"They're at the best then," third baseman David Wright said.
And then, as if to reinforce what Wright had yet to say, the Phillies asserted themselves and challenged the Mets. Two batters into the bottom of the eighth, Santana was gone; two pitches into Greg Dobbs' ensuing at-bat against Aaron Heilman, the baseball and three-quarters of what had been a four-run lead were gone as well.
The Mets still needed each of those six outs and the Phillies needed only two runs. The Phillies were coming, the Phillies were coming. And the Mets were watching the arrival.
"It's not a good feeling," catcher Brian Schneider said.
But before this baseball evening was over, the Mets stood up to the Phillies, met their late challenge and mounted some resistance of their own. A comforting 6-4 victory was the result, and learning to win -- or, more to the point, learning not to lose -- was the benefit.
It hasn't been easy for the Mets thus far. Their 9-6 record provides no sense of how difficult it has been. Five of their victories have been by margins of one or two runs. Two of them have taken them to extra innings. One of their losses was a one-run, extra-inning affair.
Perhaps they thought it would a tad easier, perhaps they thought they would be better. That's all right, they say. If not better, they are at least better off, better equipped to handle late resistance.
"Playing tight games can help you down the road," manager Willie Randolph said. "You can't ask for them or plan on them. ... What you can do is learn from then and win them."
Randolph's team won this one mostly on talent -- the pitching skills of Santana and offensive skills of Wright were a too-much-to-stop tag team for the Phillies, even with their primary starting pitcher, Cole Hamels, opposite Santana. The Mets pitcher surrendered a home run to Chase Utley in the seventh and one other hit before the first two batters in the eighth singled. He struck out 10, including eight of the first 13 batters, and walked none.
And Wright, who began the game with one hit in 11 career at-bats against Hamels, came within two total bases of a cycle against him -- a single, two doubles and a triple -- drove in two runs and scored one.
That's how the Mets won. This is how they didn't lose.
After surrendering Dobbs' pinch-hit home run -- the third damaging home run he has allowed in what now is 11 1/3 innings -- Heilman retired So Taguchi on a fly ball to the warning track in center and Jayson Werth on a ground ball. And Pedro Feliciano struck out Utley, the 11th time the Mets reliever has struck out the Phillies second baseman in 20 career at-bats.
"We stopped it there," closer Billy Wagner said. "We took a hit, but we didn't go down."
An unearned run against Brad Lidge in the ninth, driven in by Carlos Delgado's sacrifice fly, restored some of the margin for error for Wagner, who pitched a clean ninth -- retiring Ryan Howard, Pat Burrell and Pedro Feliz in the process -- to earn his third save.
"These games -- 5-4, 4-3, 3-2 -- they make you focus more. You can get accustomed them," Ryan Church said. "We played a lot of close games with the Nationals two years ago. No matter how it got close, when it was tight, we would say, 'OK, we've been here before. We know how to win these.'"
The sixth run was an example. Church singled off Lidge after one out. Wright reached base for the fifth time, on a walk. Howard's misplay of Carlos Beltran's ground ball loaded the bases. Then Delgado, using a measured swing against the heat of the Phillies closer, stroked the sacrifice fly for his second critical RBI in two nights. He had driven in the tying run against the Nationals in the eighth inning Thursday, and the Mets won in 14. They were learning then, too.
Each season, every team has to learn how to win tight games. Oddly, it isn't a carryover skill like hitting a slider or pitching on the corners. These Mets are learning. Twice they have beaten the Phillies in tight games. Twice they have withstood a late punch and won regardless.
"It's nice to win this way," Wright said, emphasizing the word win. The Philliies handled the Mets in such games last season.
At the same time it was good for them to win a start by Santana (2-2) -- they had lost the last two -- and win a Hamels start.
"After one game here, we're halfway to where we want to be, taking a series," Church said. "And we've won the game with one of their best starting [pitchers]. It takes some pressure off the rest of the series."
That all this happened against the Phillies made it all more worthwhile, despite what Santana said.
"Every time I go out there is 'my' time, regardless of what team I'm facing," he said.
Which was to say all games are equal. But we know some are more equal than others. This was one of those.
And that the Mets won it, how they won it, and how they didn't lose it meant something.
"These games can bring you together," Randolph said. "They're good to play -- as long as you win."
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.