NEW YORK -- The clubhouse was quiet, eerily like last year. The New York Mets kept trying to comprehend another brutal loss, one that left them tumbling toward another September collapse.
"When tomorrow comes, hopefully the sun comes up," manager Jerry Manuel said. "It might not."
In the type of game that could mean lights out for the season, the score alone didn't detail the agony of the Mets' 9-6 loss to the Chicago Cubs on Wednesday night.
They wasted Carlos Delgado's third-inning grand slam off Carlos Zambrano and a 5-1 lead. Then, they had runners at third base with no outs in each of the last three innings and got only one run out of it -- on a bases-loaded walk.
New York dropped into a tie for the wild-card lead with Milwaukee and remained 1½ games behind Philadelphia in the NL East.
Last year, after opening a seven-game division lead with 17 games to play, the Mets dropped into a tie for a playoff position with three games remaining. They've lost four of five and have four games left, so they're one game ahead of last season's pace for futility.
It's hard to conceive of a more demoralizing defeat. Many in the booing crowd of 54,416 quickly filed out following Ramirez's homer.
"It's a, as everybody knows, a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately town, and lately we haven't gotten the job done," David Wright said. "So there's a lot of frustration. There's frustration with the fans, there's frustration in the stands, there's frustration in the dugout."
Following Daniel Murphy's leadoff triple in the ninth off Bob Howry (7-4), Wright could have won it. He took three straight balls, fouled off a pitch, then missed the next two. Delgado and Carlos Beltran were intentionally walked to bring up Ryan Church, who grounded meekly to Ronny Cedeno. The second baseman, playing in, threw home for the forceout. Ramon Castro struck out on three pitches.
"It takes a toll on you, there's no doubt about it," Wright said. "Mentally, physically, it beats you up. The positive thing is if we can get into the playoffs, I think we're going to be more mentally tough than any team in the playoffs if we can get in, just because of the ups and downs and all the late-inning drama that we've had this year."
For the eighth time this season, the Mets failed to win after taking a four-run lead, according to the Elias Sports Bureau.
"This is not what we scripted." Delgado said. "But definitely we have a group of guys that can fight, and we're going to fight. We've got to come out tomorrow and we've got to fight."
Mohawk-coiffed New York starter Oliver Perez was chased after 4 1/3 innings and 105 pitches. The Cubs tied the score 5-5 off Duaner Sanchez, with the help of an error by Murphy in left, then went ahead on Alfonso Soriano's RBI double in the seventh against Brian Stokes.
New York stranded seven runners in the seventh through ninth innings. The Mets failed to score after putting runners at the corners with no outs in the seventh, then got only one run -- on Jeff Samardzija's bases-loaded walk to Ramon Martinez -- after putting runners at the corners with no outs in the eighth. The ninth was even worse.
"That's bad. That's bad. That's bad," Manuel said.
Ryan Theriot singled with two outs in the 10th off Ayala (2-10) and stole second. Lee dumped a double down the right-field line to bring up Ramirez.
Kerry Wood pitched a perfect 10th for his 34th save in 40 chances, giving the Cubs 96 wins for the first time since 1984.
"Guys still want to go out and win games," said Mark DeRosa, who homered, drove in three runs and left in the fifth inning because of a strained left calf. He said he should be ready by the time the playoffs start next Wednesday.
Since pitching a no-hitter against Houston on Sept. 14 in his return from a sore rotator cuff, Zambrano has allowed 13 runs, nine hits and seven walks in six innings. He muttered and glared at plate umpire Jim Wolf in the third inning after his 3-2 pitch to Wright with the bases loaded was called low and outside.
"I gave it mixed reviews," Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. "He's healthy. Let's give him the benefit of the doubt. He's rusty."
Given a 1-0 lead on DeRosa's second-inning homer, Zambrano lost his control and composure in the third, when he walked Wright the bases loaded and Delgado sent a high 3-2 pitch over the left-field wall for his second slam this season and the 13th of his career. Following a dismal start, Delgado has 27 homers and 79 RBIs since June 27.
"It was just one bad pitch to a good hitter," Zambrano said.
"At this juncture, probably our toughest defeat," Manuel said. "No question."
The Mets moved Monday into their new offices at Citi Field, where the team starts play on April 14. It was sunny Wednesday and clear that right fielders will have a difficult time contending with afternoon sun.