ATLANTA - With the Mets clinging to a late lead against the Braves on Friday night, bench coach Bob Geren sought out manager Terry Collins. He had news to share.

The fading Nationals had lost to the Marlins in Miami, and for the Mets, this meant a chance to twist the knife. So Collins resolved to go for the jugular.

"We played to win tonight," he said after a 5-1 victory that put the NL East-leading Mets a season-high 81/2 games ahead of the Nationals.

Collins had hoped to give another night of rest to his back-end bullpen tandem of Tyler Clippard and Jeurys Familia, but once he caught wind of the Nationals' 2-1 loss to the Marlins, his thinking changed.

Clippard protected a 3-1 lead in the eighth. And in the ninth -- even after Yoenis Cespedes' mammoth two-run blast gave the Mets a four-run cushion -- Collins sent Familia in to finish the job.

"I'll be happy when we've got an 81/2-game lead with eight to play," Collins said after watching the Mets win their fifth straight to cut their magic number to 14 with 21 games remaining.

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Not since 2006, when the Mets ran away with the division, have they enjoyed such a comfortable advantage.

Cespedes continued his magical run, knocking in three runs. Not since his rookie season in 2012 with the A's has he felt more locked in.

"I feel really proud, really on point, because I can produce and help the team to win," he said through a translator. "Everything is clicking."

Rookie lefthander Steven Matz looked rusty in his second start back from the disabled list. The Mets' offense, a juggernaut since the trade deadline, went 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position.

Neither seemed to matter.

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Matz allowed one run in five innings -- on a solo homer by Daniel Castro -- but battled with his command. Still, he handed a 2-1 lead to a bullpen that pieced together four shutout frames.

Cespedes gave the Mets a 1-0 lead in the third when he ripped a double to the gap in right-center, driving in Curtis Granderson from first.

In the dugout, Matt Harvey marveled to Collins.

"I don't know if there's another league higher that he can play in, that he's got to be moved up," Collins said.

In the fifth, a balk by Braves righty Matt Wisler allowed Granderson to score from third base. The Mets didn't add on again until the eighth, when a passed ball by catcher Christian Bethancourt allowed pinch runner Eric Young Jr. to score.

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In the ninth, Cespedes squashed any realistic hopes of a Braves comeback with a two-run homer that sailed well over the fence in leftfield. He has seven homers and 16 RBIs in 10 September games, and his latest blast came with no knowledge of what the Nationals had done.

"Hopefully, everyone feels and thinks like me, because it's not about what the Nationals are doing," Cespedes said. "It's about what we're doing in this clubhouse for this team."

In a season that began with the Tigers, Cespedes has hit 33 homers and knocked in 100 runs. Since joining the Mets at the non-waiver trade deadline, he is hitting .313 with 15 homers and 39 RBIs in 38 games.

"It's not about me," he said. "It's about the team. I'm one part of the team that is producing. You see the team winning, everything is clicking, everybody is chipping in for one purpose -- to play in the playoffs and hopefully we can bring the big trophy to the city."