Joe Price pitched a three-hitter to lead the Cincinnati Reds to a 3-1 victory over the New York Mets last night in Shea Stadium, but most of the postgame interest centered on Frank Howard, who is 15-24 in 40 days as interim manager of the Mets.

Howard harshly criticized his players after the defeat, their sixth in seven games and 14th in 18.

"If they don't want to pay the price, they should stop taking the organization's money and get out of the business," he said.

"I really don't know when it's going to end," Howard said. "We're running out of time in a hurry. They can talk about mirrors and trick plays, but it is ability that has to tell.

"Tonight's performance was flat and indifferent."

Howard, who replaced George Bamberger, continued, "There were nights when I was bad as a player but it was never because of a lack of effort or indifference. If you show some integrity and class then you never have to apologize to anyone for anything."

Price (8-5) struck out six and walked one. New York's run came in the fifth on George Foster's 15th homer.