Instead their hitting woes continued and they made multiple defensive mistakes as Niese tumbled deeper into a personal funk. So it came as little surprise when the Mets' divisional lead -- 4 1/2 games at the start of the month -- finished evaporating on a warm night at Citi.
"When I got out there today," Niese said, "I just couldn't seem to find it."
Specifically, Niese said, he couldn't seem to find his two-seam fastball, which has developed over the past two years into his primary weapon. Rather than sink and dive away from a Cardinals lineup stacked with right-handers, the two-seamer cut toward the hitters, allowing Randal Grichuk and others to barrel up for extra-base hits.
Grichuk finished with three hits and three RBIs, pacing an attack that included contributions up and down the lineup. And Niese was done by the sixth, unable to record an out in that inning.
"It's unfortunate I wasn't able to execute pitches to get out of it," said Niese, whose ERA has nearly doubled -- from 1.95 to 3.72 -- over his last two starts.
It did not help that the Mets struggled behind him. In the third inning, Gold Glove center fielder Juan Lagares misplayed Grichuk's leadoff fly ball into a triple -- a difficult play, to be certain, but one that Lagares usually makes. Three innings later, shortly after Niese left the game, Daniel Murphy did not cover first base on a routine bunt attempt, allowing pitcher Michael Wacha to extend the Cardinals' six-run rally with an infield hit.
It was that kind of night for the Mets and for Niese, who remains a part of the team's long-term plan despite his recent struggles. Manager Terry Collins said after the game that he could not envision Niese pitching out of the bullpen, where -- with Noah Syndergaard working to entrench himself into the rotation -- Dillon Gee may be headed when he returns from the disabled list as soon as next week.
"It was just one of those nights where he just didn't have his stuff," Collins said in explanation of Niese's struggles.
The Mets hope, simply, that Niese can recover. Because if they want to be anywhere near first place in September, they will need him to be at his best.