Last Wednesday, Hisanori Takahashi became the only Met pitcher to go at least six shutout innings in each of his first two big league starts. Only 18 pitchers have ever accomplished this before.
It was only a matter of time, critics argued, before the proverbial wheels fell off. On Memorial Day in San Diego, those wheels flew off in emphatic fashion. Why are you laughing, Taka? I don't think that performance deserves a smile and a smirk.
After blanking the Yankees over six innings and 101 pitches on May 21 and doing the same to the Phillies on 94 pitches five days later, Takahashi ran into his first real difficulty against the Padres.
He gave up six runs over four innings of work, including a grand slam to Jerry Hairston Jr. into the suite deck of the Western Metal Supply Co. warehouse in the bottom of the second and a two-run double to Nick Hundley after back-to-back hits to lead off the home half of the third. He never appeared for the fifth.
In total, his line read eight hits, two walks, and one strikeout. So much for a pitchers' park.
Takahashi was 3-1 with a 3.12 ERA out of the bullpen before joining the rotation, and he knocked a full run off of that number with 12 scoreless innings in his first two starts.
His hens came to roost during his third start though.
Monday's game marked just the third time this season that Takahashi has allowed more than one run, and it's the first time that he's really been hit hard. Sure, he gave up three runs out of the 'pen against the Cubs and yes, he allowed eight baserunners in three innings against the Marlins, but this was his first real test.
He worked into a jam in the second inning with three straight singles to the No. 5, 6, and 7 hitters, but he retired Durango and pitcher Correia to get one out away from avoiding major trouble. Unfortunately for the Mets, Takahashi left a fastball up and in to Hairston, who rocketed it to the second deck down the left field line.
Worryingly, it was the fifth grand slam the Mets have given up this season. Met killer Josh Willingham was awarded a grand slam on replay for the Nationals on April 11 and Felipe Lopez hit a bases-loaded homer for the Cardinals on April 17. Shane Victorino cleared the bases with a blast for the Phillies on May 3 and Corey Hart went yard for Milwaukee just two days ago.
Of course, the Mets had more problems than just the homerun ball. Raul Valdes allowed two hits and three straight walks to force home two runs without ever recording an out—and for all of the offense's work in scratching across three runs to get within a pair, the bullpen couldn't really keep the game close. Four runs in the fifth and five more in the sixth put the game to bed.
When it was all said and done, it was the most amount of runs the Mets had given up since 2004.
With the loss, the Mets dropped to 26-26, four games behind of the first-place Braves. With all five teams over .500 and no team more than four games back, it is the closest the NL East has been entering Memorial Day since 2005.
In recent years, the Nationals were 11 games back on Memorial Day in 2009—as many as any team from any division in baseball—and in 2008 the Nats were eight games out of first and seven games below .500.
2007 saw the bottom team in the NL East (still the Nationals) a dozen games behind the Mets, while 2006 was a brutal year for those in any division who fell behind the pack in the run-up to the holiday. The Pirates were already 16 games out of first in the NL Central after just 50 games, the Marlins were 14.5 back in the NL East, and the lowly Royals were an incredible 23 games behind the 35-15 Tigers in the AL Central.
The last time the NL East was this close was five years ago to the day when the Phillies (24-27) were five games adrift from the first-place Marlins.
The last time any division was this close entering the final Monday in May was in 2004. At that time, the Pirates were four back of the leaders in the NL Central.
Considering the Mets' road record, it's not going to get any easier on their travels. But the pitching will have to be much, much better from top to bottom if they even wish to compete.
The hitting is pretty good and the defense is solid, but without dependable outings from the starters and shut-down work from the bullpen, the Mets are going to struggle—even at home.
Let's chalk Takahashi's first real meltdown to a bad night on the mound. Everything else he has done so far in 2010 has been fantastic and I am confident he will bounce back strongly next time out.
Hopefully, with Pelfrey going on Tuesday and Santana pitching on Wednesday, the bullpen can get at least a little mild relief. If the Mets are going to win back-to-back games on the road any time soon, it will be these relievers that help lead the way.