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At 7:36 p.m. Wednesday, one still had to wonder whether the Mets would ever win another game this season.

An hour later, the question was why they hadn't won 120.

With all the calamities of the world collapsing on their heads, the Mets pasted Greg Maddux on Wednesday night, knocking him out of the game. The seven-game skid finally was over.

Mets 9, Braves 2. Death will have to wait, though maybe not for long.

In Houston, the slumping Astros beat the Cincinnati Reds, 4-1, to preserve a 1 1/2 -game lead over the Mets in the wild card. Finally, when the Mets needed the Reds to win, they didn't. Another win today would bring the Mets within a game of the idle Astros.

For the Mets, Wednesday's win was a start.

"It gets the monkey off your back, really," Rickey Henderson said. "You get that spell off you."

John Olerud, searching for answers to his long, disappointing season, went deep with a grand slam during a seven-run fourth inning. In that inning the Mets had nine hits, the most in their history for one frame. Maddux (19-9) has never given up more runs.

And almost unnoticed in the offensive avalanche was the mastery of Rey Ordonez, who tied Cal Ripken Jr.'s major league record with his 95th consecutive errorless game at short. The Mets flashed the accomplishment on the scoreboard after the game, but Ordonez decided not to talk about it.

It was Al Leiter's night, anyway. He proved himself an ace when the Mets desperately needed one, even singling twice and driving in a run.

As he did June 6, when the Mets had lost eight straight at the cost of three coaches' jobs, Leiter bested the team with the best record in the game as well as a certain Hall of Fame pitcher.

Then it was the Yankees and Roger Clemens, who had won 19 straight decisions. That win started the Mets on a tear in which they won 15-of-20.

Wednesday, it was Maddux, who was 3-0 with a 0.86 ERA against the Mets this season and seeking his 20th win.

Leiter (12-12), probably making his last regular-season start, looked focused and deadly with his cut fastball. In his past five starts, Leiter had given up a total of 10 runs in the opening innings to put the team in a hole. But Wednesday he shut the Braves down in the first, and gave up two runs over seven innings.

The talk of the clubhouse was not Olerud's grand slam, though the blast had its admirers. The Mets had home runs during their losing streak, but not the sort of cheap hits that led up to Olerud's at-bat. "It's one of those things that follows," Olerud said. "A lot of times bloopers are followed by blasts."

After a week of tense at-bats, balls started dropping in during the fourth inning. Darryl Hamilton singled to right and Roger Cedeno dropped one just over the left side of the infield. Ordonez pulled a grounder and the ball just glanced off the glove of third baseman Chipper Jones, loading the bases.

Leiter, who singled in the second, drove in the first run with a bloop single that fell in front of center fielder Andruw Jones.

"If Al gets a base hit, it's a sign," Robin Ventura said. "If he gets two hits. . ." He couldn't finish the sentence. Leiter doesn't get two hits often.

Henderson grounded to first and Brian Hunter couldn't get his glove cleanly on the ball, enabling two runs to score. When Edgardo Alfonzo grounded just past short, the bases were reloaded.

That brought up Olerud, who rocked an 0-1 pitch into the back of the Mets bullpen. The crowd, already bursting from the flurry of hits, exploded. The second deck sent beer spilling onto the fans below as Olerud's teammates swarmed him.

The fans then began swinging their arms to mock the Braves' "tomahawk chop."

But Hamilton said the team would be wrong to feel relief from Olerud's home run. "No," he said emphatically. "We've got to get away from that. We've been sitting back and waiting for that to happen, waiting for that big hit. We can't sit around and wait for a grand slam to solve everything."

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