WASHINGTON - What chapped Terry Collins most about the festering fiasco surrounding Matt Harvey was the way it overshadowed something far greater.

Lost in the hand-wringing about innings limits, hidden in the vitriol directed at the designated diva, was that the first-place Mets not only were in a pennant race, but in the driver's seat.

This fact is lost no more, not with the way Tuesday night played out, not with the way Harvey failed in the most scrutinized start of his career, not with the way the Mets nevertheless rallied from six runs down to beat the Nationals, 8-7.

"It's something to be proud of,'' said reserve outfielder Kirk Nieuwenhuis, whose solo shot in the eighth inning gave the Mets another stirring comeback victory. His pinch-hit homer came after the Mets exploded for a six-run seventh, erasing the 7-1 mess that Harvey had left behind.

The Mets opened a commanding six-game lead over the reeling Nationals. They did it by accomplishing on the field what they claim they have done in the clubhouse -- they made Harvey and the drama that surrounds him into nothing more than a sideshow.

"The thought in my mind was, you've got to be kidding me,'' said an awestruck Collins, who watched the seventh inning unfold in a panic-free dugout. "We're going to tie this thing.''

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In the bullpen, closer Jeurys Familia began imagining how he would attack the ninth inning, convinced he would be finishing the game.

Did he really believe he would pitch?

"The way we've been playing this year?'' he said shortly after stranding the tying run on second for his 38th save. "Yes.''

Harvey exited after 51/3 innings as he tied a career high by allowing seven runs. The biggest blow came from Michael A. Taylor, who, with an assist from Yoenis Cespedes, chased Harvey with what amounted to an inside-the-park grand slam single.

Taylor cracked a single to centerfield. The ball bounced over Cespedes' glove and rolled all the way to the wall, clearing the bases and allowing Taylor to score on the three-base error.

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Harvey had stoked the rally by bobbling a bunt. The meltdown came after he had settled down after allowing three runs in the first two innings.

"I left way too many pitches over the middle of the plate,'' said Harvey, whose 1712/3 innings put him right up against the limit of roughly 180.

But then came the seventh, when the Mets sent 12 men to the plate as the Nationals suddenly couldn't throw strikes. Their relievers walked six batters, including two with the bases loaded.

Former closer Drew Storen, brought in an inning earlier than usual to restore order, allowed Cespedes a measure of redemption. He let the slugger double with the bases loaded before issuing three consecutive walks.

An inning later, Nieuwenhuis stunned the Nationals. His homer came off closer Jonathan Papelbon, deployed an inning early out of desperation.

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As they did on Labor Day, the Mets dealt the Nationals a painful loss. Not since June 2001 against the Orioles had the Mets overcome a deficit of six runs or more in the seventh inning or after.

"I thought yesterday was pretty good,'' said David Wright, who homered and helped trigger the big seventh inning. "This was amazing.''

Notes & quotes: Lucas Duda started for the first time since going on the DL with a back injury . . . The Mets promoted Tim Stauffer from Triple-A Las Vegas. He will fill the role of long reliever Carlos Torres, who could be out two weeks with a calf injury.