WASHINGTON -- It took six days for the New York Mets to squander a 3 1/2-game cushion in the NL East. Now, the only race they lead is for the wild card -- and not by much.
Odalis Perez shut down the slumping Mets and scored the only run of the game, sending Washington to a 1-0 victory Tuesday night that knocked New York out of first place.
Philadelphia moved a half-game in front with an 8-7 win at Atlanta. It's the first time the Mets, who have lost four of five, have been out of first place since Aug. 26. They lead struggling Milwaukee by a half-game in the wild-card standings.
Needing wins in a tense pennant race, the free-falling Mets can't find a way to beat the lowly Nationals.
Sounds the same as last September -- only this flop happened faster.
"We've got to dig down deep," David Wright said. "This is what makes it fun. You've got, what, 12, 13 games left and that's going to decide the season? This is what you work hard for, this is what you prepare for, and as an athlete, a competitor, you love this."
The Mets and their fans aren't loving the flashback to last season, when New York held a seven-game advantage with 17 to play only to lose the division crown to Philadelphia and miss the playoffs in one of the worst collapses in baseball history.
They were up by 3 1/2 games with 17 to go this year, but that lead is gone. And on Tuesday night, New York also lost outfielder Fernando Tatis for the rest of the season to a separated shoulder.
The Mets went 1-5 against the Nationals over the final two weeks last season -- a big reason for their massive meltdown. This time, New York has dropped the first two in a four-game series at Washington mainly because it can't find any offense.
The Mets' four hits Tuesday wasted an outstanding start by Mike Pelfrey. The one real threat by the Mets was thwarted when Willie Harris made another key catch against New York, something he's done regularly over the past year or so.
"We're a better-hitting club than what we've shown here," manager Jerry Manuel said. "We've just got to do a better job, period, offensively."
A day after John Lannan held the Mets to one hit over seven innings, New York mustered just two in the first seven innings against Perez (7-10).
The lefty retired 13 in a row between those two hits -- which came in the first and sixth innings -- and never let a Mets runner advance beyond second base. Perez struck out six and did not walk a batter in 7 1/3 innings, his longest outing since Aug. 11, 2005.
"He had the best command of the season so far," Washington manager Manny Acta said. "He threw every one of his pitches for strikes. He was able to stop the middle of the lineup. He was just tremendous."
Perez gave way to Mike Hinckley after giving up singles to pinch-hitters Ramon Castro and Robinson Cancel in the eighth. Hinckley got Jose Reyes to ground into a fielder's choice, putting runners on first and third with two outs. He then struck out Ryan Church to end the threat.
Hinckley has opened his major league career without giving up a run in his first nine innings.
"I said to him, 'Great job,'" Perez said. "'You saved my game.'"
Pelfrey (13-10) was the hard-luck loser. He allowed seven hits and four walks in seven innings.
"Sometimes you go up against someone that's very good, and Odalis Perez was very good tonight," he said.
When someone asked about the parallels to last season, Pelfrey was having none of it.
"The only time anybody ever thinks about that is when you guys bring it up," Pelfrey said. "It happened last year. I feel the atmosphere of the team is totally different. Nobody's worrying about that, nobody's playing and thinking about last year."
However, Manuel might have been worrying about this year when he closed the clubhouse for about 15 minutes before the game. He said he'd decided to have the meeting after Monday night's 7-2 loss to the Nationals.
The meeting did little to reverse the Mets' fortunes.
"The speech I gave, I won't be selling any CDs," Manuel said.
With Perez sharp on the mound, the Nationals' lone run was enough to hold off the Mets.
With two outs, Perez hit a soft liner to left. Tatis dove for the ball and missed, allowing Perez to reach second with a double as the ball rolled past. Tatis remained on the ground in pain, eventually walking off with a separated right shoulder. He was replaced by Nick Evans.
After Harris walked, Cristian Guzman drove in Perez with a ground-rule double into the Mets' bullpen.
Harris probably saved the game with his glove in the top of the sixth.
With two outs and two on, Wright hit a ball to left field that looked as though it would score at least one run. But Harris made a leaping catch with his back to the plate, ending the inning.
"It was a great play," Wright said. "But we needed to do a better job of putting more pressure on them in more innings, not just having one opportunity and have that make or break the game."
It was the third time in just more than a year that Harris' defense has stymied the Mets. On May 15, he helped preserve another 1-0 Washington win against Pelfrey with a spectacular catch in the ninth inning. Last August, playing with the Braves, he made a leaping catch to rob Delgado of a potential tying homer in the ninth inning of a 7-6 Atlanta victory.
"I'm aware of it," Harris said. "It's not any different than playing any other team. It just so happens I was able to make a few plays against those guys. I really don't know what to say about it. It's just part of my game, and it's what my pitchers expect out of me."
If the Mets want to erase the comparisons to last year, they have two more games in Washington to try and turn things around. This time, they don't have the benefit of a seven-game lead, but the players say there is confidence in the locker room.
"There's no doubt," Reyes said. "We're still in position, but we just have to start again. It's getting tougher and tougher every day."
Washington C Jesus Flores, sidelined since hurting his left ankle Sept. 2, said he's not sure whether his season is over -- something Acta said seemed likely. ... INF Anderson Hernandez entered hitting .354 with 11 RBIs in 12 starts since the Nationals acquired him from the Mets last month. He was batting .203 at Triple-A New Orleans at the time of the trade.