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Mets drop second straight to Braves but don't blame young starters

NEW YORK -- Hold on tight. It’s going to be a nerve-wracking final week and a half of the regular season.

For the second straight night, the Atlanta Braves beat the New York Mets at Citi Field to further tighten the National League wild-card race.

With Tuesday’s 5-4 defeat, the Mets’ lead over the San Francisco Giants and St. Louis Cardinals was sliced to a half-game. And by the end of the night that lead was gone, replaced by a three-way tie for two wild-card spots as the Cardinals beat the Rockies and the Giants beat the Dodgers.

Watch out for the Miami Marlins, too. They have climbed back over .500 and are within four games of the Mets.

The Mets suffered consecutive losses for the first time since Sept. 1-2, but don’t blame the young starting pitching that is filling in for injured standouts.

Rookie Robert Gsellman took a scoreless effort into the sixth. He departed with one out in the frame after a miscommunication between Curtis Granderson and Jay Bruce in right-center allowed the ball to drop and the Braves to even the score at 1. Josh Smoker then inherited the bases loaded and forced in a run with a walk on a full-count offering to Nick Markakis. Fernando Salas entered and stranded the bases loaded, but Adonis Garcia launched a three-run homer against Jerry Blevins an inning later as Atlanta opened a 5-1 lead.

“I didn’t call it,” Granderson said about the drop in right-center that got Atlanta on the scoreboard in the sixth. “Being in center field, it was my ball to be had if I could get to it. But I felt like I was probably going to have to dive for it, and wasn’t 100 percent sure if I was going to be able to catch it. Jay, obviously, being the right fielder is waiting for me to me say something in that situation. I didn’t. And by the time I pulled up it was too late.”

Despite a late rally, the Mets (80-71) have reverted to their familiar struggles at the plate. And Bruce, rightfully, has been the focal point of the fans’ frustration.

Bruce had been out of the starting lineup the previous two games as manager Terry Collins hoped time off to regroup would benefit him. A similar two-day break designed to clear his head had seemed to jump-start Neil Walker back in July.

However, Bruce went 0-for-3 on Tuesday and is now hitless in his past 13 at-bats. Bruce also has three hits in his past 38 at-bats. He is hitting .176 since joining the Mets in an Aug. 1 trade for second baseman Dilson Herrera and left-hander Max Wotell.

How far has Bruce sunk? When the Mets rallied to within 5-3 with a pair of eighth-inning runs, the Braves went to left-hander Ian Krol with two outs and a baserunner at second. Collins countered by pinch hitting Eric Campbell -- a career .221 hitter -- for Bruce. Campbell, just back from paternity leave, actually delivered an RBI single as the Mets pulled within a run. An error by Garcia at third base then put the tying run 90 feet from the plate, but Krol coaxed a groundout from Travis d’Arnaud as the rally stalled a run short of evening the score.

“It’s one of the worst things you can do as a manager, to pinch hit for a star, especially one of the elite power hitters in the game,” Collins said. “But my job is to try to win the game, in my opinion. I know he’s struggling. I know he’s struggled with lefties. I talked to him the inning before and said, ‘Hey, if they bring that lefty in, I’ve got to hit.’ And he looked me right in the eye and said, ‘You do what you’ve got to do,’” because he’s a pro. But that’s not a fun situation.”

Bruce labeled getting lifted "very difficult."

“It’s the first time I’ve ever been pinch hit for,” he said. “I always think I’m the best choice. I think everyone in this locker room does. But he’s the manager and I respect his decision. It is what it is.”

With only 11 games remaining in the season and every win at a premium, how long can Collins afford to stick with Bruce? The rope may be getting short. Michael Conforto went a combined 3-for-8 with two RBIs in the two games in which Bruce sat.

Yoenis Cespedes, who carried the Mets at this point last season, has considerably cooled as well. After going hitless in four at-bats on Tuesday, Cespedes is now hitting .179 (7-for-39) in his past 10 games. He had a game-ending strikeout with the tying run on first base.

The Mets -- who have set the franchise’s single-season record for homers but largely struggle to manufacture runs -- have scored a total of 21 runs in their past eight games.

“He’s always had the ability and always the chances to go out and play,” Collins said about Bruce. “As I’ve told him, this is a different situation here. The market, this is not Cincinnati. So we’ve got to get it done. I think the world of him. He’s a tremendous guy. He’s frustrated, because all he wants to do is be is a good teammate and help the team win.”

Said Bruce: "I have plenty of time to worry about myself. Right now is not that time."