Bartolo Colon is splayed on the Mets' clubhouse couch the afternoon before his start, first chatting amicably and then laughing uproariously when a loud bang he makes causes everyone around him to jump (and one member of the staff to cover his head). If the boom is on purpose -- and based on Colon's response, it seemed to be -- the reaction couldn't have been better.

Most pitchers prefer calm and quiet before taking the mound, but Colon, as he has for most of his career, seems a species all his own. Never mind that, before the game, Terry Collins underlined how the Nationals are the team standing between the Mets and relevancy.

"We gotta start winning some games against the Nationals if we're going to have any opportunity at all to talk about how important September is," Collins said. "This is a big game for Bartolo to step up and do what he does best."

What Bartolo Colon does best is be Bartolo Colon, and Wednesday it was almost -- almost -- enough to topple a first-place Nationals team that lit up the Mets with four home runs in the previous day's rout.

Colon went seven innings in the 3-2 loss, allowing six hits and one earned run with a walk and eight strikeouts. He absorbed the loss after Kevin Frandsen hit a seventh-inning sacrifice fly to score Ian Desmond, who had reached on an error, to break the tie at 1. He threw 89 pitches, 65 for strikes.

Colon's performance is all the more impressive when you think of his age (41), his repertoire -- a steady mix of fastballs and more fastballs -- and his opponent, a happy-hitting Nationals team that, going into yesterday, was fifth in the National League with 101 homers.

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(After Asdrubal Cabrera's eighth-inning home run off Jeurys Familia last night, the Nationals have hit 10 homers in five games at Citi this season).

Those are the types of numbers that would make any pitcher apprehensive but, again, Colon is very bad at being "any pitcher." He flirted with corners, induced long flyouts, froze hitters and did it with typical good humor and unflappable aplomb -- like a man taking a casual stroll on a tightrope. With a 3.85 ERA, the method is hardly bulletproof, but when he struck out Denard Span and Anthony Rendon on six pitches, all called strikes, in the first, it didn't seem like it.

"[We need Colon to] get deep into a game, keep it close so we don't have to look to the long ball to try and catch up," Collins said before the game. "He's had success against these guys and I'm hoping tonight is one of those games where he pitches great."

Mission accomplished, in an atypical, typical Bartolo Colon fashion.