First, the torment came in dribs and drabs -- a hit here, a hit there, one run in each of the first four innings -- not good but certainly not atrocious.

At least, not yet.

Had Jonathon Niese stood his ground from there Tuesday night, perhaps the Mets could have stayed within arm's reach of the Cardinals. Maybe, they wouldn't have been lifeless by the seventh-inning stretch, hopelessly behind in a 10-2 drubbing by the Cardinals.

By the end of it, Niese looked like a boxer who had waited too long to groan "no mas,'' chased from his worst game of the season before he managed to record a single out in the sixth inning.

"I wasn't able to get the first guy out of the inning," said Niese, who fell to 3-4. "It's tough when the first guy gets on and you have to battle through each inning."

Not only did the Mets have their modest win streak halted at three but they lost sole possession of first place in the National League East. For the first time since April 15, the Mets have company in the form of the hard-charging Nationals, who beat the Yankees in extra innings to pull even at 23-17.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Cardinals righty Michael Wacha ran his record to 6-0 by holding the Mets to just two runs in seven innings. Both came on Daniel Murphy's two-run shot in the fourth, which cut the Mets' deficit to 4-2.

But in the sixth, the Cardinals pounded out six runs, and sent Niese to the showers with a hail of hits. The statistical summary looked every bit as bad as it played out in real time: five-plus innings, 11 hits, eight earned runs, one walk and one strikeout.

"He didn't have his two-seam fastball," manager Terry Collins said. "Every time it was called for, it either went straight or he cut it."

Murphy only made matters worse in the sixth inning. The second baseman neglected to cover first base after Wacha bunted with runners on second and third. Preoccupied with preventing the Cardinals from squeezing in a run for the second time on the night, Murphy charged toward the plate, hoping to keep Mark Reynolds at third.

"When he broke, I broke," Murphy said. "It was the wrong play."

Mets videos

"There are times when players try to do extraordinary things when the ordinary is all that's needed," Collins said. "We'll leave it at that."

A crowd of 21,157 summoned some genuine warmth when rookie Darrell Ceciliani rolled an infield single for a seventh inning pinch hit in his first big league at-bat. But mostly, the fans saved their scorn for Niese, who fell behind 4-0 to suck the life out of a hazy Citi Field.

For all of their struggles in May, the Mets entered play Tuesday night treading water at 8-8 by following a simple formula: ride the arms. Mets pitchers began the night with a 2.31 ERA for the month, the best mark in all of the big leagues.

Through Niese's first six starts of the season, he had posted a 1.95 ERA. But against the Cubs on Thursday, Niese was drilled for six runs (four earned) in 6 1/3 innings.

Over his last two outings, Niese has surrendered 14 runs. His ERA has risen to 3.72.

advertisement | advertise on newsday

Tuesday night, without the feel for his two-seam fastball, Niese was exposed, leaving the Mets to take a pounding.

"I just didn't seem to find it," he said.