Kawakami outduels Santana as Braves win

Each time the stage lights shine brightest on Kenshin Kawakami, the Braves pitcher responds with one of his best performances.

He did it again Thursday night, outpitching New York Mets ace Johan Santana in a 3-2 victory that gave the Braves a series win at Citi Field.

Kawakami (6-9) pitched seven strong innings, and Brian McCann hit his second homer in as many nights as the Braves notched their 11th win in 15 games, keeping their postseason hopes alive.

“I can’t say enough about the way he performed,” Braves manager Bobby Cox said of Kawakami, who allowed seven hits, one run and two walks and struck out five. “Almost no matter what, we have a chance to win when he toes the rubber.”

The Braves moved into a tie for second in the National League East with the Florida Marlins, whom they play in a three-game series that begins Friday night at Turner Field.

The Braves and Marlins are 6-1/2 games behind surging Philadelphia in the East and four games behind wild-card leader Colorado.

Ryan Church had an RBI double in a two-run third, and McCann hit a towering homer in the fourth to give the Braves a 3-1 lead, and they hung on for their sixth win in eight games against Santana in his career.

“He’s one of the toughest pitchers in the game to face,” McCann said of the lefty, who was charged with three runs and nine hits in seven innings. “You know going in you’ve got to get a couple of runs and hope your pitcher goes out and deals, and Kenshin did that. He’s been solid all year, not just in the big games.”

Santana (13-9) had two strikeouts and slipped to 1-5 against the Braves, despite a 2.21 ERA in those games. It’s his worst record against any opponent.

“It’s good to get some runs off Johan,” Church said. “He can be had; he’s human. And you just tip your cap to Kaw for the way he pitched.”

The Mets scored an unearned run against Mike Gonzalez in the eighth, after a throwing error by Chipper Jones on a grounder by former Brave Jeff Francoeur.

The only negative for the Braves was Garret Anderson’s second-inning exit because of injury, termed a lower-back strain. Anderson said it was in the joint of his right hip, similar to an injury he had five years ago.

He didn’t know if he would be ready to play Friday night against the Marlins.

Kawakami, a 34-year-old major-league rookie, was at the top of his game against Toronto’s Roy Halladay and the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, and in a ballyhooed matchup with Boston’s Daisuke Matsuzaka, his more famous Japanese countryman.

The Braves won all those games, and Kawakami was 2-0 with an 0.86 ERA in those three starts, with only nine hits and two runs allowed in 21 innings.

Thursday, he beat Santana at a point in the season when every game is crucial to the Braves.

“I’m well aware he’s one of the best pitchers over here,” Kawakami said through his interpreter. “So I do look at it as a challenge. I faced Santana before and didn’t pitch too badly, but got the loss. I wanted to make sure I pitched well tonight.”

(Kawakami gave up two runs in 6-2/3 innings of a July 18 loss to the Mets, Santana’s only win against the Braves.)