With a doubleheader looming on Saturday, the Mets could ill afford a short start Friday night.
But Taijuan Walker gave them that short start, a potential injury scare and an eight-run deficit in one fell swoop.
Walker’s night ended before he could record a fourth out, and he had dug the Mets a big hole they could never fully climb out of in a 9-6 loss to the Braves at Citi Field.
The short-term concern was the 8-0 deficit the Mets faced by the second inning. There was also the concern over a potential injury after Walker caught his cleat during a pitch (which he later downplayed), plus the concern over the eight innings the Mets’ bullpen was forced to cover on the eve of playing at least 18 innings on Saturday.
Instead of rolling over, though, the Mets (67-39) made a game of it, getting within 8-5 by the fifth inning and eventually forcing the Braves (64-43) to use most of their high-leverage relievers, including closer Kenley Jansen. The Mets brought the potential tying run to the plate in the sixth inning before coming up short and having their lead atop the NL East trimmed back to 3 ¹/₂ games.
“It wasn’t a good day for me,” said Walker, who was tagged for eight runs on seven hits over one-plus inning. “I don’t want it to happen in a big series like this, but it did and I’m going to move on from it. … My velo wasn’t very good today either and I was leaving too many balls over the middle of the plate. I didn’t do my job today and the bullpen had to wear it, which I’m not proud of at all.”
Walker’s injury scare came in the first inning, when he stumbled after catching his cleat while pitching to the third batter of the night, Matt Olson. Walker then took a slow walk toward the plate and back to the mound. That drew the attention of the dugout, and a trainer, manager Buck Showalter and pitching coach Jeremy Hefner came out to visit him.
“He was struggling with command before that, so I don’t think it [affected him],” Showalter said. “It’s one of those things we’ll find out tomorrow probably. But as the game progressed, he said he felt fine.”
Walker remained in the game and appeared to be pitching through some discomfort as he was ambushed by the Braves. Olson smacked an RBI double before Walker hit Austin Riley with an errant splitter.
Eddie Rosario came up next and crushed a three-run homer to right field that put the Braves up 4-0.
After Ronald Acña Jr. robbed Pete Alonso of a potential two-run homer in the bottom of the first, the Braves continued mashing in the second inning, which Michael Harris II led off with a home run to make it 5-0.
Acuña then singled, stole second and came around to score on Dansby Swanson’s broken-bat single before Matt Olson’s 114.6 mph single knocked Walker out of the game after 50 pitches. The right-hander’s velocity was down on all of his pitches, most notably his slider (-2.5 mph from his season average).
“I just didn’t have command of my fastball today,” said Walker, who snapped a streak of 15 straight starts in which he allowed four runs or fewer. “My splitter was up, didn’t land any sliders for strikes and I left balls over the middle of the plate and they hit me hard.”
Trevor Williams provided important length to help save the bullpen, relieving Walker and throwing four scoreless innings.
The Mets got one run back in the second inning — but wasted a chance for more when Luis Guillorme was thrown out at the plate from center field by Harris — and then scored four more in the fifth. Singles by Francisco Lindor, Alonso and Jeff McNeil got the rally started before Darin Ruf made his Mets debut as a pinch-hitter against lefty Dylan Lee and roped a two-run double to cut the Braves’ lead to 8-4.
Eduardo Escobar pinch-hit next and lined an RBI single to make it 8-5, but that was as close as the Mets were able to get.