NEW YORK -- With their pitching staff in tatters, the free-falling Mets are flirting with an historic collapse.
New York wasted two homers by Carlos Beltran and another from Moises Alou, blowing a five-run cushion Wednesday night in a 9-6 loss to the Washington Nationals that sliced its NL East lead to one game over Philadelphia with four to play.
"It's hard to believe," Beltran said. "Unbelievable."
The Phillies, who beat Atlanta 5-2, haven't been this close to first place since they lost on opening day. It's the Mets' slimmest margin since they were a half-game in front before play on May 17.
New York led by seven games, with 17 to play, after beating Atlanta on Sept. 12. No major league team has failed to finish first after having at least a seven-game advantage with 17 remaining.
"We all feel terrible for ourselves as a team right now that we can't really close the deal," manager Willie Randolph said. "But we still have time. We're not giving in."
Betrayed by a brutal bullpen and ineffective starting pitching, New York has dropped six straight home games and nine of 13 overall.
Fans have started to turn on the not-so-Amazin's, too. Many in the crowd of 51,940 booed throughout the late innings as New York flopped once more against a fourth-place team.
"It's late in the season, guys are tired, we're running on fumes," David Wright said. "It's not an excuse. We need to go out there and finish strong and dig down deep and really do some soul-searching because we're going to have to finish with a flurry."
Ryan Church homered and drove in four runs for the feisty Nationals, who completed a three-game sweep at Shea Stadium and improved to 5-1 against the Mets in a 10-day span.
Washington (72-87) surpassed last year's win total, split the season series with the Mets 9-all and clinched a winning record in September for the second consecutive year.
After a six-run rally in the ninth inning Tuesday left the Mets just short in a 10-9 loss, they jumped out quickly in this one.
Beltran and Alou hit consecutive homers in the first inning and the Mets built a 5-0 cushion after three. They handed it to Philip Humber, who made his first major league start because New York still wants to give Pedro Martinez extra rest between outings after his return from shoulder surgery.
The Mets said they tabbed Humber in this pressure-packed game because he was the best option available. But after a nice start, he wasn't much help -- and neither was the bullpen.
The Nationals, who began the night with the fewest runs in the majors, scored 57 in their final six games against New York.
"Most of the things that are happening are out of Willie Randolph's hands," said Washington manager Manny Acta, Randolph's third base coach the past two years in New York.
Humber walked the leadoff batter in the fourth, then gave up Church's two-run shot. Alou hit an RBI single in the bottom half, but Humber walked the leadoff man again in the fifth and was pulled after Ronnie Belliard's RBI double.
Desperate for someone to stem the tide, the Mets brought Orlando Hernandez out of the bullpen in the seventh. He walked two and struck out two in a scoreless inning.
Because of a sore right foot, Hernandez hadn't pitched since he was roughed up by the Braves on Sept. 11 -- and he had worked only six-plus innings since Aug. 26.
He just had the protective boot removed from his foot Monday, and the original plan was for him to throw a simulated game Thursday to help determine if he could possibly be ready by this weekend.
Now, Hernandez will be used out of the bullpen through the first round of the playoffs -- if the Mets get there, Randolph said.
El Duque said his foot was sore after the outing.
Church, a left-handed batter, added a two-run double in the ninth off lefty Billy Wagner.
"We're not scared of losing. What the problem is, is just how bad we're playing," Wagner said. "As good as our bullpen was early, we're that bad right now."
Luis Ayala worked a perfect inning for his first save since May 16, 2005. He missed last season with an elbow injury.
Joel Hanrahan (5-3) got the win, yielding one run in 1 2/3 innings.
Beltran hit a two-run shot off ex-Met Mike Bacsik in the first and Alou followed with his 13th home run, extending his hitting streak to 30 games.
It's the longest streak by a player on a New York team (including Brooklyn) since Joe DiMaggio's record run of 56 games in 1941 with the Yankees.
Beltran's second homer off Bacsik made it 5-0 in the third.
- It was Beltran's 22nd career multihomer game and fifth this season. He also hit two homers last Wednesday at Washington.
- It was Hernandez's first relief appearance since October 2005 with the Chicago White Sox.