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Niese struggles with execution vs. Cards

NEW YORK -- Approximately two hours after Jon Niese threw his final pitch on Tuesday evening, walking off the mound with his eyes fixed on the ground, Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman hit a walk-off homer against the Yankees a couple hundred miles to the south. That, combined with Niese's continued struggles in a 10-2 loss to the Cardinals, bumped the Mets out of sole possession of first place for the first time since April 15.

That may not be overly significant for a Mets team with bigger goals than standing alone in first on May 19, but it is nonetheless troubling, given how it happened. Niese, the Mets' longest-tenured starter and lone left-hander, looked nothing like the pitcher who led his rotation in ERA just 10 days ago. And the Mets looked nothing like the team that hit with consistency throughout April.

Instead their hitting woes continued and they made multiple defensive mistakes as Niese tumbled deeper into a personal funk. So it came as little surprise when the Mets' divisional lead -- 4 1/2 games at the start of the month -- finished evaporating on a warm night at Citi.

"When I got out there today," Niese said, "I just couldn't seem to find it."

Specifically, Niese said, he couldn't seem to find his two-seam fastball, which has developed over the past two years into his primary weapon. Rather than sink and dive away from a Cardinals lineup stacked with right-handers, the two-seamer cut toward the hitters, allowing Randal Grichuk and others to barrel up for extra-base hits.

Grichuk finished with three hits and three RBIs, pacing an attack that included contributions up and down the lineup. And Niese was done by the sixth, unable to record an out in that inning.

"It's unfortunate I wasn't able to execute pitches to get out of it," said Niese, whose ERA has nearly doubled -- from 1.95 to 3.72 -- over his last two starts.

It did not help that the Mets struggled behind him. In the third inning, Gold Glove center fielder Juan Lagares misplayed Grichuk's leadoff fly ball into a triple -- a difficult play, to be certain, but one that Lagares usually makes. Three innings later, shortly after Niese left the game, Daniel Murphy did not cover first base on a routine bunt attempt, allowing pitcher Michael Wacha to extend the Cardinals' six-run rally with an infield hit.

It was that kind of night for the Mets and for Niese, who remains a part of the team's long-term plan despite his recent struggles. Manager Terry Collins said after the game that he could not envision Niese pitching out of the bullpen, where -- with Noah Syndergaard working to entrench himself into the rotation -- Dillon Gee may be headed when he returns from the disabled list as soon as next week.

"It was just one of those nights where he just didn't have his stuff," Collins said in explanation of Niese's struggles.

The Mets hope, simply, that Niese can recover. Because if they want to be anywhere near first place in September, they will need him to be at his best.

Anthony DiComo is a reporter for Follow him on Twitter @AnthonyDiComo and Facebook, and listen to his podcast.
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