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Dominant Santana helps Mets keep up

Dominant Santana helps Mets keep up

WASHINGTON -- The visiting clubhouse was, as usual, a beehive of activity. Hours remained before the Mets would engage the Nationals on Thursday night. And there were conversations to be had, magazines to be scanned, cellular calls to make, electronic games to be played and newspapers to be ignored. Each television monitor in the room carried the same programming -- Brewers vs. Cubs. And the game hadn't gone unnoticed as the Mets prepared for batting practice. But the game hadn't been their focus, either.

And then the relative peace of the afternoon was interrupted. A baseball thrown by Brewers closer Salomon Torres had no sooner struck the bat of Cubs catcher Geovany Soto hundreds of miles away when the Mets yelped in unison. Beginning that instant, the stress of the third week of September eased and the Mets' margin for error widened.

The Mets aren't wild about the Wild Card. They certainly haven't abandoned the idea of catching the Phillies and winning the National League East championship. That would be the preferred method of extending their season to include games in October. But they understand their objective can be achieved through alternate means. That would be quite acceptable, if less rewarding.

The Brewers' eventual loss to the Cubs made the alternate means a half-game more likely, and the Mets' 7-2 victory against the Nationals on Thursday night doubled the difference and had the Mets finding less fault with baseball's safety net.

"The idea is to get to October," Ryan Church said. "We'll take it any way we can get it. There's nothing wrong with the Wild Card. Look how far the Rockies went last year, and they were a Wild Card team."

Church testified shortly after the Mets had secured a split of their four-game series with the last-place Nationals with a victory that was nearly free from stress, a rarity for the Mets of late. He and Brian Schneider had driven in two runs each, Johan Santana had pitched seven innings and the bullpen had done little to undermine their work. It was something of a blueprint victory for the team that has had its modus operandi significantly altered since the beginning of the season by a flawed bullpen, a compromised rotation and a habit of scoring early but seldom thereafter.

In this one, their 12th victory in 18 games against the Nationals, the Mets scored in each of the first five innings and survived without much fretting. As a result, they left for Atlanta and their final road series as the Wild Card leader, by 1 1/2 games, and trailing the first-place Phillies by one-half game.

"It could've been a better day, but we'll take it," Church said. "We gained ground in one race and didn't lose any in the other."

If the Mets varied from the blueprint they created the day they acquired Santana, it was that Schneider and Church, two former Nationals, were the crucial figures in their run production. Schneider hit two solo home runs, and Church had two run-scoring hits. Schneider had the second two-homer game of his career -- the other came in 2003 -- hitting one dinger in the second inning against losing pitcher Tim Redding and the other leading off the third against Jason Bergmann, Redding's successor.

It had been a busy day for Schneider, who arose early and accompanied his father and three teammates -- Mike Pelfrey, Daniel Murphy and Nick Evans -- to the White House for breakfast and a surprise meeting with the President.

"It's pretty cool to have the President gives you the guided tour of the Oval Office," Pelfrey said.

"Just a regular day," Schneider said. "The President, the Cubs help us, we win and I get two. That doesn't happen too often."

Moreover, he guided Santana to his 14th victory, his seventh since his most recent loss.

"I'm not going to say it was easy," Schneider said. "But it's amazing what [Santana] can do when you get him a lead. He didn't have many problems."

Santana allowed eight hits and two walks and struck out eight. The run he allowed came in the seventh when he put his pitch total at 108. The Nationals' second run scored against Joe Smith in the eighth. Even with a 7-2 lead, the Mets used two relievers to pitch the ninth. It as a relatively stress free victory; the 'pen allowed five hits.

The Brewers' loss had afforded the Mets "a little level of energy," manager Jerry Manuel said. Limited use of the bullpen had eliminated stress for him. And getting contributions from the Nos. 6 and 8 hitters made for an enjoyable evening. Schneider has hit seven home runs in his 21 most recent starts. Church demonstrated a line-drive stroke not seen much in recent weeks. And Church played despite a pain in his right hip caused by irritation of a nerve by muscles in the joint.

"I've had it for six or seven days," he said. "But I'm playing. I missed enough time. I'll take this [hip pain] instead of dizziness. I'll put up with anything if we can get where we want to go. We just need a few more days like this."

