The dialogue around the Mets' pitching staff these days tends toward the superhuman: you have your Dark Knight in Matt Harvey and Thor in Noah Syndergaard. Jacob DeGrom still doesn't have a mythical nickname, but he does have a bobblehead gnome in his likeness, and even Bartolo Colon has something of a cult following.
But lost in all that pomp and circumstance is the Mets' current circumstance: A move toward a six-man rotation means that the team is deeply concerned about limiting the innings on its big-name arms. That means counting on guys such as Jon Niese who have been far less than reliable and a bullpen that, at least in Saturday's 9-5 loss to the Marlins, could not compensate for the lackluster start.
"I'm concerned," Terry Collins said of Niese. "I have yet to see him, in my time here, pitch with [as many] mistakes as he's made . . . It's just not him. [Pitching coach Dan Warthen] has been trying to get his two-seam back working and it hasn't been, so we've got some work ahead."
Niese lasted only four innings, giving up seven hits and five runs (four earned), including a solo home run by Giancarlo Stanton in the third and a two-run shot by J.T. Realmuto in the fourth.
After the Mets tied the score at 5 with a four-run fourth, the bullpen faltered. Hansel Robles gave up a two-out, two-run single to Christian Yelich in the seventh and Alex Torres allowed solo homers by Stanton and Jeff Baker on back-to-back pitches in the ninth.
The start was Niese's shortest outing of the season and part of a trend: He's given up 20 earned runs in 20 innings in his last four starts. He and Collins acknowledged that his two-seam fastball seems to be the primary culprit, given that Niese proclaimed himself perfectly healthy.
"All my mistakes are getting hit," he said. "They just seem to be barreling everything. It's been frustrating, these last four starts. I'm just going to continue to work and right the ship."
The offense tried to keep up with the shaky pitching performance but missed a number of big opportunities, going 3-for-14 with men in scoring position and stranding 11 runners.
Lucas Duda doubled home a run in the first, but after the Mets loaded the bases with none out, Stony Brook product Tom Koehler got Michael Cuddyer to pop up and Wilmer Flores hit into a 6-4-3 double play.
"We circled things in our scorecard as 'this is big,' " Collins said. "We should've added on here and we should've added on here and it's a whole different game. If you're going to win in this league, you've got to capitalize on your opportunities."
Donovan Solano's two-run double to left-center gave the Marlins a 2-1 lead in the second. A solo homer by Stanton in the third and a two-run shot by Realmulto in the fourth made it 5-1.
The Mets tied it in the bottom of the fourth. With one out and the bases loaded, Curtis Granderson lined a long single off the centerfield wall. Marcell Ozuna barehanded the carom to limit him to one RBI, but Ruben Tejada, stroked a first-pitch fastball to center for a three-run double.
It should've been enough, and that was something Niese was keenly aware of after the game. He doesn't quite understand the problem, he said, "because my arm feels great.''
"It's very surprising," he said. "It's frustrating more than anything . . . It seems like I've been trying to execute my pitches instead of actually executing them."
In short, on a staff of superhumans, Niese is looking utterly human.