The 1951 Dodgers. The '64 Phillies. The '78 Red Sox.

Unless they turn things around almost instantly, the New York Mets' amazin' collapse will join the ranks of baseball's biggest.

"I can't believe it's going that bad. . . . I don't believe it's happened," Mets Manager Bobby Valentine said after his team's seventh straight loss, 9-3, to the Atlanta Braves in New York last night.

Atlanta, which became the first NL team in 55 years to win 100 games in three straight seasons, chased Orel Hershiser after one out, his quickest exit in 459 career starts. The Mets are desperately searching for a way to end their free fall.

"Don't watch TV. Don't read the paper. Don't listen to the radio," said Al Leiter, who starts today against Greg Maddux. "You know it's going to be bad. Why reinforce the negative?"

New York, which led either the NL East or the wild-card race from July 21 until Sunday, is 1 1/2 games behind Houston, the current wild-card leader, with just five games remaining. While the Mets had a four-game wild-card lead on Sept. 19 with 12 games to play, they now must go at least 2-3 -- and that assumes Houston goes 0-4 -- to have any chance of reaching the postseason for the first time in 11 years.

"We're building a lot of character right now," Hershiser said. "Let's hope it's character we can use in the playoffs."

Last year, the Mets finished the season with five straight losses, including three straight at Atlanta on the final weekend, when just one win would have left them in a wild-card playoff. This time, they entered the final week following an 0-6 road trip to Atlanta and Philadelphia.

"You think that if you win one game, you have a chance to string a few together," General Manager Steve Phillips said. "Tomorrow will be another day."

While they were greeted with big cheers from a crowd of 43,888, boos quickly followed. Hershiser (13-12) left trailing 3-0 after just 24 pitches, and rookie Octavio Dotel's first pitch skipped past catcher Mike Piazza as another run scored.

Tom Glavine (13-11) made sure New York didn't catch up, allowing one run and six hits in seven innings.

The Mets were 1 for 13 with runners in scoring position, making them 6 for 53 (.113) during the skid. New York got nine hits overall and is batting .211 (43 for 204) during the last seven games.

Players keep replaying the losses in their minds when they leave the ballpark. The frustration in the clubhouse is overwhelming.

"It's really taken over right now," Piazza said. "I've run out of things to say. You just have to go out there, bust your butt and hope you get some breaks."

REDS 4, ASTROS 1: Pete Harnisch is making life miserable for his old teammates. Harnisch pitched eight strong innings as surging Cincinnati moved ahead of Houston for the NL Central lead, beating 20-game winner Jose Lima and the host Astros.

Harnisch (15-10) has a 5-2 career record against the Astros and is 4-0 this season.

And he did it while hurting. He skipped a start because of the shoulder injury that has plagued him all season.

"It felt sore warming up so I made an adjustment and it felt okay," Harnisch said. "I had really good movement on my fastball. That's basically all I had, but fortunately it had a lot of movement. You throw them strike one and they don't want to see strike two. They swung at a lot of pitches."

Harnisch allowed four hits. He threw 75 pitches, 59 for strikes.

The Reds now have a one-game lead with four games to play.

"It beats being one game behind," Harnisch said. "We have a lot of fun on this team. We don't think too much about anything beyond today."

The largest baseball crowd in the history of the Astrodome, 54,037, saw the Reds win their sixth straight game and send Houston to its third loss in a row.

"This was definitely a playoff atmosphere," Reds shortstop Barry Larkin said. "I know I was amped up. I think that was evident by my early throws. Everybody was charged. We have to win this series. Every game from here on is a playoff game."

Cincinnati had not been in first place since Aug. 19, when it was tied with the Astros. Houston took over the lead the next day.

Despite the defeat, the Astros held their 1 1/2-game lead over New York for the wild-card spot.

"Maybe this is good," Astros Manager Larry Dierker said. "We've had the pressure of them pushing, pushing. Now the pressure is off because we're not in the lead anymore. Let them see how it feels to be pushed. There's still time."

Harnisch (15-10) helped the Reds improve to 5-0 at the Astrodome this season. Cincinnati leads the season series 9-3 going into tonight's wrapup, which matches Steve Parris against Houston's Mike Hampton.

Harnisch struck out three and walked none.

"Pete's been a lifesaver -- I can't tell you how much he's meant to this team to get us where we are today," Reds Manager Jack McKeon said.

Scott Williamson pitched the ninth for his 19th save.

Sean Casey hit his 25th homer in the first, and the Reds added two more runs in the second against Lima (20-10) on singles by Eddie Taubensee and Pokey Reese.