NEW YORK -- Over the past two weeks, the Mets have tried everything within reason to change their floundering fortunes. They have shaken up their bullpen. They have called up top prospect Matt Harvey. On Tuesday, they demoted scuffling outfielder Lucas Duda to the Minors.
But the results have been nothing but the same, steady nightmare since the All-Star break. After Gio Gonzalez outpitched R.A. Dickey by no small margin in Tuesday's 5-2 loss to the Nationals, the Mets fell to 10 1/2 games back of the division-leading Nats. Eleven defeats in a dozen games have plummeted them from second place to fifth in the Wild Card race, far from easy striking distance.
In that sense, everything the Mets accomplished over the first 93 days of the regular season has evaporated over the last 17.
"We are not a bad team," manager Terry Collins said. "We're playing bad. We're not pitching when we need to make pitches. We're not hitting when we need to get a hit. We're not making a play when we need to make a play. We're not coaching. We're not managing. We're not doing anything right."
Tuesday's loss hinged upon the sixth inning, which saw Dickey retire the first two batters before allowing a single to Michael Morse. The next batter, Adam LaRoche, gave the Nationals a lead they would not relinquish with a booming two-run homer to the second deck in right field.
Despite Dickey saying that he had "a good knuckleball," the Nats were hardly done scoring. Following additional singles from Danny Espinosa and Roger Bernadina, Jesus Flores plated another run with his base hit to left, and Bernadina scored on Jason Bay's throwing error. The result was Dickey's first loss since April 18, snapping his personal 11-game winning streak.
"It's tough when things are going on what seems to be a downward spiral," Dickey said. "In order to change it, we have to stand up and own what's ours to own. I could have pitched better. Two strikes, an 0-2 count with two outs in the sixth inning, and five straight hits. Four runs later, we're in a hole that we can't get out of. I've got to make a pitch. Somewhere during that sequence, I've got to make a pitch."
Saying that he "should have pitched into the eighth inning," Dickey bemoaned that he gave up five runs (four earned) on a night when he was able to control his knuckleball with relative ease. He certainly looked sharp early, striking out the first two batters of the game and five of the first 11.
But Dickey made a few mistakes too many.
"I felt too good for that to happen," he said.
Booed often throughout the evening, Bay finished 0-for-2 with a walk. But he was hardly alone in his misfortune, considering how electric Gonzalez was. After giving up his only run on a throwing error and Ronny Cedeno's two-out hit, Gonzalez retired 11 straight batters and 14 of his next 15. He left after escaping a jam in the seventh, having held the Mets to two hits and two walks.
"I wanted to redeem myself from last start, give our team a chance to go out there and try to compete," said Gonzalez, who gave up six runs to the Mets over 3 1/3 innings last week in Washington. "It was just one of those things where you want to bounce back."
Hunting a fastball, Jordany Valdespin brought the Mets back within three with a pinch-hit homer -- his club-record fifth such blast of the season -- off Ryan Mattheus to lead off the eighth. But setup man Sean Burnett and closer Tyler Clippard recorded the next six outs to squelch any thoughts of a comeback.
Optimistic thoughts in general have been hard to come by for the Mets, who are doubly reliant on Dickey now that Johan Santana and Dillon Gee are both injured. Bearing that weight, the knuckleballer has faltered throughout July, posting a 6.49 ERA on the month.
If anyone is worthy of a free pass, it is Dickey, who carried the rotation for much of the early season. But his struggles are indicative of those of his team. The Mets are not hitting with any sort of consistency. They are certainly not pitching as well as they did earlier this year. And the results have been plain to see.
Eleven losses in 12 games will dent even the strongest of teams.
"We have to rally," Collins said. "We have to reach down inside and find out what we're made of. We had an easy run the first half. Now we have to grind it out."