WASHINGTON - If the Mets are to follow through on their aspirations, if they indeed challenge the Nationals for supremacy in the NL East, the difference between themselves and their rivals must be measured not in miles but inches.

Perhaps the Mets have begun narrowing that gap.

"Both teams have great pitching staffs," Mets starter Jacob deGrom said last night after a 2-1 loss to the Nationals. "I think it will be like that most of the time we play them."

After the Mets won a pitchers' duel on Opening Day, the Nationals returned the favor. A dose of bad luck and a dash of poor execution conspired against the Mets.

Pitching in a cool mist that delayed first pitch by nearly an hour, deGrom allowed two runs in six innings. All the damage came on one swing.

In the first, Ryan Zimmerman blasted a two-run shot over the leftfield fence, turning on a 94 mph fastball that deGrom thought he had buried in on his hands.

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"That pitch was inside," said deGrom, who checked the video later on. "He must have just been looking for it."

Zimmerman's timely swing doomed the Mets, who mustered little against righthander Jordan Zimmermann.

Travis d'Arnaud's run-scoring single in the second stood up as the only run against the righthander, who picked up the victory after allowing five hits and striking out four.

He looked his shakiest in the second, when the Mets loaded the bases only to come away with one run. It was deGrom who shouldered part of the blame.

After d'Arnaud's run-scoring hit, deGrom stepped up to the plate with runners on first and second and one out. He was hitting in the eighth spot, part of an unorthodox lineup adopted by manager Terry Collins.

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It was an obvious sacrifice situation. But deGrom popped his bunt into the air long enough for Zimmerman to swoop in for a sprawling catch. Wilmer Flores followed with an infield hit to load the bases when the Mets caught another tough break.

Curtis Granderson thought he had taken ball four when he jogged up the first-base line. He did an about face when he noticed plate umpire Mike Everitt signal strike three.

"I thought it was up," said Granderson, who argued to no avail. "He said otherwise."

Lucas Duda hit three screaming liners and came away with nothing more than a single.

The first ended up in Dan Uggla's mitt at second base. The second hit the wall in rightfield before bouncing to Bryce Harper -- a 325-foot single. The third came in the eighth, with the Mets down a run.

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David Wright had just lined a single to right and Duda followed with a liner up the middle. But reliever Blake Treinen snagged the drive, then threw to first for an easy double play.

Said Collins: "All you can do is try to hit the ball hard and take what you get."

Last season, the Mets posted a 4-15 mark against the Nationals. But so far, they have played on even terms and another duel could be in the offing. Matt Harvey faces Stephen Strasburg in Thursday's series finale.

"Their pitching's so good," Collins said. "And I think our pitching's so good that there aren't going to be a lot of runs scored."