Willis gets major league-leading 22nd win

NEW YORK (AP) -- Before Thursday night's game, Florida manager Jack McKeon looked around the locker room at his available hitters and decided the best option for the Marlins lineup was to have pitcher Dontrelle Willis bat seventh.

It was more important to have Willis on the mound.

The left-hander with the corkscrew windup and delivery won his major league-leading 22nd game and kept Florida's NL wild-card hopes alive, allowing five hits over eight innings in a 2-1 victory over the New York Mets.

It was a win the Marlins had to have after they lost the first two games of this series. Florida remained four games behind Houston and two behind Philadelphia in the wild-card race after the Astros beat Pittsburgh 2-1 and the Phillies shut out Atlanta 4-0 in day games. All three teams have nine games to play.

Willis (22-9) will pitch two of those nine. There's no telling where McKeon will have him hit, though, with three regulars injured and September call-ups Joe Dillon and Robert Andino, who hit eighth and ninth Thursday, filling in at second base and shortstop.

"I hit him seventh because he's a pretty good hitter," McKeon said. "He's got more RBI than the two guys behind him. He's got more at-bats and more hits than either one of them have in their whole career. It was not a tough choice."

Willis had one hit in four at-bats, making him 22-for-88 and keeping his season average at .250.

According to Elias Sports Bureau, the last pitcher to bat seventh or higher was Montreal's Steve Renko, who did it on Aug. 26, 1973, and went 2-for-3 against San Diego.

When Willis heard McKeon's plan, he said he was shocked.

"I couldn't believe it," he said. "Seventh? I want the lineup card. I don't think anybody will believe that. I was nervous about it. I had fun. The guys were making fun of it, saying he would have me bat leadoff."

Don't laugh.

"He upped the ante," McKeon said. "He might go higher. I've got no problem with that."

Of more concern to McKeon was the job Willis did on the Mets. He struck out seven and walked two. The biggest strikeout came in the seventh when he got pinch-hitter Mike Piazza to leave two runners stranded.

"Dontrelle came through again," McKeon said. "I don't get tired of saying it. He keeps them in line and we always score a lot for him. Last time, we got him two and he couldn't hold it."

That was his only loss in nine decisions since Aug. 1, and without him the Marlins almost certainly would be done.

"We're still in the race," Willis said. "We've just got to win out, starting today."

Todd Jones pitched the ninth for his 38th save.

Mets starter Pedro Martinez (15-8) got in a jam in the third inning when he hit Dillon with a pitch leading off. After a
sacrifice, Juan Pierre beat out an infield hit and then stole second, his 53rd steal of the season. Jeff Conine grounded out, scoring Dillon. Carlos Delgado was intentionally walked and Martinez came back from a 3-0 count to strike out Juan Encarnacion.

Ramon Castro tied it for the Mets in the bottom of the inning when he led off with his eighth homer on a 2-1 pitch.

Andino opened the fifth with a double to right-center. Pierre sacrificed him to third. With the infield drawn in, Conine bounced out. Delgado was again walked intentionally. This time, though, Encarnacion crossed up the strategy with a double into the left field corner, giving Florida a 2-1 lead.

Willis got in trouble in the fourth when Carlos Beltran singled with one out and Dillon booted a grounder to second, giving the Mets runners at first and third. But David Wright banged into an inning-ending double play

Martinez was on a pitch count and left the game after just five innings, trailing 2-1. He threw 75 pitches, 46 for strikes.

"We went in with the notion of not having him pitch more than five or seven and 80-something pitches or whatever," manager Willie Randolph said. "He went 120 last time out. He's been really banged up."

Martinez, as usual, endorsed Randolph's decision.

"I'm OK for this time of year," he said. "This is the time of year where you need actually a little rest. I've pitched a lot. Willie's my man. He knows how I am when I'm totally fine and when I am not."

Game notes
The same two banks of lights that went out Wednesday night causing a 12-minute delay were dark at the start of the game Thursday. ... Jose Reyes, who stole two bases Wednesday night against Florida catcher Paul Lo Duca, was thrown out by Lo Duca in the third. ... Beltran had two hits. ... Delgado was walked intentionally three times.