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SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Slumping Jay Bruce bringing down Mets

Jay Bruce of the New York Mets walks

Jay Bruce of the New York Mets walks back to the dugout after striking out to end the third inning against the Miami Marlins at Citi Field on Thursday, Sept. 1, 2016. Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

WASHINGTON — The Mets scored precisely zero runs in Wednesday’s 1-0 loss to the Nationals, so it would be unfair to put all of the blame on the burly shoulders of Jay Bruce.

But of the very few opportunities they did have, Bruce was in prime position to deliver what could have been the game-changing hit in the first inning. Bases loaded, only one out, Jose Reyes doing his best to rattle Tanner Roark by streaking halfway toward the plate on each pitch.

The Mets acquired Bruce for this very reason, this exact situation, and the outcome was an utter failure, like too many other times with Bruce standing in the batter’s box. Three pitches, and Bruce was done, the last a two-seam fastball that froze him for strike three by bending back over the plate.

“I felt like I didn’t really have a pitch to handle,” Bruce said later.

Fair enough. Bruce is a nine-year vet, and before he came to the Mets, he hit 25 home runs with 80 RBIs in just 97 games with the Reds. We’ll assume he knows what he’s doing.

Problem is, it’s just not working. Not at this critical time, in the middle of this rather tight wild-card race. And the Mets don’t know what to do about it. This isn’t like benching Travis d’Arnaud for Rene Rivera, which happened again for Wednesday’s matinee and is going to keep happening down the stretch. Bruce is a more complicated issue, as the Mets believe they simply can’t just discard him, despite the fact he’s killing them in the heart of the order.

“I’ve talked to him at length about it,” Terry Collins said. “One of the things he’s done his entire career, he’s played through things. So he has the ability.”

No one is questioning Bruce’s skills. This is a matter of figuring out what to do with a malfunctioning part of the roster, a highly valuable piece. Before the game, Collins spoke about the urgency to play his most productive bats — regardless of the names on the back — to explain sitting d’Arnaud again.

But where, or when, do they draw the line with Bruce? In our estimation, it’s got to be getting close. During his 36 games with the Mets, Bruce is batting .192 with four home runs, 11 RBIs and a .586 OPS. That wasn’t even a decent week for him in Cincy. Over his last seven games by the Ohio River, Bruce hit six homers with 14 RBIs.

That Bruce has vanished, however, and the player the Mets got back for Dilson Herrera bears a frightening resemblance to another J.B. people were more than happy to forget: Jason Bay. The difference here is the Mets aren’t ready to consider Bruce a lost cause just yet. They keep thinking he’s a swing or two from flicking the switch and turning that power on, like the pitch from Mark Melancon he just missed, which became a long flyout to the warning track rather than a tying homer in the ninth inning.

If the Mets hadn’t written off Michael Conforto for this season, Bruce might already be on the bench. The other logical move they’d consider would be switching Curtis Granderson back to rightfield and using Alejandro De Aza in center, but we’re told it’s not quite that desperate yet. But it could get there after a bad weekend at Citi Field, where Bruce won’t be suffering in silence. The only thing worse than failing at the plate is being vigorously booed on your way back to the dugout, and that’s what could be awaiting Bruce back in Flushing. As for his lineup status, Bruce isn’t convinced he’s in any jeopardy.

“I do feel like I’m one of the best nine options,” Bruce said.

On paper, yes. There’s no disputing that. And we wouldn’t expect Bruce to say otherwise. He didn’t get to this point with a fragile ego. But the Mets need him to be one of the best four or five options, in the top half of the order, to give them the offensive jolt they hoped for in getting him. They need Bruce to help carry them, instead of the other way around. And this weekend would be a good time to start.

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