Mets leftfielder Mark Canha reacts after he struck out looking...

Mets leftfielder Mark Canha reacts after he struck out looking against the Marlins during the ninth inning of an MLB game at Citi Field on Tuesday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

As long as the Mets stayed atop the NL East — alone — there wasn’t much reason to entertain the thought of the wild card come October.

It certainly wasn’t on anyone’s mind when the Mets had a 10 1/2-game cushion on June 1. But September is finishing up as a desperate struggle to remain in first place, and after Tuesday’s ugly 6-4 loss to the Marlins allowed Atlanta to pull back into a tie for the division lead, the Mets are facing a new reality.

If they end up as the wild card, Buck Showalter & Co.  have only themselves to blame, failing down the stretch against a bunch of sub-.500 teams, including Tuesday’s clunker at Citi Field with the weekend showdown in Atlanta looming (along with the remnants of Hurricane Ian).

The timing could not have been worse. Carlos Carrasco, supposedly in competition for the No. 4 playoff starter, didn’t look interested during this audition, allowing four earned runs in  three innings — the most since he gave up six against the Astros on June 28. The two-run homer by JJ Bleday was the first surrendered by Carrasco in five starts.

All this against a Marlins team that was among MLB’s bottom feeders in nearly every offensive category, including 27th in OPS (.660) and 28th in runs scored (553). Once Carrasco went belly-up, the Mets did get as close as 4-3 on Pete Alonso’s three-run shot — his 40th homer of the season — in the fourth inning, but that was it from an offensive standpoint.

If you’re wondering about that other run, the Marlins gifted that when reliever Richard Bleier committed three consecutive balks with Alonso at the plate to let Jeff McNeil stroll home in the eighth inning. Pure charity, thanks to  eagle-eyed first-base ump John Tumpane. But the Mets can’t be expecting any more handouts. They had better head to Atlanta with no worse than a share of the NL East lead, or they'll risk watching a clinching party at Truist Park instead of spraying champagne themselves.

“I never doubted that it was going to come down to the last couple days of this season,” Francisco Lindor said. “It’s kind of what you expected — at least what I expected. They’re the World Series champs. I think, in my opinion, they have a better team this year than they did last year. You just got to go out there and compete, day in and day out, and hopefully we finish at least a half-game above them.”

 

Despite having their comfortable double-digit lead evaporate to a half-game deficit as recently as Sept. 9, the Mets had been successful at fending off Atlanta for most of this month. They’ve spent only two days in second place since April 11 and maintained a minimum one-game edge for the past two-plus weeks, a stretch that came to an end with Tuesday’s deflating defeat — the Mets’ third in five games.

“If you asked me in February, who knows, some people might have taken me up on that,” Showalter said of this scenario. “Our guys have worked hard to create an opportunity.”

The Mets already are in the playoffs. They locked up a spot last week in Milwaukee and held a somewhat low-key celebration, with champagne already poured into waiting glasses and sitting on tables. But there’s no way of sugarcoating the wild-card berth as a consolation prize, not after the Mets have led the NL East almost wire-to-wire and should end up with 100 wins (don’t forget the three games against the Nationals at Citi Field next week).

Also, having to play that best-of-three series, even with all of the games at home, is a dangerous proposition. The Mets would have to burn Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer and potentially Chris Bassitt, meaning none of the three would be available until Game 2 of the Division Series, at the earliest.

“It’s new,” Lindor said of the format, “but I do know that wild-card teams have won the World Series before. And I do know that Division Series winners have won the World Series as well. So as long as we’re in the postseason, we have a chance to win the World Series, and that’s the ultimate goal.”

Lindor did add, “However, we’d like to win the division.”

Those odds got a little longer after Tuesday night’s loss, and the uncertainly will only grow over the next 24 hours as MLB tries to sort out what to do with the weekend series as Hurricane Ian draws closer. Chances are, Atlanta will keep those games at Truist Park, but the scheduling could be up in the air. Much like the Mets’ goal of claiming their first division title since 2015, which seemed to be a lock earlier this season.

“This is fun,” Alonso said. “Being in a race like this and every day is a chance to be great.”

The Mets just have to remember to be great. They weren’t close Tuesday night, and now there are only seven more chances  to do so.