At a news conference Friday afternoon, hours before the Mets and the Pittsburgh Pirates were to begin a three-game series at Citi Field, Mets Manager Terry Collins was asked to characterize what was at stake. He made no effort to mask or minimize the significance of the weekend.
“They’re sitting in a spot where they’re deeply entrenched in the wild card, so they’re somebody that every team that’s in the hunt has to hopefully catch up to, match record for record,” Collins said of the Pirates, one of the National League’s top teams. “I think this is a big weekend for us.”
Entering Friday, the Mets had won 10 of their 12 games this month, including their last four in a row at home against the Colorado Rockies. But the Pirates, who started the day with the third-best winning percentage in the major leagues, represented a stiffer challenge, a truer measuring stick for the Mets’ playoff ambitions.
Despite a stubborn effort, the Mets failed in the first of their three tests, falling, 3-2, in a tense, 10-inning game.
Usually by this point in the season, the Mets have started their descent into irrelevance. Things are different this year; an eager crowd, announced at 38,495, helped prove that.
Even as the game stretched late into the night, a large majority of the fans hung around. But what awaited them in the top of the 10th inning was a Gregory Polanco base hit off Bobby Parnell, a liner to center that drove in the go-ahead run for the Pirates. A sacrifice fly by Aramis Ramirez later in the inning padded the lead.
Faint boos accompanied Parnell as he left the field.
“I also saw a lot of guys clapping me on,” Parnell — who, a year after having Tommy John surgery, has struggled at times this season — said when asked about the jeers. “The true fans were out there supporting me. That actually meant a lot to me because it’s kind of been a roller-coaster ride this year and losing a big ballgame like that is not fun.”
Parnell and the Mets wasted the efforts of Bartolo Colon, who had one of his best starts in weeks.
Alongside the strapping young men on the Mets’ ballyhooed pitching staff, Colon, 42, has been an outlier, an avuncular figure having an up-and-down season. He strolled into Citi Field around 3:30 on Friday afternoon, wordlessly bumping fists with members of the pitching staff idling near the rear of the clubhouse. A few hours later he stepped onto the mound and endured a rocky beginning.
Colon’s fifth pitch of the game was a 91-mile-per-hour fastball down the center of the plate, and Pirates second baseman Neil Walker drilled it into the bullpen beyond the right-center-field wall to give his team a 1-0 lead. But soon thereafter, Colon was methodically setting down the Pirates, finishing with five hits allowed, two walks and no more runs in his seven innings. His seven strikeouts represented his highest total since July 1, when he had eight.
“Facing that kind of lineup also forces you to prepare yourself a little bit more and make sure you execute the right way without making mistakes,” Colon said.
With Colon keeping things close, there was a feeling of expectancy inside the ballpark.
“Right now, it seems like we’ve got some confidence that, if we get down, we can catch up,” Collins said before the game, “and that was not something we thought about, certainly, six weeks ago.”
Six weeks ago, the Mets were hovering around .500, having gone 12-15 in June. These days they are somewhat comfortably in first place in their division.
Six weeks ago, they did not have Yoenis Cespedes, who finished Friday’s game with three hits and pounded his 20th home run of the season to start the bottom of the sixth inning.
On a 2-2 count, Cespedes took an uppercut swing at a 93-m.p.h. fastball on the inside of the plate from J. A. Happ and watched the ball splash into the seats in left-center field before setting off around the diamond, his necklace jangling against his chest.
But Cespedes rued a missed chance in the third, when the Mets put runners on second and third to start the inning. Happ, who pitched five and a third innings, retired Cespedes, Juan Uribe and Daniel Murphy in a row — on a strikeout, a pop-up and a strikeout — to end the inning.
“That’s where we had to score,” Collins said.
The Mets did have a chance to come back in the bottom of the 10th. But after a sacrifice fly by Curtis Granderson drove in Juan Lagares, who had doubled and then advanced on a wild pitch, to cut the Mets’ deficit to one run, Cespedes struck out. Uribe grounded out to end the game.
It was mostly silent as the fans turned to leave the stadium. The Mets have two more nights to see how they stack up.
An earlier version of this article described incorrectly Juan Lagares’s hit in the tenth inning. It was a double, not a triple.