In right field, Ryan Church closed and reopened his eyes, hoping that exercise would erase the sad and sickening reality. "Did I just see that?" Church asked himself.
Incredulous as K-Rod, Church and their colleagues were, none endured at that instant the wretched mixture of agony, embarrassment and misery felt by the man between them -- the man who had prompted the wonder of it all by not putting the 27th out in his pocket and the Mets in a happy frame of mind. Luis Castillo, the Mets' second baseman, retrieved the ball he should have caught and, from his knees, threw it to second base from shallow right field as two Yankees sprinted home to produce an implausible 9-8 victory on Friday.
And then Castillo stood motionless, frozen and -- most of all -- guilty.
The ball had bounced off Castillo's glove and to the Yankee Stadium grass after he drifted to his left in short right field. Church saw him there and kept his distance. The ball rolled briefly -- into baseball infamy.
"I have to catch that ball," Castillo said later. "The ball was moving a little bit. I didn't get it. I feel bad. It was a routine fly ball. ... I need to get it. ... I feel so bad. I don't want to make any errors, so I feel bad about myself. I made a mistake -- I feel bad."
What else could Castillo say? He had erred before the vast remains of a gathering that had numbered 47,967, made an unfathomable misplay in the first renewal of the impassioned intracity Interleague rivalry. He had provided a topic for talk shows, blooper DVD's, saloons, Saturday's barbecues, Sunday's socials and even Monday's water coolers. The Mets and Yankees are to engage each other twice more before the workforce reassembles on Monday. But this E-4 has legs. The image won't soon fade.
"I really have never seen that before, and I've played for a long time," said Alex Rodriguez, the man who should have been the final out. "That's why you play for nine innings -- that's why you play hard. The lesson we take from here is to play all 27 and hustle all the time."
A-Rod had already slammed his bat into the batter's box in ultimate frustration. The Mets had thrown an intentional fourth ball to Mark Teixeira. Derek Jeter was already on second base. A-Rod had nine strikeouts and one hit in 14 career at-bats against K-Rod. Now, he's 1-for-15 -- but happy. And Castillo is once again a marked man, the primary symbol of the 2009 Mets shooting themselves in the foot.
Castillo had repaired his image to a great degree since last season, when he was reviled in his own ballpark. Now, his rap sheet has another bold-face entry, printed indelibly because of the New York-New York circumstances. "It will definitely be a battle again," Mets manager Jerry Manuel said. "Not only for him, but for us as well."
"I feel for Louie -- I know how much he cares," David Wright said in a clubhouse so quiet you could hear a popup drop. "I've been there. I know what he's going through. It can happen to anyone."
The stunning, 11th-hour misplay by the former Gold Glove Award winner cost the Mets more than a win. It was a third consecutive high-profile defeat. They had come from behind to take a lead and moved ahead when Wright doubled off Mariano Rivera in the eighth inning. Pedro Feliciano had navigated the bottom of the eighth. K-Rod, 16-for-16 in save opportunities entering Friday, was primed.
Then the not-so-slick Citi Slickers lost for the 11th time in 22 one-run games, for the first time after they had led through eight innings and for the 38th time in 67 Interleague games against the Yankees.
"It's a tough one to swallow," K-Rod said. "What we need now is a short memory -- it's the best thing to have when you lose like this. If you don't have a short memory, it may take you down."
Until the ninth inning, the Mets had survived the Yankee Stadium experience. They saw home runs fly out of the city's other new ballpark, one of their own and four by the Yankees. And they had witnessed a more modest offensive tactic, Wright's second run-scoring double off Rivera in slightly more than three years. The Mets' third baseman had beaten Rivera at Shea Stadium on May 19, 2006.
Rivera had been summoned, earlier than usual, after Phil Coke had retired the first two batters in the eighth inning to face Carlos Beltran. Rivera walked Beltran, issuing just his third walk this season, before Wright hit a rocket double that one-hopped the right-center-field wall.
The scenario that had developed to that point was too familiar to the Mets, who had lost leads -- and games -- to the Phillies on Wednesday and Thursday. They led this one, 6-3, after scoring four runs against reliever Brett Tomko in the fifth. But Jeter hit a bases-empty home run off Livan Hernandez in the fifth inning, and Hideki Matsui hit a three-run home run against Jon Switzer -- the left-handed reliever the Mets added to their roster on Friday afternoon -- to lead, 7-6.
The Mets tied the score in the seventh at least partially because of Gary Sheffield's baserunning. Deployed as the designated hitter, Sheffield hit a line drive to right-center field that bounced to the wall and, despite his reluctant legs, Sheffield reached second base. Coke replaced David Robertson and allowed a sharp single to right field by Daniel Murphy that moved Sheffield to third. The run scored when pinch-hitter Fernando Tatis grounded into a double play.
The Mets had scored two other runs in similarly soft ways -- Yankees starter Joba Chamberlain walked Beltran with the bases loaded and hit Church with the bases loaded in the third. But the Mets' four runs in the fifth inning were the result of their swings. Church doubled in Wright and Beltran in the fifth, and Sheffield followed immediately with the 505th home run of his career, his sixth this season and his first since May 26. With the homer, Sheffield passed Eddie Murray.
Hernandez had managed the Yankees' batting order well enough, surrendering home runs by Robinson Cano -- with the bases empty -- Teixeira -- with a runner on base -- and Jeter -- with the bases empty -- in the second, third and fifth innings, respectively. But Hernandez allowed a single by Cano and walked Jorge Posada with one out, prompting Manuel to summon Switzer one night after left-hander Ken Takahashi allowed a game-winning three-run home run by the Phillies' Raul Ibanez.
Switzer's third pitch as a Met produced three runs and more staging for what was to come -- a blow to the Mets' solar plexus and self-esteem.
"We have enough time [in the season] to get over it," Manuel said. "But it will be difficult for us."