WASHINGTON -- 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
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."
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 RBIs, and Jamey Carroll had two hits and drove in a run.