The Astros finally found a big hit, and the Mets found their first three-game losing streak of the season.
Neither Taijuan Walker nor Justin Verlander blinked in what became a classic pitcher’s duel, but Drew Smith could not survive the ninth inning in a 2-0 loss to the Astros on Wednesday afternoon at Citi Field in front of 29,230, who witnessed the Mets get swept in the short, two-game set.
The Mets (47-29) had not dropped three straight prior to this stretch and temporarily fell to 3 ½ games ahead of the Braves, who were set to play later Wednesday. The NL East lead has not been this close since May 2.
After Buck Showalter went to Edwin Diaz for the top of the Astros’ lineup in the eighth, the Mets manager tried Smith for the ninth. Two games after Adam Ottavino allowed a game-winning home run, Smith watched catcher Jason Castro – who entered the day hitting .095 – hit a two-run bomb to right to quiet what had been a loud crowd.
The Mets’ situational hitting has disappeared of late, entering play going 2-for-22 with runners in scoring position the past two games. On Wednesday, against Verlander, the issue was hitting in totality: They finished with two hits.
The day began with promise, an outstanding Walker and a strange infield defensive alignment, with Luis Guillorme starting his seventh game at third, Dominic Smith at first and Francisco Lindor and Jeff McNeil up the middle – but with a ground ball-reliant pitcher, the best gloves were desired.
The plan worked.
Jose Altuve, the game’s first batter, lined out to left. Each ensuing out Walker recorded did not leave the infield until Yordan Alvarez flew out to center to end the top of the sixth inning.
Entering play, Walker was 19th in baseball among starters with at least 60 innings thrown – and the best on the Mets – at getting ground balls, at a 49 percent clip.
Through Walker’s scoreless 7 ⅓ innings, Guillorme had a hand – whether catching pop-ups, fielding grounders and throwing over or jump-starting a double play – in 11 outs.
Walker, who has not surrendered more than four runs in a start since May 5, lowered his ERA to 2.72 and allowed just four hits with two walks and three strikeouts.
He was pulled after throwing 93 pitches with one out in the eighth, Showalter going to Diaz early to face the top of the Astros order. Diaz allowed two to reach base, but struck out Yordan Alvarez and Alex Bregman
The problem was Verlander matched Walker every step of the way.
The Mets’ first chance looked to be their best. Their first batter of the game, Brandon Nimmo, lined a first-pitch double to left-center. And though Pete Alonso and McNeil worked Verlander – seeing a combined 17 pitches – three batters after Nimmo’s hit, he was stranded on third. The Mets did not have another hit until there were two outs in the fifth. It would be their last.
The scariest moment of the game arrived in the bottom of the eighth, when three Astros converged on Dominic Smith’s shallow fly to left-center.
Shortstop Jeremy Pena made the running catch but was immediately upended by left fielder Alvarez, who himself went down as Pena’s arm hit his face. They both hit the grass hard and stayed there for several moments, Pena getting up first.
Alvarez remained, not moving, on the grass for several minutes before rising to his feet The Astros’ best hitter – and among the best in all of baseball – was then carted off the field and replaced by Chas McCormick. Mauricio Dubon subbed in for Pena .
After the long pause, Verlander got Ender Inciarte to fly out and, on his 101st pitch, Tomas Nido to strike out. There was no shaking him.