First, the torment came in drips and drabs -- a hit here, a hit there, one run in each of the first four innings -- not good but certainly not atrocious.

At least, not yet.

Had Jonathon Niese stood his ground from there Tuesday night, perhaps the Mets could have stayed within arm's reach of the Cardinals. Maybe, they wouldn't have been lifeless by the seventh-inning stretch, hopelessly behind in a 10-2 drubbing by the Cardinals.

By the end of it, Niese looked like a boxer who had waited too long to groan "no mas,' chased from his worst game of the season before he managed to record a single out in the sixth inning.

The Mets' modest winning streak was halted at three.

Cardinals righty Michael Wacha ran his record to 6-0 by limiting the damage to just two runs in seven innings. He got support from Randal Grichuk, who finished 3-for-5 with three RBIs, including a two-run double in the sixth, when things went south for Niese.

The statistical summary looked every bit as bad it played out in real time: five-plus innings, 11 hits, eight earned runs, one walk and one strikeout.

Daniel Murphy's two-run homer in the fourth drew the Mets to within 4-2, close enough for even their moribund offense to perhaps climb back in it. They would have needed Niese's cooperation, of course.

They did not get it.

Niese departed under duress, leaving behind a bases-loaded mess after having already allowed a two-run double by Kolten Wong, the fourth straight hit of the frame.

The Cardinals continued the rampage against reliever Erik Goeddel, emerging with six runs and a comfortable eight-run lead by the time Jhonny Peralta made the last out in his second at-bat of the inning.

A crowd of 21,157 cheered when Murphy lined his third homer of the season, hitting the netting of the foul pole. And they summoned some genuine warmth when rookie Darrell Ceciliani rolled an infield single in his first big-league plate appearance, a pinch-hit at-bat during the tail end of a blowout.

But mostly, the fans saved their scorn for Niese, who teetered on the brink before he was eventually sent over the edge. Only when manager Terry Collins emerged from the dugout in the sixth did the crowd let out a cheer.

It dripped with mockery as Collins took the baseball from Niese, who slumped his shoulders and trudged off the field.

Through his first six starts of the season, the lefthander had posted a 1.95 ERA. But against the Cubs on Thursday, he was drilled for six runs (four earned) in 6 1/3 innings. He came unspooled again Tuesday night. Teams have battered Niese for 14 runs in his last two outings.

His ERA jumped to 3.72.

For all of their struggles in May, the Mets entered play Tuesday night treading water at 8-8. The simple formula: ride the arms.

Mets pitchers began the night with a 2.31 ERA in May, the best mark in baseball. But even that level of brilliance hasn't been enough to cover for an offense that badly needs an infusion.

The Mets' team OPS of .651 in May ranked last in the National League. On an intuitive level, the fans seemed to know it, too. When Niese fell behind 4-0 through four, the energy evaporated at a hazy Citi Field.

The storm was about to rage. It was going to be a long night.