The Mets fall to .500, and fourth place

ATLANTA -- So many New York Mets teams have watched their seasons crumble at Turner Field, even if the current crop -- with the exception of David Wright, Jose Reyes, Pedro Feliciano and Jeff Francoeur (on the winning side) -- may have no recollection of such disasters.

And here we go again.

Tim Hudson topped Johan Santana and the Atlanta Braves won 4-1 on Monday in the opener of a critical six-game trip for the Mets that also includes a stop in Philadelphia. With general manager Omar Minaya and assistant GM John Ricco both in attendance, the Mets dropped 7½ games behind the division-leading Braves and slipped to .500 for the first time since June 2.

The Mets had been 10 games over .500 as recently as the beginning of their final first-half homestand. But the Cincinnati Reds and Braves came into Citi Field and won consecutive series. The Mets have produced a 7-17 record from that point.

Searching for answers, manager Jerry Manuel identified two culprits from among the many candidates:

While Carlos Beltran and Luis Castillo may be quality players -- perhaps a generous assessment in the latter case -- they are not sharp as they return from injuries.

The Mets are getting little production from the bottom of their order, even if Monday's Nos. 6 through 8 hitters -- Francoeur, Henry Blanco and Castillo -- did have one hit apiece.

Francoeur is now hitting .122 (5-for-41) since the All-Star break. Castillo is hitting .190 in his past 42 at-bats. Blanco is hitting .227 in his past 22 at-bats.

Manuel suggested changes are on the way, but a limit exists to the maneuverability. Jesus Feliciano can replace Francoeur in the outfield, while Manuel can more heavily rely on Josh Thole at catcher and Alex Cora at second base. For the record, though, Thole is hitting .115 (3-for-26) over his past 11 games with an at-bat. Cora's season average is .207.

Maybe either Justin Turner or Ruben Tejada, who can play second base, makes more sense on the roster than righty-hitting Mike Hessman. Either way, that's not exactly a riveting change.

"We don't seem to have the ability to score in that part of the order here as of late," Manuel said. "We'll have to make some adjustments and we have to see what we can get from some other people. That's another tough part right now. We're not hitting in that part of the order."

Beltran actually walked twice and produced the Mets' lone run, when his fifth-inning double against Hudson scored Reyes. Still, Beltran is hitting .228 in 17 games since returning following arthroscopic surgery on his arthritic right knee.

Manuel didn't mean to suggest Beltran and Castillo have been disruptive forces. It's just that they're contributing to the swoon with their limited production.

"The pieces are a little different -- I'd have to say that -- and maybe not quite as right as they should be at this point," Manuel said, contrasting the team's success earlier this season with the current state of affairs. "Obviously they're very, very good players. Right now it's just not working."

Atlanta put up three runs in the first inning against Santana, who then kept the Braves from producing further damage until Chipper Jones' solo homer in the seventh.

In the first, after Omar Infante led off with a single and Jason Heyward walked, Santana coaxed what should have been a 5-4-3 double play from Jones. However, after Castillo accepted a throw from Wright for a forceout, the second baseman couldn't maintain the handle on the baseball and throw to Ike Davis at first base for the double play. Rather than two outs and Infante at third, the Braves had runners on the corners and one out. Matt Diaz then produced an RBI double and the Braves were off and running.

Regardless, Manuel suggested, he could not quibble with the team's effort.

"But I do think we just need to somehow be better," he added.

Adam Rubin covers the Mets for ESPNNewYork.com. You can follow him on Twitter.

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