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09/26/08 1:43 AM ET

Mets show cool under pressure

Beltran delivers game-winner, Mets now one back in NL East

NEW YORK -- It was merely a slam they had witnessed, nothing grand about it. The baseball left the bat of Ryan Braun and instantly tightened the race for the National League Wild Card. And the Mets essentially dismissed it. No audible profanity, nary a slam of a hand against a locker. Barely any indication of lament came from the team most affected by the Brewers' final-pitch victory on Thursday night.

The Mets watched it, briefly discussed the pitch Braun had launched and departed.

"We've got nothing left to celebrate with," Damion Easley said. "We left everything we had on the field."

Drained from the drama of their own experiences on Thursday, the Mets were consumed by thoughts about themselves and no other team. They just had played nine innings in the dank of Shea Stadium and emerged upright and with a pulse. They hadn't won the NL East or the NL Wild Card. Thursday night was the night they didn't lose either.

On the threshold of a loss that would have left them with little more than a mathematical chance of playing in the postseason, the Mets had stormed back from a three-run deficit in the final three innings to beat the Cubs, 7-6. Their victory was a mirror image of too many of the recent losses that have put them in the predicament they face with three scheduled games remaining in their season. The Mets scored one run in the seventh inning, two in the eighth -- the second coming on a desperate ad-libbed slide by Ryan Church -- and one in the ninth on a scorched single by Carlos Beltran.

And seeing how the other half lives had a certain appeal to them.

When Jose Reyes sped from second base to score the decisive run with two outs, the Mets moved to within one game of the idle first-place Phillies in the NL East and assured themselves of at least a share of the lead in the race for the NL Wild Card. Braun's slam reassured them.

Now the Mets face a Nor'easter and a series against the team from the southernmost city in the game, a team with little regard and some animosity for them. The Marlins have been spoiling for this series.

But it could have been much worse -- the same opponent and less favorable math. As it is, the arithmetic hardly is an ally.

But as Beltran said, "We are happy to be where we are. We have three games left, and it's going to be fun."

The Mets' 88th victory -- they won 88 last season, too -- hardly had the appearance of fun. They didn't lead until Reyes crossed the plate on Beltran's second walk-off hit of the season. Moreover, they had endured yet another misstep by their bullpen, a three-run home run that rookie first baseman Micah Hoffpauir hit in the seventh inning on the first pitch thrown by lefty Ricardo Rincon, the first of five pitchers summoned from the game's most stigmatized bullpen.

Rincon had been brought in to face three left-handed batters after Pedro Martinez was removed. Hoffpauir already had hit a solo home run and an RBI double off Martinez. So neither surprise nor wonder existed when manager Jerry Manuel jumped from the dugout before Hoffpauir got another chance to face the Mets' starter. Another pitching change that didn't work.

You know, we might win this and we might not, but we've got a lot of fight in us. It was so cool to see that. You know, we came in here today after a real tough loss [Wednesday night]. ... I think we were pretty impressive tonight."
-- Mets relief pitcher Joe Smith

"Another dagger to the heart," one of the Mets whispered. "But this one wasn't fatal."

It might have been, but it was hit early enough that the Mets had three tries to overcome it. A double by Robinson Cancel, one of a legion of least-likely heroes who has emerged because of injuries to key personnel, led to a run in the seventh against Chad Gaudin. He advanced and then scored on two ground-ball outs. Singles by Ramon Martinez and Cancel against Bob Howry and Church's "slide of hand" produced two runs in the eighth.

Cancel was the starting catcher for the ninth time this season, because Brian Schneider couldn't bend over without pain in his back and rib cage. Martinez, almost a roster afterthought brought in for his prowess as a shortstop, had started at second base for the first time because he had played under control and contributed on Wednesday night before the Mets lost, because Manuel has lost faith in Luis Castillo and because Easley's right quadriceps allows him to pinch-hit only.

Martinez already had driven in Beltran from third base with the Mets' fifth run. His second hit in two nights might have produced two runs and a tie score. But Church hadn't stolen second when Beltran stole third.

"I could have strangled him," Manuel said.

Church's slide on the ensuing single through the right side by Cancel eliminated such thoughts from the manager's mind. The slide made a critical moment even more distinctive. The throw from right fielder Kosuke Fukudome, five feet up the third-base line, beat Church to the plate, and catcher Koyie Hill handled it cleanly. But Church avoided his lunging tag and essentially crawled back to the plate after he had passed it and tagged it with his right hand for the tying run.

"When [Hill] caught it, I thought Ryan was out," Cancel said.

"I saw him catch it early enough," Church said, "so I could get out of the way."

The Cubs put two runners on base in the ninth, one on a leadoff single against Pedro Feliciano and the other on an intentional walk by Mets reliever Joe Smith, who closed the inning against left-handed pinch-hitter Daryle Ward. Smith faced Ward because the Mets had exhausted their supply of left-handed relievers.

Reyes led off the ninth with a single off losing pitcher Kevin Hart, and he stole second after Daniel Murphy, bunting on his own with two strikes, and Wright struck out. After Hart intentionally walked Carlos Delgado, Beltran pulled a line drive off Hoffpauir's glove.

"Once Jose got on base, I asked [pitching coach] Dan [Warthen] if I was going back out for the 10th if we didn't score," Smith said. "He said I was, so I had to keep it down. But once that ball went off his glove ... what a relief. It was great. We won.

"You know, we might win this and we might not, but we've got a lot of fight in us. It was so cool to see that. You know, we came in here today after a real tough loss [Wednesday night]. And when we woke up this morning, it was a gloomy day, and you're not sure if you even going to play. And it was a little quieter than usual in here before the game. And then we come and play like we did.

"I think we were pretty impressive tonight."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.