead in the ninth

inning against the Braves.

"It's so similar to last Sunday, but worse," said Al Leiter, who pitched

eight solid innings and stood to be the winning pitcher in each game.

For the second time in a week, Jordan played the role of hero. He hit two

home runs last Sunday, one against Benitez in the ninth, the other against

Jerrod Riggan in the 11th. "Two times in a week," Rey Ordonez said. "Jesus

Christmas."

For the second time this season, the Mets lost here on a final-pitch grand

slam. Javy Lopez hit one off Benitez June 28.

And for the umpteenth time in the last four seasons, the Mets were undone

in this ballpark. They have lost 13 of 14 games at Turner Field in September

and October. Their 1998 and 1999 seasons ended here, literally. Their 2001

season ended here too, realistically.

"I don't know that it matters that it's here ... again," Franco said with

moist eyes. "What matters is that we didn't get it done. I didn't get it done."

"You can't lose a game like that," Mike Piazza said, his eyes not dry

either. But the Mets did.

Benitez said nothing for public consumption, fleeing the clubhouse

undetected. He has lost four times this season, each time in non-save

circumstances.

Benitez was summoned after Leiter threw 121 pitches, and after he asked to

start the ninth, unlike last Sunday. Valentine, ejected in the sixth, was in

the clubhouse. "Dave [Engle, the batting coach] came in and said, 'Looks like

he had enough.'"

Benitez' first batter, Andruw Jones, singled. Two batters later, with Jones

on second, Lopez singled to score him. An out later, a walk to Keith Lockhart

and a double to left by Marcus Giles gave the Braves two more runs and

realistic hope.

"I don't know how the double got over Shinjo's head," Valentine said. "We

were playing 'no doubles' [a deep defense]." Shinjo lamented his jump but not

his too-shallow positioning.

An intentional walk to 43-year-old Julio Franco followed before John

Franco replaced Benitez.

"Hard to believe we had two strikes on five guys and didn't get it done,"

Valentine said. "We had two strikes on a lot of guys but didn't put them away."

The rest was left to Franco. "I wanted the matchup of Johnny and Helms,"

Valentine said.

The manager didn't want anyone to face Jordan.

The Nightmare Ninth

Mets Leading, 5-1

Armando Benitez pitching.

Andruw Jones singles on an 0-and-1 pitch.

Ken Caminiti strikes out looking on a full count. Jones advances to second on

the second pitch of the at-bat on defensive indifference.

Javy Lopez singles to left on an 0-and-1 pitch. Jones scores and Lopez advances

to second when Tsuyoshi Shinjo, with no play at the plate, goes home and

overthrows the cutoff man.

Mets Leading, 5-2

Dave Martinez, pinch hitting for Rey Sanchez, grounds out to second on a

2-and-2 pitch - it could have been an inning-ending DP if Lopez had been at

first. Instead, Lopez advances to third.

Keith Lockhart, pinch hitting for Odalis Perez, walks on a full count in a

nine-pitch at-bat. Benitez fails to get the final out on five pitches after the

count reaches 2-and-2.

Marcus Giles hits a two-run double off the leftfield wall on a 1-and-2 pitch,

the sixth time in the inning the Mets are one strike away.

Mets Leading, 5-4

Julio Franco is walked intentionally.

John Franco relieves Benitez (left)

Wes Helms walks on a full count, the seventh time the Mets can't get the final

strike.

Brian Jordan falls behind 0-and-2, then hits the game-winning grand slam on the

next pitch.

Braves Win, 8-5

INSIDE GAME 155

RECORD: 79-76....LAST SEASON: 88-67

MINUS: In a foolish move, Tsuyoshi Shinjo threw home trying to deny the Braves

a second run but allowing their eventual third run to reach second in the

ninth.

PLUS: Braves third baseman Ken Caminiti took a throw from Javy Lopez with his

back to shortstop and applied a tag through his legs on Shinjo's attempted

steal of third in the sixth. Bobby Valentine was ejected for arguing.

BRAVES 8

METS 5

Today

Mets at Braves

1:05 p.m.

TV: Ch. 11

Radio: WFAN (660)

Insider, C9

Playoff Chase, C8

Notebook, C8