NEW YORK -- The Mets are 7-1 this year with Jon Niese or Matt Harvey on the mound. They are 1-7 with any other starting pitcher. With 10 percent of the season in the books, no statistic better encapsulates this team.
As Niese and Harvey looked on from the dugout bench at Citi Field, Jeremy Hefner and Aaron Laffey combined to allow six runs in 4 2/3 innings Saturday, spoiling the best efforts of a resurgent offense in a 7-6 loss to the Nationals.
"Guys are trying to find their niche, understand roles," third baseman David Wright said. "We'll get better."
Despite Saturday's ineffective starting pitching, the Mets came back to tie the game on John Buck's RBI double off Ryan Mattheus in the seventh. But they lost the lead for good on Bryce Harper's leadoff homer against Josh Edgin in the eighth, falling victim to a player whom Mets manager Terry Collins called "dangerous."
"As I said last year when I saw him for the first time," Collins said, "when this guy's done playing, he's going to set a lot of records."
Thus ended a back-and-forth battle that consumed the middle innings. The Mets managed to knock Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez out of the game after four innings, plating five runs in a rally that prompted Collins to pinch-hit for Hefner. But they gave the lead back half an inning later, when Adam LaRoche greeted Laffey with a three-run homer to left-center.
Laffey faced five batters in relief, retiring two of them and allowing two extra-base hits. A day after Harvey's seven-inning gem, Hefner completed four innings, giving up three runs on four hits and three walks.
"In my mind, I was wanting to go up 2-0 in the series so that we could sweep tomorrow," Hefner said. "Obviously, it didn't work out that way."
Unable to do much of anything early against Gonzalez, the Mets erupted for four hits and three walks in the fourth inning, resulting in five two-out runs. The rally appeared to stall when Wright was caught in a rundown between third and home, but Collin Cowgill broke through with a two-out, two-run single to put the Mets on the board.
Justin Turner, who started at shortstop in place of Ruben Tejada, followed with a two-run single of his own, before Daniel Murphy completed the rally with an RBI hit.
But the Nationals answered half an inning later, when LaRoche tagged Laffey for his three-run homer. Harper's home run was part of a three-hit, two-homer effort for the outfielder, who reached base in all four of his plate appearances. Harper also smacked a two-run shot to right-center field in the third inning, and Ian Desmond tagged Hefner for a solo blast in the second.
The Nationals, in short, outslugged the Mets.
"You get five off Gio, you've got to win that game," Wright said. "I guess you can take some good out of that, but ultimately, we've got to win these types of games. Ultimately, that's something we haven't been very good at this year."
In averaging more than six runs per game early in the season, New York's offense has been downright consistent compared to its pitching, which has ranged from stellar to substandard. Collins chalked his rotation's struggles up to an inconsistent schedule, which included three postponements last week, a delayed doubleheader, a long road trip and freezing temperatures in multiple cities. Hefner, Laffey and third starter Dillon Gee have all pitched on irregular rest as a result, perhaps affecting their consistency.
"We just haven't been able to get our guys in a situation where they're feeling comfortable," Collins said.
The two pitchers who have enjoyed some semblance of a regular schedule, Niese and Harvey, have responded with solid starts to the season. Hardly perfect, Niese has given the Mets at least six innings in three of his four starts, while Harvey has averaged more than seven innings per outing in running his record to 4-0.
Gee, Laffey and Hefner, meanwhile, have averaged just over four innings per outing, crippling the relief corps while digging insurmountable holes for the offense. Even when the bullpen performs admirably, as it did Saturday, five shutout innings is typically too much to ask against one of the National League's most prolific offenses.
So it was at Citi Field, where the Nationals tackled adversity on Saturday better than the Mets. The rubber game looms Sunday, and neither Niese nor Harvey will be pitching.
For the second time this season, the Mets will need to find a way to win regardless.