NEW YORK — Losing the wild card play-in game means that all a playoff baseball team has accomplished is having played one more game than the worst team in the league.
There are no parades for teams that lose that one-and-done game, no flag-raising ceremony and no participation trophy for having been, however briefly, one of the dozen teams technically eligible to become world champions.
Generally, by the next year no one even remembers who they were.
The Mets have accomplished plenty already this season, taking slightly more than a month to climb back from being 11 games below .500, 19 games back in the NL East and eight games out in the wild card hunt with nine teams between them and the final playoff spot.
Now, despite losing 2-1 Sunday and being swept by the Atlanta Braves, the Mets remain within striking distance of that one-game play-in — especially with the Chicago Cubs, who currently hold that last spot and lead them by a scant 2½ games, coming to Citi Field for a three-game series beginning Tuesday night.
But unless the Mets fix the one glaring problem that has been dragging them down all season, the ultimate 2019 epitaph appears destined to be this: After all was said and done, they played one more game than the Detroit Tigers, who are currently on pace to lose 113 games.
That problem, of course, is their bullpen, which has a higher ERA than all but four teams in baseball, and has blown more saves than just one.
Technically, their bullpen did not cost them the game on Sunday; the loss went to starter Steven Matz, who pitched well except for allowing a wind-blown solo home run to Josh Donaldson leading off the second inning. With former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel — the pitcher no one seemed to want for half the season — dealing for Atlanta, that one run proved to be too much for the Mets offense to overcome.
But realistically, it was Donaldson’s second home run of the game, a 421-foot blast to centerfield off Paul Sewald, the first batter he faced in relief of Matz in the seventh inning, that was the game-winner when the Mets’ mild rally in the ninth inning against Mark Melancon fell a run short.
Although on paper Sewald pitched well — he wound up retiring the next six batters he faced and struck out four of them — for the third time in three games, a Mets reliever who had been entrusted with keeping the game tied or close failed to do so.
On Friday it was Jeurys Familia unraveling once again in the 14th inning of a tie game, giving the Braves a 2-1 victory. On Saturday it was Edwin Diaz, last year the most dominant closer in baseball and the Mets’ prize acquisition of the offseason, asked to hold a very manageable two-run deficit in the ninth inning, and quickly turning it into an insurmountable four-run deficit.
And on Sunday it was Sewald, who needed just four pitches to turn the Braves’ 1-0 lead into a 2-0 lead.
Ideally, the motto of the relief pitcher should be the same as that of a doctor: “First, do no harm.’’
The problem is most of the Mets relievers do plenty of harm.
Familia, signed by rookie general manager Brodie Van Wagenen to a three-year, $30 million contract to be his set-up man, can no longer be trusted to set up anything, Hence the delaying of his appearance in Friday’s game until there was literally no one left in the bullpen.
And Diaz, who after his 57-save season for Seattle last year was supposed to be ample justification for taking on the albatross of the five years and $100 million remaining on Robinson Cano’s contract, has apparently lost his job as the closer. Plus, he may be injured, having left Saturday’s game with what manager Mickey Callaway called “trap tightness.’’
Robert Gsellman, who had been useful out of the pen, is on the Injured List and Brad Brach, picked up after clearing waivers to help out, has been awful so far. Essentially, it leaves Callaway with two reliable relievers — Seth Lugo, who has largely taken over Diaz’s role, and Justin Wilson, previously considered primarily a left-handed specialist.
It also leaves Callaway and Van Wagenen with a difficult decision: Do they dare use any of their incendiary relievers in that one-game season known as the wild card game, in the event the Mets do manage to make it?
Or, do they gamble on using their three or four top starters in that game, understanding that if they do not win it, their season will be remembered not for what they did in the 162 regular-season games, but in the one extra game they played and lost?
Assuming the Mets remain on regular rotation over their final 32 games, both Jacob deGrom, who is once again pitching like the Cy Young winner he was in 2018, and Noah Syndergaard, who has lately been a solid No. 2, will start on the Tuesday and Wednesday of the final week of the season, giving each of them ample rest to start the wild card game on Oct. 1.
And assuming their opponent would be the Washington Nationals, who currently have a three-game stranglehold on the first wild-card spot, wouldn’t it make more sense for the Mets to start deGrom and plan to follow him with Syndergaard and/or Matz and Zack Wheeler, all of whom have been far more reliable than any of the Mets relievers?
You can bet the Nationals, whose bullpen is even more implosive than the Mets, will ride Max Scherzer for 150 pitches if necessary in that game. It would be nonsensical for Callaway to go with anything less than the best he has for as long as he has. That means avoiding his bullpen at just about all costs.
It also means the Mets would probably have to hand the ball to Marcus Stroman, who has been less than lights-out since being acquired at the trade deadline, in the event they advanced to the NLDS and probable doom against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
But just to get that far would make their season a qualified success.
To merely get to the edge of the postseason only to be shoved out would make it all a big waste of time.
And to get knocked out because of their bullpen?
That would make the Mets, for all intents and purposes, just one game better than the worst team in baseball.
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