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BAL@NYM: Gee fans nine over 7 1/3 strong frames

NEW YORK -- All five Mets starters have their lockers in a row at Citi Field, toward the back of a clubhouse that is becoming increasingly popular to visit. Johan Santana anchors one end, R.A. Dickey the other.

In between are the lockers of Jon Niese, Chris Young and Dillon Gee -- the three pitchers who, in a way, are even more critical to the Mets' success than their heralded rotation mates. Given the recent trends in Flushing, the Mets are confident that they will continue receiving strong outings every five days from Santana and Dickey, the pillars of their staff.

But if the other three produce as well as Gee did in Wednesday's 4-3 victory over the Orioles, sparking a three-game series sweep, the Mets may continue to surprise for quite some time.

"You see what they do," Gee said of Dickey and Santana, "and you want to do the same thing."

Grabbing hold of the momentum that Dickey and Santana established over the first two games of the series, Gee steamrolled the first eight Orioles he faced on Wednesday, striking out four of them. After escaping a minor jam in the third inning, the right-hander then set down another 13 batters in a row.

It was not until Nick Johnson led off the eighth with a weak infield single that Gee finally caved, serving up a booming two-run homer to the next batter, Wilson Betemit. That snapped the Mets' scoreless streak at a season-high 29 consecutive innings dating back to Sunday, encompassing the strong work of Dickey, Santana and Gee -- not to mention an improving bullpen.

"It's tough to follow those guys," Gee said. "What they're doing is unbelievable."

"I don't want to take anything away from Gee tonight -- he was pretty good," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "It's a great park for defense and pitching and they did that well."

Not quite so strong Wednesday was the aforementioned relief corps, which escaped additional trouble in the eighth when Bobby Parnell retired Chris Davis on a fly ball to the warning track. Closer Frank Francisco then walked in a run in the ninth, before retiring Brian Roberts on a game-ending groundout.

For the third straight game, the Mets waited until the middle innings to score most of their runs, leaning on two-out RBI hits from Mike Nickeas, Scott Hairston and David Wright. After sputtering in the early innings, they managed to knock out Orioles starter Brian Matusz in the fifth.

And just like that, the Mets swept the Orioles in three games at Citi Field. After being swept by the Reds. After sweeping the Rays. After being swept by the Yankees. It has been an interesting, if not quite disturbing trend for the Mets, who have played brilliantly for brief stretches only to struggle during others.

Mostly, it has depended on their pitching.

"You can't just ride one guy," manager Terry Collins said. "Everybody's got to chip in."

Well aware of that as he prepared for Wednesday's start, Gee shadowed Young in the clubhouse this week, soaking up tips from the nine-year veteran. Much as Young does between his own outings, Gee scrawled out two full pages of notes on his opponent, underlining tendencies, strengths, weaknesses and strategies.

He then used that information to attack the Orioles, throwing first-pitch strikes to eight of the first nine batters he faced. Relying heavily on the fastball-changeup combo that made him a big leaguer, Gee struck out a career-high nine to keep the rotation rolling. And have they ever been rolling. Over their last 11 games, Mets starting pitchers have posted a 2.37 ERA, striking out 73 batters and walking 20 in 76 innings.

The staff's 3.49 season ERA now ranks third in the Majors behind the Nationals and Dodgers.

"It's something that gives us a goal to follow," Gee said, speaking again of Dickey and Santana.

Those numbers could easily inflate this weekend against the Yankees, who hit four homers Wednesday and boast one of the most potent offenses in baseball. The Mets were playing quite well, in fact, until they gave up 18 runs in three games against the Yankees last month in the Bronx.

To avoid a similar fate at Citi Field, they will need strong starts from Niese and Young before Dickey takes his turn again on Sunday. The back end of the rotation, in essence, will need to play the same game of follow the leader that Gee enjoyed on Wednesday.

"I like our rotation a lot," Collins said. "If they keep getting us this deep into games ... I think we're going to be in good shape."

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