PITTSBURGH — The New York Mets built their lead in the National League East in part by feasting on also-rans.
In September, the also-rans are fighting back, and a division title that seemed almost a foregone conclusion during portions of the spring and summer now feels particularly perilous with fall fast approaching.
Mitch Keller scattered five hits over six shutout innings and the Pittsburgh Pirates sent the suddenly listless Mets to an 8-2 loss on Tuesday night. New York failed to get a runner to third base against Keller (5-10) while dropping their third straight against teams playing out the string.
Manager Buck Showalter hardly seemed bothered that the first-place perch his team had occupied alone since April 12 was in jeopardy. The defeat dropped New York into a tie with Atlanta for the division lead.
“It’s about us trying to play better,” Showalter said.
Rediscovering some of the firepower that carried New York for long stretches would help.
The Mets have managed just four runs during a slide that began with two losses to Washington at home over the weekend and continued on a dreary night at sparse PNC Park against last-place Pittsburgh.
New York has scored more than three runs just three times in its last 13 games dating back to Aug. 22, a stretch that began with getting swept in a brief Subway Series set with the New York Yankees.
“(The slump) catches your attention because they’ve been so good for so long, 100-some odd games,” Showalter said. “You always tip your cap to the opposition but you know, guys are frustrated right now because they know they are capable of better.”
New York, trying to avoid its first season since 1972 without a four-game skid. is in the midst of a stretch run that features just two series over teams in contention. Things haven’t gone as planned during the early stages.
Taijuan Walker (10-4) labored through five innings as the Mets lost for the fifth time in his last six starts. Walker allowed four runs, six hits and two walks with three strikeouts while retiring the Pirates in order just once and dealing with a blister on the index finger of his right (throwing) hand that led Showalter to replace him in the sixth.
Brandon Nimmo hit a two-run home run in the seventh to cut New York’s deficit to two but the Mets didn’t produce another runner until two outs in the ninth when the game was out of reach.
New York is 46-21 against sub.-500 teams this season, the fourth-best winning percentage in the majors against clubs with losing records. That mark, however, was 46-18 just five days ago. The Mets are the first team since the 1938 Yankees to enter three straight games 35 games over .500 and lose all to teams 35 games under .500, according to ESPN Stats and Info.
“We’re a good team, we’ve been a good team all year,” said Walker, who indicated he doesn’t expect the blister to be an issue going forward. “We’ll snap out of this funk and keep playing good baseball.”
PIRATES BREAK OUT
Rodolfo Castro hit his sixth home run of the season, a two-run shot that clanged off the foul pole in right field in the third inning to stake the Pirates to a 3-0 lead.
Rookie shortstop Oneil Cruz had three hits for Pittsburgh, i ncluding a 421-foot home run in the eighth that bounced into the Allegheny River.
Bryan Reynolds, Ke’Bryan Hayes, Kevin Newman and Jack Suwinski all had two hits for Pittsburgh, which snapped a four-game losing streak by winning for just the third time in its last 15 games.
The Mets put at least one runner on base in each of Keller’s first five innings but couldn’t capitalize. New York star Pete Alonso hit into a pair of inning-ending double plays to end threats and Keller worked around other trouble spots to post his first scoreless start in over a year. Keller struck out two and walked two to earn his first victory at home since May 29, 2021 against Colorado, a span of 22 starts.
Right fielder Starling Marte exited the game in the second inning shortly after getting hit in the middle finger of his right (throwing) hand by a 96 mph fastball from Keller. Marte stayed in to run after getting hit but was pulled when he had trouble gripping a baseball.
The hit-by-pitch was the 89th the Mets have endured this year, tops in the majors and the third-highest total in club history.
Marte, who was replaced by Tyler Naquin, underwent scans on the injured hand but both he and Showalter said it’s too early to tell the severity of the injury.
“I’m hoping that there’s not a fracture there,” Marte said through a translator. “So we’ll wait and see and hope that I can recover quickly.”
Mets: RHP Max Scherzer is still being evaluated for what the team described as “left-side fatigue” he experienced over the weekend during a start against Washington. Showalter said the club will determine on Wednesday if Scherzer will make his next scheduled start, currently set for Friday in Miami. There’s a chance the team could push Scherzer’s start to Saturday or skip his turn in the rotation. … RHP Trevor May (COVID-19 IL) should be back by Friday.
The teams will conduct a split doubleheader on Wednesday. New York will start Chris Bassitt (12-7, 3.35) in Game 1, with ace Jacob deGrom (4-1, 1.95) starting Game 2. Pittsburgh will counter with Bryse Wilson (2-8, 6.12) and Johan Oviedo (2-1, 2.86). The games are at 12:35 p.m. and 6:35 p.m. EDT.