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El Duque, bullpen come up big for Mets

Duque, bullpen come up big for Mets

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ST. LOUIS -- The last nine games of consequence the Mets have played have included one common element -- the opponent. Seven times in October 2006 and twice this week, they have played the Cardinals. And with those nine games has come a sense of familiarity that may not have bred contempt, but at least a degree of annoyance.

"My hotel room is getting smaller and smaller, and older," Willie Randolph said Tuesday night. "We've been here a lot."

Familiarity has a different effect on the field. It eliminates doubt and suspicion, or as Billy Wagner says succinctly, "No more secrets between us and them." And when they know what's coming, the Mets closer said, the best thing to do is: "Put it right to them. Be as aggressive as you can. ... You can't fool 'em, so don't fool with them."

Wagner hadn't showered off the game Tuesday night as he spoke. He was wearing the Mets' 4-1 victory and admiring how well it fit. Forty minutes after the 27th out, it still looked good to him -- Orlando Hernandez's pitching and hitting, three more double plays, a pickoff and, he said, most of all, Aaron Heilman's one-batter, one-man stand.

"And the way he went about it," Wagner said. "Did you see him tonight? Aggressive, aggressive, aggressive. I love how he did tonight."

The first save of the Mets' season had been earned, and it was Wagner who had earned it.

"I was just there after the work was done," he said. "Aaron was our closer tonight, our eighth-inning closer. I just came in after he did the work and picked up a little."

Wagner was pitching as the Mets were winning for the second time in two games. Heilman, for the second time in three days, was the pitcher when the Mets "weren't losing it." It's a more challenging time.

Wagner started the ninth with a cushion made comfortable by Heilman in the eighth. Heilman, for the second time in three days, had been summoned mid-inning, after the Cardinals had mounted some resistance.

"He had the harder job tonight," Wagner said. "That happens a lot."

Wagner faced Scott Rolen and pinch-hitters Preston Wilson and Gary Bennett with no one on base, and no chance that one swing could inflict significant damage. Heilman had faced Albert Pujols with two men on base and a real risk of peril. Scott Schoeneweis, El Duque's relief, had achieved two outs and put two runners on base.

"Schoeneweis gave me some agita," Randolph would say later.

One swing by the premier hitter in the National League could have negated all that Hernandez had done in seven innings with his assortment of offspeed stuff and -- imagine this -- with his bat. It was left to Heilman to relieve Schoeneweis and the manager's angst, too.

"I just tried to be aggressive," Heilman said.

Aggressive and intelligent, as he and catcher Paul Lo Duca discussed the scenario.

"Albert probably was sitting on the changeup," Lo Duca said. "We decided not to use it." That eliminated the pitch that makes Heilman so effective in most other scenarios.

Two fastballs and a splitter yielded a 2-1 count. Then came a fastball Heilman had borrowed from Wagner. Had Pujols made contact with the mighty swing he took, the Arch might have been endangered. He missed, though, making the entire confrontation more delicious. The manager's agita had subsided "a little bit," according to Randolph.

Another ball. And finally, a benign fly ball to center field. The Mets left the field, sensing that they had taken the Cardinals' best shot.

Their second victory was secured 10 minutes later. So for the first time since 1994, the Mets have won the first two games of the season, and for the first time since 2000, they have won a series in this city. They had lost seven straight series. And, for now, they have alleviated a modicum of the concern about their pitching staff. Hernandez's seven innings -- he allowed five hits and two walks, hit his first batter and struck out none -- followed a strong, six-inning start by Tom Glavine in the first game Sunday.

It turns out the Mets don't have to score eight times to win -- for now, at least. They just have to play well. And they have: seven double plays in two games, and two runs allowed. Two escapes -- both by Heilman -- in two games, though the first one, he acknowledged, required assistance.

The Mets' season is two-games-old, and they feel as if they've been winning for a month.

"We're feeling very good, very strong, very legitimate," Lo Duca said. "We're a pretty good team again."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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