NEW YORK -- To shock the league this summer, as they have so often talked of doing, the Mets will need to combine strong starting pitching with reliable relief pitching, timely offense and solid defense. Through four games this season, they have consistently demonstrated only one of those skills.
Jeremy Hefner gave the Mets yet another impressive starting pitching effort Friday, but his team struggled with most other aspects of the game in a 7-5 loss to the Marlins at Citi Field.
"I was just hoping to keep them close, and eventually we did come back," Hefner said. "We just ran out of outs."
Everything unraveled after Ruben Tejada committed a fielding error to open the seventh inning of a one-run game, his third defensive miscue of the young season. Reliever Greg Burke walked the next batter to set up an obvious sacrifice attempt from Juan Pierre.
But when Pierre obliged with a bunt to the mound, Burke whirled toward third base, where his throw was not nearly quick enough to nail the lead runner. That allowed Placido Polanco to bat with the bases loaded, punching a game-breaking two-run single into right field.
"I got to it a little slower than we were thinking," Burke said of the bunt. "In that situation, I probably just need to get the out -- take my time, throw it to first and get the out."
If that play did not immediately haunt Burke, it was about to, because the inning was far from over. After Burke whiffed Giancarlo Stanton for the inning's first out, left-hander Scott Rice gave up a sacrifice fly to Greg Dobbs and back-to-back RBI doubles to Justin Ruggiano and Rob Brantly, spotting the Marlins a six-run lead.
The official losing pitcher was Hefner, though he hardly deserved that fate. Subbing for the injured Johan Santana, Hefner held the Marlins to one run -- a Dobbs solo homer -- in six innings. He struck out three and walked two, giving the Mets a fair bit of encouragement. With Santana less than a week removed from season-ending shoulder surgery, Hefner should remain in the rotation for as long as he proves capable.
Right now, that is as good a place as any to be. Mets starting pitchers have allowed four runs over the first four games, combining for a 1.38 ERA.
"We're a competitive group, and we compete against each other," Hefner said. "I think that's showing."
But the offense has become an issue, doing nothing against Marlins starter Alex Sanabia. Though Sanabia put runners on base in each of his six innings, including the leadoff man three times, he pitched around six hits, three walks and a hit batsman, striking out one.
"Sanabia threw great," Ruggiano said. "He pounded the zone, and then the bats finally came out a little bit tonight. Cool weather aside, it was nice to get that first win, and we look forward to the next one."
After pounding out 19 runs in their first 13 innings this season, the Mets scored once over their next 18 innings. It was not until Daniel Murphy cracked a three-run homer off Chad Qualls in the seventh that the Mets finally snapped their offensive drought.
Murphy came to the plate again an inning later, with the tying runs on base in a three-run game. But this time he could not convert, working the count full before grounding harmlessly to second base. After the Marlins added an insurance run in the top of the ninth, the Mets scored twice more in the bottom of the inning on RBI hits from Kirk Nieuwenhuis and Lucas Duda.
But, as Hefner said, they "ran out of outs," and it did not help that they gave the Marlins extra ones. For a team that cannot afford to make many mistakes this season, the Mets have suffered through quite a few in their past two games -- erring on defense, leaving men on base (a dozen in Friday's game), seeming just a tick off in their execution.
Through four games, their starting pitching has been exceptional. The Mets simply need the rest of their roster to catch up to that pace.