ATLANTA — The cauldron that is pennant-race baseball does not discriminate. It is an equal-opportunity tormentor, ready to torch the hides of wide-eyed rookies and hardened veterans alike.
No one is immune. Not even a baseball lifer.
“My fault,” said manager Terry Collins, whose failure to pinch run for the slow-footed Wilmer Flores on Saturday night cost the Mets in a 4-3, 10-inning loss to the Braves.
Collins, 67, has spent more than four decades in the game. But he paid dearly for worrying about the future at the expense of the present.
With the score tied 3-3 in the eighth and the Mets in the middle of a full-blown sprint for a National League wild-card berth, Collins cycled through his options in the dugout. He worried about setting up his relief pitching in a game that could drag into the night. He fretted about who soon would hit in the pitcher’s spot.
His attention, however, should have been at second base. That’s where the plodding Flores stood after lining a pitch off the centerfield fence.
“I should have run for him there,” said Collins, who would be punished for his lapse.
T.J. Rivera rifled a single to right and Flores took off for home, the go-ahead run in a tense game. But Nick Markakis unleashed a strong throw, good enough to nail Flores, who left the game with a bruised neck after colliding with catcher A.J. Pierzynski.
X-rays were negative. But after the game, Flores still was reeling, his punishment for a headfirst slide that left him exposed to danger.
“It’s one of those plays where I really wanted to score and I tried to do too much,” he said. “That’s why I got hurt.”
With that, the Mets squandered their best chance, leaving them on the path to defeat. It came in the 10th, when with two outs, the Braves’ Adonis Garcia laced a game-winning single off Josh Smoker.
The Mets (75-67), whose winning streak ended at six games, dipped a half-game behind the Cardinals for the final wild- card spot. It could have been prevented.
The Mets nearly wiggled out of a first-and-third, none-out jam in the 10th. They resorted to a rarely used tactic: five infielders.
Darby Swanson singled to begin the inning, moved to second when Erik Goeddel’s wild pitch wound up on the screen and went to third on Pierzynski’s single to left. After pinch hitter Tyler Flowers struck out, Smoker entered along with utilityman Ty Kelly, who served as a fifth infielder for Ender Inciarte, who popped out.
“It almost worked out,” said Kelly, who between outs retrieved a new glove from the dugout and moved to centerfield when the Mets returned to a normal alignment.
But Garcia made it a moot point, singling up the middle to cap a frustrating night, one that turned because Collins fell asleep at the wheel.
Yoenis Cespedes hit his 29th homer, a solo shot that put the Mets in front 3-2 in the fifth. Matt Kemp tied it with a blast of his own in the sixth, a tremendous drive on which Cespedes didn’t bother moving his feet as the ball sailed over his head and well into the stands in left.
Still, the Mets found themselves in position to win. With two outs in the eighth, Flores lined his double to centerfield. And after falling behind 0-and-2, Rivera laced a pinch-hit single to right.
Third-base coach Tim Teufel waved in the plodding Flores. Considering the situation, it was the right call, Collins said later.
Teufel waved his arm as Flores approached third. Meanwhile, Markakis’ throw took Pierzynski up the third-base line. Seeing an opening, Flores dived headfirst toward the plate. His neck crashed into Pierzynski’s left knee.
Once the bodies were untangled, Flores wound up doubled over in agony.
“The first two, three seconds after I hit him, I’ve never felt that pain before,” he said. “I felt real weird and dizzy. But thank God I feel good right now.”
Of course, with a roster teeming with September call-ups, Flores shouldn’t have been running at all.
Collins has long faced criticism for his in-game management, though the Mets have consistently played hard during his tenure. A day earlier, general manager Sandy Alderson praised Collins’ steady hand, one that led to the Mets’ recent surge.
But on Saturday, the game moved quickly, and Collins did not. Apparently, neither did any of his lieutenants, such as first-year bench coach Dick Scott. For that collective goof, the Mets stumbled in the middle of a tight wild-card race, one that could come down to the season’s final days.
In the hallway, Alderson paced back and forth, silently. In his office, Collins shouldered the blame, chastising himself before he was even asked about the gaffe. Under pressure, his decades of experience offered little cover for a rookie mistake.
“I was trying to get the pitching set up and get a pinch hitter in and got distracted,” a downcast Collins said. “My fault.”