The New York Mets inched closer to darkness on this chilly, bizarre evening. Their bats remained too silent, their bullpen too erratic and not even two stirring late rallies or a sympathetic crowd of 48,364 could stop their seemingly inevitable slide into baseball's lonely corridors of memorable late-season collapses.

The Atlanta Braves ushered them to the threshold of elimination tonight with a 4-3, 11-inning victory that pretty much stuck to the blueprint written 10 days ago when the Mets appeared poised to make their first postseason appearance in a decade.

Instead, they fell apart. Tonight's defeat was their eighth in nine games and left them 93-66 and two games behind Houston and Cincinnati with three games remaining. After winning 65 of 95 games during a three-month stretch when they looked like one of baseball's best teams, the Mets appear doomed to be compared with the 1978 Red Sox, '64 Phillies and other teams who collapsed in a season's final days.

"It's not a good position to be in," Mets catcher Mike Piazza said. "But we're here, and I'm still proud of this team. The timing was tough to have a week like this. We're still alive, and as along as we're alive, we're not going to give up."

What has made this season's finish even worse is that it comes just a year after the Mets missed the playoffs by one game, thanks to an 0-5 finish. In a busy offseason, they were dramatically overhauled, bringing in respected veterans such as Robin Ventura and Rickey Henderson, and until 10 days ago, New York was buzzing with the prospect of a Yankees-Mets subway series.

"The thing is, we were playing the way we were designed to play," Mets General Manager Steve Phillips said. "A slump like this is nothing you can explain. It's just a baseball thing."

It will be remembered as much more than that now. Mets management has promised to invite Manager Bobby Valentine back for the 2000 season, but they will surely be tempted to do otherwise. He not only has overseen two late-season failures, but he has managed more games than any man in history without a postseason appearance.

He spent a portion of tonight's game screaming at home plate umpire Phil Cuzzi, who finally kicked him out in the 11th inning. After the game, he ripped Cuzzi--one of the game's new umpires--in particular and baseball in general for putting inexperienced umps behind the plate in a big series.

"We sure didn't need the added frustration," Valentine said. "I'm not trying to justify the loss, but I just have to make that statement."

In the end, Valentine has to shoulder some of the responsibility as well. Atlanta's winning run scored after Shawon Dunston--who was shifted to right field in one of Valentine's typical multi-switch strategical moves--misjudged a Brian Jordan fly ball in the 11th.

So as baseball begins its final weekend of the regular season, the Reds and Astros are tied for the National League Central Division lead at 95-64. The Mets are clinging to the thin hope that they can sweep the Pirates at home this weekend while either the Astros, who host the Dodgers, or the Reds, who play at Milwaukee, lose two of three to force a tie.

Even better for the Mets would be a three-way tie for the final two spots. In one of baseball's more puzzling tie-breaking rules, the Mets have already won a coin flip for the wild-card spot while the Reds and Astros would have a one-game playoff on Monday for the division championship.

"Right now, I think that's a terrific rule," Phillips said, injecting a bit of humor into a grim clubhouse.

At any other time, the Mets would have been anything except unhappy after losing a game like this one. They rallied to tie the game in the seventh inning, and after relievers Turk Wendell and John Franco couldn't hold the lead, the Mets tied it again in the eighth on Edgardo Alfonzo's home run. "When Fonzy hit that home run, I thought we were a team of destiny," Wendell said.

They finally let the game slip away in the 11th. Jordan led off the inning with a triple that Dunston misjudged.

"I make no excuse," Dunston said. "I got a good jump on the ball. I just didn't watch it."

Andruw Jones was walked by reliever Octavio Dotel, and Ozzie Guillen got Jordan home with a sacrifice fly to shallow center. Jordan slid head-first into home plate, barely beating the tag by Piazza. Reliever Terry Mulholland retired the Mets in the bottom of the 11th, all but dashing New York's hopes.