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Collins talks about Niese's quality start

NEW YORK -- Mets manager Terry Collins isn't downplaying the importance of finishing the season strong, especially at home. New York's fanbase needs a positive finish to take into 2013.

So over the final 25 games of the Mets' season -- 16 of which will be at Citi Field -- Collins said he wants to see improvements, especially on the offensive side. New York has pitched well in Queens, but it's the hitting that's been the issue.

It was more of the same in a 3-0 loss to Atlanta on Friday.

New York knocked Braves starter Paul Maholm out after just 5 1/3 innings, but couldn't plate any runs despite more than a handful opportunities. Four times the Mets had at least one runner in scoring position with fewer than two outs -- including two on and no outs in the first and third innings -- but four times they came up empty.

What was once a Mets strength has become an obvious weakness. New York finished 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position on Friday, and is hitting just .205 (83-for-405) since the All-Star break. Before it, the Mets hit .269 (199-for-739).

"The thing that we did so well when we got guys on was we got two-out hits," Collins said. "We're not getting any hits at all, and especially with two outs. We get a lot of singles. We haven't had a lot of extra-base stuff, but we just haven't been able to come up with the big hit, especially here at home."

The record shows it -- after finishing the first half at 46-40, Friday's loss dropped the Mets to 19-33 since resuming play. It marked Atlanta's third consecutive shutout victory, a feat the Braves accomplished last exactly 10 years ago from Sept. 4-7, 2002.

Mets starter Jon Niese allowed just one run -- a solo shot by Jason Heyward in the fourth -- over six innings, but New York's bullpen -- specifically Bobby Parnell and Jenrry Mejia -- gave up insurance runs in the seventh and ninth.

Niese has been a victim of New York's offensive woes at home. He got one run of support his last time at Citi Field -- two starts ago, he threw seven innings of three-run ball against the Astros on Aug. 24. Friday, he got nothing.

"You always hope that your offense gives you enough, but sometimes that's just the game of baseball," Niese said. "Sometimes they're going to give you a lot of runs, sometimes you need to battle to not give up a lot of runs. It's just part of the game."

Maholm, who threw 95 pitches in a three-hit shutout against the Mets on Aug. 10, wasn't as efficient this time around, but his 5 1/3 scoreless innings, combined with the strong work of five relievers, was enough to earn the Braves their fifth win in six games.

"Last time I faced them, they were aggressive early, and I was getting a lot of ground balls," Maholm said. "Tonight, I was a little erratic, and they kind of waited me out. I made pitches when I had to, and the defense made plays."

What the Mets do take out of the loss is another quality start by Niese, not just by definition but in terms of his overall stamina. Entering the second half, the emphasis for Niese was to finish the season strong, and he's doing just that. The left-hander has quieted concern surrounding his past late-season struggles -- his previous two Septembers were highlighted by either injuries or poor performances.

"I'm real happy with how my body feels right now, especially this late in the year," Niese said. "It feels pretty good, I felt like I had a lot of energy and was able to follow the game plan pretty good."

Friday's one-run effort marked the 12th time this season he's allowed one or no earned runs.

"It's a combination of a lot of things," he said. "I think the way I work out in between starts is a little bit different as far as my bullpen work, taking a little bit off and making sure it's more quality than quantity. They're just different variables that help with me being fresh each start."

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