NEW YORK -- Jose Reyes sat at his locker with his head in his hands. Scott Schoeneweis clearly looked upset. Most of the players left as quickly as possible. And once again, the home clubhouse at Shea Stadium was in mourning.
For the second straight year, on the last day of the season, against the Marlins again, the Mets were eliminated from postseason contention. Throughout the winter, spring and the entire season next year, they will again be questioned about the makeup, chemistry and leadership of this team, and why this group of players has blown division leads in back-to-back years. A season ago it was an epic collapse; this year fell apart because of injuries and a woeful bullpen. That very bullpen caused the Mets' downfall Sunday, when the Marlins won 4-2 in the Shea Stadium finale. The Mets' loss gave Milwaukee the National League wild card because the Brewers had defeated the Cubs in a game that ended only minutes before the final out was recorded at Shea. And with that, the Mets' season ended at 89 wins.
"It's always going to be grouped together," third baseman David Wright said of missing the playoffs two years in a row. "Last year, for lack of a better word, we collapsed. This year, I think we hit a little rut in the wrong time to hit a rut."
The rut happened just after closer Billy Wagner was lost for the season and perhaps his career. The Mets had a 3½-game lead in the NL East on Sept. 10, but they proceeded to falter against mostly losing teams and were overtaken for good just 10 days later.
"It's unfortunate for the fans," manager Jerry Manuel said. "[The collapse] is a part of this, and it will always be mentioned until we get to [the] postseason."
With the Mets' playoff lives at stake on the final day of the season, Manuel posted a lineup that included Ramon Martinez, signed as a minor league free agent, at second base, rookie Nick Evans in left field and Luis Ayala, who was traded by the Nationals, as his closer. The bullpen, which Manuel admitted was a "roll of the dice" every time he went to it, entered Sunday's finale with a 4.35 ERA in September. Despite its struggles, the Mets' bullpen was not the worst; it ranked 10th in the NL, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
"We knew [the bullpen] wasn't quite something that was going to hit on all cylinders," Manuel said. "When you don't have people in established roles in this time [of the year], you're gambling."
On Sunday, it was soon clear the gamble wouldn't pay off after starter Oliver Perez was taken out after 5 1/3 innings. The Mets were trailing 1-0 with two runners on base. Perez was pitching on just three days' rest and had done an admirable job, but when he left and the bullpen door swung open, Perez was met with only polite applause. The crowd clearly knew his exit meant one thing: It was up to the relievers to keep it close.
"I think we underachieved last year and I think we overachieved this year," said Mets chief operating officer Jeff Wilpon. "It's nothing against our second baseman today -- look who our second baseman was, look who our left fielder was, look who was in the bullpen. No Billy Wagner, no John Maine -- you can go right down the list to what happened."
When asked whether knowing the weakness of his bullpen was frustrating, Wilpon flatly said, "The whole thing's frustrating."
Schoeneweis would be the goat on this day. He came in after Carlos Beltran had tied it with a two-run homer in the sixth inning, only to give up a leadoff homer in the eighth to pinch hitter Wes Helms. The collective groan could practically be felt, and the sold-out crowd immediately started booing, even though the Marlins only had a one-run lead.
"To [homer] in front of 50,000 people, especially the situation at hand, it makes you feel good," Helms said.
Ayala then took over, and Dan Uggla immediately homered off him, making it 4-2. Sure, the Mets had two more innings to come back, but soon the Brewers' final would post, and the Mets' chances started to fade. The Marlins had talked about trying to send their division rivals home, and they succeeded.
"We don't want two teams in our division in the playoffs," Helms added. "The Phillies already won their division; let's keep it at that."
The Mets had scheduled a ceremony after the game to honor 45 former Mets players as part of the Shea celebration. Clearly, it would have been a much more joyous occasion with a win and a trip to the playoffs. The Mets got neither, and when general manager Omar Minaya spoke of his disappointment after the game in the bowels of this dank ballpark, a roar of the crowd emanated above him; the cheering of the fans' former heroes -- some of whom had won championships for the organization -- seemed to echo. It was a cold reminder of what was, and what will not be this year.
"It's two years now we go into the last game determining the season," Minaya said. "It's disappointing."
Reyes was sitting on his chair in front of his locker when a few people came over and consoled him. He then exhaled a few times and put his head back in his hands before finally going into the back of the trainer's room. When he emerged, he was asked whether the feeling is the same this year as it was last.
"It's harder this year I think," Reyes said. "It's happened for two years in a row. Nobody feels good about that."
Now there is no reason to cheer in Queens anymore this year. Perhaps the move to the new Citi Field will be good for the Mets. All indications after the game were that Manuel would return, as will most of the core group of players that has been here for the past few years. Since the team will largely be the same, perhaps a new ballpark can make some sort of difference.
"It is what it is, guys," Beltran said. "I have no more words."
Not until next season, anyway, when Beltran and his teammates will return to spring training and face the same questions about how and why this happened again.
Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.