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Rocky start undercuts Mets' rally effort

Rocky start undercuts Mets' rally effort

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NEW YORK -- If nothing else in this fractured season the Mets wish they could reverse, they have turned around one of the game's time-honored axioms. "It's not how you finish, but how you start," rather than its more popular antithesis, is what applied Monday evening when they engaged and lost to the D-backs, another team in search of an about face.

The Mets, as Mel Allen used to say, finished with a flourish. Their overworked bullpen provided 7 1/3 scoreless innings, affording their often over-matched batting order a genuine opportunity to rise to the challenge. A memorable game would have resulted had the Mets prevailed. But when their starting pitcher allowed six runs and didn't achieve six outs, the axiom took a beating, and so did the home team.

So it was at Citi Field. Before Arizona's 16th batter left the on-deck circle, the D-backs had left the Mets six runs in arrears. And the remainder of the evening did nothing but point out how hollow supposedly moral victories are. When complete, this one bore the label of a 6-5 D-backs triumph. And Nelson Figueroa's label as a 4-A pitcher was underscored. In a 53-pitch, 1 2/3-inning cameo appearance, he produced the nadir of his big league career.

Summoned from the Mets' Triple-A Buffalo Bisons for whom he dominated for two months, Figueroa was buried by a team mostly unfamiliar with him that had begun the evening with the third-lowest batting average in the National League. He made the shortest start in his career, surrendered three home runs for the second time in his career and 10 hits for the first time. He had allowed six runs three times in his preceding 40 career starts, but he pitched at least four innings in each of those three games.

"I didn't start out very well; it didn't finish very well for me," Figueroa said. "I can't imagine with them not having seen me before to be on every single pitch. There were no soft outs. Even when I made good pitches, they found a way to put balls in play and get doubles out of them. ... And the big hitters didn't miss. ... Plan B didn't work very well, and in the big leagues, you don't have a chance to get to Plan C."

Figueroa was given the assignment partially because the Mets had no alternatives and also because he had pitched quite effectively at Triple-A since the beginning of June. He made 10 starts, averaging more than seven innings per outing and produced a 1.51 ERA and 7-1 record.

But Mark Reynolds and Miguel Montero hit D-back-to-D-back home runs in the first inning when Figueroa allowed three runs, five hits and a walk. The home runs suggested the distance between Buffalo and Flushing is roughly 850 feet. The bases-empty home runs -- to left-center by Reynolds and to right by Montero -- were rockets that reached areas of Citi Field that rarely had been imperiled in the Mets' first 53 games in their new home.

Then Reynolds hit a more pedestrian shot, to center field, in the second when the D-backs duplicated what they had done in the first. He had 12 at-bats in the four-game series and hit four home runs. Among the Mets, only Gary Sheffield has more home runs at Citi Field, five in 107 at-bats. David Wright, Reynolds' Virginia buddy, has four in 195 at-bats at Citi. Some January joking may ensue when Reynolds and Wright cross paths. For now and for public consumption, Reynolds said, "Dave is just an all-around hitter, he's not really a power guy. He's a line-drive guy, and he runs into them. He's a top-tier player. He's hit almost .330, and obviously, it's not very good for his power numbers, this park, but at the same time he's finding gaps, and I'm sure he's hit plenty of doubles this year.

"They might have to move [the fences] in next year like they did at Tiger Stadium. I know a lot of guys had talked about it -- talking about how big it is. [Nationals third baseman Ryan] Zimmerman told me that this place is huge. It's on TV -- Baseball Tonight and MLB [Network] -- they always talk about it. It's not little."

But it played that way, at least for the visiting team Monday. Some of it was Figueroa (0-2 in two big league starts this season). He didn't miss many bats. And the D-backs were right on his pitches. No member of their starting lineup had faced him previously, yet they crushed him. Omir Santos, Figueroa's catcher, and Alex Cora wondered whether the D-backs knew what was coming.

"They hit every pitch he had," Santos said. "I didn't know what to call."

"When they hit everything so hard, you have to figure he's tipping," Cora said.

Certainly, it wasn't a case of the D-backs swinging hot bats. They managed three hits following Figueroa's departure. The 7 1/3 innings pitched by Tim Redding, Bobby Parnell, Pedro Feliciano and Brian Stokes were the most scoreless relief innings by a Mets team since July 7, 2007. It was 7 1/3 then, as well.

"It was a tremendous job by the bullpen to keep it the way it was the whole game and give us a chance to win the ballgame," Figueroa said.

The Mets' comeback -- one run in the third, three in the fifth and one in the sixth -- made the Snakes squirm. Their top starter, Dan Haren, a Cy Young Award contender, was on the hill. But he hardly was what the Mets had feared. When Daniel Murphy led off the sixth with his seventh home run, the Mets had scored more runs than Haren (11-6) had allowed in any of his 12 previous starts. He had held opponents to a .194 batting average, the lowest in the National League, before allowing eight hits in seven innings against the Mets. He walked one and struck out three.

The Mets had merely three base runners in the first four innings, two of them, a leadoff double by Santos and a one-out triple by Angel Pagan, producing their first run in the third. They scored three times in the fifth with Luis Castillo driving in two with a bases-loaded single and Wright driving in the third with a soft single to left. Then Murphy hit the Mets' 36th home run at Citi. Their opponents now have hit 50.

The Mets' resilience and Figueroa's face-first fall obscured to some degree what had happened in the four-game series. The Mets had won five straight games before losing in the second game of their doubleheader against the Rockies on Thursday. Since then, they have lost three of four games to a team that now is 12 games under. 500.

"It wasn't the way I planned it when I woke up this morning," Figueroa said.

Nor was it how the Mets expected the series to play out.

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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