ATLANTA -- Jeff Francoeur had all but lost his starting gig for the New York Mets, with Angel Pagan having shifted to right field when Carlos Beltran returned from arthroscopic knee surgery. Then Jason Bay crashed into the wall at Dodger Stadium, developed concussion-related headaches and landed on the disabled list.
Even with the second chance, Francoeur hardly took advantage. He had produced a .103 average since the All-Star break and had one hit in his last 23 at-bats entering the ninth inning Tuesday night.
Then, in his old stomping grounds, against the team that was prepared to cut him loose at the end of the 2009 season had the Mets not swapped him for Ryan Church last July, Francoeur provided a critical blow with the Mets' season on the brink.
Francoeur fouled the first pitch from Atlanta Braves closer Billy Wagner into the stands down the first-base line. He then deposited the second pitch into the right-field stands for an opposite-field solo homer that lifted the Mets to a 3-2 victory over Atlanta.
With the victory, the Mets remained remotely relevant in the division race, returning to within 6½ games of first-place Atlanta. The Mets (54-53) also avoided dropping below .500 for the first time since they were 22-23 on May 24.
The last time the Mets won a game in Atlanta on a homer in the ninth inning or later: April 3, 2001, when Robin Ventura had a two-run shot in the 10th inning against Kerry Ligtenberg on Opening Day.
The last time a Met homered against Wagner: Sept. 16, 1998, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Mike Piazza gave the Mets a lead in that game, which they ultimately won in extra innings.
"Usually I can hide my emotions pretty good when I'm out there, but that one I had to let out a little smile, and the guys in the dugout pounded me pretty good," Francoeur said. "That was exciting, especially in this kind of series, not just because it's my former team, but they're ahead of us and we lost last night. We haven't exactly been great in these kind of games -- tied late."
Said manager Jerry Manuel: "That was big for him to come here and get a hit like that in that situation, with a team you've grown up with."
After the Nos. 6-8 batters underperformed in the series opener Monday, Manuel had predicted he might switch his starters in those slots, potentially sending Francoeur, Henry Blanco and Luis Castillo to the bench. That proved an idle threat. There was no change, except for Josh Thole assuming his normal responsibility of catching knuckleballer R.A. Dickey.
Still, Manuel suggested he strongly considered sitting Francoeur on Tuesday, particularly because he did not like the matchup against Braves sinkerballer Derek Lowe.
"But, you know, he's our guy," Manuel said. "We've just got to be patient with him. He's a big part of the chemistry and the energy of the team. And he brings a lot of things. Tonight he brought his bat, which was good."
Francoeur did not have an ideal start to the game. He was hitless in his first two at-bats. More glaringly, he allowed Melky Cabrera's shot to the right-center gap to get by him for a triple that permitted Rick Ankiel to score from first base and for Atlanta to take a 2-1 lead in the sixth inning.
The next half-inning, however, the usually undisciplined Francoeur led off with a four-pitch walk against Kyle Farnsworth. Francoeur ultimately scored the tying run on a pinch-hit single by Chris Carter.
Francoeur had worked for a half-hour before the game in a cage with hitting coach Howard Johnson and Beltran. He worked to wiggle his hands as the pitcher was preparing to deliver the ball to keep them relaxed. His advisers had concluded that Francoeur was becoming set too early, that he would tense up and have his hands almost "stuck," to use the right fielder's term. Francoeur recently had talked about having so much anxiety at the plate he floated the idea of taking medication to address it.
"The only reason I hit that last ball the way I did was because my hands were relaxed," Francoeur said. "You'll have to look back. I probably never in a game have had two 3-2 counts and a walk in the same game."
Still, while it was a feel-good night for Francoeur, the business reality is this: He's making $5 million this season and is arbitration-eligible, making it all but certain that the Mets will have to cut him loose at the December non-tender deadline, making him a free agent.
"It's been a tough 2½ weeks," Francoeur said. "To be able to do something like that felt really good, to help the team out. I kind of feel like I haven't exactly been helping the team out besides that one home run versus the Cardinals [off Adam Wainwright on July 27]. The second half I've pretty much done nothing. Hopefully I can kind of get going, because I know with Jason [Bay] out this team needs me to step up and be that right-handed bat."