NEW YORK - Bartolo Colon's final line against the Atlanta Braves didn't look so bad. If not for the first inning, it would've been a whole lot better for the 41-year-old right-hander and the rest of the New York Mets.
Sound familiar? It sure does to Colon, who can't quite figure out why he is struggling so much at the start.
Atlanta scored two runs in the first and added one in the third, then hung on for a 3-1 victory over the Mets on Thursday night to avoid a four-game sweep.
Colon threw extra pitches in the bullpen before the game to try to simulate a later inning when he took the mound, but to no avail.
"The first inning is very important," Colon said through a translator. "I am just having a little trouble, and I am going to work to change that up.
"It really helped for me to get in the bullpen before and throw more than usual. It really warmed me up, loosened me up."
He just couldn't prevent the damage. And with a lack of clutch hitting by Colon's teammates, three runs were enough for Braves starter Aaron Harang to beat the Mets.
Colon (8-8) hung around for eight innings but lost his third consecutive start. He allowed three runs and 10 hits with no walks and seven strikeouts.
Colon yielded nine hits in the first four innings — at least two in each frame — and didn't retire Atlanta in order until the fifth. He did it again in the sixth, and his run of 10 straight outs was broken up by B.J. Upton's seventh-inning single.
While New York leads the major leagues with 62 runs in the first inning, Colon has given up 18 runs in the opening inning of his 18 starts, and opponents are batting .349 (29 for 83).
"We've got to fix it," Mets manager Terry Collins said. "He's too good a pitcher. This guy gave us eight pretty good innings, but we can't keep falling deep behind. When we're swinging great, anybody can fall behind, but when you're facing a good team you have to give yourself a chance."
The Mets had some opportunities against Harang, but not enough. He allowed four hits in seven innings, and Craig Kimbrel got four outs for his 28th save in 32 attempts.
"It's huge," Harang said after the Braves moved within one percentage point of first-place Washington in the NL East. "Getting swept is tough in a three-game series. A four-game series is just like somebody stepping on your throat."
New York hasn't swept a four-game set from Atlanta since July 1989. The Mets had used timely hitting to win five of the first six on their 10-game homestand.
"I thought Aaron pitched a great game," Collins said. "We didn't have great swings on him. In the fifth inning we had a chance to get back in the game.
"We've come up with a big hit during those innings lately, and tonight we didn't get it."
Harang (9-6), who finished last season with the Mets, won his fourth straight start and fifth game in six outings, topping New York for the second time this season in three appearances — allowing a total of two runs. He struck out two and walked four.
Andrelton Simmons, Freddie Freeman and Ramiro Pena all had two hits to pace the Atlanta offense.
The Mets cut the lead to 3-1 in the third on David Wright's RBI single, and threatened for more in the fifth when they loaded the bases with two outs. Harang then induced Travis d'Arnaud, moved up to fifth in the order for the first time this season, to fly out.
Colon struck out Upton looking in the first, but Simmons rolled a single past the outstretched glove of second baseman Daniel Murphy and scored on Freeman's ringing double to right. Justin Upton struck out looking before Jason Heyward blooped a single to left that scored Freeman to make it 2-0.
The rally ended when Tommy La Stella took the third called third strike of the inning.
The Braves threatened again in the second, putting runners on first and second on back-to-back hits by Christian Bethancourt and Pena. Harang struck out attempting to bunt, and Bethancourt was caught trying to get to third after a long rundown to complete the double play. The missed bunt was only the second failed swing by the Braves in Colon's first 31 pitches.
After two singles to open the Braves third, Atlanta made it 3-0 on Justin Upton's double-play grounder that scored Simmons.
"I am not sure he has a true feel for his off-speed stuff in the first inning," Collins said of Colon. "We certainly have searched and searched and charted and haven't come up with the answers."
NOTES: Colon batted eighth for the first time, with Eric Young Jr. in the No. 9 slot. Young entered with a .556 average (5 for 9) and four walks against Harang and went 1 for 3. ... Braves 3B Chris Johnson, who was 2 for 12 in the first three games of the series, sat out in favor of Pena.