2007 Mets Phillies Mets' Lead 2008 Mets Phillies Mets' Lead
9/1 Won @ ATL, 5-1 Lost @ FLA, 12-6 3 9/1 Won @ MIL, 4-2 Lost @ WSH, 7-4 2
9/2 Won @ ATL, 3-2 Lost @ FLA, 7-6 4 9/2 Won @ MIL, 6-5 Won @ WSH, 4-0 2
9/3 Won @ CIN, 10-4 Lost @ ATL, 5-1 5 9/3 Won @ MIL, 9-2 Lost @ WSH, 9-7 3
9/4 Won @ CIN, 11-7 Won @ ATL, 5-2 5 9/4 Off Off 3
9/5 Lost @ CIN, 7-0 Lost @ ATL, 9-8 5 9/5 Lost vs PHI, 3-0 Won @ NYM, 3-0 2
9/6 Off Off 5 9/6 Rain out Rain out 2
9/7 Won vs HOU, 11-3 Lost vs FLA, 6-3 6 9/7 Split DH with PHI Split DH with NYM 2
9/8 Won vs HOU, 3-1 Won vs FLA, 9-1 6 9/8 Off Won vs FLA, 8-6 1.5
9/9 Won vs HOU, 4-1 Won vs FLA, 8-5 6 9/9 Won vs WSH, 10-8 Lost vs FLA, 10-8 2.5
9/10 Won vs ATL, 3-2 Won vs COL, 6-5 6 9/10 Won vs WSH, 13-10 Lost vs FLA, 7-3 3.5
9/11 Lost vs ATL, 13-5 Lost vs COL, 8-2 6 9/11 Off Won vs MIL, 6-3 3
9/12 Won vs ATL, 4-3 Lost vs COL, 12-0 7 9/12 Rain out Rain out 3
9/13 Off Won vs COL, 12-4 6.5 9/13 Split DH with ATL Won vs MIL, 7-3 2.5
9/14 Lost vs PHI, 3-2 Won @ NYM, 3-2 5.5 9/14 Lost vs ATL, 7-4 Won DH from MIL 1
9/15 Lost vs PHI, 5-3 Won @ NYM, 5-3 4.5 9/15 Lost @ WSH, 7-2 Off 0.5
9/16 Lost vs PHI, 10-6 Won @ NYM, 10-6 3.5 9/16 Lost @ WSH, 1-0 Won vs ATL, 8-7 -0.5
9/17 Lost @ WSH, 12-4 Won @ STL, 13-11 2.5 9/17 Won @ WSH, 9-7 Won @ ATL, 6-1 -0.5
9/18 Lost @ WSH, 9-8 Won @ STL, 7-4 1.5 9/18 Won @ WSH, 7-2 Won @ ATL, 4-3 -0.5
9/19 Won @ WSH, 8-4 Lost @ STL, 2-1 2.5 9/19 @ ATL @ FLA
9/20 Lost @ FLA, 8-7 Won @ WSH, 7-6 1.5 9/20 @ ATL @ FLA
9/21 Won @ FLA, 9-6 Won @ WSH, 6-3 1.5 9/21 @ ATL @ FLA
9/22 Won @ FLA, 7-2 Won @ WSH, 4-1 1.5 9/22 CHC ATL
9/23 Won @ FLA, 7-6 Lost @ WSH, 5-3 2.5 9/23 CHC ATL
9/24 Lost vs WSH, 13-4 Off 2 9/24 CHC ATL
9/25 Lost vs WSH, 10-9 Lost vs ATL, 10-6 2 9/25 CHC Off
9/26 Lost vs WSH, 9-6 Won vs ATL, 5-2 1 9/26 FLA WSH
9/27 Lost vs STL, 3-0 Won vs ATL, 6-4 Tied 9/27 FLA WSH
9/28 Lost vs FLA, 7-4 Won vs WSH, 6-0 -1 9/28 FLA WSH
9/29 Won vs FLA, 13-0 Lost vs WSH, 4-2 Tied        
9/30 Lost vs FLA, 8-1 Won vs WSH, 6-1 -1        

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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