Niese solid in return, but Mets held in check
Lefty allows two runs on six hits in 5 2/3 innings with four strikeouts
NEW YORK -- The ball that would have won Sunday's game for the Mets arced off Travis d'Arnaud's bat, snapping more than 26,000 fans at Citi Field to attention. It gained momentum as it soared over the infield. Fans craned their necks. D'Arnaud figured it was gone. And then it began tumbling downward, downward, into Ryan Ludwick's glove at the warning track.
As the ball died, so too did the Mets' best chance to convert Jon Niese's strong return from the disabled list into a win. Instead the Mets lost to the Reds, 2-1, in a game that revived many of their early-season problems.
"From a catching aspect, I feel like it's my fault," d'Arnaud said.
The rookie backstop was referring mostly to his handling of Niese and the pitching staff, though pitching was hardly the Mets' problem in this one. Instead it was an offense that could not do much of anything against Reds starter Alfredo Simon.
D'Arnaud's 0-for-3 punctuated all that, extending his season-opening slump to 0-for-15.
Still, his chance for redemption was there in the seventh. With the Mets trailing by a run, Ike Davis opened the inning with his second hit of the game off Simon, but Juan Lagares' first-pitch pop-up shaved some life off the rally. D'Arnaud was equally impatient, swinging at the first pitch, though his result was better: a long fly ball careening straight toward the retired numbers pasted on Citi's left-field fence.
The ball simply never made it, leaving the Mets gasping for offense that would never come.
"I wouldn't say it's frustrating," said d'Arnaud, whose career batting average dropped to .175 in 36 games. "I still feel pretty confident."
In many ways, the Mets echoed d'Arnaud's sentiments, losing despite a positive mindset. Manager Terry Collins had nothing but good things to say about Niese, who cruised through five innings before unraveling in the sixth. Three consecutive singles to open the inning led to Joey Votto's sacrifice fly and Ludwick's RBI single, which was all the offense Cincinnati would need to avoid a three-game series sweep.
The Mets had scored an early run off Simon on back-to-back hits from Davis and Lagares in the second. But a more promising rally stalled one inning later when, with two men in scoring position and one out, Daniel Murphy and David Wright fanned in succession. Simon went on to retire 10 in a row, needing only 79 pitches to complete seven innings.
"I felt real comfortable," Simon said. "I know it had been 10 days since I was out there. I just tried to do my best today. Everything came through."
The result was a Mets loss less demoralizing than others. Collins was satisfied with Niese, who felt no discomfort in the balky left elbow that forced him to begin this season on the disabled list. And he was happy with the bullpen, which leaned on Gonzalez Germen, Kyle Farnsworth and Jose Valverde to pick up Niese's slack.
Collins' only real issue was with the lineup, which struggled to convert its out-of-character aggressive approach into runs.
D'Arnaud typified that approach, swinging at Simon's first offering in all three of his at-bats and seeing a total of six pitches in the game. In the second inning, he fouled off a high fastball before eventually grounding out on a pitcher's pitch near the outside corner. In the fifth, he drilled an up-and-away cutter to center field, where Chris Heisey handled it. And in the seventh, he smacked the fly ball that would have won the game with a little more oomph.
The Mets did not mind their catcher's approach, considering it twice resulted in hard contact. And they believe d'Arnaud, who seemed to be gaining steam toward the end of Spring Training, will eventually right himself and enjoy a productive season.
It just is not happening now, making him one of several primary scapegoats in a scuffling lineup.
"I'm worried about his mental approach more than anything," Collins said. "Certainly he came into the season not only as an integral part of the defense, but the offense. His spot in that lineup, we've got to get some production out of it. He's got to battle through it. There are no easy answers here."