ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Even amid the air-conditioned confines of Tropicana Field, it was surprising how little the Mets were made to sweat this week.
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Kirk Nieuwenhuis led off the game with the first of two home runs he hit.
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They came here for a three-game series against the Tampa Bay Rays, who had the lowest earned run average in the American League, and battered them for 29 total runs. They received mostly sturdy pitching, even from their beleaguered bullpen.
Not until the ninth inning of their game Thursday afternoon, when the Rays loaded the bases and threatened to tie the score, did the Mets ever seem to quiver. But then they passed that test, too, sealing a 9-6 win and completing a satisfying sweep.
The series was a vital one for the Mets’ spirits. It represented the final leg of a tough road trip that included stops at Nationals Park in Washington and Yankee Stadium. They lost five of those six games, but three straight wins improved their record to 35-29.
“You’ve got to be able to forget about yesterday and forget about what the last series was and go play,” Manager Terry Collins said. “We pitched very, very well here, besides hitting the ball well here, and I’m just glad we’re going to get out of here after we turned a tough road trip into a decent road trip.”
The only point of concern involved Johan Santana, who seems to still be trapped in the hangover of his no-hitter on June 1. He pitched poorly in a messy 9-1 loss to the Yankees over the weekend and was erratic again Thursday, struggling to command his fastball and changeup in a couple of rough innings early on. He gave up a two-run double to Matt Joyce in the second and a one-run double to Ben Zobrist in the third.
“I threw some changeups that were not there,” Santana said. “You just got to get into that consistency, where you command your fastball and then you throw your changeup. That’s the key for me to be successful.”
He finished the afternoon with five innings pitched, four runs, six hits, four walks and six strikeouts. Despite his struggles, his record improved to 4-3.
“I don’t know if he’s too strong right now,” said Collins, who blamed himself last week for altering Santana’s rest schedule. “I’m not real worried about him. I think he’ll get it going.”
To Santana’s aid came the Mets’ offense, which hummed for the third straight game, this time against Jeremy Hellickson. Kirk Nieuwenhuis set the tone, blasting a home run to right field in the first inning and sending a two-run shot just over the left-field fence in the fourth.
“I didn’t think that last one was going out,” Nieuwenhuis said, “but I’m glad I got the job done.”
Jason Bay, who entered the game in a 1-for-21 skid since being activated from the disabled list on June 6, blasted a home run of his own to left in the second inning, putting the Mets ahead at the time, 2-0.
“Everyone’s looking for him to hit the ball out of the ballpark,” Collins said. “That’s why they signed him here. That’s why he’s here. He can’t just be a decent hitter. He’s got to be a home-run hitter, because that’s what everyone wants him to be.”
Lucas Duda added a sacrifice fly and a two-run double, and Ike Davis had run-scoring hits in the third and ninth. During the three games here, Davis had six hits and drove in six runs, raising his average to .188.
Jon Rauch, who was recently demoted from the setup role after a minor injury and a run of shaky outings, entered the game in the sixth after Santana loaded the bases with no outs. Rauch struck out Sean Rodriguez and Jose Molina before inducing a groundout from Elliott Johnson, helping the Mets escape the inning unscathed.
“It’s nice to see they still have the confidence in me to go out there and do the job in tough situations,” Rauch said.
Victory was in doubt for the first time in the series in the ninth, when Miguel Batista allowed a run-scoring single. With runners on first and third, Frank Francisco entered to mop up the mess. But he allowed another run on Carlos Pena’s grounder.
Francisco struck out B. J. Upton, but he walked Hideki Matsui to load the bases. Zobrist finished a seven pitch at-bat, and the game, with a check swing for Strike 3.
Three infielders were in varying stages of progress with their individual leg injuries. Justin Turner (ankle) started his rehabilitation assignment Thursday with the Mets’ Class AAA team in Buffalo. Ronny Cedeno (calf) was expected to join him there Friday. Ruben Tejada (quadriceps) began light jogging Thursday in Port St. Lucie, Fla.