The Mets' usual anti-heroes are changing their stripes and perhaps the opinions of the masses who have not treated them as kindly as they might have through for first month of the season. Why Carlos Beltran was warmly greeted as he approached the plate in the fifth inning Saturday, two innings after he had hit a home run. And he barely was jeered as he returned to the dugout after striking out with a runner in scoring position.
"Kinda nice. Isn't it?" Cliff Floyd said.
Nice doesn't even begin to describe the Mets' four-game win streak, which has opened up a nine-game advantage over the Braves in the National League East, with red-hot Philly 5 1/2 games behind the Mets.
The true test, though, came in the ninth inning of what would become another riveting Mets victory against the Braves. With Willie Randolph intent on resting the primary pitchers in the Mets' tired bullpen, Julio was summoned to protect a lead the Mets had built with another seventh-inning splurge, a rally that had a two-run double by Matsui off losing pitcher Tim Hudson as its fulcrum.
Julio surrendered a run and had two runners on base when he broke Edgar Renteria's bat and the Braves' heart for the final out. And all the Mets, the first-place Mets, were cheered as they left the field, a 6-5 victory intact.
The win improved the Mets to 5-3 against the archrival Braves this season.
"We're giving them what they want," Randolph said. "We're winning, everybody's contributing and it's been exciting. We're not doing much you can boo. But I'm sure they'll find something."
"The opposition," Matsui said, through a smile and his interpreter.
"I don't know who," Julio said.
"There's always me," Billy Wagner said, half seriously.
But on this day, it couldn't have been Zambrano, who left the field abruptly in the second inning after his 23rd pitch had produced a strikeout and pain in his right elbow. It couldn't have been Matsui, whose all-around performance since his return from assignment to the disabled list has been a revelation. And it couldn't be Julio, who saved the Mets' fourth straight victory and their fifth victory in eight games against the Braves.
Julio heard it before he put Renteria to rest.
He had struck out his first batter, but walked Ryan Langerhans and surrendered singles to pinch-hitters Brian McCann and Matt Diaz, the second one scoring Langerhans. Marcus Giles flied to right, allowing McCann to reach third, and leaving Renteria, a tough ninth-inning out who already had extended his hitting streak to 22 games.
Chipper Jones, who prompts boos at Shea any time his heart beats, was on deck. Julio would work on Renteria.
"In the circumstances we had today and with his stuff and his experience, Jorge was the perfect man of the job," Randolph said.
The manager has said steadfastly of late that Julio will play an important role in the team's bullpen by summer's end. He began to revise that timetable after the 27th out of his team's 21st victory. "Maybe July," Randolph said. "He's getting his confidence."
Julio threw five pitches -- a ball, a line drive that was foul by the width of the Shea lawn mower, a called strike, a mundane foul and a ball -- before Jose Reyes threw out Renteria and Shea applauded.
The ballpark thinks it knows what's coming. The Mets win big, win close, win home, win away. They've won nine of 11 games decided by a run, they've outscored their opponents by 37 runs, the greatest differential in the league, pending the outcome of the Diamondbacks' game Saturday.
They've won 12 of 17 at home and nine of 13 on the road. And Saturday, they beat the Braves with their B bullpen -- Darren Oliver (four innings, two runs), winning pitcher Bartolome Fortunato (1 2/3 innings, one run), Chad Bradford (one-third of an inning, one run), Pedro Feliciano (two-thirds of an inning, no runs) and Julio, who earned his first save since Sept. 20, 1994.
"When you start winning the ways we are," Floyd said, leaving the rejoinder of the words for someone else.
The Mets have beaten the Braves in consecutive games, coming from behind in each. They have scored four runs in the seventh inning in each and 13 runs in the seventh in the last three games combined. Call them the better-late-than-ever Mets.
"The way things were set up," Floyd said, "we were going to flat-out lose today. They had Hudson, who killed us the last time. Our bullpen was tired, and then we lose Victor early. But when you're winning, things can snowball in a good way.
"We're getting Kaz with a big hit, and Cookie [Fortunato is nicknamed Cookie, as in fortune cookie] comes up and wins. Lotsa good things happening."
Trailing, 3-2, after Adam La Roche hit a solo home run in the seventh, the Mets hurt Hudson, who had allowed five hits, on Beltran's seventh home run. A leadoff single by Xavier Nady and a one-out pinch-hit single by Jose Valentin put runners on first and second. Reyes drove in Nady and moved Valentin to third with a single through the middle. Reyes took second when Chipper Jones misplayed Andruw Jones' throw to third.
He and Valentin scored when Matsui pulled a double to right. Hudson walked Beltran intentionally before leaving. Three batters later, Floyd walked with the bases loaded for the fourth run. The Mets have worked bases-loaded walk in three straight games.
"How often do you see that three straight games?" Floyd said. "And we don't even have Barry Bonds."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.