Signs of a winning team in Pittsburgh

Signs of a winning team in Pittsburgh

PITTSBURGH -- The Pirates have trouble in their own stadium, though not nearly as much as the Mets regularly experience at PNC Park. It has been that way for both teams for a while now. The Pirates have the worst home record in the game, and before their visit on Tuesday night, the Mets had lost seven out of eight games at the confluence of the Ohio, the Allegheny and the Monongahela Rivers.

The problems continued for both teams on Tuesday night. The Pirates lost for the 34th time in 60 home games, and the Mets endured an unqualified struggle before they put away the team that, regardless of site, is the least successful in the National League.

Even after Billy Wagner pitched a clean ninth inning to earn his 27th save, the Mets' 5-4 victory didn't seem secure. It had been a monumental struggle from the first of the 130 pitches thrown by Orlando Hernandez to the 13th thrown by Wagner. The Mets emerged from their 118th game with the best record in the league; the arithmetic said so. Little that happened in three hours and four minutes suggested that they would have that standing.

It's a good sign, a baseball axiom says, when a team plays poorly and wins. The Mets' two most recent victories against the Marlins on Sunday and a squeaky one against the Pirates on Tuesday must be good signs.

If nothing else, there were good signs -- positive indications -- in both, particularly against the Pirates, even if each came with a caveat.

* Moises Alou stroked a two-run single on the first pitch reliever Shawn Chacon threw in the eighth to drive in the Mets' final two runs. But, as good as he had felt in the box before that, Alou was miffed that he hadn't done more and that he had struck out with two runners in scoring position in the sixth.

* Hernandez was the picture of perseverance and stamina. The 130 pitches exceeded his previous high this season by 11 and it approached the 137 he threw in May 2001, when he was merely a lad at 31 (or 35) in one of those American League games, and the 142 he threw as the league's most experienced rookie three years earlier.

Only his effectiveness was lacking. The team with the second fewest runs in the league put 11 runners on base in six innings against him, though only three scored.

* Carlos Beltran, now ready to play no matter what arm -- left or right -- the starting pitcher uses, performed terrifically in center field, and batting cleanup for the first time since 2005, he hit his 21st home run in the fourth to tie the score at 2 and he doubled in the eighth, which was linchpin of a decisive rally. And he scored twice and drove in two runs.

And if he couldn't score from first base on a two-out, fly-ball double, well, he sure did play well in the outfield.

* Scott Schoeneweis, summoned in a circumstance that seemed to call for Pedro Feliciano, produced an important out -- even if was it achieved on the warning track.

* Jorge Sosa pitched 1 2/3 innings in relief of El Duque and was the winning pitcher, though he allowed the Pirates to score their fourth run in the eighth.

* Lastings Milledge, given a start over Shawn Green against a right-handed pitcher -- Ian Snell -- had a double and scored a run. So his miscalculation on the fly-ball out Schoeneweis achieved to complete the eight inning was overlooked or at least forgiven.

So it was a myriad of mixed messages that these Mets sent in to win for the fifth time in the past six games away from Shea Stadium. (Talk about mixed; they just lost four of six at home.) No matter, they all seemed pretty pleased with it.

El Duque, even though he didn't win, was pleased with his effort. The Mets won for the ninth time in his 10 most recent starts and he gave them bend-don't-break innings.

"You don't often catch a guy who competes like he does," Mike DiFelice said. "Other guys, if they don't have their stuff, might give you two innings. This guy battles and before you know it, it's the fifth. You can say what you say to him, but he's got his own mind. He wasn't hitting his spots [or even coming close in the first inning when the Pirates scored twice], but they never got the big inning off him."

DiFelice, the catching understudy, started for the first time this season and contributed a double, a single and an RBI. He, too, was pleased.

And Milledge was delighted by the opportunity to play and that he caught the ball pinch-hitter Josh Phelps hit on Schoeneweis' only pitch in the eighth. After his initial misread, he had to dive to make the play -- his catch was reminiscent of Tommie Agee's sprawling catch in the '69 World Series -- and deny the Pirates a fifth run.

"I broke back too hard," said Milledge, who has been playing more center field than right as of late. He is far more comfortable in center.

"I took the same route I took in Boston, and we all know what happened there," said Milledge, who recalled his misplay in Fenway Park 15 months ago. "I was really happy to catch this one. I didn't want that run to score."

So, it could have been worse. The ball could have dropped. Or, El Duque could have allowed a big inning. And it could have been better. The Phillies and Braves could have lost. But they both won one-run games against last-place teams, too.

The Mets didn't complain.

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