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Maine stellar as Mets take rubber game

Maine stellar as Mets roll

NEW YORK -- The Mets' 2009 season, scarred and deflating as it has been, has provided precious few games so positive as the team's victory against the Nationals on Sunday. A chamber of commerce afternoon, cool, clear and breezy, begat a game of unqualified, if modest, achievement at Citi Feld. They Mets defeated the last-place team in the National League East, clinched fourth place, won a series and, for the second time in their 50 most recent games, gained a second successive victory. And nobody was hurt. It ain't the Jets over the Pats, but all things are relative.

More important than any of that September minutia is this: John Maine pitched effectively and without incident for five innings.

The minutia and the Maine came to pass in a 6-2 victory in which the first three Mets pitchers -- Maine, Elmer Dessens and Sean Green -- allowed no runs and three baserunners in eight innings, while a fourth, Brian Stokes, created a save situation for Frankie Rodriguez. They call it teamwork. Moreover, Daniel Murphy continued his productive hitting, and Brian Schneider came in late to earn a "save" -- "Second in two days," Schneider said with feigned pride.

All of it made for a happy Sunday in the Citi. The Mets arrived and departed their place of work with identical expressions -- smiles. For two days now, they have appeared to operate without the burden of 80-something losses. And if the caveat to all this joy is that their opponent was the mild-mannered Nationals ... well, all things are relative. And last season, when the Mets needed to beat bottom-feeders, they couldn't.

The day began with Schneider crowing about his first save -- he had been double-switched into the lineup in the ninth inning of the Mets' 3-2 victory Saturday. Another double-switch in the ninth happened Sunday, and he saved another one. "Tell Frankie I'm the closer now," Schneider said before and after the game.

Just before noon, Schneider had taken out his RCRC -- rather cool remote control -- 4 X 4 and demonstrated its power and traction to his colleagues. Not only does the vehicle accelerate faster than Usain Bolt and change direction quicker than Mark Reynolds turns around a good fastball, it climbs almost vertically, too.

When Jeff Francoeur laid on his back on the clubhouse floor and issued the challenge -- "See if it can ride over me!" -- Schneider was pleased to show off his boy toy. (Francoeur issued a warning, too, because he wasn't yet fully dressed).

Such is Sunday morning entertainment -- there was no batting practice -- for a team locked into fourth place before it plays the team locked into last. Release is where you find it.

As the NFL games drew nigh, Francouer loudly raised the topic of the Panthers playing his Falcons. His words were filled with optimism and more than a trace of sarcasm. "Easy, easy," said North Carolinian Bobby Parnell. The needle had stretched across the spacious clubhouse.

On this Sunday, the clubhouse was, indeed, a funhouse. The Mets' mood was light. And then they performed like men unburdened. Maybe it was Schneider's toy or Francoeur's needle. Or the weather. Or maybe it was just the Nationals in the other dugout. (Manager Jim Riggleman did chastise his team for what he considered apathy.) Whatever it was, the Mets were better off for it and happy.

"The last 30 [games] don't all have to be miserable," one of them said.

Maine seemingly has shed his burden, that of concern for his shoulder. He spent 75 pitches holding down an opponent rather than trying to come through a start unscathed. He threw fastballs with greater velocity -- 92 mph -- and movement than those he threw against the Phillies seven days earlier in his first appearance since his extended assignment to the disabled list.

And he won -- for the first time since May 31.

All right, all right, it was the Nationals. But they scored seven runs in four innings against Maine on June 6 in his last start before the DL claimed him, and they have won 51 games.

What seemed uncommon about Maine's start was his economy of pitches. Fifteen pitches per inning is slightly higher than the big league norm. He had averaged 17.3 per inning before his season was interrupted. The difference of 2.3 per inning applied to his next start, when his pitch count will be 90, would get him through six innings.

Maine wanted outs Sunday -- groundouts, lineouts, flyouts, strikeouts. He was in a "whatever" mode as he retired 15 of 18 batters. He pitched to contact, walking one batter -- in the third -- and allowing two singles, both in the fifth. His only strikeout followed the second one -- with runners on first and third and one out.

He was encouraged because, in his words, "Even in hitters' counts, they didn't square up. ... I wanted to get some innings," he said. "I still don't feel I have 100 percent strength, but I feel good." And he wasn't the only man in the clubhouse who would say that.

Murphy tripled and scored the Mets' first run in the second inning, and then doubled to drive in two of the three runs the Mets scored against losing starting pitcher Garrett Mock in the third. He has a .333 average and six RBIs in his 36 most recent at-bats. The Mets produced nine hits -- three by Angel Pagan -- against Mock (3-8), who pitched seven innings. Luis Castillo, Carlos Beltran and Murphy had two hits each against Mock and three relievers. Wilson Valdez drove in two runs with a triple against Victor Garate in the eighth.

And now the Mets have won two straight for the second time since their five-game winning streak in the final week of July, and they have won a series for the second time since then. And all things are relative.

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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