ATLANTA - Naturally, the Mets wanted to focus on the one inning in which they managed to string together competitive at-bats. That came in the ninth Wednesday night, when they nearly rallied from four runs down against fireballing Braves closer Craig Kimbrel.

"To come back like that, against those guys, in that situation, that was a great finish for us," manager Terry Collins said after the Mets' comeback stalled in a 4-3 loss to the Braves.

Yet it was impossible to ignore the eight shutout innings that preceded the late rally, when the Mets looked helpless against righthander Ervin Santana. When two-fifths of their starting rotation went down in the spring, the Braves signed Santana to a one-year, $14.1 million deal.

The investment paid off handsomely last night, when Santana picked apart a Mets lineup that is hitting an NL-worst .190 through the first eight games of the season. Though it's early, the Mets offense has whiffed 79 times while averaging just 3.5 runs per game.

"No matter what the count is, we're not doing any damage with pitches," Collins said.

Matching up with Santana didn't help matters. To begin his Braves career, Santana threw 20 consecutive strikes, a testament to the command he showed of his fastball and trademark slider.

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"He was hitting every corner," Mets catcher Travis d'Arnaud said. "It wasn't like he was throwing it in the middle of the plate to get ahead. They were all pitcher's pitches."

While Santana made it look easy, the Braves made Mets starter Zack Wheeler work.

Wheeler started his night by losing an 11-pitch battle to Jason Heyward, who fouled off several heaters before unloading on a 96-mph fastball. Heyward's solo homer was the first hit in a night in which he finished 3-for-4 with a pair of RBIs. Heyward also made a running catch in rightfield to rob David Wright of what would have been a run-scoring double.

Over the next three innings, Wheeler appeared to get back on track. He needed just 10 pitches to retire the Braves in the fourth. But in the fifth, he paid the price for depending on his fastball.

The Braves got more aggressive, swinging earlier in the count, and Wheeler was slow to adjust. By the end of the inning, they tagged him for three runs on five hits. Mets killer Freddie Freeman rifled a two-run single that put the Mets in a 4-0 hole.

"I just got a little fastball happy there, too," said Wheeler, who allowed four runs in five innings. "I probably should have changed it up more."

Not until the ninth did the Mets muster a rally.

With the Braves leading 4-0, reliever Jordan Walden walked Eric Young Jr. and surrendered a one-out single to David Wright. Kimbrel entered only to walk Curtis Granderson to load the bases.

Kimbrel bounced back to strike out Lucas Duda, then allowed a two-run single to Juan Lagares, cutting the lead to 4-2. D'Arnaud made it 4-3 with an RBI single that moved the tying run to third base. But Ruben Tejada swung through a 97-mph fastball to end it.

Of course, the rally came too little, too late for the Mets, who couldn't touch Santana.

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"We chased some balls out of the zone early, which helped him a little bit," Collins said. "But when we tried to sit there and see if we can make him come in the zone, you looked up and you were 0-and-1, 0-and-2."

Said Collins: "You're going to run into nights like that."