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. But of greater concern was the discomfort that Walker appeared to be pitching through, and what it might mean for his next start, plus 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.
Walker’s injury scare came in the first inning, when he stumbled after a pitch to the third batter of the night, Matt Olson, then took a slow walk towards the plate and back to the mound. It was not immediately clear what Walker’s physical issue was, though it drew the attention of the dugout as a trainer, manager Buck Showalter and pitching coach Jeremy Hefner came out to visit him.
But after throwing two warmup pitches, Walker remained in the game, only to get 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.
The Mets had a chance to cut the Braves’ lead in half in the bottom of the first, but Ronald Acuña Jr. leaped at the right-field wall to rob Pete Alonso of what might have been a two-run homer.
The Braves continued mashing in the second inning. 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, prompting another mound visit from Hefner.
But after a 114.6 mph single off the bat of Olson, Showalter decided he had seen enough, pulling Walker from the game at 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).
Trevor Williams entered from the bullpen and got a ground ball for a fielder’s choice that drove in another run before Rosario capped off the rally with an RBI double ripped to the gap to make it 8-0.
Williams, who had pitched just one inning in the last 13 days before Friday, provided important length, staying in for four innings and 52 pitches while keeping the Braves at bay. He was the first of four relievers the Mets needed to get through the night.
The Mets got one run back in the second inning, but wasted a chance for more. With the bases loaded and two outs, Brandon Nimmo lined an RBI single to center field, but third base coach Joey Cora waved Luis Guillorme home from second and he was nailed at the plate on a strong throw from Harris to end the inning.
The rally was more fruitful in the fifth. Singles by Francisco Lindor, Alonso and Jeff McNeil got it started before Darin Ruf made his Mets debut as a pinch-hitter against lefty Dylan Lee and roped a two-run double to get within 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 got.