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Nationals out of playoffs with loss to Mets

WASHINGTON (AP) -- When the weather was warm and the stands were
packed, everything seemed to go the Washington Nationals' way.

Opponents' deep drives turned into outs in spacious RFK Stadium,
late rallies were commonplace, the bullpen was almost untouchable,
and one-run wins piled up. On July 3, 81 games removed from
Montreal, the capital's new club was 50-31 -- on pace for 100 wins!
-- and owned a 5½-game lead in the NL East.

At 4:19 p.m. Sunday, under a cloud-filled sky, an announced
crowd of 29,967 watched silently as a harmless groundout left the
potential winning run on first base in the bottom of the ninth.
That ended Washington's 6-5 loss to the New York Mets, who hit four
homers, two by Mike Piazza.

And just like that, all in one fell swoop, the Nationals were
eliminated from playoff contention, dropped to last in the NL East
and fell to .500 (78-78) for the first time in nearly four months.

"If we finished in last, obviously, that would be a shame,"
catcher Gary Bennett said. "In the second half, we collapsed.
Plain and simple. We didn't get it done."

The Mets (78-77) completed a three-game sweep and moved out of
fifth place for the first time since Sept. 2. They'll be
mathematically eliminated with one more loss.

"You want to kind of finish it off and start the new year ready
to roll," said Piazza, who connected in the second and fourth
inning off starter John Patterson.

After the Nationals rallied to take a 4-3 lead into the eighth --
the kind of comeback that led to 12 straight one-run wins before
the All-Star break -- the Mets got solo shots from David Wright and
Mike Jacobs off reliever Travis Hughes (1-1).

"Just fastballs up," Hughes said.

RFK was the toughest stadium to hit a homer in all season, but
Washington has now allowed 16 in its past nine home games.

Hughes faced six batters and allowed four hits, including the
first of pitcher Juan Padilla's major league career.

Padilla (2-1) earned the win by going 1 2-3 innings. He got out
of a jam in the eighth after consecutive errors by shortstop Jose
Reyes and second baseman Miguel Cairo. Aaron Heilman pitched the
ninth for his third save, and second of the series.

The loss, Washington's seventh in eight games, left the club at
.500 for the first time since it was 25-25 on May 29. Four days
later, the Nationals started a 10-game winning streak that moved
them atop the standings.

Given that start, manager Frank Robinson has spoken earnestly
about preferring to finish fourth in the division, rather than
last, and with a record above the break-even mark.

"You're going to lose ballgames and get beat. But we're not
executing the way we were and should be," Robinson said. "That's
what's frustrating about it."

Said Patterson: "We had such a good year going, and to finish
the way we're finishing up right now ... it's just bad."

While Robinson has started sitting some regulars, Mets manager
Willie Randolph had a standard lineup on the field Sunday. That
included Piazza, who had the 36th multihomer game of his career and
second of 2005, and Wright, who had an RBI double in addition to
his 23rd homer -- and threw out Brad Wilkerson at the plate to end
the seventh.

"This team has grinded it out for me all year. So we addressed
that the last couple of weeks. I'm not surprised, I expect that
from my guys," Randolph said. "So we still have a week to go to
finish up strong."

Game notes
Piazza tied Joe Carter for 44th place on the career list
with 396 homers. ... Nationals SS Cristian Guzman dropped a popup
by Jacobs for an error in the second inning, drawing boos. When
Guzman caught Cliff Floyd's popup at nearly the same spot in the
sixth, it drew a sarcastic cheer. ... Mets starter Kris Benson
allowed five runs in 6 1-3 innings. ... Wilkerson had two doubles,
Nick Johnson had two hits and three RBI, and Jamey Carroll had two
hits and drove in a run.