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Bullpen collapses as Mets lose to Cards

A dejected Francisco Rodriguez sits in the Mets

A dejected Francisco Rodriguez sits in the Mets dugout after giving up the game tying run in the ninth. Credit: Newsday / David Pokress

Johan Santana, by himself, is not enough to carry the Mets back from oblivion. But on most nights, even during this disappointing season, the two-time Cy Young winner is worth the price of admission. Sadly for the Mets, even a stirring performance by Santana last night could not guarantee a victory.

After wildly cheering Santana, who protected a 7-5 lead through a season-high eight innings, the 40,354 fans turned on Francisco Rodriguez in the ninth. The little-used Rodriguez, who is seen around Citi Field lately about as much as Tony Bernazard, wiped out Santana's hard work with his fourth blown save.

The rest of the bullpen conspired to finish the job. In the 10th inning, with the score tied at 7, the Cardinals loaded the bases against Pedro Feliciano, and Sean Green hit Mark DeRosa with his first pitch to force in the go-ahead run. Moments later, Albert Pujols smacked a grand slam, his fifth of the season and second homer of the game, to stick the Mets with a 12-7 loss.

Not only that, but Luis Castillo was forced to leave the game at the start of the eighth after spraining his left ankle tumbling down the dugout stairs. Castillo was trying to avoid a glove left on the stairs and lost his balance. X-rays were negative, but it seems unlikely Castillo will be available for today's game.

"We've been through everything this season," Santana said. "It's just one of those crazy seasons where things don't go the way you wanted them to."

Last night was a perfect example. Santana pumped his fist as he leaped off the mound at the end of the eighth. By the ninth, he probably wanted to punch K-Rod, who was faced with only his fourth save opportunity since July 8, a span of 10 appearances.

Maybe it was rust. Rodriguez immediately gave up back-to-back doubles to Rick Ankiel and Julio Lugo. After pinch hitter Colby Rasmus whiffed, Skip Schumaker tied the score with a line single to right. "It was really embarrassing," Rodriguez said.

Santana did not have one of his flashier outings, allowing nine hits and five runs with six strikeouts. He did not walk a batter, but Ryan Ludwick and Pujols took Santana deep, with Pujols airmailing his eighth-inning blast into the Home Run Apple behind the 408 mark. That was a warmup. With the 10th-inning slam, Pujols is 7-for-9 with five homers and 24 RBIs this season with the bases loaded. He also leads the majors with 36 home runs.

Santana, however, did not yield during the 103-pitch effort and also helped out in other ways. He put the Mets on the scoreboard with a two-run double off Joel Piñeiro in the second inning. In the eighth, Santana kicked Yadier Molina's hard grounder - soccer style - directly to David Wright, who threw him out to end the inning.

"The way the game was going, it was about giving the team a chance to win," Santana said. "At the end, when I left the game, I felt that I did my job."

Piñeiro was 3-0 with a 2.91 ERA in five career starts against the Mets and dominated them here June 23, when he threw a two-hit shutout. On that day, Piñeiro recorded 22 of 27 outs on ground balls.

This time, the Mets wanted to be prepared. Before the game, Jerry Manuel said they had adjusted the pitching machine, which usually fires curveballs, to spit out makeshift sinkers instead. That way the Mets' hitters could get a better feel for Piñeiro's signature pitch.

The extra homework paid off. The Mets had no trouble elevating the ball against Piñeiro in the rematch. They pounded him for 11 hits and seven runs in five innings as they jumped ahead 7-4. But as Santana said, this season veered off course long ago, and nothing seems to go as planned.

"We have to keep the faith," Manuel said. "They continue to fight. No matter who it is, everyone has to do their part. There's no doubt this is a difficult time for us."

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