Mets blow 5-run lead vs. Nats as division lead dissipates


• Summary: Carlos Beltran had two homers and Moises Alou added a solo shot as the Mets built a 5-0 lead, but New York's floundering pitchers blew it as the Nats rallied to win. It was the Mets' third straight loss. Ryan Church let the Nats with a 3-for-5 performance at the plate, including a double and a two-run homer.

• Hunt for October: Aside from a three-game skid, the Mets have seen their lead in the NL East over the Phillies fall to one game. It's the slimmest margin New York has had since it was a half-game in front of Philadelphia before play on May 17.

Ryan Church

• Elite company: Moises Alou and Hall of Famer Sam Rice are the only two players in MLB history to have a 30-game hit streak, the majority of which was in September/October for a first-place team. Sam Rice had his in 1924, when the Senators won the World Series.

• Injury update: Desperate for pitching, the Mets brought Orlando Hernandez out of the bullpen in the seventh. A sore left foot kept him out since Sept. 11 and he said his foot was sore after the game.

• Quotable: "It's late in the season, guys are tired, we're running on

fumes. It's not an excuse. We need to go out there and finish strong and dig down deep and really do some soul-searching because we're going to have to finish with a flurry." -- David Wright

-- news services

Nationals 9, Mets 6

NEW YORK (AP) -- With their pitching staff in tatters, the free-falling Mets are flirting with a historic collapse.

New York wasted two homers by Carlos Beltran and another from Moises Alou, blowing a five-run cushion Wednesday night in a 9-6 loss to the Washington Nationals that sliced its NL East lead to one game over Philadelphia with four to play.

"It's hard to believe," Beltran said. "Unbelievable."

Wasting Away

The largest leads held in September by teams that did not finish

in first place in their league (or in divison, 1969 and later), as

compiled by the Elias Sports Bureau. Date of largest lead is


Sept. 1, 1938Pirates7
Sept. 6, 1934NY Giants7
Sept. 4, 1995Calif. Angels
Sept. 20, 1964Phillies
Sept. 8, 1951Br. Dodgers

The Phillies, who beat Atlanta 5-2, haven't been this close to first place since they lost on Opening Day. It's the Mets' slimmest margin since they were a half-game in front before play on May 17.

New York led by seven games, with 17 to play, after beating Atlanta on Sept. 12. No major league team has failed to finish first after having at least a seven-game advantage with 17 remaining.

"We all feel terrible for ourselves as a team right now that we can't really close the deal," manager Willie Randolph said. "But we still have time. We're not giving in."

Betrayed by a brutal bullpen and ineffective starting pitching, New York has dropped six straight home games and nine of 13 overall.

Fans have started to turn on the not-so-Amazin's, too. Many in the crowd of 51,940 booed throughout the late innings as New York flopped once more against a fourth-place team.

"It's late in the season, guys are tired, we're running on fumes," David Wright said. "It's not an excuse. We need to go out there and finish strong and dig down deep and really do some soul-searching because we're going to have to finish with a flurry."

Ryan Church homered and drove in four runs for the feisty Nationals, who completed a three-game sweep at Shea Stadium and improved to 5-1 against the Mets in a 10-day span.

Washington (72-87) surpassed last year's win total, split the season series with the Mets 9-all and clinched a winning record in September for the second consecutive year.

After a six-run rally in the ninth inning Tuesday left the Mets just short in a 10-9 loss, they jumped out quickly in this one.

Beltran and Alou hit consecutive homers in the first inning and the Mets built a 5-0 cushion after three. They handed it to Philip Humber, who made his first major league start because New York still wants to give Pedro Martinez extra rest between outings after his return from shoulder surgery.

Division Magic Numbers

The magic number is derived by adding one to the number of

remaining games and subtracting the number of games ahead in the

loss column from the second-place team. Here's where the leaders stand:

x-Red Sox2
x-IndiansWon division
x-AngelsWon division
x-clinched playoff spot

The Mets said they tabbed Humber in this pressure-packed game because he was the best option available. But after a nice start, he wasn't much help -- and neither was the bullpen.

The Nationals, who began the night with the fewest runs in the majors, scored 57 in their final six games against New York.

"Most of the things that are happening are out of Willie Randolph's hands," said Washington manager Manny Acta, Randolph's third base coach the past two years in New York.

Humber walked the leadoff batter in the fourth, then gave up Church's two-run shot. Alou hit an RBI single in the bottom half, but Humber walked the leadoff man again in the fifth and was pulled after Ronnie Belliard's RBI double.

Another rookie, Joe Smith (3-2), allowed RBI singles to Ryan Zimmerman and Austin Kearns that cut it to 6-5, and Wily Mo Pena's two-run double off Pedro Feliciano put Washington ahead.

Desperate for someone to stem the tide, the Mets brought Orlando Hernandez out of the bullpen in the seventh. He walked two and struck out two in a scoreless inning.

Because of a sore right foot, Hernandez hadn't pitched since he was roughed up by the Braves on Sept. 11 -- and he had worked only six-plus innings since Aug. 26.

He just had the protective boot removed from his foot Monday, and the original plan was for him to throw a simulated game Thursday to help determine if he could possibly be ready by this weekend.

Now, Hernandez will be used out of the bullpen through the first round of the playoffs -- if the Mets get there, Randolph said.

El Duque said his foot was sore after the outing.

Church, a left-handed batter, added a two-run double in the ninth off lefty Billy Wagner.

"We're not scared of losing. What the problem is, is just how bad we're playing," Wagner said. "As good as our bullpen was early, we're that bad right now."

Luis Ayala worked a perfect inning for his first save since May 16, 2005. He missed last season with an elbow injury.

Joel Hanrahan (5-3) got the win, yielding one run in 1 2/3 innings.

Beltran hit a two-run shot off ex-Met Mike Bacsik in the first and Alou followed with his 13th home run, extending his hitting streak to 30 games.

It's the longest streak by a player on a New York team (including Brooklyn) since Joe DiMaggio's record run of 56 games in 1941 with the Yankees.

Beltran's second homer off Bacsik made it 5-0 in the third.

Game notes
It was Beltran's 22nd career multihomer game and fifth this season. He also hit two homers last Wednesday at Washington. ... It was Hernandez's first relief appearance since October 2005 with the Chicago White Sox.