LOS ANGELES — When the Mets desperately needed innings from their starting pitcher Thursday night, Jason Vargas gave it to them.
But when they desperately needed a couple of runs late against the Dodgers, well, there wasn’t anything he could do about that.
The Mets lost, 2-0, to waste Vargas’ best start of the season: seven innings, one run. Dodgers lefthander Hyun-Jin Ryu was even better, holding the Mets to four hits in 7 2⁄3 innings.
After scoring 20 runs in their first three games at Dodger Stadium, the Mets (27-29) managed only four hits and a walk against Ryu and Kenley Jansen and struck out nine times. They wound up dropping three of four games against the team with the National League’s best record (38-19).
“I felt like out of the three losses, two of them could have gone our way,” Mickey Callaway said. “We put ourselves in a really good position. We showed them we have a pretty good team and we can go toe-to-toe with them.”
Said J.D. Davis, “It sucks. It sucks. It’s a bitter taste. But the positive thing we can get out of this is . . . we were playing with them last night, we were playing with them today.”
Callaway called Ryu a “lefthanded Greg Maddux,” citing his pinpoint control and consistent arm slot as reasons for his dominance. The only inning in which the Mets had more than one baserunner was the second, when Todd Frazier walked and Carlos Gomez singled. Ryu responded by retiring 14 of the next 15 batters. His 1.48 ERA is the lowest in the majors among qualified pitchers.
“He mixes it up better than I’ve seen in a long time,” Callaway said. “There’s no pattern whatsoever.”
Vargas’ effectiveness was remarkable on its own merit — he previously hadn’t lasted more than five innings in a game this year — but given the team he was facing, it was even more noteworthy.
All week, the Mets have gawked, perhaps suspiciously, at the frequency with which the Dodgers, the highest-scoring team in the NL, crushed good pitches from their best pitchers: Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Edwin Diaz.
Vargas said he fixed “a couple issues” when the Dodgers had a runner on second. The Mets alluded to the possibility that the Dodgers were stealing signs this week but stopped short of accusing them outright. Vargas put it more strongly than anyone else.
“They had a good look into my glove and had a good idea of how to relay that to the hitter,” Vargas said. “I would probably do the same thing if I were out there. It’s just something that had to be remedied.”
Vargas declined to say how he remedied it. “They’re very prepared and very aware,” he said. “I think everybody is well aware of that. When something’s out of sorts or when things are looking how they shouldn’t, you go take a look at it.”
The Dodgers scored in the first when leftfielder Davis misplayed Chris Taylor’s sinking line drive into a triple. “That’s a tough play for anybody,” said Davis, usually a third baseman. “I missed it by a couple inches.”
Max Muncy followed with an RBI double. That entire sequence — two smoked extra-base hits and a run — took four pitches. But after that, Vargas stifled the Dodgers with mid-80s fastballs, low-80s changeups and low-70s curveballs. He needed only 52 pitches in his final five innings.
Evidence of why the Mets needed Vargas to pitch deep came in the eighth. With closer Diaz and likely Robert Gsellman and Jeurys Familia unavailable because of their recent workloads, Callaway turned to journeyman Hector Santiago late in a one-run game. David Freese doubled when Michael Conforto ran into the rightfield wall and couldn’t hold on to his long drive, and Kike Hernandez’s two-out single made it 2-0.
Jansen struck out pinch hitter Dominic Smith to end the eighth with a runner on, then pitched the ninth for a four-out save.
Vargas scattered six hits and three walks, striking out six, and his ERA fell all the way to 4.46. This is the first time it has been under 5.00 at the end of a start since April 2, his season debut. It also means Vargas no longer has the highest ERA in the Mets’ rotation; he is ahead of Zack Wheeler (4.63) and Syndergaard (4.90). In his past six starts, he has a 2.40 ERA.
But the Mets’ greatest victory was only a moral one. They lost by a little instead of a lot.
Vargas was blunt in his assessment of the series. “We would have liked to have won three,” he said, “and not lost three.”