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The Mets had plenty of opportunities tonight, in what seemed to be an unfortunate redux of various parts of the 2006, 2007 and 2008 seasons.

You can take Willie Randolph out of the clubhouse, but it still doesn't mean the Mets can hit a rookie left-hander. J.A. Happ didn't pitch all that well tonight, but one would not have been surprised to see the name "Kuo" on the back of his jersey.

But unlike previous clashes with the untested - and therefore, in Metland, dominant - rookie lefthanders, the Mets had Johan Santana on the mound, who this year has been a living testament to the irrelevance of wins and losses as a pitching statistic.

Santana pitched well. He pitched like Johan Santana was supposed to pitch, cruising through the Phillies' lineup, save for an unfortunate sixth inning (it happens).

The one gripe about Santana comes from the Mets' fifth - the big inning by the wayside. The Mets had the bases loaded, no one out, when Johan, he of the .200/.224/.308 career line (it's better than Marlon Anderson's 2008 campaign), came up to the plate. Johan's bat would be the Mets' secret weapon, allegedly, acquired in the trade with the Twins.

And he looked pretty good - working a 2-0 count from Happ, with nowhere to be put. Then he swung at a bad pitch, probably a ball. Then he swung at another bad pitch. 2-2. Then he popped it up in foul ground.

This was disappointing. While it came from a pitcher, the Mets ought to know that if the previous batter just walked, and the count is 2-0, one ought to take a pitch. Maybe even another.

So up came Reyes, he of the first inning appearance at third base with less than two outs (but not scoring), and he grounded out, earning the team a solitary run. Then Endy walked, and then Wright walked, driving in a run.

And then in came the scariest force of them all: Chad Durbin. No, not J.D. Durbin, who pitched for the Phillies last year (and beat Brian Lawrence in a fateful clash in August) but Chad Durbin, he of the 5.38 career ERA, and no relation to J.D.

The Mets, as they did last year, forced us to durb our enthusiasm. Beltran whiffed, Santana gave the lead back in the sixth, after Durbin struck out the side in the top of the inning and then two of three in the next frame.

Chad Durbin's line: 2.1 innings pitched, seven batters faced, six strikeouts, no hits or walks allowed.

Santana held the Phillies down for the seventh and eighth, while Ryan Madson and Brad Lidge did the same to Mets hitters in the eighth and ninth (a five-pitch inning for Lidge!). And we all know what Duaner did.

This game was not a crushing loss, as far as walk-offs go. The Mets lost with their set-up man on the hill, not Wagner. They weren't beaten by Rollins, Howard, or Burrell, but by Pedro Feliz and the Flyin' Hawaiian.

More than crushing, it was frustrating. The Mets' big, scary bats (Reyes, Wright, Beltran and Delgado) were on base twice: Wright walked once, as did Reyes. Beltran and Delgado combined for nothing but five strikeouts. Who knows, maybe it was an act of silent protest for Puerto Rican independence while Americans in the fifty states set off enough explosives to carpetbomb Greenland.

But this game was frustrating, as this team has been. Losing to the Cardinals with Carlos Muniz on the mound was frustrating, as was this. The Mets are playing seemingly sound baseball, and are winning almost every other game. But what's astonishing is that their wins lately have been romps, not nailbiters - while their two most recent losses have been via the walk-off.

Save for Maine's dead-arm loss to the Cardinals on Monday, the Mets have lost every loss in the last week by one run. Maybe it's a small sample size, but it's indicative of this team's inability to cash in on their opportunities, however limited they may be.

Against the Mariners, in that 8-2 win, they capitalized. In the 15-6 slaughter of the Yankees, they capitalized. In the 7-4 victory against St. Louis, they capitalized - and yesterday, against the same Cardinals, they capitalized.

Their flaws are not uniquely Metropolitan, that's for sure, but look at Santana's recent inability to win games - it has nothing to do with the way he's pitched.

While I'm sure everyone in the clubhouse is thinking this now, Jerry Manuel's Mets must start cashing in, must avoid affairs like this - ones that won't be remembered for the pain they delivered to the fans, but may be remembered should this team nearly miss success like their 2007 predecessors.

Once this series with the Phillies is over, the scheduling gods have granted to the Mets a reprieve - six games against the Giants and the Rockies. Yummy.

But for now, I hope the players are lamenting all of the fireworks they missed. I may have set off a few before and after Pedro Feliz crossed the plate, but I sure missed them too.

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