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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Citi Field struggles especially homely right now for Mets 

Jeff McNeil #6 of the Mets reacts as

Jeff McNeil #6 of the Mets reacts as he bats during the third inning against the Chicago Cubs at Citi Field on Tuesday, Aug. 27, 2019. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Meaningful games in September? The Mets aren’t there yet.

August still has four days left. And two of those include two more pivotal contests against the Cubs, who picked up another game on the Mets in the wild-card race with Tuesday night’s 5-2 victory at Citi Field.

Obviously, that can’t continue. We’re now up to four straight losses in Flushing, the first spiral of that length at Citi all season, and the timing couldn’t be worse. The Braves’ sweep was painful, but in the big picture, didn’t do much damage, other than to the Mets’ pride.

The Cubs, however, are a whole different animal. These losses leave a mark, and a for a team that entered Tuesday with a .391 winning percentage away from Wrigley, the Cubs sure looked comfortable behind Yu Darvish’s superb eight innings (7 Ks) and Javier Baez’s three-RBIs night.

As for the Mets, take a minute to appreciate Pete Alonso setting the franchise mark for home runs with No. 42 in the fourth inning, a 407-foot shot over the rightfield bullpen that actually gave them a brief 1-0 lead. But in reality, there’s only so much to be excited about when a team suffers a crucial loss in a tight playoff race.

The home run was a huge personal milestone for Alonso, especially as a rookie who started spring training as a coin flip to make the Opening Day roster. And Alonso faced plenty of questions afterward about what the homer meant to him, all of which he answered.

“It’s been a dream come true for me so far this year,” Alonso said. “I just wanted to make the biggest impact as possible.”

A few lockers down, Jeff McNeil looked despondent, sitting at his locker, staring at his phone, occasionally with his head in his hands. When you were hitting .333 to lead the National League, you don’t go 0-for-4 very often, and McNeil’s rough night dripped his batting average three whole points.

Otherwise, the Mets’ clubhouse was virtually empty, except for Marcus Stroman, who appeared briefly to address the media about his role in Tuesday’s loss. Stroman was acquired to be the Mets’ blockbuster trade at the deadline, the signal from Brodie Van Wagenen that he was doubling-down on the season, but his presence has not been the game-changer we imagined.

After five starts in a Mets’ uniform, Stroman has a 4.91 ERA, and is coming off like the weak link in his new rotation. The former Patchogue-Medford star cruised through the first  four innings -- he got lucky when a great relay cut down Javier Baez’s triple bid. But Addison Russell took him over the centerfield wall in the fifth for a two-run homer and Baez stung him in the sixth with another two-run shot.

“I need to be better,” said Stroman, repeating a statement that has become a familiar refrain. “I just made bad pitches in big moments.”

And that killed the Mets. They’ve had to play nearly perfect baseball, especially at home, for the past month, and they don’t have the luxury of making too many mistakes. That also extends to the manager, as Mickey Callaway chose to play Todd Frazier at third base for Tuesday’s opener, a decision that moved McNeil to rightfield, Michael Conforto to center and the red-hot Juan Lagares to the bench.

Callaway explained that with a ground-ball pitcher like Stroman on the mound, he wanted Frazier’s defense at third base, despite his offensive struggles lately. Frazier wasn’t alone in coming up empty at the plate (0-for-2, walk) but Lagares was missed in the outfield. Conforto took a bad route on Victor Caratini’s fly-ball double in the fifth -- it went off his glove -- right before Russell’s homer.

“Maybe he makes one or two of those plays if he’s out there,” Callaway said of Lagares. “He’s just an unbelievable centerfielder when he’s out there.”

OK then. Maybe put Lagares back there? Also, Callaway went to the white flag pretty quick Tuesday, inserting Chris Mazza for the eighth inning with the Mets only trailing, 4-1. Three batters later, Baez drove in another run. 

Other than Alonso’s record-breaker, this was a forgettable night for the Mets, as well as the 34,158 that showed up at Citi. Callaway & Co. just have to stop this series with the Cubs from being a back-breaker.

“We feel like we’re always on the brink,” Callaway said.

That mentality has served the Mets well to this point. The bad part? They’re too close to going over the edge.

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