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Noah Syndergaard struggles as wild-card race tightens

NEW YORK -- New York Mets manager Terry Collins acknowledged Monday afternoon that Noah Syndergaard is lined up for the Oct. 5 wild-card game. Syndergaard then took the mound and stumbled against the Atlanta Braves.

In the third-shortest start of his career, Syndergaard allowed five runs on eight hits and three walks in 3⅔ innings and the Mets lost to the Braves 7-3 in the series opener at Citi Field.

"He's our guy," manager Terry Collins said. "Certainly those young guys have stepped up and done a great job, but you're going to go into the playoffs looking at Noah Syndergaard as the guy. If there's a big game to be pitched, he's the guy you’re going to turn to.

"It was just very surprising tonight that's what happened. And we didn't swing the bats like we have been. If there's any game in a long time that we've played that demonstrates that there's no guarantees and no sure things in baseball, tonight's the game."

Said Syndergaard: "It stings a little bit. These last two weeks, every win is critical. It's a disappointment. I didn't go out there and get my job done."

Syndergaard had been working his way back into the Cy Young conversation but dropped to 13-9 with a 2.63 ERA after Monday's 99-pitch effort in which he was knocked out in the fourth inning. He had posted a 1.36 ERA in his previous six starts.

The Mets do not play a team with a winning record the remainder of the regular season, putting them in solid position in the wild-card race. They swept the Minnesota Twins over the weekend, but then surprisingly got tripped up by rookie Aaron Blair in the series opener against the Braves.

Blair, who held the Mets hitless until Curtis Granderson's two-out single in the fourth, earned his first major-league win. He had been 0-6 with an 8.23 ERA. Notorious Mets killer Freddie Freeman went 4-for-5 with a homer and three RBIs.

As a result, the Mets' postseason pursuit got more dicey. Their lead over the San Francisco Giants dropped to a half-game and their lead over the St. Louis Cardinals dropped to 1.5 games pending the outcomes of their games later Monday. Two of those teams figure to square off in the National League wild-card game.

The Mets (80-70) nonetheless have won 20 of their past 28 games.

Madison Bumgarner, by the way, is lined up for the wild-card game for San Francisco, while Carlos Martinez is on the same schedule for St. Louis.

Incidentally, Atlanta has been a thorn in the Mets' side this season. The Braves are 8-9 against the Mets in 2016. Compare that with the Braves' 4-15 record against the first-place Nationals and the differential accounts for half of the Mets' deficit against the Nationals in the division.

Syndergaard had experienced stiffness after his last start, but Collins insisted it was no factor Monday.

"Absolutely not," Collins said. "That's why we gave him the extra day [rather than pitching him on standard rest Sunday]. Had something bothered him, you wouldn't have seen him throw 98-, 99-mph tonight. That wasn't the case. He wasn't making any pitches."

Syndergaard took responsibility.

"This is the first game in over a year that I've seen Noah just not have it," Collins said.