WASHINGTON - By the bottom of the 13th inning Thursday, the Mets had stretched their roster to the limit, all in hopes of beating the Nationals.
With the outcome hanging in the balance, manager Terry Collins double-switched centerfielder Juan Lagares out of a tie game in the eighth, pulling his best glove in favor of running his bullpen.
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One by one, he burned through his best arms, even summoning banged-up closer Jenrry Mejia to pitch in a tie game on the road in the 12th. And the Mets held the line, thanks to a pair of diving catches in extra innings by centerfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis.
But with their bullpen finally tapped out, the Mets finally caved in, absorbing a bitter 5-3 loss in the 13th inning when struggling slugger Bryce Harper hit a two-run homer.
Carlos Torres, the final reliever at Collins' disposal, set the stage by walking Ian Desmond. That brought up Harper, the 101st batter of the game, who sent Torres' two-seam fastball over the fence in left.
"This was a huge game for us,'' Torres said. "We need to beat this team in our division. They're No. 1 in our division right now. We need to beat these guys . . . I cost us a game that we needed.''
The Mets have put off judgment to this point, a function of how they've infused their roster with emerging young talent. Their rivals have obliged as well, making the NL East a neighborhood for underachievers.
The Braves, for all their experience, have fallen into a tailspin. The Nationals, for all their talent, have failed to put it all together.
When the Mets arrived here Tuesday night, they understood the weight that a series win here would carry. Six of their next 10 games would be against the first-place Nationals. This could have been a springboard.
But by the time they left town, the Mets tasted the sting of a series loss, made more bitter because victory remained within their grasp until the instant that Harper connected.
The Mets (54-61) trail the Nationals by nine games and have fallen 7 1/2 games behind in the battle for the second wild card. A postseason berth, always a long shot, now appears even more elusive. "If we're going to be in the hunt, we've got to win these games,'' Collins said.
Rookie Jacob deGrom lacked his best stuff but kept the Mets within range of the Nationals, who took a 3-1 lead behind starter Jordan Zimmermann. Desmond hit a two-run homer and knocked in another run with the help of leftfielder Eric Young Jr., whose careless throw from the outfield proved costly.
But in the seventh, the Mets closed the gap against reliever Drew Storen, getting a sacrifice fly by Young and a clutch RBI single by the slumping Curtis Granderson.
"We came back in the game,'' Collins said. "You're facing one of the best pitchers in baseball and you get back in the game and you kind of have a big lift. We just couldn't mount anything after that.''
Despite excellent work by the bullpen, the bats came up short, as the Mets put only three runners on base after the seventh inning. With the offense scuffling and the bullpen whittled down to the end, the Mets soon found themselves taxed to the brink.
"You come in here, you win the first game and you're feeling pretty good about yourself, and then you drop the next two,'' David Wright said. "That's not how we played it out in our minds for sure.''