Never as entertaining as he is when baiting Don King, Newsday’s Wallace Matthews lays into Mets manager Willie Randolph in the wake of the latter sticking with Aaron Heilman in last night’s fateful 9th inning.

In truth, the Series was lost the night before, and possibly as early as the second game, when Billy Wagner, who is being paid $11 million to pitch in the spot Heilman was thrust into last night, gave up a game-losing home run to So Taguchi.

Between Wagner’s failure in Game 2, and his heart-stopping performance in Game 6, when he turned what should have been an easy 4-0 win into a 4-2 nail-biter, it was clear that manager Willie Randolph had lost confidence in the man who was brought here solely to get those critical last three outs of a game.

“I know there’s some speculation that it’s because of Game 2,” Wagner said. “If that’s the case, then why am I here in the first place?”

Before the game, Randolph was asked specifically about Wagner’s difficulties this postseason. “Billy gets real excited,” Randolph had said. “Sometimes he gets a little too amped up. He’s had his ups and downs, like all closers, but he’s my guy and I’ll give him the ball again.”

Judge the manager not by his words, but by his deeds. When the time came to call on Wagner last night, Randolph took a pass. If that doesn’t signify a loss of faith in the closer, what does?

The book of baseball standard operating procedure says that in a tie game at home, you bring in the closer in the top of the ninth to hold it even, then go out and win it in the bottom of the ninth. There is no bigger game than the seventh game of a playoff series, no situation that calls for your lights-out guy than the situation the Mets found themselves in last night.

If you don’t use a Billy Wagner in the ninth inning of a 1-1 Game 7, when do you use him? Why do you even have him?

These are questions Randolph will have to answer today, if not to the media or his bosses, then certainly to Wagner.

Can anyone imagine Joe Torre staying with Kyle Farnsworth in the same situation and “saving” Mariano Rivera for later? Now, at least the Mets have saved Wagner for Opening Day 2007.

During Wagner’s brief postgame interrogation on SNY last night, he wasn’t nearly as forceful in making this point, claiming he’d figured he’d get the ball if the Mets had the lead, and certainly it stands to reason he’d have started the 10th had things gotten that far.  But considering how the Cards jumped all over Wagner during Game Two and Game Six, I think Randolph can be excused for deviating from “the book of standard baseball operating proceedure.”  There probably isn’t a chapter in said tome about sending a man with a can of kerosene into a burning building, but if there were, I’m sure an illustration of Country Time would accompany it.