NEW YORK -- Those who were wondering if the start of this season could get any worse for the Braves nearly received the answer they were not seeking on Sunday afternoon, when Mets left-hander Jon Niese flirted with a no-hitter and extended the struggles of a slumbering offense.
Though Niese fell short on his historic bid at Citi Field on Sunday afternoon, his early dominance, combined with Mike Minor's middle-inning misfortunes, gave the Mets a 7-5 win and left the Braves winless through the first three games of the season for the first time since 2003.
"It's never good to come in to the opening series and get swept," catcher Brian McCann said. "But it's early. I remember in  we went into Philly and swept the Phillies and they won [the division]."
After the Braves opened the '07 season with a three-game sweep, the back page of a Philadelphia newspaper poked fun at Jimmy Rollins' preseason prediction with a headline that read, "The Team to Beat and Beat and Beat." By the time that season concluded, Rollins and his Phillies' teammates were celebrating the first of five consecutive division crowns.
Like that Braves club exited Philadelphia with a sense of excitement, the Expos were full of optimism when they won the first three games of the 2003 season in Atlanta. Six months later, the Braves had won 101 games and the 12th of their 14 consecutive division titles.
"We're fine," center fielder Michael Bourn said. "We've got good hitting and pitching and a good bullpen. We've got all facets of the game. As long as we're confident in each other, we'll be OK."
Before ending Niese's no-hit bid in a four-run seventh inning, the Braves had totaled two runs in 24 innings. These Opening Weekend struggles extended the frustrations the club felt last year when it lost its final five regular-season games and the 8 1/2-game Wild Card lead it carried into September.
"It isn't [a continuation]," Braves manager Fredi Gonzalez said. "It's one of those things where we're going to have to keep answering that question. It's going to keep coming up. But it's forgotten. This is 2012. If we're still rehashing 2011, we're not going in the right direction."
Niese had retired 15 consecutive batters before walking Dan Uggla to open the seventh. Freddie Freeman directed the next pitch he saw through the right side of the infield to ensure the Mets would have to wait at least one more day to celebrate the first no-hitter in franchise history.
When Lucas Duda lost a routine fly ball in the sun along the right-field warning track and Jason Heyward followed with a two-run double, the Braves actually found themselves with some hope. McCann made things even more interesting when he homered off Manny Acosta in the eighth to make it 7-5.
But the combination of the four-run seventh and McCann's first homer of the year was not enough to erase the seven-run cushion the Mets had provided Niese through six innings.
"Our hitters are coming through and they're picking it up," Niese said. "It's just great for us pitchers to know that our hitters at any time can open up a ballgame."
Ruben Tejada's leadoff double helped the Mets gain a one-run first-inning lead and Jason Bay extended the advantage with a bases-loaded sacrifice fly in the fourth. But the Braves were trailing just 2-0 in the fifth when Niese produced a two-out check-swing single that nicked the chalk behind third base.
Tejada, who finished with a career-high four hits, followed with a soft single before Murphy produced a check-swing opposite-field double that hit the left-field line and scored two runs to give the Mets a 4-0 lead.
"There was bad luck, but it was also that they just find a way," Minor said. "That's what good teams do. They find a way to put the ball in play. There's not a lot of free-swinging. They take a lot of pitches and work counts. They put the bat on the ball and make things happen."
Minor exited after the bottom of the sixth began with a walk to Bay and a single by Duda. Tejada then hit Cristhian Martinez's second pitch of the day to left field for what proved to be a decisive two-run double.
"It's the third game of the season," Minor said. "There is plenty of season left and plenty of games left. It's obviously disappointing. But now we go to Houston and we've got a chance to win some games there."
The Braves have lost eight consecutive games dating back to Sept. 24, when they entered the day with their magic number to eliminate the Cardinals from the Wild Card race resting at three.
The Cardinals have spent the early portion of this season playing like reigning World Series champions. Meanwhile, the Braves have played much like they did during last year's forgettable September.
"There is no one in here thinking about what happened last year," McCann said. "We won 89 ballgames. We're a very talented team. We just need to stay the course, and once we find our groove, I think we'll be a tough team to beat."