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NYM@ATL: Santana fans six over eight scoreless frames

ATLANTA -- Ervin Santana experienced the thrill of pitching a no-hitter for the Angels three years ago. But he believes that historically significant gem was trumped by the utterly dominant one he produced while opening his Braves career.

The always cool and composed Santana had reason to feel giddy as he stood at his locker following Wednesday night's 4-3 win over the Mets at Turner Field. He had just delivered eight scoreless innings in his sparkling season debut and proven that his many years in the American League had not completely robbed him of his ability to deliver a key hit.

"That's what he signed with us for, to go out and dominate," Braves closer Craig Kimbrel said. "That's what he did tonight."

Santana produced a season debut that indicated he might be worth every penny of the $14.1 million contract the pitching-needy Braves gave him on March 12. He scattered three hits, retired the final seven batters he faced and became the first pitcher since 1988 to begin a game by throwing 20 consecutive strikes.

In addition, he ceremoniously marked his first start for a National League club by delivering a single during a three-run fifth inning that halted the offensive woes experienced by the Braves, who had scored two runs or fewer in five of this season's first seven games.

"He was outstanding," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "He really was. He gave us eight solid innings of baseball, got himself a hit, did a lot of great things for his first outing with us. Boy, he gave us a really great opportunity to win the game. You can't ask for anything more, really."

Well, the Braves could have ceded to Santana's wish to go the distance. But after totaling 88 pitches, the veteran pitcher was forced to stressfully watch as the Mets tallied three ninth-inning runs against Jordan Walden and Kimbrel.

Before the eighth inning began, Gonzalez and pitching coach Roger McDowell decided they did not want to run the risk of sending Santana's pitch count much above 100 during his first start. Thus, it was determined he would not begin the ninth inning." "We didn't want to risk that the first time," Gonzalez said. "We wouldn't do that with anybody, really. But I can't wait five days from now to run him back out there and see what he can do."

When Walden exited after David Wright's single put two on with one out, Kimbrel was introduced to the unfamiliarity of entering in the middle of an inning. The dominant closer promptly issued a walk to load the bases and then allowed Juan Lagares and Travis d'Arnaud to cut Atlanta's lead to one run with consecutive two-out singles.

Kimbrel then struck out Ruben Tejada to end the game and spare the Braves the potential embarrassment of having squandered Santana's nearly flawless effort.

"I was ready to go," Kimbrel said. "I was ready to get in there. I'm glad we won the game. Ervin threw a phenomenal game right there. Our guys swung the bats well. I'm more frustrated for giving up Walden's runs and making the game that close."

The Braves gained an early lead when Jason Heyward halted his 0-for-22 skid by ending an 11-pitch at-bat with his fourth career leadoff home run. Heyward's shot off Zack Wheeler provided what felt like a very comfortable one-run advantage considering how Santana was pitching.

"We chased some balls out of the zone early, which helped him a little bit," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "But when we tried to sit there and make him come in the zone, you looked up and we were 0-1, 0-2. I thought he threw the ball very well. He didn't give us too many good pitches to hit."

Santana threw first-pitch strikes to 20 of the 27 batters he faced and did not face a three-ball count until there were two outs in the fourth inning. Before the ninth inning, the only Mets player to advance past first base was Daniel Murphy, who doubled with two outs in the sixth inning.

"This is better than no-hitter," Santana said. "When you throw strikes all the time, this is better. That means you're in control of the game."

Andrelton Simmons added to his list of defensive gems when he threw d'Arnaud out at first base after falling on his rear with two outs in the second inning. But the most valuable defensive contribution came from Heyward, who ended the top of the sixth inning by sliding across the warning track to rob Wright of an extra-base hit that would have scored Murphy.

Heyward also notched a three-hit performance that doubled his season hit total to six. Along with hitting the early home run, he drove in the fifth inning's first run with a single. Two batters later, Freddie Freeman added to Wheeler's woes with an opposite-field, two-run single.

While Heyward and Freeman delivered, the fifth inning might have developed differently had Santana not followed Jordan Schafer's strikeout by sending a first-pitch fastball to right field. The single served as the veteran pitcher's fifth hit in 27 career at-bats.

Santana's key offensive contribution simply added to the splendor of a start he and countless Braves fans will not soon forget.

"It's very exciting," Santana said. "I just can't wait for the next one."

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