Mets starting pitcher Jeremy Hefner pauses during the first inning....

Mets starting pitcher Jeremy Hefner pauses during the first inning. (June 6, 2012) Credit: AP

WASHINGTON -- After a brief flirtation with sole possession of first place in the National League East on Tuesday, the Mets fell all the way back to fourth place Wednesday night with a 5-3 loss to Washington at Nationals Park.

They might, however, lead the league in taking the blame.

Daniel Murphy, who made a first-inning error, said the blame starts with him. Jeremy Hefner, who gave up a three-run homer to Adam LaRoche after the error, absolved Murphy and said he just made a bad pitch in a big spot.

Tim Byrdak, who was supposed to execute an appeal play in the seventh inning, admitted he was confused. So he didn't.

And manager Terry Collins bemoaned the Mets having only three hits against Edwin Jackson and two relievers in their third straight loss.

"We just didn't get any hits," Collins said.

The Mets, who were two outs away from taking over sole possession of first place before losing in 12 innings on Tuesday, fell 2 1/2 games behind first-place Washington.

Wednesday night would have been Johan Santana's turn to pitch. But a little 134-pitch no-hitter caused the Mets to push their ace back two days until Friday against the Yankees.

So Hefner (1-3) went six innings and allowed four runs (three earned) with one walk and three strikeouts.

Collins came to Nationals Park determined to put what he called "the whole ugliness of the game" behind him.

Collins was referring to Tuesday's 7-6 defeat. The Mets made three errors, all by their shortstops, and had key bobbles by Murphy and Ike Davis.

Wednesday night didn't start well. Just two batters into the bottom of the first, Bryce Harper grounded one to Murphy's left. Murphy bobbled it and then kicked the ball to the rightfield line as the 19-year-old Harper raced to second on the error.

Hefner then walked Ryan Zimmerman before LaRoche (four RBIs) unloaded a three-run home run into the rightfield seats for a 3-0 Washington lead.

"We haven't played very well, starting with me," Murphy said. "I put him behind schedule in that first inning . . . He never should have been in that situation to begin with."

But Hefner didn't blame Murphy.

"I wasn't flustered," he said. "I made a bad pitch to LaRoche. That's all I can say about it."

Murphy also bobbled a ball on the backhand before recovering to get the out in the second. In the third, he turned to his side in short rightfield on a hard-hit ball hit by LaRoche and missed it for his second error of the game.

"You don't have to look any farther than this locker right here of where to start with some of our poor play the last couple of days," Murphy said. "It starts right here. Got to get better. Starting with me."

For Washington, Edwin Jackson (2-3) gave up three runs (two earned) and three hits in seven innings. Sean Burnett pitched a perfect eighth and Tyler Clippard (fifth save) overcame a leadoff walk in the ninth.

The Mets got RBIs from Kirk Nieuwenhuis, Lucas Duda and Omar Quintanilla, but Washington never gave up its early lead.

Particularly galling to Collins was the botched appeal play after Steve Lombardozzi tagged and went from second to third on a foul pop in the seventh. Collins thought the runner might have left early, so he wanted Byrdak to throw to second for an appeal. But Byrdak said he didn't get that message from Josh Thole. Byrdak threw a pitch and Lombardozzi later scored on LaRoche's sacrifice fly.

"Just a miscommunication out there," Byrdak said. Replays indicated Lombardozzi didn't leave early. But still.

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