Utility man starts in right, sparking rally with help from hot Murphy
ST. LOUIS -- Singing, joking, jubilant ballplayers bounced around Busch Stadium late Thursday afternoon. The Mets stood eight games under .500, six out of first place in the National League East, and yet their happiness spiked to levels unseen for weeks.
Jon Niese had pitched well -- even brilliantly, at times -- during a 5-2 win against the Cardinals, snapping the Mets' six-game losing streak. With Matt Harvey set to start Friday against the Cubs, that meant -- finally -- a real chance at some real momentum.
"Wins always let you exhale," third baseman David Wright said. "It doesn't matter what the situation is."
Wins, however, have been nearly impossible to come by for the Mets, who entered the day with 14 losses in their past 18 games. And Thursday initially seemed no different. Their defense had already given up a cheap run by the third inning, and their offense, which had averaged fewer than three runs per game over its previous nine contests, was flailing against Adam Wainwright.
Then something funny happened, and the game changed course. Jordany Valdespin, who had spent the past week as a lightning rod for criticism, laid down a perfect drag bunt that hugged the right side of the infield. The Mets parlayed that into a two-run rally, and Niese looked more ace-like than Wainwright from that point forward.
"I think we're all trying to pitch well and to get into that groove that way," Niese said. "Night-in and night-out, we can pick each other up."
After giving up 15 runs in his previous two outings, Niese spent time this week realigning his mechanics in front of a mirror. He threw a high-intensity bullpen session between starts, nearly doubling his usual pitch count as he tried to rediscover last year's form.
Trouble came in the second inning, when Rick Ankiel hesitated fielding Pete Kozma's two-out hit, which fell for an RBI double. But Niese retired the next nine batters, completing more than seven innings for the first time this season.
Manager Terry Collins spoke before the game about the importance of saving his bullpen, which had been severely taxed in recent days. And Niese made it look relatively easy, holding the Cardinals to six hits, two walks and two runs, neither of which was entirely his fault.
"He pitched great," Cardinals outfielder Allen Craig said. "He was throwing all of his pitches around the zone and had a lot of movement on his ball today. He pitched very well."
A second run was charged to Niese after he left the game, courtesy of Carlos Beltran's third hit. But thanks to Daniel Murphy, Wright, Valdespin and the offense, the Mets compiled enough of a cushion that it did not matter.
"There were a lot of things today we needed to have, and we did it," Collins said. "We got a great outing out of Jon to get us deep into the game. And we beat Adam Wainwright, which is not easy to do."
Starting a rare game in right field due to Collins' desperation for any sort of spark, Valdespin stepped to the plate in the third inning under less-than-favorable circumstances. Fresh off a two-hit shutout, Wainwright had set down seven consecutive Mets and eight of the first nine.
Though some on the Mets bench would have preferred him to swing away with two outs, Valdespin pushed a perfect bunt toward the right side of the infield, beating the throw with relative ease. The next batter, Murphy, ripped an RBI double to right field, scoring moments later on Wright's single.
Murphy added a second RBI double off Wainwright in the sixth to finish 4-for-4, going 11-for-17 since snapping an 0-for-17 funk last weekend. Shrugging his shoulders, he chalked his hot streak up simply to "less anxiety" and "a little more time at the plate."
No matter the cause, it represented a mountain of offense for the Mets, who had plated more than three runs in a game just once in the past nine contests.
It was also more than enough backing for Niese, who has struggled this season while watching Harvey dominate. Entering the season, the Mets expected consistency out of their Opening Day starter, and perhaps a few growing pains for Harvey. So it vexed them to watch Niese struggle in May, knowing they were unable to maximize Harvey's contributions.
Now, with Niese believing he has unlocked something tangible, the Mets envision a more lasting run of success.
"No question, this is exactly what we said at the beginning of the year," Collins said. "With Jon and Matt starting behind each other, we can start a streak. Certainly we need a game out of Matt to get that streak going."