The awful cycle played out yet again, and for a while, Terry Collins had little to offer in terms of an explanation.

The Mets lost, 1-0, Tuesday night, squandering a strong outing by Jonathon Niese. It happened on a day in which a member of their lineup came off the disabled list (Daniel Murphy), while another one (Michael Cuddyer) could be headed there.

"I don't know how to answer it, I guess," Collins said, when pressed on his habitually anemic lineup. "We hit a few balls good and we're not getting anything going. I don't know the last time when we got three hits in an inning."

However, when it was noted that the Mets have yet to beat the Cubs in five games this season, Collins revealed the frustration just beneath the surface.

"I don't give a [expletive] if it's the Cubs or New York City College," he said. "We've got to win tomorrow's game. That's all I care about."

Perhaps, the Mets' propensity to squander good pitching might be less of an issue if City College were indeed featured on the upcoming schedule.

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Instead, the Mets entered a stretch of 28 games in which they will face winning teams 22 times. It began poorly.

"It's a frustrating loss," said Murphy, who doubled and made a sparkling defensive play at third base.

The Mets had hoped for something different.

"I told Dan today, you can't come back at a better time. We've been struggling offensively," Collins said before the game. "He's been our best hitter for two years. We need him back and he's back."

Murphy hadn't played since June 4 because of a strained quadriceps. The Mets went 10-12 while averaging only three runs a game during his absence.

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But they looked lost again last night against Cubs righty Kyle Hendricks. who held the Mets to three hits while racking up six strikeouts. Murphy collected a double in the fourth. From there, the Mets managed just one baserunner, on a Lucas Duda walk.

Lefthander Jonathon Niese (3-8) found himself on his own against the Cubs, still winless since May 9 despite allowing only one run in seven innings.

Matt Szczur's two-out double off the base of the leftfield wall pushed the Cubs in front in the sixth against Niese, who scattered four hits and four walks and struck out five.

"It's tough to swallow," Niese said.

The Mets (40-38) can't afford to keep squandering quality starts, especially as they enter a portion of the schedule that has the potential to make or break their postseason hopes.

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From now until Aug. 2, the Mets will encounter five playoff contenders -- the Dodgers, Giants, Cardinals, Nationals and Cubs.

"If you're going to win you've gotta play good teams, you gotta beat the good teams," Collins said. "We've got to play very, very well."

During this 28-game span, only the Diamondbacks and Padres own losing records. The gantlet also includes a West Coast trip and 12 road games against teams playing better than .500 ball.

The Mets are just 11-26 away from Citi Field.

And perhaps more pressing, the Mets haven't hit, a trait that follows them both at home and on the road.