NEW YORK -- Even the wins are grueling and stressful for the New York Mets.
The Mets barely survived a ninth-inning bullpen meltdown Sunday night, but they salvaged the finale of a three-game series by beating the Atlanta Braves 6-5 in front of 24,891 at Citi Field.
The Braves scored four runs off just one hit in the ninth thanks to four walks and a hit batsman.
Josh Edgin walked two and hit a batter before he was relieved by Frank Francisco, who issued the bases-loaded walks to Juan Francisco (who got ahead in the count 3-0 before he fouled off five consecutive pitches) and Michael Bourn. Francisco then surrendered a two-run double to Martin Prado.
"Just didn't get the job done," Francisco said.
Jon Rauch came on and earned his second save by striking out Jason Heyward. The Braves still nearly tied it, as the ball skipped away from catcher Rob Johnson, who barely threw out Heyward at first as Bourn crossed home plate with what would have been the tying run.
The Mets won for just the second time in their last 13 home games and for the ninth time in 29 games since the All-Star break.
"When you need wins, (a win like Sunday) ages you a lot," Mets manager Terry Collins said.
David Wright had two doubles and scored on two Ike Davis RBI singles, and Jonathon Niese threw eight impressive innings for the Mets. Niese (9-6) allowed one run on six hits while walking two and striking out six. He has allowed exactly one run five times in his last nine starts and has completed at least six innings in 13 consecutive outings.
"Very pleased with Jonathon, he threw the ball great," Collins said.
Niese allowed a pair of baserunners in each of the first two innings but retired 12 in a row between the third and seventh and 15 of 16 following Paul Janish's two-out single in the second. In the eighth, he allowed a leadoff single to pinch hitter Reed Johnson but induced Bourn to hit into a 1-6-3 double play. He then allowed a double to Prado but struck out Heyward to end the inning.
"Rob and I were talking about focusing on every pitch. Take my time, and I think we did that," Niese said. "I think Rob called a great game. When I needed to execute a pitch, I was able to focus on (making) that pitch."
The Braves had their three-game winning streak snapped, and they are tied with the Pittsburgh Pirates for the top spot in the wild-card standings.
"Needed (the final strike) to skip away a little farther," said Braves third baseman Chipper Jones, who led off the ninth with a walk and was on deck when Heyward struck out. "Just dug ourselves too big a hole tonight. We gave 'em a scare. That's what you want to see out of your ballclub when you're down like that."
Jordany Valdespin had two hits, two runs and a stolen base for the Mets. He led off the sixth inning with his eighth homer, five of which he has delivered as a pinch hitter.
Ben Sheets took the loss for Atlanta after allowing five runs (four earned) on eight hits in six innings. Sheets (4-2) walked one and struck out five.
"I think the only pitch that I saw that was out over the plate was that changeup to Valdespin, put it right in the wheelhouse," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "But other than that, a couple base hits that go through the infield. He gave us a good opportunity to win the game."
Prado had two hits and two RBI, and Freeman hit a solo homer in the second for the Braves.
The Mets got off to a rare fast start by scoring two runs in the first inning and another in the second. Wright delivered a perfect bit of situational hitting in the first by doubling down the right field line to bring home Mike Baxter, who was running from first on the full-count pitch. Wright went to third when the throw from right fielder Heyward skipped away, and he came home on Davis' single.
Freeman hit his second impressive home run in as many days -- this one a shot well beyond the 390-foot sign in right-center field -- to pull the Braves within 2-1 in the top of the second, but the Mets extended the lead in the bottom of the frame. Rob Johnson singled, went to second on Niese's sacrifice and scored on Ruben Tejada's two-out single.
Wright and Davis struck again in the fifth, when Wright doubled with two outs and scored on Davis' single to give the Mets a 4-1 lead.
The Mets entered Sunday 39-18 when scoring first and 25-2 when leading after one inning, but they hadn't scored first in any of their four losses on this homestand, a stretch in which they were outscored 30-5.
The three early runs off Sheets were half as many as he allowed in his first five starts combined. Sheets, who missed nearly two full seasons after undergoing Tommy John surgery in August 2010, signed with the Braves on July 1, and he entered Sunday with a 1.41 ERA.
NOTES: Bourn stole his 30th base of the year when he swiped third in the first inning. He has at least 30 steals in each of the past five years. ... Atlanta right-hander Tommy Hanson threw five shutout innings and earned the win Sunday in a rehab start for Triple-A Gwinnett. Hanson has been on the disabled list since July 31 with a lower back strain. ... The Braves entered Sunday with the second-best record in baseball since the All-Star break (20-8, .714), but they hadn't gained any ground in the NL East on the Nationals, who were just percentage points "worse" than the Braves at 22-9 (.710) in that span. ... Mets manager Terry Collins said Johan Santana is healthy and us expected to start Friday at Washington. Santana lasted just 1 1/3 innings and allowed eight runs in his return to the rotation Saturday after a three-week stint on the disabled list caused by a right ankle sprain. Santana is 3-6 with a 7.98 ERA in nine starts since throwing the first no-hitter in Mets history on June 1. ... Mets outfielder Jason Bay entered Sunday 12-of-30 lifetime against Sheets, by far the most success any Mets player has had against the right-hander, but Bay sat in favor of Valdespin. Bay was hitting just .108 (7-for-65) since returning from the disabled list and has been relegated to a platoon role, facing mostly left-handers. Bay struck out twice -- on three pitches apiece -- in his two at-bats Saturday.