The slumping New York Mets are aiming to wrap up their first NL East title in nine years during this four-game series against the lowly Cincinnati Reds.
Giving the ball to Steven Matz in the opener should move them closer to that goal.
Matz looks to continue the best start by a Mets rookie Thursday night when he faces the Reds for the first time since his sensational major-league debut.
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New York (85-67) has lost six of its last eight after falling 6-3 to Atlanta on Wednesday. Still, the Mets remain 6 1/2 games ahead of second-place Washington in the division race with 10 to play, giving them a magic number of five to clinch.
"Ultimately, we'd like to play better and have that magic number shrink because we're winning and not have it shrink because they're losing," third baseman David Wright said.
Turning to Matz (4-0, 1.80 ERA) could be just what the Mets need. He's off to the club's best start by a rookie stemming from an historical debut. The left-hander allowed two runs in 7 2-3 innings of a 7-2 win over Cincinnati (63-88) on June 28 and also became the first pitcher with four RBIs in his first career game, going 3 for 3 with a double.
Only a torn left lat muscle was able to stop him, sidelining him for two months. However, he's 2-0 with a 2.20 ERA in three starts since returning.
Matz gave up one run and four hits while battling through 43 pitches in the first two innings Friday, but he settled down to yield three singles over the next four of a 5-1 win over the Yankees.
"He doesn't let the game get out of control," manager Terry Collins told MLB's official website. "He has a knack, even though he's not real sharp, to just battle and make a pitch he has to make."
The Mets are going to need that with the offense hitting .221 overall and .150 with runners in scoring position over the past eight games.
"We're not giving our pitchers much room for error," said Wright, who is batting .353 in his last nine games.
Curtis Granderson has a .130 average in eight games after going 0 for 5 and stranding three runners Wednesday. However, he went 6 for 13 with two homers, two doubles and four RBIs to help New York sweep a three-game set from the Reds from June 26-28.
The Mets have won nine of the last 11 meetings, including four of five on the road.
The Reds have lost four in a row overall due in large part to the staff's 5.91 ERA. Much of that damage came in a 10-2 loss to St. Louis on Wednesday that dropped them back into the NL Central basement, one-half game behind Milwaukee.
Josh Smith (0-2, 7.71) again starts opposite Matz, who went 2 for 2 with two RBIs off him June 28. The rookie right-hander gave up three runs - one earned - with four walks in five innings against the Mets to record his first career loss.
Smith is trying to prove worthy of a spot in next year's rotation in his fifth career start, but his latest outing certainly didn't inspire much confidence. He surrendered four runs and six hits in four innings while not getting a decision in Saturday's 9-7 win at Milwaukee - his first start since July 4.