The New York Mets' much-maligned bullpen was doing better this week until Saturday, when another inauspicious outing followed the news its All-Star closer will be out longer than expected.
Johan Santana can certainly attest to the relief corps' problems.New York's ace, who has had leads blown by the bullpen in three of his last five starts, will try to help the Mets make it 6-for-6 on their road trip Sunday as they meet the Pittsburgh Pirates.The Mets (67-56) have been without closer Billy Wagner for two weeks, but he threw a simulated game Saturday night in what was supposed to be his final step before returning from the disabled list on Monday. He felt discomfort in his pitching elbow, however, and now it's unclear when he'll return -- but it won't be Monday. He'll fly to New York on Sunday for further evaluation."I wouldn't say I am ready," said Wagner, a six-time All-Star. "Right now it is stiff and sore."Without Wagner -- and sometimes with him -- New York's bullpen has been an adventure. The unit has a 5.34 ERA since Wagner went on the DL on Aug. 5, though the Mets have gone 9-3 since then.The relievers pitched better this week in helping New York start its road trip 4-0. They'd allowed just one earned run in 10 1-3 innings heading into Saturday, when they were handed a 7-1 lead in the eighth inning.But Eddie Kunz got just one out while giving up three runs to start the ninth, and after Joe Smith allowed a hit to bring the tying run to the plate, Pedro Feliciano got the final two outs and the first-place Mets hung on to win 7-4."We've just got to close the game out," manager Jerry Manuel said. "We've got to get through the end of the game."Santana (10-7, 2.89 ERA) has witnessed first-hand some of the bullpen's troubles. He's won just two of his last five starts, giving the bullpen leads in the other three that they couldn't hold."It's amazing ... the effort he goes out and gives, and to not be rewarded," third baseman David Wright told the team's official Web site. "As a teammate, that hurts to watch."The bullpen did make Santana's latest lead pay off. The two-time AL Cy Young Award winner gave up three runs over seven innings on Tuesday at Washington in a 4-3 win.Santana will be seeing a Pirates offense that has struggled greatly in August. Pittsburgh (55-68) has scored 29 runs in its last 11 games, hitting .240.The Pirates, though, did have 13 hits on Saturday -- the first time they had more than nine since Aug. 4. Every starter had a hit, including three apiece for Jack Wilson and Freddy Sanchez."It was nice to see us push it in the ninth," manager John Russell said. "We didn't quit."Pittsburgh hasn't given Jeff Karstens (2-1, 1.23) much run support. Acquired in the trade that sent Xavier Nady to the New York Yankees, Karstens tossed 15 consecutive shutout innings in winning his first two starts with the Pirates -- including a two-hitter in a 2-0 win over Arizona on Aug. 6.He gave up four runs -- three earned -- over seven innings in his last start, but Pittsburgh couldn't get its bats going in a 5-1 loss to Cincinnati on Tuesday."I didn't really feel too comfortable when I first got out there," Karstens told the Pirates' official Web site. "I don't know what it was. I just felt a little out of whack."Pittsburgh has lost on eight consecutive Sundays.