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Nationals get first win of season when trailing after eight innings

WASHINGTON -- At the very moment Justin Maxwell's grand slam off All-Star closer Francisco Rodriguez with two outs in the ninth inning cleared the red flowers atop the left-field wall, the Washington Nationals came sprinting out of the dugout.

They began bouncing near the plate, arms around each other, waiting to smother Maxwell with slaps to the head and punches to the ribs, part of the celebration worthy of a postseason victory -- not avoiding loss No. 104 of a dismal season.

Still, this was Fan Appreciation Day at Nationals Park, the last home game of the season, and those spectators that stuck around sure were sent away with something to appreciate Wednesday: Maxwell's homer provided a sweep-capping 7-4 win over the New York Mets, ending Washington's 150-game streak of losses when trailing after eight innings.

"There's no way I can explain how good a feeling that is. The fans' excitement -- the players' excitement -- speaks for itself," Nationals interim manager Jim Riggleman said. "We are where we are in the standings."

Where they are is last in the NL East with the worst record in the majors, 55-103, destined for the No. 1 pick in the amateur draft for the second consecutive year.

"We haven't been playing that well this year, but this kind of pushes us forward going into next year," said Maxwell, who was facing Rodriguez for the first time in only his 99th career at-bat. "Definitely a nice memory."

He drove a full-count fastball from Rodriguez (3-6) barely over the wall for his third homer of the season. The Mets led 4-2 entering the ninth, but Rodriguez loaded the bases and then walked Adam Dunn to force in a run en route to blowing a save for the seventh time this season.

Maxwell's drive came on K-Rod's 37th pitch of the inning and made a winner of reliever Ron Villone (5-6).

"Really, really frustrating," Rodriguez said. "All the work you put in all year, you throw away pretty much on one pitch."

The Nationals had been 0-87 this season when down through eight innings; they hadn't overcome a deficit that late since June 11, 2008.

Things have been almost as bad on the field for the Mets, who have 92 losses and are in fourth place in the division, one spot ahead of Washington.

"We're just not a good team right now," manager Jerry Manuel conceded.

New York has been beset by injuries to key players all year, and there was some troubling news Wednesday about shortstop Jose Reyes, who has a new tear in the right hamstring that's kept him on the disabled list since May.

Already without stars such as Reyes, Carlos Delgado and Johan Santana, the Mets gave second baseman Luis Castillo a day off. Still, even a makeshift lineup featuring Omir Santos -- who drove in two runs -- and Wilson Valdez appeared set to beat Washington.

Consider: The guy earning "Gold Glove! Gold Glove!" chants all afternoon, Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, made two errors. A starting pitcher the Nationals discarded after last season, Tim Redding, threw 3 1/3 perfect innings against them. And the 2-year-old stadium was, once again, barely half full.

"We know it's a been a trying season," Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo told an announced crowd of 23,944 in an on-field speech before the first pitch.

"We're looking forward to bringing you a winning ballclub in the very near future," he vowed.

He also told reporters that Riggleman is a "legitimate candidate" to get the managing job for 2010. Riggleman replaced the fired Manny Acta in July, and while the team's play -- and winning percentage -- improved, the Nationals still will finish with more than 100 losses for a second consecutive season.

Rizzo pointed to the win-loss record as the primary reason that Washington's average attendance fell from about 29,000 in 2008 to under 23,000 in 2009. The total attendance this season of 1,817,256 is more than a half-million lower than a year ago.

"It's been a rough season," Riggleman said during a postgame interview shown on the video screen.

He then promised: "It's going to be a lot more exciting in the future."

Perhaps. But it won't be easy to top Wednesday's finish.

Game notes
Play was delayed for four minutes in the second inning while umpires checked video replays to see whether Jeff Francoeur should be credited with a homer. But the original call stood, leaving Francoeur with a double. ... Zimmerman hit his 33rd homer. ... Dunn went 0-for-4, extending his current slump to 0-for-23. ... Mets left-hander Pedro Feliciano broke his own club record by making his 87th appearance of the season. He faced one batter in the eighth, retiring Dunn on a popout. Feliciano had 86 appearances in 2008.