NEW YORK -- It had been four long years between wins as a starter for John Smoltz -- so long ago that he couldn't recall the last one, June 3, 2001, against Pittsburgh.
"It's a big part of the process," Smoltz said. "You need a game like this. It means there's a lot of life left."
Smoltz, who will be 38 on May 15, returned from the bullpen to the rotation as the Braves shuffled their pitching staff this season. He had struggled with little run support in his first four starts and went into the seventh inning on a cold, windy night at Shea Stadium when he didn't have his best stuff.
"It was a battle," he said. "I was grinding out there. I didn't have a good splitter or curve. The ball felt like a cueball. I abandoned a pitch or two. I didn't have a good feel of the ball. Patience paid off. The last three games were a grind, just like this one."
The difference was this time Smoltz (1-3) had some runs to work with. The Braves pushed across three in the first inning against Pedro Martinez, matching the total they had scored for Smoltz in his first four starts this season.
"It felt nice and kind of weird," Smoltz said. "It was the first time I've had a lead out of the gate. I wanted to make sure I kept it."
He did, taking the Braves into the seventh inning and leaving with a 4-1 lead.
"He didn't have his best stuff but he's a competitor," said catcher Johnny Estrada, who drove in three runs with a pair of doubles. "He knew what he had to do to get through seven innings."
Smoltz mixed a four-seam fastball, a two-seamer and some changeups for the first time all year.
"You do whatever you can to get them off stride," Smoltz said.
The Braves barely held on after closer Dan Kolb allowed two runs in the ninth. Jose Reyes' second double of the game and pinch-hitter Mike Piazza's single pulled the Mets within 4-3, and a single by Carlos Beltran put runners on first and third and knocked Kolb out of the game. John Foster came in and got Cliff Floyd to pop out for his first career save.
"That's what I love about this team," Mets manager Willie Randolph said. "We keep coming back. We kept playing."
The game was a rematch of the classic duel 16 days ago, when Smoltz struck out 15 and Martinez pitched a two-hitter. This one failed to match that game's intensity, with both pitchers giving up early runs.
"He still looked good to me but I didn't really expect him to come out and strike out 15," Randolph said.
The Braves bunched four hits for three runs in the first inning against Martinez (2-1).
"We got a lot of groundball hits and a blooper or two and all of a sudden, we've got four runs," Atlanta manager Bobby Cox said. "Sometimes, you've got to have some luck."
Pete Orr, who had a pinch-hit home run Monday and was rewarded with a start at third base, started the rally with a single and moved up on a hit by Marcus Giles. After Adam LaRoche forced Giles, Brian Jordan delivered a two-out single, scoring Orr. Estrada dropped a double in short right field for two more runs.
The Mets got a run back in the second when Floyd singled and scored on a double into the left-field corner by David Wright.
In the third, Estrada's second double scored LaRoche, who had walked, restoring the three-run lead.
Smoltz struck out four and walked three. He pitched out of a sixth-inning jam, ending the inning by striking out Ramon Castro after Floyd and Wright had singled. When he gave up two more hits in the seventh, Chris Reitsma relieved and retired Beltran on a fly ball to end the inning.
It was Beltran's two-run homer that turned the first Smoltz-Martinez match for the Mets on April 10.
Martinez, leading the majors with 38 strikeouts going into the game, added eight, walked two and allowed just one hit after the second inning, Estrada's second double. Smoltz, accustomed to minimal support, didn't need more than that.
- With three singles and a double, the Braves had twice as many hits in the first inning against Martinez as they had in nine innings against him on April 10. They also managed only two hits in seven innings against Aaron Heilman on Monday.
- Floyd extended his hitting streak to 13 games with two singles.