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07/26/09 7:33 PM ET

Livan settles down, Mets rally in finale

Starter rebounds from early issues as bats pick it up

HOUSTON -- David Wright likened it to "a crawl," and perhaps that's most apt. The road back to contention -- to relevance -- is long, with stops in Philadelphia and San Diego and quite a few others in between.

But the road still exists, and that's what's important. The Mets, contrary to popular belief, can still make the playoffs.

Their 8-3 victory over the Astros on Sunday was the latest step forward -- a cautious step but a step nonetheless. The Mets pitched and hit and fielded like a team in the thick of it, even if they boarded their plane back East still clinging to some rather thin hopes.

"This isn't something where overnight you're going to look at the scoreboard and we're going to be where we want to be," Wright said. "It's going to take some time."

In the end, the division-leading Phillies and the Wild Card-leading Rockies both won on Sunday, meaning the Mets gained nothing but a tick in the win column and a scant bit of confidence. They'll take it. They will need more of both if they are to contend again.

They will also need more of Livan Hernandez, who struck out a season-high seven Astros in one of his finest outings of the year. Charged with keeping the momentum of Saturday evening's victory alive, Hernandez served up three runs on three consecutive doubles in the first. Tim Redding, the emergency long reliever, began warming in the bullpen, and manager Jerry Manuel decided to let Hernandez face perhaps two more hitters.

He only needed to face one. After Hunter Pence singled to center field, Angel Pagan fired a strike to home plate to gun down Geoff Blum. Moments later, Brian Schneider threw out Pence attempting to steal second base.

Hernandez didn't allow another run all game.

"I thought he made a tremendous adjustment, from what I saw," Manuel said.

"Everybody was looking for breaking balls," Hernandez said. And so he threw them fastballs.

Just like Jon Niese the night before, Hernandez also benefited from the suddenly explosive cast of backups and Plan Bs that dug in against Astros starter Brian Moehler. Triples by Luis Castillo in the third, Pagan in the fourth and Jeremy Reed in the eighth all plated runs.

Wright hit a booming double to dead center in the ninth, which -- believe it -- would have been gone at Citi Field. And the Mets scored their most creative run after Pagan's triple in the fourth, when Castillo -- on his own volition -- bunted home Pagan with two outs. And so an offense that scored just 16 runs over the first six games of a 10-game road trip collected 22 of them on 38 hits in three games in Houston -- against one of baseball's hotter teams, no less.

"Big momentum for us coming home," said new acquisition Jeff Francoeur, who drove in another two runs after reluctantly taking a peek at pitching coach Dan Warthen's scouting report for him. "We've got a shot."

And they do have a shot, even if the candle at this point is flickering. They have two months to make up the same-sized deficit that, in 2007, the Phillies made up in two weeks. They have hope that the coming days will see the return of -- at the very least -- injured shortstop Jose Reyes and outfielder Gary Sheffield. And until then, they have a band of replacements that is suddenly thriving.

"When you get a number of guys swinging the bats the way we're swinging right now," Manuel said, "then you feel very confident that you can get something done."

Time will tell if it's enough. Though prior to Sunday, the Mets hadn't won two consecutive games in the past two weeks, they have done so countless other times this season. This isn't any sort of winning streak yet; it still has the potential to be just another false start in a season full of them.

But for now, the Mets are content to crawl. They have to be. If they ever want to walk and they ever want to run and they ever want to win, they'll need a spark. Any spark.

If they ultimately miss the playoffs, they can't let it be from lack of trying.

"We've got 65 games left," Francoeur said, "and I guarantee you every person on this team will fight their butts off to the end."

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