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Niese tosses eight innings of one-run ball

NEW YORK -- These days, even the easy wins are difficult for the Mets.

New York spent eight innings exhibiting control of the game Sunday and one inning frantically trying to close it. Three relievers -- Josh Edgin, Frank Francisco and Jon Rauch -- combined to preserve a five-run cushion in the ninth, and they did so by the thinnest margin possible in a 6-5 win over Atlanta.

How thin was it? The final out of the game came on a strikeout that got away from catcher Rob Johnson, and the resulting throw to first barely beat Jason Heyward. Michael Bourn was steaming home on the play with the potential tying run, giving manager Terry Collins a little more angst than he expected.

"I was very surprised, especially with the score the way it was," he said. "You've got to go attack. ... You've got to make them swing the bat to beat you. Frankie hadn't pitched in a while in that situation. It was pretty tough with the game on the line like that, but it shouldn't have ever gotten to that point."

Indeed, the Mets (55-60) had earned an easy endgame by riding a strong performance from Jon Niese, who handcuffed the Braves for eight efficient innings. Niese (9-6) left the game with a five-run lead, and he watched from the dugout as Edgin loaded the bases on two walks and a hit batter.

Edgin also got two outs -- one on a strikeout and one on a fly ball -- but the Mets elected to go to Francisco with the bases loaded. The veteran reliever walked the first two batters he faced to force home two runs, and then he allowed Martin Prado to stroke a two-run double to right field.

"It was easy. I just didn't get the job done," said Francisco after the game, taking a few questions and meeting them with a brief reply. "Everything was working. They just gave me a good fight."

Collins elected to go to Rauch at that point, with the potential tying run on third base and the go-ahead run standing on second. And even when they got Heyward swinging at a third strike on a slider in the dirt, the game wasn't over. The ball skipped a few feet away, and Johnson had to make a play.

The veteran backstop said that he took his time to make sure that he didn't kick the ball away or make an errant throw to first, and he said he never considered trying to tag Bourn out at home. The only play to make was at first, said Johnson, and his throw closed out a bizarre ninth inning.

"Obviously, it's frustrating," Johnson said. "The first couple batters, you've got to pump strikes. That's the bottom line. Let them see how far they can hit it. That's how rallies start. You walk a guy, they get a single and you walk another guy. All of a sudden, it's bases loaded and a grand slam puts them within one run. It was just a grind. ... They're a very good team and they've got some good hitters in that lineup. You've got to continue to pound until the 27th out is made."

Coming into the game, New York had scored just 14 runs over its previous six games -- one win and five losses -- and opposing starter Ben Sheets had allowed five earned runs in his last five starts. The Mets got to Sheets early, though, notching two runs in the first inning and one in the second.

David Wright doubled home one run in the first inning for the 800th RBI of his career, and cleanup man Ike Davis dumped a single to score the game's second run. Johnson singled, moved to second on a bunt by Niese and scored on a two-out single by Ruben Tejada in the next inning.

Niese got a key double play to escape a jam in the first inning, and he allowed a solo homer to Freddie Freeman in the second. From there, Niese took control, holding Atlanta (66-48) to just four more hits and one more runner in scoring position.

Collins said that Niese probably could've worked the ninth inning, but his pitches appeared to be moving up in the strike zone and the bullpen appeared to be the better option. Justin Turner pinch-hit for him in the bottom of the eighth, and then Niese settled in to watch the rest.

"It was tough. I can't sugarcoat that by any means," Niese said. "But they got the job done, and that's all that matters. I think we're going to enjoy this win and then go after the Reds."

Rookie Jordany Valdepsin played a key role in the victory. The youngster hit a solo homer -- his eighth of the season and just the second allowed by Sheets this year -- in the sixth inning to give New York a four-run lead, and he came back to single, steal a base and score a hustle run in the eighth.

The Mets notched 10 hits on the night, and they went 4-for-6 with runners in scoring position. Collins expressed admiration for the approach his team took against Sheets, and despite the narrow escape, he said that the victory could bode well for the team's trip to Cincinnati and Washington.

"We needed this," said Collins of the win. "I'm not making any excuses. We have not played well on any side of the ball, so this win helped. I don't care how it came about, I'm glad to get it."

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