(Sports Network) - Having Johan Santana on top of his game would go a long way towards the New York Mets achieving their goal of overtaking the Atlanta Braves for first place in the National League East. Coming off his best performance of the season, the standout pitcher will attempt to move his team closer to the top spot when he takes the mound for this afternoon's finale of a key three-game series between the divisional foes from Citi Field.
Santana has had a somewhat ordinary first half of the season, but the two-time American League Cy Young Award recipient turned in a vintage display against Cincinnati this past Tuesday. Scattering five hits and three walks, the New York ace went the distance for the first time in 2010 in his club's 3-0 triumph over the NL Central-leading Reds.
The 31-year-old held Washington to one run and fanned seven over seven innings in his previous outing, a no-decision at Washington on July 1, and appears to be over a June swoon in which he went 1-3 with a lackluster 5.96 earned run average in a four-start span. The back-to-back strong showings lowered Santana's season ERA to 3.15, while Tuesday's win improved him to 5-3 in nine home starts for the year.
"I am throwing my fastball much better and for me, that's the key," said Santana after the Cincinnati game. "That's what I'm focusing on right now -- trying to be more consistent."
Defeating the Braves has been a challenge for Santana over the course of his three-year tenure with the Mets, however. Despite a 2.25 ERA in nine career matchups with Atlanta, the Venezuelan star is just 1-5 in those games and has often been a victim of poor run support. That was again the case in a May 18 clash at Turner Field, where Santana fired seven innings of two-run ball but was stuck with a no-decision in a 3-2 New York loss.
The Mets are in sore need of another big effort out of Santana this afternoon, as they've lost the first two tests of this set and fallen five games behind the first-place Braves in the standings. New York was shut down by Atlanta's Tim Hudson on Saturday, with the All-Star hurler delivering seven shutout innings to lead the way in a 4-0 verdict.
Hudson (9-4) limited the Mets to four hits and a pair of walks before giving way to reliever Jonny Venters to start the bottom of the eighth and helped his own cause at the plate as well. He collected a pair of hits on the afternoon, including an RBI double that capped Atlanta's four-run fifth inning.
"I felt good about my start today," Hudson said after the game. "I didn't feel really great out there, but it was one of those things where I just bobbed and weaved. Guys made some good plays and had some timely double-plays that kept [the Mets] from having opportunities to score. I wasn't nearly as good as the outcome, but I'll take it."
Omar Infante, who'll be joining Hudson on the NL squad for Tuesday's All-Star Game, finished 3-for-5 with an RBI to help the Braves to their fourth straight win.
Mets starter Mike Pelfrey (10-4) lasted only four-plus innings in yesterday's loss and was reached for four runs on 12 hits, while constantly working into trouble all throughout the day.
"It's definitely not the way I wanted to finish the first half, but I'll get it turned around," Pelfrey said.
Saturday's loss became even more costly for the Mets when shortstop Jose Reyes was forced to exit the contest after aggravating an oblique injury while in the field during the seventh inning. The dynamic switch-hitter will be held out of the lineup today and will miss the upcoming All-Star Game as well.
Braves manager Bobby Cox will hand the ball to Derek Lowe for today's finale, with the durable veteran setting his sights on his 10th win of 2010. The right-hander has failed to reach the double-digit mark on three previous occasions, although he's pitched quite well in two of those starts.
Lowe is coming off a tough loss at Philadelphia on Tuesday, when he permitted just two runs and struck out six through seven innings but came out on the wrong end of a 3-1 decision. Two starts earlier, the sinker specialist twirled seven shutout innings against the Chicago White Sox before exiting with the game still scoreless.
The 37-year-old was also saddled with a loss by the Mets back on May 17, with Lowe giving up three runs and four hits in an otherwise solid seven-inning stint. He's had his problems with New York in the past, having posted a 7.01 ERA along with a 3-4 record over 14 career appearances (eight starts) against today's opponent.
Lowe is 9-7 with a 4.40 ERA in 18 overall starts this season, but comes in having lost three of his last four decisions and has notched just one win since June 7.
New York had won four of the first five meetings between these divisional rivals in 2010 prior to Friday's 4-2 loss to the Braves and swept a three-game series from Atlanta at home from April 23-25. The Braves did post a 7-2 record during the debut season of Citi Field in 2009, however.