By Larry Fine
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Hisanori Takahashi struck out $125 million-man Ryan Howard to escape a late jam and cap a brilliant performance as the New York Mets beat the slumping Philadelphia Phillies 5-0 Wednesday.
The Japanese left-hander threw six scoreless innings to improve to 4-1, giving the Mets their fourth straight win and handing the National League champions a fourth successive loss.
The victory moved the Mets, who also stole four bases, above the .500 mark at 24-23 and lifted them within three games of Philadelphia (26-19) in the NL East.
The turning point came in the sixth inning when, trailing 2-0, the Phillies put men on first and third with one out and slugger Howard coming to bat.
Takahashi, spotting his pitches with precision, struck out Howard on a diving change-up and got Jayson Werth to fly out to right to end the threat.
"I know he's one of the biggest hitters in the league," the hurler told reporters through an interpreter about his confrontation with Howard.
"(Catcher) Rod Barajas had a good plan to get him out, and I just stuck with his plan and just did my job."
Mets manager Jerry Manuel congratulated Takahashi on a job well done, wrapping his arms around the Japanese pitcher in a hug when he got to the dugout.
"We're playing good baseball," Manuel said after the Mets' second consecutive shutout of the Phillies. "Jose Reyes is igniting the club and we're running the bases extremely well.
"We're getting timely hits. Barajas has been huge for us."
New York broke the game open in the bottom half of the sixth with three runs, highlighted by a two-run double down the left-field line off the bat of Barajas.
Howard, the 2006 NL Most Valuable Player who signed a five-year contract extension in April worth $125 million, had a rough night, going 0-for-4 and striking out twice.
Takahashi, who blanked the Yankees for six innings last week in his first major league start, combined with three relievers including compatriot Ryota Igarashi on the shutout.
Phillies starter Joe Blanton (1-3) took the loss, charged with all five runs in five and one-third innings of work.
(Reporting by Larry Fine, Editing by Nick Mulvenney/Ian Ransom)