Jerry Manuel did his best to hide his exasperation over an offense that's batting .236 with runners in scoring position, but after only a few questions Thursday night it was obvious the manager had reached a tipping point.
"There's going to be adjustments," Manuel said in the aftermath of the Mets' 2-1 loss to the Marlins. Changes are indeed coming: With a .232 average as the make-shift No. 3 hitter, Jose Reyes will soon be busted down a rank and return to batting leadoff. Rookie Ike Davis will inevitably replace Jason Bay in the cleanup slot, and David Wright, who's turned into a human swing-and-miss machine, is probably in line for a day of rest.
That wouldn't be the same as a benching -- it's more like the stock market halting trading during a free-fall. Wright needs a timeout. He's striking out at a near-historic rate, 46 times in 122 at-bats, and is at a loss to explain why.
"I don't really have a solid answer to why I'm swinging through so many balls," Wright said glumly. The frustration has spread throughout the organization, culminating in the slugger's streak of nine consecutive strikeouts over a three-game span this week. Finally, mercifully, Wright popped up in the fourth inning against the Nationals on Tuesday, raising the Mets' hopes that the worst was over.
But the third baseman went down in another key spot on Thursday, swinging over Leo Nunez' strike-three slider with two outs in the ninth and the go-ahead run on second base.
The fact that the Marlins won it in the bottom of the ninth -- on a Fernando Nieve wild pitch, no less -- only deepened the Mets' wound. They're only a game over .500 now, struggling to keep up with the Nationals, let alone the Phillies. Nothing, it seems, has gone consistently right for Manuel ever since Roy Halladay humiliated the Mets at Citizens Bank Park on May 1.
The Mets returned from Philadelphia, where they lost two of three, to slog through a 3-3 homestand. It was cold all week in Flushing, the wind kept whipping garbage around the outfield like a NYC sanitation strike from the 1970s, as the fans hunkered down in misery.
Actually, there weren't all that many fans to speak of: The Mets are off 18 percent in attendance from last year -- a loss of 6,852 fans per game that represents the steepest decline by number in the big leagues. Club officials are understandably citing the bad weather as the culprit. Still, with the memory of their nine-game winning streak all but gone, the Mets have yet to generate a sustainable buzz around town.
Reyes, for one, seems lost, having failed to morph into a bona fide run producer during Carlos Beltran's absence. At the moment of truth Thursday, with a man on second and none out in a 1-1 game, Manuel asked Reyes to forget about the RBI and simply bunt Luis Castillo over to third, where Jason Bay and Wright would have two chances to give the Mets the lead.
Reyes couldn't. He ended up flying out harmlessly to left, dooming the Mets' rally as Bay bounced to third and Wright struck out -- again. At his current pace, Wright will finish the season with well over 200 strikeouts, as the Mets can only pray he doesn't challenge Adam Dunn's all-time K-ratio of one every 2.91 at-bats in 2004.
Of course strikeouts aren't necessarily poisonous if they co-exist with run production. Babe Ruth fanned once every 6.3 at-bats, and not surprisingly led the American League five times in both HRs and strikeouts. Mickey Mantle fanned once every 4.7 at-bats. And Reggie Jackson, one of the great showmen of all time, holds the record with 2,597 career punch-outs.
But historical precedent hasn't done much to re-assure the Mets about Wright. They know the slugger hasn't been the same since being beaned by Matt Cain last August, returning after a month on the DL to hit .223 with 34 strikeouts in 103 at-bats.
Wright insisted his September struggles were just a matter of rust and showed up in spring training in extraordinary physical condition. He appeared to have shaken off the effects of his concussion. But that might've been just a temporary illusion. He appears more tentative than ever with up and in fastballs -- flinching, at times, as if he were protecting himself from another errant pitch.
"It almost looks like he's afraid or at least uncomfortable," said one major-league talent evaluator. "That's definitely not the David Wright from two years ago."
In 2008, Wright made contact with almost 81 percent of the pitches he swung at. Today, he's down to 72 percent. Even more revealing is how badly Wright is getting fooled: He's connecting with just 51.7 percent of pitches out of the strike zone, a 13 percent decline from two years ago.
Wright refuses to acknowledge his beaning had (or has) anything to do with swinging and missing. But he's yet to come up with a tangible explanation. Manuel is just as baffled, telling reporters this week, "we're in the process of trying to, as a staff, trying to figure that out. We haven't quite gotten there yet, to be honest with you."
Meanwhile, there's one other nagging decline the Mets haven't yet addressed -- Francisco Rodriguez's inability to dominate or close out games the way they'd anticipated he would.
K-Rod gave up the game-winning home run to Roger Bernadina on Wednesday at Citi Field, the final touch on a bummer of a 6-4 loss to Washington. Rodriguez said he felt fine, that he merely mis-located a fastball. But the numbers say something's amiss.
Rodriguez's ground ball/fly ball ratio is now the worst of his career, just 0.54. Almost 56 percent of the contact made against the right-hander results in a fly ball, a huge increase from 37.8 percent from just two years ago.
As a result, the days of K-Rod being considered one of the game's elite closers could be coming to an end. As Newsday's Ken Davidoff pointed out, Rodriguez' WXRL, (win expectation above replacement, which measures how relievers advance their teams towards a victory) stands at .758 -- 26th in the big leagues.
By anyone's spreadsheet, that's bad news for a team that's starting to swim in it.