PITTSBURGH - Johan Santana did not use the word "pathetic'' Sunday to describe the Mets' offense, but no one would have blamed him if he had after a 2-1 loss to the Pirates at PNC Park.

As disgusted as manager Jerry Manuel was a few days earlier in Houston, Santana had reason to feel considerably worse after allowing only four hits and striking out nine in eight innings - and coming up empty again.

Santana whiffed the first four hitters he faced and didn't allow a hit until Pedro Alvarez singled to open the fifth. Ultimately, he was undone by two changeups he hung to Lastings Milledge and Jose Tabata that resulted in solo homers. Former Met Milledge blasted a two-out shot into the bullpen beyond the centerfield fence to tie the score in the fifth inning. Tabata, once a top Yankees prospect, pulled another two-out drive into the leftfield bleachers in the sixth.

"I mean, it's just another game, you know?" said Santana, seeming resigned to his fate. "A tough one. Seems like everything was working out pretty good and then a couple mistakes, a couple pitches, changed the whole ballgame. But overall I think we look at it in a positive way - we won the series. And I think that's what we're looking for."

Unfortunately for the Mets, that's not enough, not when they return to New York having gone only 4-3 against the Astros (54-69) and Pirates (41-83) on the road trip. Especially when they were poised for the sweep with their ace, a two-time Cy Young Award winner, on the mound against a team that had lost 12 of its last 13 games.


The Pirates were 6-23 in their previous 29 games. But what should have been an automatic win for Santana wound up as yet another deflating loss.

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In taking the first two games, the Mets could fool themselves into thinking they had a pulse, however faint. After Howard Johnson's tough-love meeting Friday, they scored 12 runs in the next 14 innings while clinching their first road series victory against a National League team this season. But yesterday's loss to the Pirates' Zach Duke exposed that as a mirage.

"We've still got a chance to put some stuff together," Manuel said. "We can continue to play good baseball."

Notice that he didn't mention anything about climbing back into the race, however.

For the third straight game, Jose Reyes scored a first-inning run, this time after reaching on a bunt single and taking second on Ryan Doumit's throwing error. Reyes stole third and scored on Carlos Beltran's sacrifice fly.

But the Mets stranded two that inning and put only one other runner in scoring position the whole afternoon. That meant Santana had to be nearly perfect, and he did protect the lead until the mistake to Milledge in the fifth inning.

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Santana has pitched at least seven innings and allowed two or fewer runs in 14 starts this season, but he has won less than half of them (6-3). The Mets are 8-6 in those starts.

Santana is 10-8 despite a 2.94 ERA. When asked how many wins he should have this season, he wasn't a fan of the question.

"Oh, I don't know," he said. "I'm not a stat guy. I don't follow numbers. It is what it is. That's reality.''

But Santana doesn't have to like it. Unlike his manager, however, he refused to throw his teammates under the bus.