"You hope you see progress," Jerry Manuel has often said since it became evident the focus of the 2009 Mets had become 2010.
The Mets' manager had hoped to see progress Saturday afternoon when the Bobby Parnell Project was resumed against the Cubs. What he saw in its place was a sad summer rerun that was a primary part of an 11-4 loss.
Ten days after Parnell had allowed nine runs in three innings against the Braves, he surrendered eight in 4 2/3 innings against the weak-hitting Cubs. If progress was made at Wrigley Field, it must have been hidden behind the ivy or in the left-center-field stands, where a grand slam by Jake Fox landed in the fifth inning.
For the Cubs and their rookie left fielder, it was the Fox Game of the Week. For the Mets, the game was another unwanted reminder of how long a 162-game season can seem. The loss was their 21st in 30 games and left them 14 games from .500 for the first time this season. It left their manager staring across his small office at Wrigley, his expression blank, as his players made their preparations to depart for another day.
Parnell had been afforded leads of 2-0 and 4-3. But before he was removed with the bases cleared in the fifth, the Mets were in arrears, 9-4, and quite incapable of recovery. After all, power hitting is not in the Mets' power. Even at Wrigley, with its shallow alleys, they haven't threatened a single patron with a fair fly ball in 18 innings.
The Cubs had hit two home runs in 16 turns at bat, but the two have accounted for seven of the 16 runs they have scored against the Mets. Three came in the eighth inning Friday when Alfonso Soriano took Brian Stokes deep. And then there were the four in one swing against Parnell on Saturday.
The two home runs were variations on a disturbing theme for the Mets. Both were hit by right-handed hitters on 0-2 pitches. The Mets have allowed seven home runs, two of them slams, with 0-2 counts this season.
"One is probably average, two would seem to me to be a lot," pitching coach Dan Warthen said. "Seven? That's a lot. I'm sure of that."
The scenarios were identical. Stokes threw three straight sliders to Soriano; Parnell did likewise with Fox.
"The way [Fox] swung at the first two," Warthen said, "I had no problem with Bobby throwing another slider. But that [third] one should have been in the left-handed batter's box. ... Bobby tried to spin the same cement-mixer he had just spun, tried to make a better pitch when all he needed was a good pitch, and it rotated right into the bat."
"It's a tough one to swallow," Parnell said.
His record as a starter after five starts is 1-4. His ERA in those games increased Saturday, even though it stood at 8.82 before the game. It's 10.29 now.
"There've been some tough lessons learned," Parnell said.
But if they have been learned, then progress has been achieved.
"I feel I'm close," he said after acknowledging his confidence is "up and down."
The home run wasn't the only problem. Parnell (3-7 overall) surrendered eight other hits and two walks, one a leadoff walk to the opposing pitcher. He needed 109 pitches to achieve 14 outs.
Manuel said he expected Parnell would retain a positive sense of self based on his early-season performance as a reliever. But that was seven losses and many runs ago. And the manager did say "it's concerning." He didn't commit to Parnell as a member of the rotation the next turn. Parnell is to pitch again Friday at Citi Field, against the Cubs.
Manuel has no alternatives at this juncture. Pat Misch, the most recent addition to the rotation, was the 10th starter this season, and five of the other nine are assigned to the disabled list. The other four are to pitch before Friday, barring injury.
"I'd like to see better command [from Parnell]," Manuel said. "He's had some success."
But what the manager would like to see is progress.
"How do we go forward," he said. "We need to improve."