NEW YORK -- Given the degree to which they have struggled to replace Mike Pelfrey in their rotation, the Mets were eager to see Jeremy Hefner make his first career start. Hefner had nothing left to prove in the Minor Leagues, and had done little but thrive in two big league relief appearances.
But he flopped in his first soggy start Thursday evening at Citi Field. Hefner was a different pitcher after returning from a 68-minute rain delay, giving up all six of his runs in an 11-5 Mets loss to the Padres.
"It's not an excuse, but that rain delay took the momentum that we had and kind of turned it against us a little bit," third baseman David Wright said. "It felt like we were playing well for the first couple innings. I felt like Hef was throwing the ball well. Then all of the sudden we sit around for an hour, and they just came out swinging."
Before the rain came, Hefner was sharp, retiring six of the first seven Padres batters over two breezy innings. But the delay transformed him. Given more than an hour to sit and stiffen, Hefner came back out to the mound in the third inning and allowed hits to five of the first six batters he faced. Four of them scored before Hefner struck out Chase Headley and Nick Hundley to end the inning.
More trouble surfaced in the fourth, when Will Venable and Cameron Maybin each drove in runs. Maybin's single finally chased Hefner, who gave up nine hits and six runs over 3 2/3 innings.
"I hadn't experienced that in my career, so I didn't really have anything to base it off of," said Hefner, who rode a stationary bike during the delay to keep warm. "I thought I could overcome it, no doubt, but I just left balls up."
Padres starter Eric Stults had no such trouble with the weather, actually appearing to improve once the thunderstorms passed. The Mets plated an unearned run off Stults in the second inning before the left-hander mowed down six straight batters following the delay. Stults would have lasted longer had Vinny Rottino not drilled him in the back of the left arm with a comebacker in the fourth.
The Mets did not break through for any serious offense until Wright greeted reliever Matt Palmer with a two-run homer in the sixth inning. But the Padres tacked on three insurance runs half an inning later against reliever Manny Acosta.
"We put up four [in the third inning] and didn't stop," Padres manager Bud Black said. "I thought all night long, guys had good at-bats up and down the lineup."
Making his first plate appearance since the Mets guaranteed him a big league roster spot for the foreseeable future, Ike Davis ripped a two-run, pinch-hit single in the eighth inning to draw the Mets back within five -- leading Davis to say simply, "It's nice to get a hit." Wright, who finished 3-for-5 with his home run, a double and a single, has had little trouble doing that; he improved his league-leading batting average to .405.
"I've been lucky quite a bit," Wright said. "Some balls have found some holes."
But it was not enough given what happened on the mound. The Mets had brought Hefner in to be a temporary sub -- ideally to occupy Pelfrey's old rotation spot until Chris Young is ready to make his return from shoulder surgery. That could be in a few weeks, or a few months, or not at all.
Though fans have also been clamoring for top pitching prospects Matt Harvey and Jeurys Familia to join the rotation, the Mets have made it clear that neither will crack the Major Leagues until they have proven consistently dominant at Triple-A. With that as their standard, it would be difficult for either to pitch in Flushing before September.
All of which means that Hefner could have solved a significant problem for the Mets by taking his opportunity and running with it. The odds seemed in his favor, considering he was facing a Padres team that has already placed 13 different players on the disabled list this season, sapping potency from an offense that ranked 28th in baseball even when healthy last season.
And Hefner seemed game to the task, posting a 3-2 record and 2.72 ERA through seven starts at Triple-A Buffalo. That run was interrupted twice, when the Mets recalled Hefner from Buffalo to provide them with some bullpen insurance. Each time, Hefner thrived, allowing a total of two runs in eight relief innings despite not pitching in his ideal role.
"He's probably more comfortable starting," manager Terry Collins said before the game. "And what I like about him is that old cliche: works fast, throws strikes, changes speeds. That's a pretty good combination."
Evaluating Hefner given Thursday's rain delay may prove difficult for Collins, who said after the game that he had yet to consider his plans for five days from now. But given the lack of obvious alternatives, there is a good chance that Hefner will receive another opportunity.
"We are certainly aware of what we've got and what we're looking at," Collins said. "We're running out of bodies."