Rookie Maine helps Mets clinch home field through NLCS

WASHINGTON (AP) -- John Maine tends to lose focus when he's on the mound. He knows it, and Mets manager Willie Randolph does, too.

Maine's working on fixing that, though, and when he pitches well, he tends to give New York a chance to win.

If the rookie was auditioning for a spot in the Mets' postseason rotation, he fared fairly well Friday night, throwing six solid innings in New York's 4-3 victory over the Washington Nationals.

"I can spot it. That's kind of been my problem before -- I didn't know it until it was too late," Maine said after allowing only two earned runs and three hits. "To be able to spot it, I'm taking steps to correct it. I don't think it's mechanical, I think it's more of a mental thing -- not being aggressive."

He had a bit of a lapse in the fourth inning, when two walks and a wild pitch contributed to two runs for Washington, although one was unearned because of catcher Paul Lo Duca's throwing error.

"He pitched well enough to win the game. He made some pitches when he had to," Randolph said. "He has a tendency sometimes to lose his rhythm, where he tries to guide the ball or aim the ball too much. But he regrouped."

So would Randolph be comfortable having Maine start a playoff game?

"Of course," the manager replied.

Maine, who didn't factor in the decision, also delivered a double to right-center for his first major-league hit and came around to score the run that tied the game at 2 in the fifth.

"At least I have a pulse. I've got a batting average now," Maine said. "It can go down to .001, but at least I have a batting average."

In the bottom of that inning, though, he yielded Ryan Church's
homer to straightaway center.

Carlos Beltran and Lo Duca each had two hits and an RBI, and Shawn Green drove in the go-ahead run with a sacrifice fly in the eighth off Jon Rauch (4-5).

Pedro Feliciano (7-2) pitched the seventh for the win, Guillermo Mota threw a perfect eighth and Billy Wagner got three outs for his 40th save -- and 18th in a row.

For Washington, it must have been a relief to play a nine-inning game that finished a little after 10 p.m. After all, the Nationals' previous game went past 2 a.m. Friday after a 4½-hour rain delay, and they played 14 innings the night before that.

"Everybody's a little tired. The turnaround was a little short, and I think that had a little effect on us," Nationals manager Frank Robinson said.

He chatted some with fans near the home dugout, some of whom held up signs supporting him. Robinson's contract is up after this season, and he's not expected to return as manager.

"I saw the signs. It means a lot to him," said Church, whose homer was his career-high 10th. "Hopefully, these last two games, we can get a 'W' for him."

The season-ending series means nothing in the standings for either club: The NL East champion Mets have secured home-field advantage through the National League Championship Series, while the Nationals are assured of finishing last in the division for the third consecutive year.

But what Friday's game did signify for the Mets was the start of life without Pedro Martinez. The ace was ruled out for the rest of 2006 on Thursday with a torn tendon in his left calf muscle.

"He's an emotional leader and a leader off the field. ... We will come together as a team and pick up the slack," New York's David Wright said. "But it hurt to see him go out there, give his max effort and not do what he wanted to do."

Randolph said before the game that he has yet to decide who his playoff starters will be after Orlando Hernandez in Game 1 of the first round, followed by Tom Glavine in Game 2. Randolph said he would consider starting the playoffs with a three-man rotation, depending on the opponent and pitching matchups.

"We'll wait until we have to make a decision," Randolph said.

Maine made his case, leaving for a pinch-hitter after throwing 92 pitches.

"He was coming right after you," Church said. "I think I saw pretty much all fastballs. He'd start you away and pound you in."

Game notes
Nationals right-hander Tony Armas Jr. left after throwing 112 pitches over five innings. "You can't do that and be successful," Robinson said. Asked if that was his last start in a Nationals uniform, Armas said: "Whatever happens, happens. I don't care." ... Wagner reached 40 saves for the second time in his career. He had 44 for Houston in 2003.

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