NEW YORK -- Much was made, and rightfully so, of general manager Sandy Alderson's moves to shore up a 28th-ranked bullpen heading into this season. In a matter of hours at the Winter Meetings in Dallas, Alderson acquired three pitchers -- Frank Francisco, Jon Rauch and Ramon Ramirez -- to play key roles in this year's bullpen.
It all seemed worthwhile early in April, when those three began gelling into one of the best relief corps in the National League. But at some point, things changed. The bullpen again struggled in Friday's 5-4 loss to the D-backs at Citi Field, spoiling Dillon Gee's strong start and making a villain out of Ike Davis, who poured gasoline on the winning rally with a crucial error.
Over their last seven games, Mets relievers have now posted an 8.64 ERA.
"It comes back to bases on balls," manager Terry Collins said. "The 'pen has no history of that. They've been going after hitters and pounding the strike zone and making guys swing the bat, and that's what made us so effective early. Right now we're deep in counts, we're falling behind and you can't do that."
It was a walk by Tim Byrdak that extended Friday's winning rally and a hanging slider by Rauch that tied the game. But it was an error from Davis that ignited the rally, prompting the struggling first baseman to pin the loss entirely on himself.
With the Mets holding a two-run lead in the eighth, Davis allowed Justin Upton's routine ground ball to scoot under his legs for an error. Byrdak walked the next man, and two batters later, Paul Goldschmidt walloped Rauch's first-pitch slider to center field for a two-run double -- admitting afterward that he was looking for "something up a little bit."
"It was a ball that probably looked as big as a beach ball coming in," Rauch said.
The next batter, Cody Ransom, plated Goldschmidt with a game-winning single, though Davis could not help but pin the whole mess of an inning on his shoulders.
"We lost the game because I made an error," a visibly irritated Davis said after the game. "That's what I'm frustrated about."
Though the first baseman twisted his left ankle -- the same ankle that he badly injured in an infield collision with David Wright last season -- while grounding out in the second inning, Davis stayed in the game and said afterward that he was fine. But he struggled throughout the evening, grounding out twice, hitting into a double play and striking out to stifle a rally in the eighth.
Davis is 1-for-12 since a relatively productive stretch at the start of the last road trip, wondering what he must do to snap out of this season-long funk.
"I'm not panicking," said Davis, who is batting .172. "I shouldn't panic yet. I'll get better. I mean, I can't really see myself getting any worse."
"Ike's a real proud guy," Collins said. "He's not happy with what's going on. But you know what? It's the big leagues. You've got to learn how to grind it out. You've got to learn how to get through it."
Collins might have been saying those same words about the bullpen, which ranked among the game's best throughout the first two weeks of the season. Since then, it has been mostly struggles for Mets relievers, who have given up 24 earned runs over their last 25 innings.
The results have ranged from blemishes to blowouts, with Friday's loss falling into the former category. The Mets were in command for most of the evening, thanks in large part to Gee, who recovered from Ransom's two-run homer in the second inning to retire 10 of 11 D-backs during one juncture.
The Mets took their first lead during that run, tagging Wade Miley in the third inning for Scott Hairston's two-run double, Davis' RBI groundout and Andres Torres' run-scoring single. But the Mets could do nothing else against Miley, who recently edged Kirk Nieuwenhuis for National League Rookie of the Month honors in April.
Nieuwenhuis had no chance at revenge; the Mets benched him Friday in favor of Hairston, who has thrived against left-handed pitching throughout his career.
But on this night, personal achievements were not a popular topic. After the game ended, Daniel Murphy emerged from a back room of the clubhouse to give Rauch a silent, reassuring pat on the shoulder. The Mets had lost their fourth straight and the bullpen was the primary culprit.
Still, they believe that better days are ahead.
"It's always tough to lose a game, that's the bottom line," Gee said. "But it's baseball. Everybody has ups and downs. That's just the way it goes sometimes."