WASHINGTON -- Jerry Manuel was kidding, of course, when he declared that Johan Santana needed to go nine innings Thursday, even if it took 170 pitches. Still, Manuel was well aware he couldn't expect much from a bullpen that offered up seven relievers a day before.
Well, Santana only tossed the ball 107 times, 75 for strikes, but Manuel was more than willing to take that total.
Santana took a shutout into the seventh inning, Brian Schneider went deep twice for his first multihomer game in 5 1/2 years, and the Mets beat the Washington Nationals 7-2 to extend their lead for the NL wild card.
"I know coming into this stretch right now, it's going to be important for us. Every game counts," said Santana, who also doubled and scored a run. "You can't afford to make too many mistakes."
He certainly did not in improving to 14-7 overall, 7-0 with a 2.26 ERA over his last 14 starts.
"He's been excellent. Outstanding. And that's kind of what we expect from him," Manuel said.
The two-time Cy Young Award winner allowed one run and eight hits, striking out eight in seven innings. That last number is perhaps the most significant, because New York's no-lead-is-safe relief corps only had to record six outs.
The Mets are 1 1/2 games ahead of the Brewers in the wild-card standings, thanks to Milwaukee's 7-6 loss to the Chicago Cubs in 12 innings. New York remained a half-game behind first-place Philadelphia in the NL East.
Several Mets were watching TVs in the visitors' clubhouse at Nationals Park as the Brewers wasted a 6-2 lead with two outs in the ninth. When Chicago's Geovany Soto tied the game in the ninth with a homer, Mets shortstop Jose Reyes hopped up and went around the clubhouse to high-five teammates.
"It's important that they're watching, and they're scoreboard watching, and they're trying to do everything they can to get into the postseason," Manuel said. "I can't watch. They give me enough nerves when I watch them -- I can't watch anybody else play."
His team gave him an easy victory for a change, thanks to Santana and an offense that chased a Nationals starter after three innings for the second consecutive game.
This time it was Tim Redding (10-10) leaving early after allowing five runs, four earned.
"Too far out of reach too early," Redding said.
The big blows were Schneider's solo shots in the second off Redding and in the fourth on Jason Bergmann's first pitch. Ryan Church -- like Schneider, shipped to New York in the trade that sent Lastings Milledge to Washington -- had two run-scoring singles.
Santana was not exactly unhittable, but he was still pretty good, particularly when he really needed to be.
"You pretty much know what you're going to get -- the guy'll beat an All-Star team," said Milledge, 0-for-3 with a strikeout while Santana was in the game. "The guy's the best pitcher in the league."
The Nationals loaded the bases in the fourth, but Santana struck out Willie Harris to get out of the jam. In the sixth, Washington's first two batters singled, but Santana got two groundouts and a strikeout.
"Sometimes it doesn't matter if you make the right call or not, you know he's going to make a good pitch," catcher Schneider said. "He doesn't just rely on one pitch."
Anderson Hernandez finally drove in a run off Santana, doubling down the right-field line with one out in the seventh after a single and a walk.
Then it was the bullpen's turn.
Joe Smith allowed one run in the eighth. Scott Schoeneweis left with two on and one out in the ninth. But Pedro Feliciano got Ryan Langerhans to bounce into a 1-6-3 double play to end it. Not perfect, but at least an improvement from Wednesday, when the Mets went through five relievers to get the last six outs.
"Obviously, Santana is our No. 1 guy," Smith said, "and when he's out there, we're coming in thinking we're going to win."
Nationals RF Elijah Dukes is "nursing" the right knee he had surgery on this summer, manager Manny Acta said. ... Schneider's other two-homer game came for the Montreal Expos on April 19, 2003. He has nine HRs this season. ... The Mets went ahead 1-0 in the first on an unearned run thanks to Milledge's error on Daniel Murphy's liner to center. The ball bounced past Milledge for a single and a two-base error. "Couldn't stop it. Was going to dive, but didn't," Milledge said. Said Acta: "We thought he should have had it."