NEW YORK — Kenshin Kawakami is getting used to taking on the best pitcher opposing teams can offer. Roy Halladay, Clayton Kershaw, Johan Santana — stack 'em up for a 34-year-old rookie who sure doesn't get intimidated very easily.
Kawakami outpitched Santana over seven stellar innings Thursday night, and Brian McCann hit a solo homer to help the Atlanta Braves claw further into playoff contention with a 3-2 victory over the scuffling New York Mets.
"He does it every time he faces a team's ace," Braves manager Bobby Cox said. "No matter what, we have a chance to win when he toes the rubber."
Kawakami (6-9) earned a reputation for pitching in big spots while winning 112 games for Chunichi in Japan's Central League. He's been nearly as good since joining the Braves this season, allowing three runs or fewer in 17 of his past 19 starts.
The right-hander left the bases loaded in the first and allowed one run and seven hits, earning his first victory since July 8 — even though he again got very little support.
"He's just been dynamite," McCann said. "It's been fun to watch him grow."
Omar Infante and former Mets outfielder Ryan Church also drove in runs for the Braves (64-57), who are four games out of the NL wild-card race. They've won nine of 12 entering a critical three-game series against fellow playoff contender Florida.
Peter Moylan gave up an RBI single to Omir Santos in the eighth that made it 3-2, before getting Anderson Hernandez to ground out and leave two runners aboard.
Rafael Soriano worked around a two-out single in the ninth for his 18th save.
"I'm aware (Santana) is one of the best pitchers over here," Kawakami said through a translator, "so I do look at it like a challenge."
The Mets' star left-hander breezed through two perfect innings to start the game before back-to-back doubles by Adam LaRoche and Infante helped Atlanta take a 2-0 lead. Santana (13-9) ended up allowing nine hits and three runs in seven erratic innings.
Dominant against just about everyone else, he's 1-5 in eight tries against Atlanta.
"Overall, I thought I had good stuff," Santana said. "I was just trying to do my job."
New York pulled to 2-1 on singles by Luis Castillo, Daniel Murphy and Cory Sullivan in the third, but McCann quickly restored the lead with his homer in the fourth, a no-doubt drive that landed several rows deep into the porch that overhangs right field.
Santana has surrendered at least three runs in four of his past six starts, not that he's gotten much help from a patchwork offense. The Mets have failed to score more than two runs for him nine times this season, and he's never had more than two runs when he's faced the Braves.
"We play every single game to win," Santana said, "it doesn't matter who we play."
His ragged start capped another tough day in what's been a miserable season for New York.
Versatile infielder Alex Cora showed up at Citi Field with a cast on his right hand following thumb surgery, and revealed he'll need surgery on his left thumb, too. Then veteran outfielder Gary Sheffield yanked himself from the starting lineup after he was reportedly rebuffed by GM Omar Minaya when inquiring about a contract extension for next season.
Sheffield was on manager Jerry Manuel's original lineup card, and was replaced by Sullivan about 3 hours before the first pitch. The mercurial slugger struck out as a pinch hitter with a runner aboard in the eighth inning.
About the only bright spot for New York was former closer Billy Wagner, who made his first appearance since Aug. 2, 2008, and struck out two in a perfect eighth. After having Tommy John surgery on Sept. 10, Wagner made a quick recovery and touched 96 mph with his fastball.
"I thought he was very good, outstanding life, even in that short appearance," Manuel said. "He was excited about being out there, as excited as we were to have him. I would have to say that he's back, but we have to be careful."
While the Mets appear content on limping toward the finish, the Braves are mounting a sneak attack on Florida and the rest of the wild-card contenders.
Atlanta is 30-17 since falling a season-worst six games below .500 on June 27, and McCann's homer was the 46th by the Braves since the All-Star break, among the most prolific power numbers in the major leagues.
"We're swinging the bats well," Cox said. "You got to win series and keep going. Hopefully the teams in front of us lose one of these days."
NOTES: Braves LF Garret Anderson left the game in the second inning with a lower back strain. He was day to day. ... The Mets released RHP Livan Hernandez to make room for Wagner.