While the New York Mets have played .600 ball since the All-Star break, an 8-4 throttling at the hands of the Houston Astros gave Newsday’s Wallace Matthews a chance to sneer, “I succeeded in finding people who wanted to be at Shea Stadium even less than I did Saturday night. Unfortunately, they were wearing Mets uniforms.”

John Maine took them out of this one early, as has been his habit since late May, but five runs should certainly not be too much to overcome for a team with a $140-million payroll and two players, Jose Reyes and David Wright, whom the Mets and their fans consider legitimate MVP candidates.

Yet there was no fight in this team, something we have seen time and again the past three seasons, regardless of whether the manager’s name was Willie or Jerry, the venue was home or away, the opponent a contender like the Phillies or Cubs, or doormats like the Astros.

They came out flat and went down meekly in their first 14 at-bats against Brandon Backe, who had won just once in a month and allowed 11 runs in his last outing Aug. 16. They finally showed some life in the eighth, courtesy of Ryan Church, fresh off the DL, who singled, and Brian Schneider, who continued his recent hot streak with a two-run homer to right. But that cut the Astros’ lead to a mere five runs, 8-3, and although Jose Reyes also doubled in the inning, he was stranded by Carlos Delgado, who tapped out.

Suddenly, the pregame words of Luis Castillo — “The team is playing good and I need a rest, so I’ll take a couple more days” — came back to you as further evidence that not everyone in a real Mets uniform may want this as badly as those wearing the replica jerseys in the stands.

Ryan Church
making it through an entire game and Schneider’s home run aside, Matthews can hardly be blamed for finding little to praise about this stinker.  But poor opponents or not, going 14-5 over their last nineteen contests is hardly a sign of a club phoning in it (keep in mind the Mets won 4 one run games over that span), nor is there much sense in citing the inflated payroll in this instance.  Certainly any team that features the likes of Reyes, Wright, Beltran and Delgado ought to fancy itself a contender.  But when you consider how much of that $140 million is applied to players missing in action (Castillo, Alou, Hernandez) or simply absent for long stretches (Martinez, Church, Wagner), Jeff Wilpon has every bit as much right to whine about injuries as Hank Steinbrenner. To his credit, he’s not done so, and the Mets’ resilience— not a characteristic we often association with the 2007 squad — deserves citation. If not from Matthews, then from persons who aren’t working a schtick that’s long past it’s sell-by date. Maine’s condition is obviously a matter of concern, but that’s a separate issue compared to whether these guys care about winning.

Brandon Backe is not gonna be confused with Bob Gibson anytime soon, but he’s hardly without credentials.  Combining with Roy Oswalt to retire 35 consecutive Mets between Friday and Saturday’s games, Backe was similarly untouchable in Game 5 of the 2004 NLCS (and more than competent in Game 4 of the ’05 World Series). Matthews makes it sound as though the Mets were baffled by R.A. Dickey.  Which they were, two months ago.  But it’s the height of hysteria to claim being shut down by Backe is in and of itself a harbinger of the Mets going into the tank.