"The support was a little more reluctant," Piazza said later.
And then he came to the bat in the eighth. Martinez had walked his final two batters and departed, leaving all the jeopardy to Aaron Heilman. Piazza was jeered by the fickle masses, some 49,979, as he approached the plate. He wasn't yet a villain, but he clearly had made the transition to opponent.
Then he made contact with Heilman's first pitch, a changeup that had too much elevation and too much plate, and the boos changed to a gasp. Piazza was wearing out his welcome as Carlos Beltran retreated to the warning track to handle the game's most nervous out. Though the runners advanced on the loud out, Heilman extricated himself -- and the Mets. And an inning later, after Billy Wagner surrendered a home run to Josh Barfield, the Mets had their victory, 4-3, and the constituency back.
"I felt the energy shift a little bit," Piazza said.
So ended another peculiar evening in Queens. Familiar sights -- Piazza rounding the bases and even responding to a curtain call -- made for some in-the-stands schizophrenia. A familiar scenario -- the Mets scoring early and methodically -- made for another night of on-the-field success. Everything a Mets fan wanted in a game, and almost too much of it.
"I think Mike was getting a little carried away," Willie Randolph said, smiling.
The Mets manager could smile. His team pushed its record to 24 games over .500 for the first time this year with its 26th one-run victory, its second straight victory against a first-place opponent, its fourth victory in six games against the Padres, its fourth successive victory overall and its ninth in 12 games.
"We took his best shot," Randolph said. "And we didn't get knocked out."
Moreover, Randolph saw 7 1/3 innings from Martinez, who gained his ninth victory, his second in three starts since returning from the disabled list. And he saw Heilman survive the perilous imprecision of his best pitch.
Randolph believes, "If it doesn't kill you, it makes you stronger." He likes what he has seen recently from Heilman. And the bottom line didn't care about Barfield's blast. It said Wagner had earned his 26th save.
"As long as you win and come out of it healthy," Randolph said. "I'll take it."
The most encouraging component of the victory was Martinez's work. If not for Piazza, who has hit two more home runs against Martinez than any other player, the Mets starter would have entered the eighth with a one-hitter with two walks.
"He seems to have my number," Martinez said. "So far, he's had a lot of success against me [10 hits and a .386 average in 26 career at-bats]."
Martinez was gone after 108 pitches, convinced that he could have finished this game
and any other "that doesn't have a Mike Piazza." He eschewed velocity for more changeups against the Padres' left-handed hitters, though he added some miles per hour to his sinker.
"Velocity doesn't dictate what Pedro Martinez does on the mound," he said.
With Martinez (9-4) in control, other than with his former catcher, the Mets' lead seemed quite secure when it stood at 4-2. The Mets had scored their 100th first-inning run -- they lead the big leagues in that category -- on a double by Jose Reyes and singles by Paul Lo Duca and Carlos Delgado. Reyes' single scored Lastings Milledge with a run in the second, and Jose Valentin and Endy Chavez delivered run-scoring hits in the third.
"I felt confident with the way Pedro was throwing," Lo Duca, Martinez's current catcher, said. "But Mike had some big swings."
Two and nearly a third.
"I was frustrated on that last one," Piazza said. "I thought I got enough of it to get it out."
Said Heilman: "He didn't leave much of it behind."