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Mets can’t get big hits, Steven Matz doesn’t have it in loss to Cubs

New York Mets starting pitcher Steven Matz delivers

New York Mets starting pitcher Steven Matz delivers during the first inning of a baseball game against the Chicago Cubs, Monday, July 18, 2016, in Chicago. (AP Photo/Charles Rex Arbogast) Credit: AP / Charles Rex Arbogast

CHICAGO — The 1962 Mets, an Amazin’ collection of retreads, has beens and never weres, hit .215 with runners in scoring position on the way to losing 110 games. They were awful.

This season’s Mets are defending National League champions and an arguably better team than they were exactly one year ago today. Yet they began play on Monday against the Cubs hitting .209 with runners in scoring position, somehow worse than the ’62 Mets.

If anything, the comparison underscores the sheer freakishness of the Mets’ inability to cash in on their opportunities, an inconvenient aberration that colored Monday’s 5-1 loss to the Cubs.

The Mets came to the plate seven times with runners in scoring position. They managed no hits. Their only run came on a solo shot by Wilmer Flores, in his first start since the second half of the season began.

Since resuming play after the All-Star Game, the Mets are just 2-for-28 with runners in scoring position.

Perhaps, those failures are a function of an all-or-nothing offense, one that has subsisted almost entirely on home runs. Or, perhaps it’s a statistical fluke, the kinds that can somehow make a truly terrible team stack up more favorably to one with heightened expectations.

Maybe — more realistically — it’s some combination of both. But what’s clear is that if the Mets intend to defend their NL title and win the World Series after falling short a year ago, they must hope that the cause is the latter, and their fortunes will turn.

That the Mets (49-43) still have a winning record and a chance at the postseason is remarkable considering their failures when it counts. But as the second half begins, they have shown cracks.

Consider the pitching staff, the foundation on which the Mets’ championship hopes have been built. Matt Harvey underwent season-ending surgery on Monday. And while Zack Wheeler has been throwing bullpen sessions in Port St. Lucie — a positive sign considering his setbacks from his Tommy John surgery rehab — he still doesn’t have a fixed schedule for a return.

Meanwhile, on Monday, Steven Matz endured a rough night in his first start of the second half, allowing four runs on eight hits in five laborious innings.

The lefty remains start-to-start with a bone spur in his left elbow that has caused pain. He has mostly dealt with the issue. But on Monday, he lacked his typical sharpness.

The biggest blow came in the third inning, when he lost a 10-pitch battle to Cubs slugger Anthony Rizzo. Matz prefers to work quickly, with few pauses between pitches. But he slowed the tempo in the third as he went head-to-head with Rizzo.

With two strikes, Rizzo fouled off five consecutive pitches before getting one he could smash, a changeup that wound up in a sea of hands in the rightfield bleachers. With that, the Cubs took a 3-0 lead and the tone of the night had been set.

Earlier in the night, Yoenis Cespedes made a powerful throw from the outfield to cut down a run at the plate. But in the eighth, with the Cubs already leading 4-1, they tacked on another run on an error by Cespedes. Playing in leftfield, where he hopes to spend the rest of the season, Cespedes allowed Albert Almora Jr.’s grounder to bounce through his legs. Matz Szczur scored, adding to the misery.

But even if the Mets had been flawless otherwise, it wouldn’t have been enough to overcome what has been a chronic failure: hitting with men on base.

Cubs lefty Jon Lester held the Mets to one run on four hits in 7 2/3 innings, a tribute to his ability to keep the Mets from doing damage.

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