NEW YORK -- The Mets played the 124th game of their season on Tuesday night; they won it, and Billy Wagner called it a good start. Hmmm. He was making a point, and his teammates got it. It wasn't a September game the Mets had just won, but it felt like a September victory. It wasn't critical; a loss wouldn't have been particularly damaging. It was special, though, because they won and how they won.
Between now and the end of the regular season, the Mets may produce another victory more uplifting than their final-pitch, 7-6 victory against the Padres. They had produced none so fortifying in the first 123 games.
So when they departed Shea Stadium one game into the most challenging segment of their schedule, the Mets seemed to be better off than they were when they arrived. The Padres' resolve hadn't killed them, it had made them stronger.
"I don't want to say this is a 'statement' game," general manager Omar Minaya said. And how could it be, coming in August and against a team from a different division? "But it's a game that gives us more backbone. A real fine win."
"The kind of game we won a lot last year," David Wright said.
Their seventh victory in eight games and their 17th final at-bat victory helped the Mets numerically, of course. The Phillies remained five games behind, and the Braves retreated to six in the National League East.
"But this one had nothing to do with them," Wagner said. "It was about us and what we have to do now. It's a good start."
Start of what, Wagner didn't need to say. The Mets play the Padres twice more, the Dodgers and Braves three times each and the Phillies four times before Labor Day. So the come-from-behind victory against the Padres and Trevor Hoffman was, Wagner said, "the start of, you know, maybe something big."
The start had ended minutes earlier with a base hit through the middle by Luis Castillo. It scored Marlon Anderson from second base in what seemed like only seconds after Anderson's pinch-hit single had delivered the tying run.
"You get the feelings something's happening," Wagner said, "when the all-time saves leader coughs it up against the bottom of the order."
Anderson had hurt Hoffman previously; he's 4-for-7 against him in his career. Castillo was familiar with the Padres closer, too -- now he has three hits in 11 at-bats against him.
"It doesn't matter who we did it against," said Castillo, who acknowledged that the Mets uniform he has worn for only 22 days felt more comfortable after the hit. "It's just good to do it. It's good to be a Met."
Newer Met Jeff Conine, a spectator on Tuesday night, agreed.
"Games like this are tough on the ticker," he said. "But I like them. It's good to be here."
The decisive rally had begun with a leadoff single by Lastings Milledge that delighted Minaya. "He likes the moment," the general manager said.
A sacrifice bunt by Mike DiFelice preceded Anderson's hit and a bloop single by Jose Reyes followed it, and it gave Castillo an enhanced chance to be a hero.
The Mets had undressed Hoffman (2-4, with a fourth save opportunity not converted) in merely 11 pitches. This after Carlos Beltran had scarred the Major League-leading ERA of starter Chris Young, driving in four runs in two swings against him. And in between, Beltran drove in another run in the eighth against Heath Bell to tie the score at 5. It was all quite impressive. Now the Mets have scored five or more runs in nine consecutive games, equaling a franchise best, and Beltran now has 18 RBIs and six home runs in nine games since ending his assignment to the disabled list on Aug. 10.
What wasn't so impressive was that the Mets needed to win in the ninth after Beltran's one-on-nine offensive. Wagner had allowed a run in the top of the ninth, and the other relievers who had followed weakened starter John Maine -- he had been ill since Sunday -- hadn't been much better. Only the Padres' first three runs were Maine's responsibility.
Scott Schoeneweis and Jorge Sosa had allowed one each before a sacrifice fly by Kevin Kouzmanoff put Wagner in position to lose.
Moreover, the Mets' defense had been lacking. Milledge misplayed a base hit to right field that led to the run against Schoeneweis in the seventh. Moises Alou slipped and slid in the slick grass in left in pursuit of a line drive that rightfully was scored a run-scoring, pinch-hit triple for Maine's last batter, Marcus Giles, in the sixth. And the single to right by Milton Bradley to produce the first run in the third inning was not that far from first baseman Carlos Delgado.
It would have been an unbecoming defeat. "Like the one in Pittsburgh [last week]," Wright said.
"It wouldn't have been a good way to lose," manager Willie Randolph said.
The manager said all victories are equal. Randolph also acknowledged some are more equal than others. "We got what we deserved," he said, proud that, on this night of ragged defense and uneven relief, his hitters had compensated. "We didn't play perfectly, but we executed a few times when it was critical. [Coach] Jerry Manuel has a saying -- 'Give to the game, and the game gives back to you.' We gave."
Randolph pointed to the infield hit and stolen base by Reyes that led to the run in the eighth and to DiFelice thwarting an attempted steal of second base by Terrmel Sledge with a runner on third in the eighth. Not to be overlooked in that inning were two good-looking plays by Delgado.
But it was the rally against Hoffman that changed the perspective.
"It's a big win," Tom Glavine said, "because we didn't want another game when we blew a lead like in Pittsburgh. We've got to start changing the mentality of how we play at home."
A loss would have been the Mets' fifth in seven games at Shea, their eighth in their past 14 home games. As it is, winning put their home record at merely six games over .500 at 33-27. Their overall record -- the best in the NL at 71-53 -- is 18 games over 500 for the first time.
And this was only the beginning.
Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.