PITTSBURGH - By the fourth inning, it was clear that there was no point to subjecting Matt Harvey to any more punishment. He has a limited number of innings at his disposal this season, his first since Tommy John surgery, and it made no sense to burn any of them during a lost cause.
So with the Mets down by six runs, the worst start of Harvey's career came to a merciful end Saturday. When his turn came to bat in the fifth, he was lifted for a pinch hitter, the white flag in an unsightly 8-2 loss to the Pirates that already had been long decided.
"We just get so carried away that he's never going to have a bad day that when he does, it's shocking for us all," manager Terry Collins said.
Behind a hail of liners in the fourth inning, the Pirates chased Harvey, tagging him for a career-worst seven runs in four innings.
"It was just a pretty terrible outing," Harvey said after his command betrayed him in the shortest outing of his big-league career.
Harvey's rare clunker came about on yet another day in which the cosmos conspired against the Mets, who announced that David Wright has a back condition that could carry both short- and long-term ramifications.
For now, he has been shut down for a week with recurring tightness and pain. It's possible that the issue is one he'll have to manage for the remainder of his career.
Once the game started, things didn't get much better.
For a second straight day, the Mets' struggling offense offered little help, this time after flailing away against A.J. Burnett. In seven innings, he struck out 10 without issuing a walk. The Mets have 22 strikeouts in two games.
They scratched across a run in the fourth on Daniel Murphy's groundout and didn't score again until the eighth, on Ruben Tejada's garbage-time solo homer.
The Mets have to win Sunday to prevent a three-game sweep, a fate they thought they might avoid with Harvey on the mound.
The ace has been a stopper, sparing the Mets from skids. But Saturday, nothing went according to plan. "Everything was kind of all over the place," Harvey said.
When he aimed his fastball inside, it tailed away. When he missed with his breaking pitches, they wound up in the dirt or in the hitting zone.
Harvey had not allowed a run in three of his four previous outings. And he entered this start with a career-best stretch of 16 scoreless innings.
It didn't take long for that to end. With one out in the first inning, Andrew McCutchen slammed a two-run homer, depositing a 96-mph fastball into the Pirates' bullpen. An inning later, Pedro Alvarez tagged another 96-mph heater. This one landed near the back row of the rightfield stands.
The knockout blow came in the fourth when Harvey allowed four runs, including a sacrifice fly by Burnett and a two-run double by Josh Harrison. The outburst included two wild pitches. With that, his fate was sealed.
With the Mets aiming to limit him to about 195 innings -- and on the brink of adopting a six-man rotation -- Harvey was lifted for a pinch hitter. He was finished after 65 laborious pitches. He fell to 5-2 and his ERA rose from 1.98 to 2.91.
"It was just one of those days," Collins said. "He doesn't have many of them. But this was one."