NEW YORK -- With barely eight weeks remaining in the regular season, the margin for error has grown perilously slim for the Mets. Though these games count as much as they did in early April, each individual decision appears to carry more weight. Each pitch hurtles home with more apparent importance.
The Mets will never know how Tuesday's game at Citi Field might have unfolded had Terry Collins called for a pinch-hitter with the bases loaded and two outs in the fifth. But they do know how it turned out: Pitcher Jon Niese struck out and lasted one more inning on the mound, and the Mets never generated another real rally in a 4-2 loss to the Marlins.
"The book probably says to pinch-hit for me there," Niese said. "But I'm a competitive guy. Of course I wanted to be up there hitting."
Stuck in an early four-run deficit, the Mets began chipping away in the fifth inning, when Daniel Murphy homered off Marlins starter Wade LeBlanc and Andres Torres singled home Jason Bay with two outs. When reliever Chad Gaudin walked Josh Thole to load the bases, Niese, at 82 pitches, took a long look into the dugout before striding to the plate.
No signal came, and Niese said he did not know for sure if he would hit until he began walking up to the plate. He struck out on three pitches, swinging at one of them. And that was that. Despite Scott Hairston's leadoff walk in the seventh, the Mets never threatened again.
"I thought he'd hit the ball," Collins said. "I thought we had a lot of game left, and I didn't want to use up my bench in that one inning."
It was Niese who thrust the Mets into an early hole to begin with, giving up three consecutive singles, a sacrifice fly and another single to open the fourth. Though Niese had a chance to limit the damage to two runs, he served up John Buck's two-run double with two outs to increase the margin.
"I made some pretty bad pitches," Niese said. "I hung my curveball on three consecutive guys, which really hurt me. That's been my Achilles' heel this year is giving up those big innings."
The Mets did nothing early against LeBlanc, who left immediately following Murphy's leadoff homer in the fifth. Prior to that, their offensive highlight was Ruben Tejada's third-inning single, which extended his career-high hitting streak to 12 games. But even Tejada's hit was not tops on this night; former Mets shortstop Jose Reyes extended his own career-high streak to 25 games with an infield single in the four-run fourth.
"That's good that I got on base there and I scored a run," said Reyes, who received a mix of boos and cheers in his second series back at Citi Field. "That's good for the team."
Niese lasted six innings, striking out four and allowing eight hits and a walk -- and of those statistics, he controlled all but the innings. Those were the domain of Collins, who has pulled Niese for an early pinch-hitter on several past occasions in the hopes of generating a big inning.
But Collins shifted his strategy against the Marlins, knowing Niese is at least an average hitter for a pitcher -- he beat out an infield single earlier in the game -- and feeling for all the world like there was plenty of game left to play. New York, after all, had knocked out Miami's starter in the fifth inning, and has enjoyed plenty of success against the Marlins' 21st-ranked bullpen this season.
Also factoring into the decision was Collins' short-handed bench; the Mets were playing without backup catcher Rob Johnson, who injured his hand Sunday and was unavailable to hit. Their list of reserves was down to four before the night even began.
So Niese donned his helmet as the Mets rallied, took some swings in the on-deck circle, and all the while half-expected his manager to call him back to the dugout.
The call never came. The deficit never changed. And the Mets were left wondering for the 57th time in 110 games if there was anything they could have done differently.
"I'm glad he let me hit," Niese said. "I'm glad he had the confidence in me, but [Gaudin] made good pitches. It's one of those things where he made good pitches and I struck out."