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09/25/07 12:15 AM ET

Mets can't figure out Nationals

Alou extends streak, but team's NL East lead shrinks

NEW YORK -- Perhaps the only consolation in this one was that the Mets didn't lose a full game in the standings. They couldn't. After all, the Phillies didn't play.

They still, however lost some confidence, a little pride and -- yes, that too -- a baseball game. The last of those losses was also the most noticeable, as they fell, 13-4 on Monday, and dropped their third game in four tries to the lowly Nationals.

The Mets are now two games ahead of the Phillies in the National League East.

"There's just no excuse," catcher Paul Lo Duca said. "You can't expect to win a division the way we've been playing."

There's ample reason for Lo Duca's fury in a game that was every bit as ugly as the score suggested. What the loss did was erase every gain the Mets had made during their weekend series in Miami. And what it didn't do was inspire confidence that this team is any better than it currently seems.

"It doesn't matter if we make the playoffs," Lo Duca said. "Because we won't be around much longer."

Now maybe that's a bit rash. The Mets on this night were, after all, doomed in large part by walks, thanks in large part to a pitcher that won't be starting in October. Mike Pelfrey cruised through three innings only to fall apart -- he's not sure how -- in the middle innings.

The fifth inning was the worst when, with two outs and nobody on, Pelfrey walked two straight batters and served up a three-run homer to the next one, Ryan Zimmerman.

"I got what I deserved," Pelfrey said. "I let the team down. I didn't keep us in the game."

But he didn't boot them completely out of it, either. That task was left to a bullpen that also junked any strides it may have made over the weekend. Joe Smith came on in relief of Pelfrey and promptly allowed both of his inherited runners to score. Pedro Feliciano was a bit better, but when he left, the Shea Stadium crowd booed at the sight of Guillermo Mota jogging in from the bullpen.

By the time Mota's work was done, there were far fewer fans remaining in the stands. But the booing was louder.

Mota walked a batter, allowed three hits and three runs, and would have allowed more had Carlos Beltran not gunned down one unlucky Nationals runner at the plate. The ugly, it seems, was masked only by the uglier.

"It's embarrassing," said third baseman David Wright. "With the season on the line, with seven games left to go out there, we get embarrassed on our home field."

By the Nationals. These aren't the Phillies. These aren't even the Braves. Manny Acta's club has lost 87 games this year, and would be squarely in the NL East cellar if not for their proclivity at beating the Mets. They've done so in three of their last four games against them, demonstrating a "fire" that Lo Duca insisted his Mets lacked.

Manager Willie Randolph couldn't disagree. "We'd almost rather be playing teams that are contenders," Randolph said, "so there's more of an even playing field."

Teams like the Phillies? That might not be the best idea, considering the Mets have lost eight straight against them, too. They've lost four of six to the Padres this season, and two of their last three to the Diamondbacks. The only contender, in fact, that the Mets have had much success against is the Cubs -- a team they haven't seen in almost two months.

"If we were playing some of the upper echelon teams," Lo Duca corrected, "we'd really get our butts kicked."

And after all that -- until a stray run in the ninth, the Mets mustered just one sacrifice fly and two run-scoring hits off rookie Matt Chico -- the team is still in contention. They're still two games up, and as long as the Phillies stay idle, the Mets can only lose a half-game at a time.

The Phillies, of course, won't be idle again.

"We're in the drivers seat," Wright said. "We can't forget that. We're being chased. We don't have to look in the rearview mirror. We don't need to scoreboard watch. We need to take care of business."

Perhaps the voice of reason, Wright is at least the voice of optimism. And he should have the brightest outlook. Of all the Mets, he and Moises Alou have been the only ones immune to September's swoon. With three hits on Monday, Wright upped his September average to .349, and with one knock of his own, Alou extended his hitting streak to 28 games.

And none of that has any bearing on what's happening around them.

The Mets need to win. The Nationals want to win. That's a key difference, and on Monday, it made no difference.

"I don't even know what to say anymore," Lo Duca said. "I'm waiting because I haven't slept in like seven nights. I'd like to get some sleep."

Anthony DiComo is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.