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Piazza's hit in 11th lifts Mets to big win

WASHINGTON (AP) -- Even a struggling Mike Piazza gives the New
York Mets exactly what the Washington Nationals so desperately need
right now: an experienced slugger in the middle of the lineup.

Piazza drove in the go-ahead run in the 11th inning with his
third hit, and the Mets handed the Nationals their first series
loss at home since April by beating Washington 3-2 Thursday.

Returning from a night off, Piazza went 3-for-5 with two RBI,
including the run-scoring single off Luis Ayala (7-5) that gave the
Mets three wins in the four-game series. New York also snapped the
Nationals' 12-game winning streak in one-run games, three shy of
the major league record.

"I don't necessarily feel like the first day of spring, but I
feel better," said Piazza, who tied Howard Johnson for second on
the Mets' career RBI list with 629. "It's pitch selection. If I'm
able to lay off the bad pitches, I'll get better swings."

Words the Nationals wish they had lived by Thursday -- and
throughout this series. Washington entered the week having won six
straight games overall and 15 of 16 at RFK Stadium.

But they managed only 10 runs against New York, repeatedly
failing in the clutch.

On Thursday, the Nationals did all their scoring in the third
inning on Jose Vidro's two-RBI double off Mets starter Kris Benson.

"We had opportunities. All we had to do was take advantage and
execute a little better in this series and we could have very
easily won three of four ourselves," Nationals manager Frank
Robinson said.

His team put runners on first and third with one out in the
second, but Marlon Byrd grounded into a double play. It got Matt
Cepicky's leadoff double in the fifth, but starter Tony Armas Jr.
failed to get a sacrifice down and fouled off a bunt attempt with
two strikes -- even after Robinson came out to tell him not to worry
about where the bunt went. Later in the inning, with the bases
loaded and two out, Carlos Baerga hit a comebacker on a borderline
3-2 pitch.

Washington had runners at first and second with one out in the
ninth, and failed to score. Jose Guillen, who was sick and only
entered the game in the ninth, flied out, and Brad Wilkerson hit a
check-swing grounder to third.

"It's an unfortunate situation where it hit the bat and went
fair," Wilkerson said.

Typical of the way things went against the Mets for the
Nationals, whose lead in the NL East is shrinking as they head into
a series at division rival Philadelphia before next week's All-Star
break.

"This will only be a lull if we go into Philadelphia and play
the same way and get the same results," Robinson said. "You can
lose three out of four, but it's what happens after that. Do you
bounce back? Or do you continue to play the same way? We'll see."

With two on and one out in the 11th, Piazza lifted a blooper
that fell in between second base and right field, scoring Carlos
Beltran. Guillen threw home too late -- Robinson said that was the
wrong play -- but catcher Brian Schneider threw to second to get
Piazza. Shortstop Jamey Carroll threw back home to get Floyd at the
plate to end the inning on a 9-2-6-2 double play.

The bottom of the 11th was delayed while Robinson argued with
crew chief Joe West after the Mets sent Heath Bell (1-3) out to the
mound to warm up, then replaced him with closer Braden Looper.

"He allowed them to stretch the rules to the limit," Robinson
said.

Looper recorded the final three outs for his 20th save. Bell
pitched two scoreless innings of one-hit ball for his first major
league win.

"It's good to get that monkey off your back," Bell said.
"It's definitely a confidence-booster, especially going into tight
games in the future."

The Mets tied it at 2 in the fourth on Piazza's RBI double.

"Mike's always been a professional hitter, a clutch player.
When people started calling for his head, I don't hear all that,"
Mets manager Willie Randolph said. "Mike's got a track record. I
hope he gets hot. He's been struggling a little bit."

New York's first run came in the first inning without a hit.

Armas walked Jose Reyes, who stole second, moved up on Cameron's
bunt, and scored on Beltran's groundout.

"We're playing better," said Piazza, 0-for-8 in the series
before Thursday. "From our standpoint, we're not thinking about
anything except getting above .500."

Game notes
There was a moment of silence after the sixth inning for
the victims of Thursday's attacks in London. ... Security was
tightened before the game. The announced attendance was 44,492,
just short of capacity, although the stands did not appear to be
that full. ... RHP Pedro Martinez pulled out of the All-Star game
because he's scheduled to start for the Mets on Sunday. ... The
Nationals had won nine straight home series, dating to April 25-27,
when Philadelphia took two of three games.