NEW YORK (AP) — Hopes were so high when the New York Mets moved into Citi Field.

They had a new attitude in a new ballpark.

They were going to put consecutive September collapses behind them.

And then Mike Pelfrey faced San Diego’s Jody Gerut, who three pitches in became the first hitter to christen a big league ballpark with a leadoff home run.

It’s been pretty much a downward spiral from there, a season gone more stale than an opening-day drink from the Shake Shack in center.

An injury-depleted team with baseball’s second-highest payroll is in a free fall, losing 11 of 14 games and dropping five games under .500 for the first time since April 2005. Restless fans paying up to $695 for tickets are booing loudly and often.

Going into Saturday night’s meeting with Cincinnati, the Mets had scored 10 runs in seven games and been shut out on four singles in three of their previous five. A New York tabloid regularly has mocked the backups subbing for injured regulars by dubbing them “The Replace-Mets.”

New York has gone 12-24 following a 28-21 start and fallen 6½ games behind first-place Philadelphia.

It must have been a lot like this when they went 40-120 at the Polo Grounds in 1962.

Jerry Manuel, who replaced Randolph in June last year, doesn’t try to channel Casey Stengel. He turns to other leaders for spiritual counsel these days.

“Shoot, I need Gandhi and King,” he said. “They went through some stuff.”

Even before injuries to first baseman Carlos Delgado, shortstop Jose Reyes, center fielder Carlos Beltran and pitchers John Maine, Oliver Perez and J.J. Putz, the Mets embarked upon a never-ending series of lowlights. Fielding flubs occurred nearly as frequently as home runs.

On April 12, the day before the Citi Field opener, left fielder Daniel Murphy dropped Cody Ross’ flyball for a two-run error at Florida, sending Johan Santana to a 2-1 loss, his first defeat since last June.

On May 17 at San Francisco, Pelfrey became the first Mets pitcher to balk three times in an inning since Don Rowe in 1963 at Philadelphia. The next night in Los Angeles, Ryan Church came around from first base with the apparent go-ahead run in the 11th inning – only to be called out on appeal for missing third base. Miscues by Beltran, a Gold Glove center fielder, and Jeremy Reed, a fill-in first baseman, led to the winning run in the bottom half and gave the Mets five errors in the game.

Turns out they were just warming up.

One June 12 came one for the video history books, a YouTube keeper if there ever was one. Alex Rodriguez popped up with two outs and two on in the ninth inning at Yankee Stadium, slammed his bat and threw it, thinking he made the last out in an 8-7 Mets victory. Second baseman Luis Castillo, a three-time Gold Glove winner, kept shuffling in shallow right field and, amazingly, he dropped it!

Two runs scored, and the Yankees won 9-8.

The Mets could have packed up for the winter right there.

They stuck around, of course, and the pain for their fans only got worse.

Two days later, Santana was chased after nine runs and nine hits in three-plus innings of a 15-0 loss to the Yankees, the worst start of the two-time Cy Young Award winner’s major league career.

And on June 26, in the series opener against the Yankees at Citi Field, the Mets infield seemed to play anything you can botch I can botch bigger, with errors by third baseman David Wright, shortstop Alex Cora and first baseman Nick Evans helping the Yankees to a 4-0 lead in the second, the Mets’ first three-error inning in five years.

Given all that, Manuel found humor Friday when the Mets acquired Jeff Francoeur from Atlanta for Church in a swap of right fielders.

“No. 1, I think he is a tremendous defensive player. You know, I’m not looking for defense right now,” he said, pausing to laugh 11 times before chortling: “Oh, boy!”

That was three days after he had his players take remedial pregame popup practice.

Health trouble began April 26, when Delgado hurt his hip while sliding during a triple against Washington. About 2½ weeks later, asked whether he was worried the injury would become even more painful during a cross-country plane ride, Manuel quipped: “How else you going to get to the West Coast? Take a horse?”

Health was no joking matter.

While the Mets flew to San Francisco on May 13, Reyes’ right calf tightened up. Putz stayed behind and had a cortisone shot to his inflamed right elbow.

Delgado finally had hip surgery on May 19, and Putz wound up having an operation on June 9 to remove a bone spur and fragments of bone from his right elbow. Signed to a $36 million, three-year contract during the offseason, Perez didn’t pitch for the Mets from May 2 to July 8 because of tendinitis in his right knee.

Maine, coming off surgery Sept. 30 to shave a bone spur in his right shoulder, has been out since June 6 because of weakness and pain in the shoulder.

And then came Beltran’s injury, the tipping point.

Since he went on the disabled list June 22 with a bone bruise below his right knee, the Mets are batting .226, ahead of only San Diego. Their .289 on-base percentage is ahead of only Kansas City, and their .313 slugging average is last, as are their 52 runs and seven homers.

Thrust into the lineup, role players such as Evans and Cora struggled.

“A lot of guys have a tendency to try and do too much,” general manager Omar Minaya said.

Gary Sheffield, a 40-year-old signed just before opening day, understands what’s happening with the younger players, remembering back to his early days in the majors two decades ago.

“It’s about mindset as opposed to anything else,” he said. “I had to learn it, because I was pretty much the face of team. If I didn’t do anything, you know, it was a lot of questions and things said about me or the organization.”

Wright is pretty much in the same situation on the Mets. He’s batting .227 with one homer and four RBIs in Beltran’s absence, dropping his season average 25 points to .324.

“I’m not a doctor. I don’t know when guys are coming back,” he said. “It will drive you crazy if you start, you know, worrying about when this guy is coming back, when that guy’s coming back, if this guy’s coming back. I think it’s more important to, you know, worry about what we have here.”

Opposing pitchers sound gleeful to face the Mets with three All-Stars missing from the batting order, happy to expand the strike zones of Wright and others.

“When you lose your center fielder and your first baseman and shortstop, I mean, these are key positions, offensively, defensively,” Los Angeles Dodgers manager Joe Torre said. “You can understand the frustration on the other side.”

In the meantime, the Mets aren’t pitying themselves. But in a week or two, management might start dealing more veterans to retool for 2010.

As baseball philosopher Yogi Berra said, it gets late early out there.

“I refuse to think that way,” Delgado said. “I think this team is going to start playing better, and we’re going to find a way to be in the mix.”


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