WASHINGTON – All in one fell swoop, the Washington Nationals were eliminated from playoff contention, dropped to last in the NL East and fell to .500 with a 6-5 loss to the Mets, as Mike Piazza hit two of New York’s four homers.

The Mets (78-77) completed a three-game sweep and moved out of fifth place for the first time since Sept. 2.

After the Nationals rallied to take a 4-3 lead in the seventh, the Mets went right back up in the eighth with solo shots by David Wright and Mike Jacobs off Travis Hughes (1-1). 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, made its record 78-78, the first time the club’s been at .500 since it was 25-25 on May 29. Four days later, the Nationals started a 10-game winning streak that helped them reach the halfway mark at 50-31 with a 51/2-game lead atop the NL East.

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.

His Mets counterpart, Willie Randolph doesn’t subscribe to that sort of mind-set.

“I’m so used to winning and being in the mix that that’s foreign to me,” Randolph said.

Asked about the importance of ending up at .500 or better, the first-year manager said, “That’s not a prize. … It’s just a psychological thing. It might sound nicer. But … the bottom line is that you’re not in the playoffs. I don’t want my players thinking it’s acceptable to finish at .500.”

To that end, Randolph has said repeatedly that Pedro Martinez will stay in the rotation until New York is mathematically eliminated. That would happen with one more loss by the Mets or one more win by the Houston Astros, who lead the wild-card standings. Houston was playing at the Cubs on Sunday.

So while Robinson has started sitting some regulars, 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.

Piazza hit a solo shot to left in the second inning and a two-run homer to nearly straightaway center in the fourth, both off starter John Patterson, to raise his season total to 18 homers.

Patterson, who’s from Orange, Texas, went through two sleepless nights this week and spent plenty of time trying to speak on the telephone with family members who evacuated from the path of Hurricane Rita.

Mets starter Kris Benson allowed five runs in 6 1-3 innings.

Brad Wilkerson had two doubles, Nick Johnson had two hits and three RBIs, and Jamey Carroll had two hits and drove in a run for Washington.

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 from the crowd of 29,967. When Guzman caught Cliff Floyd’s popup at nearly the same spot in the sixth, it drew a sarcastic cheer.

AP-ES-09-25-05 1623EDT


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