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09/19/07 1:18 AM ET

Not dire yet, but falling to Nats hurts

After dropping middle game in DC, Mets' losing streak hits five

WASHINGTON -- The almost unfathomable disintegration of the Mets' season continued unaborted on Tuesday night in a manner all too familiar to a team that, a week ago, was enjoying the comforts of first place. The lead in the National League East still belongs to the Mets on this day, though it is narrower than it has been since the day they played their 70th game, and whatever comforts they knew last week are gone, lost in the steep decline that almost has consumed them.

And, at this point, in a five-game losing streak, the Mets have done all there is to do to affect the necessary reversal; not that there was all that much to do.

"You have a meeting, and that's pretty much it," Tom Glavine said. "We did that."

To a degree, the pregame players meeting had the desired effect. The Mets' performance level on Tuesday was a conspicuous upgrade from what it had been in their previous two games, when Paul Lo Duca said, "We couldn't have beaten a high school team."

The Nationals were a more challenging opponent, of course, and on this night, when the Mets' offense was renewed and defensive order was restored, their pitching was quite unremarkable. And a 9-8 loss resulted.

Primarily because John Maine allowed eight runs, the Mets were unable for a fifth day to reduce their clinching number. They left the field at RFK Stadium knowing only that they had squandered a 4-0 lead for the second straight night and that the second-place Phillies could reduce their deficit to 1 1/2 games by beating the Cardinals.

When that happened too, the Mets' lead shrunk to what it had been on June 20. And the history also began to move closer. No team ever has failed to finish in first place after leading by seven games as late as Sept. 12. That's one first these Mets don't want.

A different feeling existed in the clubhouse following this one. The Mets found some solace in their more competitive performance, though there was some "And we still didn't win" resignation in their postmortems.

"We play like this," David Wright said, "and we win nine times out of 10."

And as much as the Mets need nine victories, their greater need right now is one. As Mel Stottlemyre used to say, "Sometimes, the hardest thing to do is win one in a row."

Maine's performance did what six and four errors and subpar relief pitching had done in the previous two games -- it created too great of a deficit. The Mets played an errorless game for the first time in a week, and their bullpen played only an indirect role in this loss. And certainly, they scored enough to beat the fourth-place Nationals.

But Maine, who said on Monday that he welcomed the challenge that the start represented, produced a wholely inadequate outing.

"I was the one guy who didn't do his job," he told Lo Duca.

And it was difficult to argue his point. Maine lost for the third time in five starts, surrendering 11 hits and two walks in 4 1/3 innings. The eight runs -- all earned -- were a career high.

The final three came on a home run by Ronnie Belliard in the fifth inning, when the lowest-scoring team in the big leagues produced five runs. Belliard hit a hanging slider into the Mets' bullpen beyond left field, pinpointing the reason why Maine (14-10) had been allowed to pitch as long as he did.

Manager Willie Randolph said: "Johnny Maine's one of my better pitchers. You let him ride, let him go."

But if the Mets' relievers had been anything but unreliable as of late, Maine almost certainly would have been gone a few batters earlier.

Randolph called Maine's work "a classic case of lost rhythm." Lo Duca thought Maine "never developed a rhythm." Maine allowed one run in each of his three innings before the five-run fifth changed the dynamic of the game.

But truth be told, the bullpen did have a hand in this loss. The only run not allowed by Maine came on a pinch-hit home run by D'Angelo Jimenez off Scott Schoeneweis, leading off the sixth. When the Mets scored in the ninth against Chad Cordero -- the game ended with two runners on base -- it was Jimenez's second home run that stood as the difference.

"When you score eight times," Wright said, "you expect to win ... you win 99 percent of your games."

The Mets had scored four in the first and had leads of 5-1 and 7-3 before the Nationals put a walk and five hits together -- Belliard's home run was the fourth hit -- in the fifth. They batted around in the first against John Hanrahan to score four times. Shawn Green, who had three hits, including the one that ignited the ninth-inning rally, hit his second home run in two games in the third. Endy Chavez drove in runs with singles in the fifth and seventh innings. And Jeff Conine drove in the run against Cordero (35th save).

Cordero struck out Ruben Gotay on the eighth pitch of the at-bat to end the game, and Gotay slammed his bat against the plate. His at-bat had been contentious -- fittingly the Mets said.

"I think you could see we gave it everything we had," Wright said. "We played them tough. We played well -- take away one inning. But we didn't play all nine tonight, we played seven or eight. But we can take a lot of positives out of this game. It was one of our best offensive games of the year. We took our walks. We hit the ball hard. ... It was a step in the right direction."

But they didn't win. Another meeting on Wednesday won't work.

Glavine glumly suggested: "We might need a little help."

Not to contradict his teammate, Wright said: "We have to get through this ourselves."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.