Mets 5, Nationals 3

For more than two months, the ground ball with the bases loaded had been hit right at someone, or perhaps a step to one side, close enough where a Washington Nationals infielder could corral it and make the throw for the final out of the inning, allowing Livan Hernandez to walk slowly back to the dugout, the lead tucked in the back pocket of his baggy pants.

Last night, though, the moment came again. The Nationals led the New York Mets by two runs in the sixth, and those ground balls went awry. One trickled down the third base line, scoring one run. The next, hit harder, shot through the left side of the infield, scoring two more. So when Hernandez ambled off the mound for the final time last night, he turned and waved to the announced crowd of 38,148 at RFK Stadium. The streak, though, was over. The Mets beat Hernandez and the Nationals 5-3, the first time the rubber-armed right-hander from Cuba had lost since April 19, a span in which he won 11 straight decisions.

"I'm not [going to] be perfect all the time and win all the time," Hernandez said. "I'm happy with my work today, and I'll be better next time."

Which is what the Nationals hope they can be in the series finale this afternoon. Not since April 25-27 against Philadelphia have the Nationals failed to win a home series, yet last night's result gave the Mets two wins in the first three games here this week. Thus, the best Washington can do is a split. The loss dropped the Nationals' record at RFK to 30-12, and they're now tied with the Chicago White Sox for the best home record in baseball.

They lost not so much because of Hernandez, who pitched into the eighth, allowing five runs on eight hits, dropping his record to 12-3 and raising his ERA to 3.48. Rather, they lost because they got to Mets starter Tom Glavine for nine hits in the first four innings, yet couldn't manage a single hit afterward.

It felt, Manager Frank Robinson said, like one of the Nationals' early-season losses, a time before they became the best team in the National League East, when they would score in one inning, then go dormant. Robinson was frustrated with the Nationals' approach against Glavine. Too many hitters trying to pull the ball, Robinson said, when the strategy against Glavine is to go the opposite way.

"We got to get it back together," Robinson said. "We got to play with a little bit more fire, a little more determination."

But the circumstances of this loss had as much to do, perhaps, with the balancing of baseball karma as it did with determination. The Hernandez of last night wasn't fundamentally different from the man who hadn't allowed more than three earned runs in a game since that last loss, when the Florida Marlins touched him for six over five innings. He ran into occasional trouble -- allowing a homer to Mike Cameron in the first -- threw 125 pitches, worked out of a bases-loaded jam in the second, and looked like he might win his 12th straight decision. That would have broken the mark set by former Montreal Expo Dennis Martinez.

Handed a 3-1 lead when the Nationals scored three in the fourth -- the key blow a two-run, two-out single from Brad Wilkerson -- Hernandez couldn't hold it. With the bases loaded and no one out in the sixth, Marlon Anderson broke his bat on a 2-2 pitch, and the ball trickled down the third base line. It traveled perhaps 75 feet, yet went as an RBI single. Against the next batter, catcher Ramon Castro, Hernandez tried to throw a pitch down and in, an attempt to induce a groundball.

"It was in the middle," Hernandez said. Castro rapped it through the infield, the hit that turned a 3-2 Nationals' lead into a 4-3 deficit.

"It's very tough to see Livan have something like that," second baseman Jose Vidro said. "Most of the time with the bases loaded, he gives up one, maybe two runs. What can you say about the man now? He's been carrying this team."

Lately, the offensive carrying has been done by right fielder Jose Guillen. But when Glavine wore down in the bottom of the sixth -- loading the bases on an error and a pair of walks with two outs -- Guillen was in place to get the lead back.

"I thought we were going to take over the game right there," Vidro said.

They didn't. Guillen hit a hard grounder to second, and was retired, part of an 0-for-4 night. So Hernandez's next opportunity to pitch will come Tuesday in Detroit at the All-Star Game. After that, he plans to start the first game of the second half, a week from today in Milwaukee. A second half as good as the first?

"I'll try to do," and he paused, "not better, because I think if you want me to be better, you're asking for too much."

New York's David Wright rounds third and scores on Ramon Castro's single to give the Mets a 4-3 lead in the sixth as Nats shortstop Jamey Carroll trails the play before 38,148 at RFK Stadium."I'm not [going to] be perfect all the time," Livan Hernandez said.Third baseman David Wright slides home to give the Mets a 4-3 lead in the sixth as the ball gets away from Nationals catcher Brian Schneider at RFK.Livan Hernandez, Schneider chat before the Nats' ace is removed in the 7th. "We got to play with a little bit more fire," Manager Frank Robinson said.