CHICAGO, SEPT. 21 -- Only the numbers stop you from saying the New York Mets are finished for 1990. Everything else suggests this race is over, at least for the Mets, who keep spiraling down, down, down.

Darryl Strawberry went so far as to pronounce the last five days as "the worst pennant run we've ever had since I've been with this team."

Strawberry shook his head, calling the current five-game losing streak "unbelievable" as the Mets lost, 4-3, today to the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field, dropping them 3 1/2 games behind the Pirates, who defeated the Cardinals, 1-0.

Howard Johnson defiantly argued, "We still have time." Mathematically, he's right. Even after Ryne Sandberg's game-winning sacrifice fly in the eighth inning off Dave Cone, the Mets still have 12 games remaining -- including the last three with the Pirates.

But the Mets are closer to third place than first, and even Manager Buddy Harrelson agrees his team is "playing good enough to lose. . . . All you can do is try to keep your sanity."

All the trappings for resurrection were here: Cone, the already vacationing Cubs, offense-inspiring Wrigley Field and a new lineup that featured Tim Teufel at first base in place of Dave Magadan.

Harrelson selected Teufel not just because Magadan is in a six-for-32 slump but because Teufel has "home-run power." Throw in Cubs left-hander Steve Wilson, who was 4-8, with a 4.79 ERA, making his first start since Aug. 2. So who would have thought Teufel would disable a Mets rally in the second inning with a bunt?

Certainly not Harrelson, who said he was "surprised" that with runners on first and second and none out, Teufel bunted a popup into third baseman Luis Salazar's glove.

Strawberry and Kevin McReynolds led off the inning with singles against Wilson, prompting Teufel to bunt, because "we haven't been scoring a lot of runs lately. I wanted to put people in position to score. I wanted to give HoJo a chance to relax. Unfortunately, it was a horsebleep bunt."

Howard Johnson followed Teufel's bunt with an RBI double into the left field corner and Charlie O'Brien then lifted a sacrifice fly to give Cone a 2-1 lead.

He made it stand until the fourth, when Mark Grace and Andre Dawson slugged back-to-back home runs. Wilson was acting as any left-hander against the Mets -- "We made him look like Cy Young," Harrelson said -- as 17 Mets were retired in order from the second inning through the seventh.

The Mets are 24-31 in games started by left-handers.

Had Don Zimmer not replaced Wilson with Paul Assenmacher. . . . well, who knows? Maybe Johnson wouldn't have hit the game-tying homer in the eighth, and maybe the Cubs wouldn't have had to break the Mets' hearts in the bottom of the inning.

Instead, Jerome Walton led off with a single, stole second and took third when O'Brien's throw skipped far to Tommy Herr's left into center field. With the winning run only 90 feet away and Sandberg -- the NL's home run leader -- at the plate, Cone said he knew he "had to make a bastard pitch right away."

Cone did; several of them, in fact. Trouble is, said Cone, "Sandberg was good enough to keep fouling them off. I'm asking myself, 'Geez, what do I do now?' "

When Cone finally relented, throwing a less-than-perfect slider, Sandberg lifted a fly ball to medium-deep center to score Walton.