Fun Times at Shea for Feel-Good Mets

NEW YORK -- The Mets are playing so well, even stoic Art Howe is getting excited. <P> In what was probably the most exuberant display from Howe since he took the helm of the Mets, television replays caught the manager pumping his fist and screaming in New York's dugout after David Weathers' key strikeout Thursday, setting the stage for Mike Piazza's dramatic walk-off, game-winning homer in the bottom of the 11th.

"I've been through it, man," Howe said after the Mets' 2-1 victory. "Maybe you don't have the camera on me enough. When you're losing, you don't show a lot of emotion. But when you're winning, it's a lot more fun."

The Mets have done plenty of the latter this week, reeling off their fourth straight win Thursday and sending the San Francisco Giants out of town without a victory. The first two wins of the series were almost cheapies – almost – because the Giants fielded a lineup without their main threat and attraction, Barry Bonds.

But even with the active home run leader over his sinus infection and in the lineup Thursday, the Mets found a way to post a victory once more.

Karim Garcia's seventh-inning homer held the fort for the Mets until Piazza greeted reliever Jim Brower with a blast into the bleachers in the 11th, while Al Leiter saved the very best of the bullpen for the end, fighting his way through 126 pitches and eight innings – a season high – of one-run ball.

For Leiter, the key aspect of the effort was that the lefthander was not only able to keep Bonds in the ballpark, but by aggressively going after him, Leiter wound up shutting him out in three trips to the plate.

"Barry knows that I'm not stupid or some kind of macho, but I like the challenge," Leiter said. "So does he."

With the game on the line in the ninth and 11th innings, however, it was a different story. When Bonds' turn came up in San Francisco's batting order, Howe wasted no time in signaling Piazza with four fingers, the code for an intentional walk.

"Enough was enough," Howe said. "Bonds wasn't going to get that swing. I'm as big a fan of Barry as anyone else. But I've had him beat me too many times in the past. I gave him three chances tonight."

In the clubhouse, you can sense a different sort of feeling and camaraderie compared to the dismal atmospheres of the last couple of seasons. Piazza said Wednesday that he genuinely enjoys going to work with the players on the roster, and last night Leiter likened the ambiance around the club right now to "2000-esque," referring to the season the Mets went to the World Series.

Right now, the Mets have things clicking in all aspects of the game, a refreshing change of pace for a club that has been hindered by injuries through the first five weeks of the season.

Leiter and Tom Glavine, who starts tonight against the Brewers, have led the way atop the pitching rotation, while Piazza, Karim Garcia and Shane Spencer have all added hot bats. Even the bullpen, a major disappointment in April, has become increasingly solid, as evidenced by the three scoreless innings of relief to preserve last night's 1-1 tie.

It was enough for Leiter to break out the obvious clichés.

"This is an opportunity," he said. "Whatever. It's fun. It's solid pitching, good defense and all of the usual crap we always talk about."

Weathers, who became the winning pitcher after freezing Pedro Feliz looking at strike three, was more pointed.

"We want to win this year," Weathers said. "A lot of people have written us off, and we take that personally."

If the Mets can play strong against the Brewers this weekend, they might shoot right back onto people's radar screens in the NL East. New York is two games under .500 with last night's win and just three games back of the division-leading Marlins entering Friday's action.

"We're just trying to keep things on an even keel and keep doing the things we're doing," Piazza said. "We don't have the most explosive lineup in baseball but we've got this kind of blue-collar attitude.

"If we can keep this up, we'll win some ballgames."

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