NEW YORK, SEPT. 12 -- The New York Mets finally found something tonight more powerful and bedeviling than the lefty jinx that besets them: the bad luck of John Smiley.

So on an evening when they desperately needed some good fortune -- for their recently sagging resolve as well as their survival in the National League East -- the Mets benefited from Smiley's continuing travails for a crucial 2-1 victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates before 48,375 at Shea Stadium.

New York didn't exactly batter Smiley, collecting five hits over eight innings and standing by helplessly while the Pittsburgh left-hander retired 23 of their final 26 batters. But Smiley was outdueled by David Cone, who fired a complete-game three-hitter as New York pulled within 2 1/2 games of the first-place Pirates.

"This proves that we can beat lefties," said Mets Manager Bud Harrelson, whose club improved to 23-27 against left-handed starters this year. "We really beat the heck out of him, didn't we?"

They didn't, but the surging Cone made Dave Magadan's two-run double off Smiley in the first inning stand up. The hard-throwing New York right-hander was masterful, yielding four walks and striking out eight while working in just enough offspeed pitches with his popping fastball to keep the Pirates guessing.

"He had us off balance all night," said slugger Bobby Bonilla, who struck out three times. "He had his good fastball and he was putting it on the corners all game long. He'd mix in some breaking stuff when he was behind in the count, but he basically stuck to his fastball and threw the thing by us most of the time."

The Pirates -- who failed in their bid to reach 27 games over the .500 mark for the first time since 1979 -- scored only on Bonilla's bases-loaded walk in the third inning. They rarely threatened otherwise.

Pittsburgh (84-59) left only six on base, three when Cone got Barry Bonds to pop out after Bonilla's RBI walk. The Pirates got a man to second base in only one other inning, Andy Van Slyke on a two-out bloop double in the eighth before Bonilla struck out on a high fastball.

Even with three left-handed hitters up and lefty relief ace John Franco ready in the bullpen, Harrelson stuck with Cone (12-8) in the ninth. That trust almost backfired when Sid Bream launched a one-out drive that seemed destined to be a game-tying home run. But Mets right fielder Darryl Strawberry backpedaled nonchalantly and caught the ball with his back virtually against the wall.

"It was really Cone's game, not to lose but to win," Harrelson said. "He was pretty much in control, except for the third inning. . . . I didn't think Bream's ball had enough to make it to the seats, but Darryl waited there like it was out before he got it -- a real flair for the dramatic."

Smiley (8-9) was nearly as brilliant. The Pirates have scored two runs total in his last five losses, averaging 1.22 runs in his nine defeats. And that's from an offense that began tonight second in the NL in runs.

"They say stuff like that is supposed to even out," Smiley said. "It sure hasn't for me this year. . . . it does get a little frustrating. Every time I pitch pretty well, the other guy pitches a little better."

The victory was New York's 10th straight here -- one short of a team record -- and 35th of its last 45. The Mets are a major league best 49-22 at home.

Three weeks remain in the regular season and these teams still have four games to play against each other. To achieve their immediate goal of a two-game series sweep, the Mets must thwart right-hander Doug Drabek's bid for his 20th victory, and 16-game winner Dwight Gooden gets the call. But the Mets (81-61) sounded like a club primed for its last-stand effort. Tonight marked the third contest of a 10-game homestand and the third of a 10-game Pittsburgh road trip, and the Mets apparently are beginning to feel a sense of urgency.

"It's do-or-die time, no doubt about it," shortstop Howard Johnson said. "This is when we have to do it. We're at home, they're on the road and time is running short. This {two-game} series could very well determine the rest of the season for us."

Smiley is another in the line of Mets killers on this Pirates staff, entering tonight with a 7-2 record and 2.71 ERA in 22 career appearances against New York. The Mets were held to a paltry two runs and 11 hits by a trio of left-handers during the three-game Pirates sweep in Pittsburgh last week, but they jumped on Smiley quickly tonight.

Gregg Jefferies drew a leadoff walk and took second when Keith Miller dumped a single into right field. Smiley's first pitch to No. 3 hitter Magadan was an inside fastball that the Mets' first baseman yanked into the alley in right-center to score both runners.

And Cone is a certified Pirates killer -- 5-0, career.

"It was a tough game, a good game," said Cone, who's 11-4 with a 2.45 ERA in his last 18 starts. "I had my real good stuff and I battled through that one bad inning {a hit by Smiley, three successive walks}. They hung in there and fought us, but hopefully this is the start of something for us."