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The best thing that happened to the Mets on Sunday was that the Atlanta Braves won.

That meant that while the Mets were trying to explain their sixth straight loss, a 3-2 mindblower against the Philadelphia Phillies, the Braves were in Montreal, spraying champagne to celebrate their eighth straight division title.

Otherwise, if the Braves had beaten the Mets during the three-game series they begin Tuesday, the Mets would be in a position to host Atlanta's celebration.

"Yeah -- that would have been real nice," Robin Ventura said sarcastically.

They also didn't have to endure the afternoon fireworks in Cincinnati, where Pokey Reese hit a three-run homer in the bottom of the 12th to beat St. Louis and give the Reds the wild-card lead.

That's the sort of ending the Mets thought they were going to get Sunday, when everything was ready for a reversal of fortune. After falling short with a two-run rally in the seventh, the Mets had the bases loaded with one out in the ninth.

Rickey Henderson, who had grounded into three double plays all season, came to the plate. He flared the ball to second, where defensive replacement Dave Doster grabbed it on a tough bounce at his ankles, flipped it to shortstop Desi Relaford, who then ended the game with his throw to first. That was the same Dave Doster who snagged a line drive by Benny Agbayani in the eighth inning the night before to rob the Mets of a potential game-tying hit.

"You think it can't get any worse, but I don't want to say that," Mike Piazza said.

Because it can get worse, especially with the Braves coming to town. The Mets now have to catch someone to make the playoffs. They can't get hits and they can't get runs, and no one knows how to end the skid.

"You think we would at least push one across," said Rick Reed (10-5), the loser despite a decent outing. Reed had one fatal error in his six innings, giving up a two-run homer to former Met Rico Brogna in the fourth. But even the third run he surrendered in the third on a pair of singles shouldn't have been enough to beat the Mets. A week ago, when they were a game behind the Braves in the East, the Mets also had the second-best record in baseball. Now they are eighth.

The Braves seemed just as stunned.

"My last start, we were one game up on them," pitcher John Smoltz told reporters. "This start, we were clinching. Nobody would have believed that."

The Mets clubhouse still is not a somber place, despite what is happening. The voice of Jim Morrison hasn't been heard singing about anyone's mojo rising in a week, and mojo has been in short supply.

But the Mets are grateful for the little things as they continue their brutal September slide -- like knowing they won't have to watch the Braves tumble from the dugout in celebration. If players and coaches could think of a way to spin their misery Sunday, they did.

"Anything can happen in this game," Edgardo Alfonzo said.

"We're not dead yet," John Franco said.

Manager Bobby Valentine looked to today's day off as the necessary tonic to help break the skid.

"We're too good not to let it happen. It's going to come, and when it comes, it'll come in waves," he said.

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