PITTSBURGH - The Mets arrived at the midway point of their season in a curious position. Even after beating the Pirates, 5-3, on Saturday, they lingered seven games below the .500 mark, hardly the badge of a true playoff contender.
"We're not going to make any excuses," manager Terry Collins said. "We're not happy about it."
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Even at 37-44, they remain within shouting distance of first place in what has been a mediocre National League East. And Saturday, the Mets managed to keep pace, surviving a near meltdown from Jonathon Niese.
Though he allowed seven hits and walked three in six innings, Niese (5-4) held the Pirates to three runs. Reliever Jeurys Familia followed with a pair of scoreless innings ahead of closer Jenrry Mejia, who nailed down his eighth save a night after needing 34 pitches for two shutout innings.
The performances extended what has been a drastic turnaround for the bullpen, which likely will play a big role if the Mets make a second-half run.
After cruising through three innings and working with a 5-0 lead, Niese walked three batters in the fourth, including two with the bases loaded. Despite his bout of wildness, he regained his composure and emerged from the frame with this team still ahead by three runs.
"That fourth was scary," Niese said. "There's not too many times pitchers feel that way, where you're trying like heck to throw strikes and you can't. It's a bad feeling. But I was able to get through it and our offense did a great job getting that early lead."
Eric Campbell and Kirk Nieuwenhuis delivered run-scoring hits against Pirates starter Gerrit Cole with two outs in the first, sandwiched around another run that scored on a wild pitch. Daniel Murphy added a two-run single with two outs in the second, set up on a double steal executed by Eric Young Jr. and Curtis Granderson.
"Always, when it's early in the game and there's guys on base, you want to get them in," said Campbell, who started at third for injured David Wright and finished with three hits. "It helps out the starting pitcher a lot."
The Pirates began chipping away in the fourth with consecutive bases-loaded walks against Niese, but he worked out of the inning with strikeouts of Starling Marte and Gregory Polanco.
With that, the Mets ensured they'll begin the second half on a winning note, though plenty of work remains. To accomplish the 90-win goal established by general manager Sandy Alderson, they'll have to play .654 baseball in the second half, a feat they have accomplished only once in franchise history.
That came in 1969, when the Miracle Mets began their entry into the history books, chasing down the Cubs with a 53-28 (.654) second half on the way to the World Series title. A repeat seems most improbable.
At the start of play Saturday, the Mets maintained only a 4.1 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to Baseball Prospectus, though after the day's action, they trailed the division-leading Braves and Nationals by only 51/2 games.
"We're hanging in there," Collins said. "As I told the guys the other day, we've got to push through the All-Star break, go into the break on a positive note."