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Mets’ pen wastes strong start from Zack Wheeler, fall below .500 for first time all season

Zack Wheeler exits in seventh inning with 2-0

Zack Wheeler exits in seventh inning with 2-0 lead, but Mets pen couldn't hold it as both runners he put on scored. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Mickey Callaway, a beacon of consistency with his even-keeled demeanor through the Mets’ ups and downs the past two months, broke character Friday night.

After the Mets’ 7-4 loss to the Cubs, which dropped them to a losing record (27-28) for the first time this season, the manager held a team meeting days after downplaying the effectiveness of such a move amid a stretch of poor play and injuries.

Callaway decided that what he saw called for a departure from his norm. “We’re playing the game the wrong way, and we’re starting to see it consistently,” he said. “So we talked about it. We had some things that we needed to discuss, and we did it.”

Whether Callaway’s move will effect change remains to be seen. For a night, it was message received inside the clubhouse. There was no sign that Callaway snapped or blew up, but his players hinted at a more intense version of their boss trying to convey a certain degree of urgency.

“The tone of the meeting was different than ones in the past,” Michael Conforto said. “It’s not so early anymore. It’s getting to the time where we got to start winning games. We have to play better. So I think he’s just firing us up a little bit. It’s not bad luck. It’s fundamental baseball and things we can control. We have to be better.”

Said Jay Bruce: “He’s been even-keel, but it is with a purpose and we definitely understand where he’s coming from.”

A play by Conforto specifically seemed to draw Callaway’s ire. In the seventh, the Cubs scored their first run on a sacrifice fly by Kyle Schwarber. When Conforto fired home to try to keep Addison Russell from scoring, he bypassed the cutoff man and airmailed the throw over catcher Devin Mesoraco.

Asked about falling under .500, Callaway brought up that play without mentioning Conforto by name. “We have to play the game the right way,” he said. “When you miss the cutoff man and the guy takes an extra base in a close game like that, we could have kept the double play in order and we airmailed it home. That’s stuff you learn when you’re 18, and we just didn’t do it tonight.”

Said Conforto: “He’s right. Can’t be doing stuff like that and expect to put our best performance out there. It’s something that I’ve been working on, something we’ve been talking about. Tonight, I just didn’t do it. He’s right.”

The advancing runner, Tommy La Stella, turned into the tying run on Ben Zobrist’s double off Paul Sewald. Kris Bryant — Sewald’s childhood friend and college teammate at the University of San Diego — put the Cubs up 3-2 with an RBI single. Schwarber’s three-run homer in the eighth ended Sewald’s night and effectively ended the Mets’.

Sewald had a 1.98 ERA in April, earning multi-inning outings in meaningful spots and turning the Robert Gsellman-Seth Lugo duo into a trio. Since then, he has a 6.75 ERA, yielding multiple runs in five of 12 games and allowing four of eight inherited runners to score.

The pattern of a decent start followed by a blown lead by the bullpen has become familiar. The starters have a 2.59 ERA in the past 14 games, in which the Mets have gone 5-9. “It’s frustrating when we have to tell the starting pitcher ‘sorry’ over and over again,” Sewald said.

This time it marred what had been a good night for Zack Wheeler. He posted six scoreless innings before allowing the first two runners to reach base in the seventh. He has lasted six innings in five of his past six starts.

Bruce exited in the fifth with lower back tightness, but Callaway said he’s in the lineup for Saturday. Bruce is among the veterans the Mets are counting on.

“One, keep your head up. And two, expect to do the right things,” he said of Callaway’s postgame message. “Expect to come in here and expect to win. We’re not snake-bitten. We’ve had some injuries, we’ve had some tough times. We still have the team in here to win a lot of ballgames.”

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