So here are the second-place Mets, about to engage the Orioles at Camden Yards on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights -- and their slip is showing. Losses in eight of their past 12 games is the most tangible indication. The tendency to perform in a ghastly manner with some regularity isn't reassuring. And now they have lost two of the past three games that Johan Santana has started.
The second loss happened in an Interleague setting in the Bronx on Sunday. And it was a thorough thrashing that Santana and the Mets suffered. The Mets managed six hits -- all singles -- against A.J. Burnett and two relievers.
And Santana made little more than a cameo appearance in facing 19 batters, allowing 11 to reach base and nine to score.
Other than Alex Cora's unassisted double play in the fourth inning -- it would have been a 6-6-3 triple play if Ernie Lombardi had been the hitter -- the Mets achieved little of note other than to avoid assignment of a player to the disabled list for a third straight day.
The 15-run margin was the greatest in the 69 games New York's teams have played against each other, and the 15 runs were one shy of the highest run total by either team in the previous 68 meetings. One of the Yankees' 39 victories was by a 16-7 score, on June 2, 2006, in the Bronx.
The contrast created by Santana's performance in three-plus scarred innings on Sunday cast against his grand resume was so stark and his velocity was so pedestrian -- 89-90 mph -- that observers were prompted to suspect injury to the left arm that carries most of whatever hopes the Mets have retained through 61 games.
To that, Santana said no in any number of ways -- "I'm fine," and "I'm OK," and "Not at all," and "No excuses." He became the second Mets starter in 11 days to characterize a performance as "the worst of my career" and the second Mets starter to allow nine runs in a game. Mike Pelfrey was the first in both instances.
Pitching coach Dan Warthen, who hadn't consulted with Santana before the pitcher departed Yankee Stadium, wondered aloud whether Santana had changed the grip on his four-seam fastball after a blister on the middle finger of his left hand healed late last month. Santana had identified the problem as a split nail on the same finger.
"His four-seamer was cutting, and usually it stays in its lane," Warthen said. "That can reduce his velocity. ... Physically, he's in good shape. We'll talk, probably later tonight, and see if there is a delivery issue."
Santana's pitches were higher than usual as well.
Whatever the cause, the Mets' No. 1 pitcher had been illuminated, as Derek Lowe once said. It's a less harsh way to say, "He was lit up." Santana allowed four runs in the second inning and was responsible for five of the nine runs the Yankees scored in the fourth. The left-hander faced five batters in that inning and retired none, and on the day he surrendered nine hits -- one being a two-run home run by Hideki Matsui following a leadoff walk to Nick Swisher -- and two walks.
The loss was Santana's first in the home park of the Yankees. Prior to Sunday, he had a 3-0 record and a 2.05 ERA at the Yankees' former home.
The nine runs that increased Santana's ERA from 2.39 to 3.29 were the most he has allowed in 222 Major League starts. Santana now has a 4-2 record and a 6.50 ERA in his six most recent starts. He had a 4-2 record and a 0.78 ERA after his first six starts this season.
Santana spoke of the disparity thusly: "When you start out with those numbers and you're expected to keep them that way, it's not easy."
Santana's ERA has increased after each of his past six starts. It's not encouraging, either.
And an unsuccessful start by Santana, particularly one as grotesque as this one, can drag a team down
as a much as 27th-out error that changes almost-achieved victory to nauseating defeat. Santana is like an energy drink for the Mets -- (Once Every) Five Day Power. When he doesn't win, he's a sip of water.
"You know when he doesn't get it done," Ryan Church said after Santana lost to the Pirates on June 2. "He gives you that lift every five days."
But now only once in 18 days.
It is not coincidental that the Mets were in first place, albeit by a half-game, with a record six games over .500 on the day Santana -- his record now 8-4 -- put his record at 7-2. Now, they trail the National League East-leading Phillies by four games and their record in three games better than break-even.
They need a booster. Or maybe three games in Baltimore will do. For now.