WASHINGTON - David Wright hit the dirt Monday afternoon, the momentum of his slide taking him across home plate. But before he could pop back up, he anxiously craned his head toward the umpire.

When Paul Nauert extended his arms and called him safe, Wright unleashed a fist pump seven years in the making.

All of those seasons of darkness led the Mets here, to a sun-splashed Labor Day in the nation's capital, to an 8-5 victory over the second-place Nationals that increased their lead over their rivals to five games.

More important still, it offered perhaps the strongest hint yet that the Mets possess the mettle needed to withstand the pressures of playoff baseball, a trait that once again may elude the Nationals.

"We're all excited -- not just for the win, but the way we won this game," said Wright, whose slide into home plate capped a three-run seventh, one that he triggered by singling home the go-ahead run.

The flurry proved to be the deciding blow in an afternoon in which the teams traded haymakers.

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By day's end, Juan Uribe's acoustic version of Michael Jackson's classic "Beat It" provided the soundtrack in the visitors' clubhouse as the Mets basked in what Wright called a "character win."

Down the hall, in the home clubhouse, Nationals star Bryce Harper took his angst out on fans who could be seen swarming to the exits before the final out. "Well, they left in the seventh, so that was brutal," Harper told reporters. "I don't know, whatever."

Just a few hours earlier, those same fans roared as the Nationals torched Mets starter Jonathon Niese and overcame a 3-0 deficit built on homers by Michael Conforto, Kelly Johnson and Yoenis Cespedes.

The biggest blow in the Nationals' five-run fourth came from Mets-killer Wilson Ramos, whose grand slam sailed over the visiting bullpen. Jayson Werth's RBI double made it 5-3. But the Mets chipped away.

They evened the score at 5 against Max Scherzer on Curtis Granderson's RBI double in the fifth and Travis d'Arnaud's sacrifice fly in the sixth, setting up the seventh-inning rally.

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"They came out today in the biggest game of I think our season thus far, fell behind, and came back and held on," manager Terry Collins said. "It was a great win."

The Mets' biggest game since the September collapse of 2008 came beneath the shadow of the ongoing controversy surrounding Matt Harvey's innings limit. But that distraction hardly mattered.

Long reliever Carlos Torres left the game with a strained left calf muscle, forcing Collins to juggle a burned-out bullpen in what he considered a postseason game.

That shortage came to the fore in the bottom of the sixth. With the score tied, Collins brought in recent call-up Dario Alvarez to counter Harper, the first big-league batter Alvarez had faced this season. But the lefthander prevailed, striking out the favorite for the National League MVP award after falling behind 3-and-0.

Hansel Robles retired all six batters he faced, striking out four. He set up closer Jeurys Familia, who picked up his 37th save with a shutout ninth inning that capped 5 2/3 scoreless innings from the bullpen.

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It was that kind of afternoon for the Mets.

Cespedes, perhaps the best trade deadline acquisition in Mets history, went 3-for-5 with a pair of doubles and his 31st homer, including 13 since he was acquired from the Tigers on July 31.

"I just go out there, try to have fun, produce," he said. "Put a little piece on my plate and try to help the team win."

But it was Wright who came through with the biggest hit in the kind of game he fantasized about as he worked his way back from spinal stenosis.

After Wright's RBI single off Casey Janssen broke a 5-5 tie in the seventh, Daniel Murphy lifted a sacrifice fly and Wright scored on Cespedes' two-out double, capping a frantic 270-foot sprint with a dramatic slide to beat the relay.

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"What a game," Wright said. "Just . . . what a game."