Heilman's game-ending walk marks latest Mets' bullpen collapse

MIAMI -- Before Saturday's game, New York Mets manager Jerry Manuel laughed about his team's beleaguered bullpen.

"Woooo, lord," he said. "We can make an 8-1 game as exciting as anything in the world."

Six hours later, Manuel could still manage a rueful smile after Aaron Heilman issued a bases-loaded walk to Josh Willingham in the ninth inning, giving the Florida Marlins a 4-3 victory.

Mike Pelfrey departed after 6 2/3 innings with a 3-2 lead, and for the Mets' woeful relief corps, that cushion wasn't enough. The bullpen is second in the NL with 24 blown saves and has blown 11 of 26 save opportunities since the All-Star break.

"We do probably have to find out what we can do to be a little more consistent than we have been," Manuel said.

Duaner Sanchez gave up a tying homer to Mike Jacobs in the eighth, and Heilman lost without allowing a hit in the ninth. New York's NL East lead was trimmed to one game by Philadelphia, which beat the Chicago Cubs 5-2.

The Marlins closed to within six games and avoided slipping to .500 for the first time since they were 3-3. On Sunday, they'll try for their first two-game winning streak this month.

"This team really needed a win," Willingham said. "We've got to come out Sunday and win, too. We can't lose that many more games, and we know that."

Heilman (3-8) started the ninth by walking Hanley Ramirez, who advanced on a sacrifice and took third on a wild pitch. Jorge Cantu and Jacobs were intentionally walked to load the bases, and Willingham earned a game-ending walk when he took a 3-1 pitch inside.

"A walkoff anything ranks high, because that means your team wins the game," Willingham said.

Heilman said he was trying to get Willingham to hit a 1-2-3 double-play grounder.

"You load the bases, and hopefully you get a groundball and give your infielders a chance to go home and maybe turn two if it's hit hard enough," Heilman said. "It's a frustrating way to lose a game."

Pelfrey was seeking his third consecutive complete game but left after throwing 116 pitches. Sanchez struck out Cantu to end the seventh, then gave up Jacobs' 27th homer leading off the eighth.

Sanchez said the relievers are frustrated by their collective struggles.

"There's nothing you can do about it," he said. "You just have to keep working, working, working, and eventually it's going to turn around."

Matt Lindstrom (2-2) retired Damion Easley and Jose Reyes with a runner on second to end the top of the ninth.

Florida's Ricky Nolasco struck out eight but gave up three runs in six innings.

The teams cleared the benches in the second inning after Pelfrey hit Cody Ross on the arm with a pitch.

Ross slammed his protective gear to the ground as he walked to first base, then shouted profanities at Pelfrey. When the players took a couple of steps toward each other, both benches emptied.

"I hit him with two strikes, so I actually did him a favor," Pelfrey said.

No punches were thrown, and no one was ejected. Ross said he was angry because Pelfrey hit him in the back three weeks ago.

"I was just tired of getting hit," Ross said. "The best way to respond is with the bats, and we did."

But not until the Mets built a 3-0 lead. Luis Castillo singled and David Wright homered in the first. Reyes hit his 17th triple in the third and came home on Castillo's single.

Pelfrey had been 0-3 with a 10.66 ERA in three starts this season against the Marlins, but they failed to score against him until the sixth. After he retired the first two batters in the inning, Cantu and Jacobs singled, Willingham walked and Dan Uggla hit a two-run single.

In the seventh, the Marlins were glad to see Pelfrey depart.

"We know their bullpen has had some problems," Willingham said.

Game notes
Uggla improved to 9-for-18 (.500) this season with the bases loaded. ... In his past seven starts, Nolasco has struck out 59 and walked four. ... Wright is 10-for-22 (.455) against Nolasco with three home runs.