Mets end first half with 7-0 loss to Cubs

New York Mets starting pitcher Jonathan Niese reacts New York Mets starting pitcher Jonathan Niese reacts after giving up a three-run home run to Chicago Cubs' Starlin Castro in the seventh inning. (July 8, 2012) Photo Credit: AP

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The Mets entered the All-Star break after Sunday's 7-0 loss to the Cubs with a record of 46-40. They are in third place in the National League East (4 1/2 games behind Washington) and sit within a half- game of a wild-card spot.

Jonathon Niese (7-4) allowed four runs in the game's first 15 pitches and gave up a three-run homer to Starlin Castro in the seventh inning. The Mets were held to eight hits by Ryan Dempster (4-3) and four relievers as the Cubs won the rubber match of the three-game series in a brisk 2 hours, 8 minutes.

Still, it was a good first half for the Mets. With 76 games left beginning Friday in Atlanta, will a Mets team that won 77 games last season own a playoff spot when the regular season concludes in Miami on Oct. 3?

"The attitude we have is we expect to be there," David Wright said before he, R.A. Dickey and manager Terry Collins headed to Kansas City for the All-Star Game. "We're expecting to be there.

"With this division, I don't think anybody's going to be able to run away with it, so I think it's going to be a challenge all the way to the end. But I think that we have the necessary pieces to make a legitimate run at this thing and be a playoff-caliber team."

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Collins, who will be a coach on NL manager Tony La Russa's All-Star staff, said: "Right now, we're in the hunt, and we like our chances because we like our club. If our pitching holds up, I think on Oct. 3, we're going to feel pretty good about whatever happens."

The Mets have had a lot go right (and Wright) in the season's first half. From Wright's MVP-caliber play to Dickey's back-to-back one-hitters and overall brilliance to Johan Santana's historic June 1 no-hitter, there have been many memorable moments.

There also have been some downers: Jason Bay's poor play and concussion, Ike Davis' long sub-.200 start to the season (though he has picked it up lately), a bullpen that has Collins reaching for antacids every time he reaches for the phone and could be remade by general manager Sandy Alderson in the next month or so.

Alderson has begun working the phones in anticipation of the July 31 non-waivers trade deadline. The Mets have been talking to the Rockies about catcher Ramon Hernandez and also are seeking bullpen help. But so are a lot of clubs.

"Sandy and I talk every single day," Collins said. "He's certainly aware of what our needs are. We know where our holes are and we know where to fill them. The asking price to fill them sometimes isn't going to be paid. We're just not going to sacrifice the future for a piece for a month."

How the Mets do immediately after the break when they visit second-place Atlanta and first-place Washington could help their fans decide whether they buy into the notion of this team as a serious playoff contender in baseball's first season with two wild cards in each league.

Despite the team's better-than-expected play, attendance is down slightly at Citi Field. The Mets have drawn an average of 29,384 to their first 46 home games. At the same point last season, the average attendance was 30,826.

Television ratings on the club's flagship SNY are way up, however. The most recent ratings available (those going into the weekend) are 20 percent higher in households than last year's full-season numbers, according to SNY.

So Mets fans are watching. And probably feeling pretty good despite Sunday's game.

"We take from the first half that we can compete," Collins said. "We are in the hunt. We've got to start next weekend realizing that we are in a fight and we've got to get ready. So use these next four days to get some energy back, get some rest and come out because we've got a tough battle as soon as we come out."

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