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Johan, Mets stay hot by blanking Astros

Johan, Mets blank Astros

NEW YORK -- Before the Twins were slick enough to get their hands on Johan Santana, he and Roy Oswalt were Minor League teammates in the Astros' system and professional friends who admired each other's work and understood how dominating each other could be. Their careers intersected again in Houston on Aug. 2, with neither pitching particularly well. But when Santana drew Oswalt as an opponent again Friday night, he suspected a more effective performance would be required.

So it was that he went forth with nothing in mind.

A row of zeros is what Santana thought would be necessary, a row of zeros is what he provided. And when his bullpen backed him with two more, the Mets had cleverly disguised lots of nothing as something and beaten the Astros.

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Santana's pitching, two clean innings by the bullpen and the Mets' increasingly remarkable ability to score early were the primary components in a 3-0 victory that was the first-place Mets' 10th win in 11 games and 10th shutout this season. Four times in their past 15 games, they have held their opponent scoreless and given new meaning to the phrase, "Nothing's doing."

"Pitchers are rather fond of zeros," Tom Seaver once said.

And Santana found no grounds to dispute that.

"You don't have to pitch a shutout to win," the lefty said Friday night. "But it's much easier if you don't give up runs."

And so for the fourth time in 27 starts this season, Santana made it easier. He followed his first National League shutout with a flawed but effective performance that put his ERA at 2.64 and eventually put his record at 12-7. He allowed eight hits and a walk in his seven innings, one more than his manager had thought he should pitch. He struck out five before Aaron Heilman and then Luis Ayala secured his fifth straight victory, and the team's seventh in his nine most recent starts.

To complete seven innings, he needed 121 pitches, more than he had thrown in his career and the equal to the high for a Mets pitcher this season. But who was counting? Jerry Manuel for one. The Mets' manager, rigid when it matters most, wanted Santana to remain seated after a less than taxing sixth inning. But, Manuel said, "He pleaded, he begged. ... He told me he'd be fine. He said he'd keep it to 115 -- he lied -- and he mentioned something about the other pitcher."

Santana didn't want to leave before his buddy.

"I mentioned that ... yeah. I didn't want to leave before Roy," the lefty said. "I've known him a long time. We were together for three years in the Minor Leagues. I know how good he is. I wanted to go as deep as I could."

As it turned out, Oswalt went deeper. He pitched the Astros' first complete game -- albeit eight innings -- in 203 games, the last coming against the Mets in July of last year. But Santana's seven zeros trumped Oswalt's eight innings. A run in the first inning, driven in by David Wright's single, and a two-run home run by Brian Schneider in the second were what put Oswalt's record at 11-9. He allowed two other hits and walked no one. After Schneider's fifth home run -- his sixth hit in 10 career at-bats against Oswalt -- cleared the right-center-field wall, Oswalt retired 20 straight batters.

"I told you," Santana said. "You can't give up runs when he's pitching."

Wright's RBI total increased to 99 when he singled through a drawn-in infield that was an indication of what Astros manager Cecil Cooper expected from Santana. Jose Reyes had begun the inning with a single and advanced on a wild pitch and a sacrifice by Argenis Reyes.

Schneider's home run, his third in his past five starts, was preceded by a welcome-back infield single from Ryan Church, who had returned after an extended assignment to the disabled list because of post-concussion symptoms. Shea Stadium greeted him with an ovation before he batted.

"I didn't feel anything bad all night, and that made me feel good," Church said.

Schneider and Church had come to the Mets from the Nationals in one trade last winter. Ayala, a third former National, earned his first save since he secured a victory over the Mets in the midst of their late-season fall, Sept. 27 last year.

Manuel said the Heilman-Ayala sequence appealed to him.

"You'll probably see it again," the manager said.

And he liked the idea of his starter leaving only two innings to the bullpen.

"You can't expect it, but I'll take seven scoreless anytime," Manuel said.

He was taking nothing for granted.

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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