WASHINGTON -- Bryce Harper, one of the game's most feared sluggers, gave himself up with a bunt in the eighth inning with his team down two runs.
To be sure, it was a questionable decision, even against lefty specialist Scott Rice. But the Mets' bullpen rewarded Harper for the play that triggered a three-run rally that sent the Mets to a 6-5 loss to the Nationals.
"He's one of the best hitters in the league,'' third baseman Josh Satin said. "I didn't think he would do it.''
Nevertheless, he was playing in on the orders of Terry Collins, who envisioned a scenario in which the slugger might take the bat out of his own hands.
"That's part of his game,'' Collins said. "He's got some power, but he's a baseball player first and foremost.''
Sure enough, Harper got the bunt down, and what followed was perhaps a season-saving rally by the Nationals. With runners on second and third, Anthony Rendon's groundout cut the lead to one run before Ryan Zimmerman tied it with the critical play of the rally.
Shortstop Omar Quintanilla fielded Zimmerman's two-out grounder on the outfield grass and made an ill-advised off-balance throw to first base. Denard Span bolted off second base, then chugged around third once he saw Quintanilla release the ball. The throw pulled first baseman Lucas Duda way off the bag, and Span scored the tying run.
Jayson Werth delivered the go-ahead run, stroking a double to the gap in right-center off Gonzalez Germen to rescue the Nationals from what would have been a debilitating sweep.
The Nationals entered this weekend series harboring aspirations of an end run into the postseason after a season filled with stops and starts. And the Mets nearly threw ice water over whatever might be left of those flickering chances.
A sweep of the Nationals in a three-game series would have been the Mets' first since May 2009. Instead, the Mets now must endure a difficult turnaround, playing an afternoon game in Atlanta on Monday. They were not expected to arrive in Atlanta until 4 a.m.
The Mets could take some consolation, beginning with lefthander Jon Niese, who allowed two runs and 10 hits in 52/3 innings before being forced from the game with two outs in the sixth.
He had just walked Harper when he reached for his left leg. But Niese, who missed two months with a partially torn rotator cuff, suffered nothing more than a cramp that he doesn't expect to impact his next start.
"I wasn't concerned,'' he said. "I knew it was a cramp.''
The Mets had positioned themselves to send the Nationals reeling, holding a 5-3 lead entering the eighth.
Duda, starting at first base for the injured Ike Davis, finished with two RBIs, including a two-out single in the seventh that pushed the Mets' lead to two runs. Daniel Murphy also knocked in two runs with a double in the first and a single to drive in Niese in the fifth.
Matt den Dekker hit his first major-league homer, a solo shot that landed in the mezzanine level overlooking leftfield.
But none of it could spare the Mets from a bullpen meltdown, spurred on by what Harper later told reporters was a bunt that he dropped down on his own.
Said Niese: "This game can unravel in a hurry.''
Notes & quotes: The Mets signed righthander Aaron Harang to a minor-league deal and assigned him to Triple-A Las Vegas . . . Davis will fly to New York on Tuesday for an MRI to determine the severity of his strained right oblique.
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