NEW YORK (AP) -Mets manager Willie Randolph steadfastly proclaimed his belief in his team's heart as its lead evaporated in the NL East.
Now its mettle is really going to be tested.
The spiraling Mets managed just three hits in a 3-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday night that dropped them into a first-place tie with Philadelphia in the division.
``We're tied now, so now we've got three games to get it done,'' Randolph said. ``That's the way baseball goes and we kind of made our own bed here so we've got to fight through this.''
Not even Pedro Martinez could save New York, which had led the division alone every day since May 16. Randolph quickly tried to lift the players' spirits after the game, delivering what he called a positive message during a brief team meeting.
``I have got a lot of confidence in my guys and they've shown me before they can step up,'' Randolph said.
The Mets (87-72) were ahead by seven games with 17 remaining but have lost 10 of 14 overall and seven straight at home, a monumental tailspin for a team that counted on being in the playoffs.
``I think we're due to have something special happen to us because in the time I've been here I don't think we've had a little stretch playing games like that and kind of getting away from us that easy,'' Martinez said. ``So I'm expecting something good to happen.''
No major league team has failed to finish first after having at least a seven-game lead with 17 to play. But with three games remaining in the regular season - a weekend series at home against Florida - the Mets might fail to win the division or qualify as the wild card.
Philadelphia, which beat Atlanta 6-4 on Thursday, closes the season with three games at home against Washington. San Diego, which beat Milwaukee 9-5 in the opener of a four-game series Thursday, leads the Mets and Phillies by one game in the wild card.
``There's two choices: Roll over and start making vacation plans for the offseason, or battle like hell and win this thing,'' Mets third baseman David Wright said. ``We still feel like this is our division.''
The latest loss was inflicted by the Cardinals, who beat the Mets in Game 7 of the NL championship series last year. St. Louis went 12-17 down the stretch last year, squeaked into the playoffs and went on to beat the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.
``I think there's some similarities but it's hard to go beyond there,'' Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. ``I know they're a very good team that right now is working hard for a win.''
Skip Schumaker's RBI single gave St. Louis a 1-0 lead in the first and the Cardinals pushed across two more runs in the third on a double by Albert Pujols and a single by Ryan Ludwick.
Martinez (3-1) allowed seven hits in seven innings, struck out eight and walked one. He threw a season-high 105 pitches in his first loss in five starts since coming back from shoulder surgery last October.
While Martinez turned in a solid effort, the Mets offense was nonexistent against Joel Pineiro (6-4), making his first career appearance against New York.
``He was outstanding tonight,'' Randolph said. ``(Pineiro) shut us down and Pedro kept us in the ballgame but obviously it wasn't good enough.''
Pineiro struck out six and walked one in a season-high eight innings.
Wright doubled in the first to extend his hitting streak to 14 games, and Carlos Delgado and Shawn Green singled in the fifth, but that was it for New York.
``It almost felt like a pennant game out there even though we're not in it,'' Pineiro said.
Jason Isringhausen worked a perfect ninth to earn his 31st save and complete the three-hitter.
Notes: The home losing streak is the Mets' longest since dropping nine in a row from Aug. 28-Sept. 12, 2004. ... Moises Alou went 0-for-3, ending his hitting streak at 30 games, the longest by a player on a New York team (including Brooklyn) since Joe DiMaggio's record run of 56 games in 1941 with the Yankees. ... Mets OF Marlon Anderson's two-game suspension was upheld Thursday, leaving him out of the game and Friday's against the Marlins. Anderson was ejected in the ninth inning of a 5-3 loss to Philadelphia on Sept. 15 and threw his batting helmet toward home after he reached the dugout. ... St. Louis closes out the season with a three-game series at Pittsburgh. ... The game was a makeup of a June 28 rainout.

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