NEW YORK -- Long after Ben Sheets endured another rough first inning, the Braves made things quite interesting in the ninth with the assistance of just one hit. But their attempt to conclude a productive road trip in memorable fashion fell just short.
Within their attempt to erase a five-run, ninth-inning deficit at Citi Field on Sunday night, the Braves found some satisfaction. But instead of celebrating a three-game sweep of the Mets, they were forced to think about how close they had actually come in this 6-5 loss.
"We just dug ourselves too big of a hole tonight," Braves third baseman Chipper Jones said. "We gave them a scare. That's what you want to see out of your ballclub when you're down. If guys want to give it to you, take it. I think we only got one hit that inning, but we put a little scare in them."
After Mets starter Jon Niese limited them to Freddie Freeman's second-inning home run during his eight-inning effort, the Braves began their ninth-inning rally against Josh Edgin, who issued two walks and hit Freeman with a pitch. Juan Francisco then produced a run when he worked a bases-loaded walk on a 10-pitch at-bat against Mets closer Frank Francisco.
Francisco issued another bases-loaded walk to Michael Bourn before seeing Martin Prado cut Atlanta's deficit to one run with a slicing two-run double that did not travel far enough down the right-field line to score Bourn from first base. Braves third-base coach Brian Snitker waited until the last possible moment before putting up the stop sign on Bourn.
"I'm thinking maybe if it hugs that wall there, maybe [right fielder Mike Baxter] takes more time digging after it in the side wall, we might have had an opportunity for Snit to send him," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "But other than that, he really had no chance to send him there. It would have been really hard to send him there, and you've got the middle of the order up."
Staring at a potentially disastrous finish that would have further wrecked their season, the Mets called upon Jon Rauch, who ended the ninth-inning madness with a strikeout of Jason Heyward. But to add to the intrigue, Mets catcher Rob Johnson dropped the third strike and nearly hit Heyward's leg with his throw to first base.
"I love this team because we battle all the way until the end," Prado said. "We came up short. But we tried and we played hard."
Much of the evening's focus surrounded Sheets, who allowed five runs -- four earned -- and eight hits in his 107-pitch, six-inning effort. But the decisive run was actually scored in the eighth inning, when Jordany Valdespin singled off Cristhian Martinez and then stole second base before scoring on an Andres Torres single.
Adding to the evening's frustration was the fact that the Braves were unable to take advantage of a rare opportunity to gain ground on the first-place Nationals, who had seen their eight-game winning streak snapped earlier in the day.
The Braves have not gained or lost any ground on the Nationals while winning 14 of their past 18 games. They sit 4 1/2 games back in the National League East race.
"We had some stuff going early, but we just couldn't break it open," said Gonzalez, whose team won four of six on this trip that began in Philadelphia.
It did not take long for the Braves to figure out this might not be an enjoyable evening. They stranded two runners in the first inning after Bourn began the game with a double and Prado followed with a walk. Sheets then surrendered hits to three of the first four batters he faced in New York's two-run first inning.
Sheets had allowed one or no runs in four of the previous five starts he had made since ending his two-year retirement by joining the Braves' rotation after the All-Star break. In his only previous loss during this span, he surrendered three first-inning runs to the Marlins on Aug. 1.
"I've just got to find a way to come out of the gates better and give myself a chance to get some momentum," Sheets said. "If you know anything about my career, you know me and first innings are not real good. I've just got to be better than that."
While Sheets struggled to find a feel for his curveball, the first-inning damage was limited to a couple of soft singles and David Wright's slicing double down the right-field line.
The Mets added a run in the second inning with the help of two singles and a sacrifice bunt produced by Niese. After needing 51 pitches to get through the first two innings, Sheets kept the Mets scoreless until Wright doubled and scored on Ike Davis' second soft RBI single in the fifth.
Valdespin then added to Sheets' disgust by drilling a leadoff home run in the sixth inning. It was just the second home run the veteran pitcher has surrendered in the 38 innings he has completed this year.
"I even felt good in the first inning, and that normally doesn't happen," Sheets said. "It's baseball. If I can get them to hit the balls right at them, I tend to have good games. When they find holes, bad games. It just stinks, because the guys battled the whole way."
Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.