NEW YORK - The Phillies came to Citi Field with the intention of putting some distance between themselves and the New York Mets in the NL East race during a three-game series that began last night.

The Phils appeared to have the Mets where they wanted them if not for the gifted left arm of Johan Santana, the National League's premier pitcher so far this season.

The Mets had a watered-down lineup without the injured Jose Reyes and Carlos Delgado and they hadn't inspired confidence in their followers during a road trip that saw them get swept by the Pirates and go 2-4.

For the most part, the Phillies solved Santana, raking him for home runs by Ryan Howard, Raul Ibanez, Jimmy Rollins, and Chase Utley. Only once before in his career had Santana been pounded for four homers.

But Santana is also among the most athletic pitchers in the game, and he ambushed the Phillies with his bat and his glove in the Mets' 6-5 win, which cut the Phils' lead over them to two games.

"He had a huge hit," Phils manager Charlie Manuel said of Santana. "He's an athlete. He fields his position well."

Santana erased a 4-3 Phils lead in the sixth with a run-scoring double off Clay Condrey, then speared a wicked line drive by Shane Victorino and turned it into an inning-ending double play in the seventh.

In the end, two usually reliable middle relievers - Condrey and Chad Durbin - did in the Phillies.

"We took the lead but didn't hold it," Manuel said.

Mostly, the loss stung the Phillies because it stands to reason when a team scores five runs off the Mets' ace, and with New York's lineup depleted, it should be a win.

But after Santana's double tied the score at 4, Alex Cora, Reyes' fill-in at shortstop, singled home the go-ahead run off Condrey. In the seventh, Durbin served a mammoth home run to dead center by Ryan Church, which gave the Mets a 6-4 lead. Church's homer proved to be the game-winner when Utley led off the eighth with a homer.

In the ninth, the Phillies came face-to-face with the biggest reason that they would be well-advised to avoid trying to chase down the Mets, as they have in each of the last two seasons. His name is Francisco Rodriguez, or K-Rod, the closer they signed as a free agent for $37 million over three years to get them through games like last night's.

Rodriguez did what he gets paid for and protected a one-run lead in the ninth for his team-record 16th consecutive save.

J.A. Happ's fledgling career as a starter was on a modest but smooth trajectory when he took the mound for the Phillies.

Last night, the trajectories belonged to the Mets, who went into the game with a paltry 34 homers for the season but hit two off Happ.

But Happ showed some grit by making enough quality throws to hand a 4-3 lead to Condrey with one out in the sixth inning.

"He had some command problems, but he battled and stayed in there," Manuel said. "He helped us stay in the game. He didn't have his best fastball as far as velocity."

David Wright had gone 100 at bats without a homer before he ripped a 1-2 fastball into the left-field seats in the second inning. His last one came against Jamie Moyer on May 7. Wright's homer came after Happ had retired the first four batters, and it seemed to immediately knock him out of rhythm. He wriggled out of a self-induced jam later in the second. Carlos Beltran drilled a two-run homer in the third.

"One thing I'm always going to do is battle," Happ said. "I think the most discouraging part is I had a good opportunity there in the sixth. If I could have gotten through that sixth inning, we're kind of where we want to be."

Happ's pitch count was at 106 when Manuel sent for Condrey with one out and a runner on first. Manuel wanted the righthanded Condrey to face the righthanded-hitting Cora. The move didn't work.

"He'd thrown 106 pitches, and once we took the lead, I wanted to get a righty on a righty," Manuel said.

Howard and Ibanez hit back-to-back homers in the fourth, the third time the Phils have done it this season.

Contact staff writer Ray Parrillo at 215-854-2743 or rparrillo@phillynews.com.