Piazza lifts the Mets

Mets Notes & Quotes for July 15: Mike Piazza cracks a clutch homer to lift the Mets; Kris Benson follows with another strong outing; the Mets sign righthander Lino Urdaneta and add him to the 40-man roster...

The Mets returned from the All-Star Break in strong fashion on Thursday, playing an all-around solid game to defeat the Atlanta Braves, 6-3, in the first game of four with the NL East rivals.

Mike Piazza came back from the All-Star Game in Detroit and cracked an opposite field, three-run home run off Blaine Boyer in the eighth inning, breaking a tie and providing New York with the margin of victory.

The home run gave Piazza an even 1,200 RBI for his career and moved him just one back of Johnny Bench on the all-time home run list with 388 long balls. He is hitting .260 with 10 homers and 39 RBI this year.

"It's weird," Piazza told reporters. "I feel like I've been swinging the bat pretty well. I'm not hitting .350 or anything, but I guess I was lucky the first part of my career. I guess it's catching up to me a little bit."

But Piazza was far from the only bright spot of the night for the Mets, who moved a game above .500 again at 45-44. Carlos Beltran tied his career high with four hits and David Wright homered twice, supporting Kris Benson in one of the righthander's most powerful efforts of late.

Benson struck out seven over seven innings, following up on a six-strikeout effort July 7 at Washington; in Benson's previous six starts, he'd managed no better than three strikeouts, including two efforts where he fanned no one.

Roberto Hernandez (W, 5-2) picked up the win in relief with a scoreless eighth inning, and Braden Looper pitched a perfect ninth for his 21st save.

The Mets tied the game in the seventh inning on another clutch hit by Jose Offerman, a two-out single to left off Horacio Ramirez that scored Wright. Offerman, 36, has stroked seven hits in 18 at-bats (.389) since joining the Mets from Triple-A Norfolk.

Comeback trail: Doug Mientkiewicz, rehabbing a torn right hamstring with the Gulf Coast Mets, hit a two-run homer and played seven innings on Thursday. GM Omar Minaya told reporters Mientkiewicz could return from the DL this weekend.

Meanwhile, Minaya said that Kaz Matsui – likewise excised to Port St. Lucie – isn't close to returning from a bone bruise in his left knee. Minaya told reporters that the Mets are treating Matsui's injury like a fracture, and that "it's going to be a while."

Incoming: The Mets have acquired the rights of righthander Lino Urdaneta from Cancun of the Mexican League, signing him to a major league contract. In order to make room on the 40-man roster, reliever Bartolome Fortunato has been moved to the 60-day DL.

Urdaneta, 25, appeared in one game last year for the Detroit Tigers against the Kansas City Royals, allowing five hits and six runs while failing to record an out. He was 0-0 with two saves and an 0.00 ERA in six games for Cancun, and will join Triple-A Norfolk as soon as he obtains a visa.

Urdaneta, once a Rule V choice of the Tigers from the Cleveland Indians, missed much of the 2004 season due to right elbow soreness.

You're out: The Mets plan on skipping Kazuhisa Ishii, he of the 2-8 record, at their next opportunity, manager Willie Randolph said. The Mets have an off-day Monday.

Also out, notably, is Florida Marlins lefthander Al Leiter, who was designated for assignment by his club on Thursday. Leiter, 39, was 3-7 with a 6.64 ERA in 17 games for Florida.

Despite the poor numbers, the Yankees – suddenly without Chien-Ming Wang – are said to be interested.

Minor League Report

TRIPLE-A NORFOLK: The Tides were postponed at Syracuse Thursday due to a power outage. The game will be made up Friday as part of a doubleheader beginning at 5 p.m.

DOUBLE-A BINGHAMTON: Lastings Milledge went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and misjudged a fly ball in his Double-A debut Thursday as the B-Mets fell to visiting Reading, 4-1. Jay Caligiuri homered (12) and Corey Ragsdale committed a pair of errors for Binghamton, which has lost five straight and nine of 12.

SINGLE-A ST. LUCIE: St. Lucie rallied for four runs in the top of the 10th, including Andy Wilson's two-run homer (19), as the Mets defeated Lakeland Thursday, 11-7. Shawn Bowman had three hits, including a double, to raise his average to .217, while Jonathan Slack (.286) and Dante Brinkley (.299) contributed two-hit games. Miguel Pinango had a brutal start, allowing five runs and eight hits in 2-2/3 innings.

SINGLE-A HAGERSTOWN: Russ Triplett scored on a wild pitch in the eighth inning as Hagerstown edged visiting Lake County Thursday, 2-1. The Suns got a strong effort from Blake Eager (4.02 ERA), who allowed a run on three hits over six innings, striking out five. Charles Bowman (W, 2-2) picked up the win in relief by recording three outs before allowing Marcelo Perez to notch his eighth save.

SINGLE-A BROOKLYN: It fell apart in the eighth inning for the Cyclones, as Williamsport put up seven runs – including a Ryan Searage grand slam – against Joe D'Alessandro after Kyle Risinger (L, 1-1) loaded the bases with one out. Brooklyn committed four errors in the contest, wasting another good start by Orlando Rengel (1.96 ERA), who went five innings and allowed a run on one hit while walking three and striking out two.

ROOKIE-LEAGUE KINGSPORT: The K-Mets were held to one hit in seven innings Thursday at Danville, falling 1-0 in an early completion game. Jonathan Castillo (L, 1-1) allowed a run on two hits over six innings for Kingsport.

ROOKIE-LEAGUE GULF COAST: Doug Mientkiewicz homered, but was long gone by the end – a 15-inning affair with the GCL Nationals that finally ended on a Cristian Ogando run-scoring single off Patrick Hakey (L, 1-2), lifting the Nats to a 5-4 win over the GCL Mets.

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