Steven Matz missed the first two months of the season with an elbow problem. But when the Mets lefthander returned in June, he pitched as if he might be a savior. Through his first five starts, Matz posted a 2.12 ERA, giving off the appearance that he might provide a needed boost to a struggling starting rotation. But buried beneath those sparkling results were signs of a crash.
His contact rate spiked. His strikeout rate dipped. His swings and misses lagged behind his career norm. All of it pointed to the kind of dreaded regression that has come over Matz like a tsunami.
The storm surge continued on Wednesday night, when the Padres beat the Mets, 6-3, by chasing Matz after just three innings. He allowed all six runs, and for a third consecutive start, he surrendered nine hits.
“I tried to go inside three times tonight,” Matz said. “One was a home run, one was a triple, and one was a double. That’s usually my bread and butter, going inside, and I’ve been leaving them back over the plate. And they’ve really been punishing me for it.”
The damage was Matz’s punishment for spotty command that has become a staple. In his last four outings, Matz has a 14.18 ERA and has allowed a staggering 34 hits.
The clunker was enough to stunt whatever modest momentum the Mets had gained. They entered the evening 47-51, the closest they had come to the .500 mark since July 1, a climb marked by wins in six of their last seven.
One night after Yoenis Cespedes was pulled early because of tightness in his legs, the slugger returned to the starting lineup, allowing the Mets to exhale after his latest health scare. But those vibes dissipated quickly on another night marred by the failures of a pitching staff that faltered beneath lofty expectations.
“It stinks to put your team in a position like that,” said Matz, who dismissed speculation about his health and fatigue level.
Like Matz, Collins brushed off concerns about health. He noted that the radar gun has shown few signs of trouble. Instead, the manager noted another obvious culprit, with a not-so-obvious root cause.
“Balls down the middle,” Collins said. “Look at the replays of a lot of the hits, they were center cut. We’ve got to get the ball off the middle of the plate.”
In the first inning, the Padres let Matz know that he would be in for another difficult night. After Jose Pirela led off with a single to right, Matz fell behind in the count to Manuel Margo, prompting a visit to the mound by batterymate Rene Rivera.
Matz nodded his head, seemingly intent on keeping his composure. But Margo capped the at-bat with a two-run shot over the centerfield fence, depositing a fastball that crossed over the center of the plate.
Two batters later, Hunter Renfroe laced a one-out double, then Jabari Blash lined an infield hit off the glove of shortstop Jose Reyes that could have easily gone down as an error. That prompted yet another mound conference, this one led by pitching coach Dan Warthen.
Though Matz held the line at 2-0, the tone was set, and by the third inning the lefthander was on the ropes. He would go no further.
The Padres tacked on four runs in the third inning, in which Matz appeared to lose control. Margot led off with a triple, then scored on Wil Myers’ single. Renfroe got drilled in the thigh, and with one down, Reyes allowed an infield single to Cory Spangenberg. It was the second time in three innings that a Padres runner reached on what could have easily been scored an error by Reyes.
Still, Matz showed a flash of resilience. He snapped a sharp curveball to strike out Allen Cordoba with the bases loaded. With two outs, up came rookie catcher Luis Torrens, who began the night batting .187. He was about to cross off a career first.
Torrens missed a grand slam by a foot. Instead, his liner to right-center struck the wall and he settled for his first big league triple. The Padres opened a 6-1 lead and Matz retired pitcher Jhoulys Chacin before making his slow walk back to the dugout.
He would not return.
Blash, Margot and Renfroe — each member of the Padres starting outfield — recorded a sliding catch. And in the sixth, shortstop Cordoba’s brilliant diving stop to his left robbed Rene Rivera of a sure two-run single that would have cut the lead to 6-4.
Instead, defense kept the Mets at bay, and ensured that Matz’s awful night would be accompanied by his third loss in his last four starts. He wasn’t won since tossing seven-shutout innings on June 28 to beat the Marlins.