It remains to be seen if sub-.500 Philadelphia or Atlanta can mount a sustained charge against the Mets in the NL East.
But the Mets continued to give their division foes an opening by losing to the Reds on Sunday at Citi Field, 7-1, to drop two of three in the weekend series.
If not for a two-out rally in the ninth inning in an extra-inning win on Saturday night, the Mets could have been swept. As it is, they fell to 8-9 since the All-Star break and continued to struggle to score runs.
On Sunday, the Mets were held hitless by Reds starter Vladimir Gutierrez until Kevin Pillar grounded a single to left with two outs in the fifth. They managed only three hits before a disappointed crowd of 23,443.
Manager Luis Rojas did not like the Mets’ offensive approach and also lamented the absence of Brandon Nimmo as a table-setter and pitch-watcher. Nimmo, who did not start on Saturday because of a tight right hamstring, popped out as a pinch hitter in the sixth on Sunday but is no sure bet to return to the lineup Monday in Miami.
"At-bat to at-bat, we just didn’t put a good team approach out there," Rojas said. "I just think we’ve got to be more stubborn with our approach. We’ve got to believe in it more . . . We have to make this adjustment immediately so we can get on a roll."
Newly acquired Javier Baez, who went 1-for-4 with a two-run homer in his Mets debut on Saturday, went 0-for-4. He hit a drive to the centerfield fence for the game’s final out.
The Mets (55-49) lead the Phillies (52-53) by 3½ games and Atlanta (52-54) by four.
On July 19, the Mets strafed Gutierrez for nine hits (including three home runs) and six runs in four innings. This time, the righthander needed only 68 pitches to get through six innings before walking Michael Conforto to open the seventh with a 4-1 lead.
Brandon Drury grounded into a 5-4-3 double play on the next pitch and Pillar struck out to end the inning.
Gutierrez (6-3), who was removed for a pinch hitter, allowed one run and three hits with two walks and four strikeouts in seven innings. He threw 80 pitches.
"The kid’s got good stuff," Rojas said. "The command can be erratic at times . . . We chased a lot. We were probably overly aggressive against him. We expanded too much and I think we got ourselves in trouble because of that."
The Reds took a 1-0 lead in the fourth on Max Schrock’s two-out homer to right off Marcus Stroman, who was charged with four runs in 5 2⁄3 innings.
Schrock went 5-for-5 with two RBIs starting at first in place of the resting Joey Votto, who missed by inches of homering in his major league record-tying eighth consecutive game on Saturday night.
After Schrock’s third career homer, Eugenio Suarez singled off the glove of a leaping Baez, who looked at his glove as if it had offended him.
Baez immediately redeemed himself by whipping a relay throw to the plate to nail Suarez on Tyler Naquin’s double to left-center. The throw was clocked at 91 mph.
After Pillar picked up the Mets’ first hit in the fifth, the Reds batted around in the sixth, scoring three and knocking out Stroman (7-10).
"One of those days, man," Stroman said.
Jesse Winker doubled and scored when Kyle Farmer tripled to left-center, the ball falling just out of the reach of a diving Pillar.
Tyler Stephenson’s ensuing sacrifice fly made it 3-0.
Three batters later, after a single, walk and wild pitch put runners on first and third, Stroman was removed for Miguel Castro, who walked Aristides Aquino to load the bases for Gutierrez.
Castro walked him on four pitches to force in a run.
Mets fans — who by this point were in a bad mood — lustily booed Castro and cheered sarcastically when he threw two strikes to Jonathan India before striking out the Reds’ leadoff man.
Jeff McNeil homered to center in the sixth to make it 4-1.
The Reds picked up three more runs in the ninth against Geoff Hartlieb, who was called up from Triple-A Syracuse before the game. Shrock had an RBI single and Naquin hit a two-run double.
Sign up for Newsday’s Mets Messages for updates directly to your phone via text, free with a Newsday digital subscription. Learn more at newsday.com/metstext.