Mets 9, Nationals 8

-- On a night when they looked as if they would be embarrassed by Livan Hernandez's horrendous start, the Washington Nationals did all the hard work, storming back from an eight-run deficit. They started inserting reserves by the bundle, men named Blanco and Baerga, Carroll and Church, and when Brian Schneider hit a two-out, two-run double in the top of the ninth and the last bit of the New York Mets' lead had been chipped away, the Nationals started to get that old feeling again.

"Everybody seemed like they thought we could do this," reliever John Halama said.

They could have, but they didn't. Pinch hitter Chris Woodward's ground ball single up the middle with two outs in the bottom of the 10th inning saved the Mets from humiliation Saturday night, delivering a 9-8 victory, leaving Washington reliever Gary Majewski crumpled on the mound in defeat.

How to take this one? It comes at a crucial part of the year, near the end of a staggering 13-game road trip, and cost the Nationals dearly in the standings. But Manager Frank Robinson, never afraid to be critical of his team, couldn't be Saturday, particularly considering how subs Ryan Church, Jamey Carroll and Carlos Baerga had all helped teach the regulars how to keep at it.

"It's not painful to lose that game right there," Robinson said. "We fought back, and I am very proud of the players out there. Church and Carroll, Baerga, the relief pitchers. They did a tremendous job out there. . . . We had our chances to win it."

Yet the playoff picture isn't pretty. With 39 games to go, the Nationals are surrounded by contenders. They now trail Philadelphia by 11/2 games, Houston by a game, and Florida by half a game. The Mets, meanwhile, trail Washington by just a half-game.

It is a dire situation. They have now lost three of four series on this road trip at a time when they badly need to make up ground. Yet the vibe in the clubhouse wasn't of a devastated club.

"You can't count a loss as a positive, obviously, this late in the season," Schneider said. "But I think it showed a lot about our team."

It may have showed something about the Mets, too, for their bullpen was horrendous. Pedro Martinez, their ace, cruised through six innings, allowing six hits, and was never really threatened. His counterpart, Hernandez, the Nationals' supposed ace, couldn't match him at all. He allowed a three-run homer to Ramon Castro in the second, a two-run shot to Jose Reyes in the same inning and then a three-run blast to David Wright in the third.

That was it. Hernandez failed to record an out in the third, his shortest outing since July 7, 2004, when he lasted two innings against the Atlanta Braves. Only one of his 275 career starts has been shorter. Only three times has he given up as many earned runs, the last being April 7, 2001, when the Los Angeles Dodgers tagged him for eight. His ERA jumped from 3.45 to 3.80.

"It was tough," Hernandez said.

Indeed it was. But Halama, making just his second appearance for Washington, chipped in with four scoreless innings, keeping the lead at 8-0. And in the bottom of the sixth, Mets Manager Willie Randolph pinch-hit for Martinez, who had thrown just 78 pitches.

"I did what needed to be done," Martinez said. "It seemed like it would be an easy day."

The seventh was anything but. Danny Graves, picked up off the scrap heap from Cincinnati, relieved Martinez, and things began to collapse. The key plays included a one-out error by Reyes on a ball hit by Cristian Guzman. Baerga, entering as a pinch hitter, delivered an RBI double, Carroll a bases-loaded single to make it 8-2, Church a two-run single for his first RBI since July 22, and Schneider followed with another two-run single against Aaron Heilman.

That made it 8-6, and what had been a happy occasion for the Shea crowd turned to boos. Chants of "Pedro! Pedro!" rang through Flushing.

With runners on first and third, though, rookie Tony Blanco grounded out to short, ending the Nationals' chance to come all the way back in one inning.

In the ninth, on a night when Mets closer Braden Looper likely figured he could kick back and relax, he came in anyway. Church singled with two outs, and Preston Wilson followed with another single, putting men on first and third.

And Schneider came up against Looper, with the crowd already frustrated. The catcher has been one of the Nationals' most consistent hitters over the past three months, and he promptly lined a shot toward the 371-mark in right-center.

"I thought it had a chance," Robinson said.

Yet it hit the wall on the fly. Church scored easily, and Wilson motored around from first, tying the game. Schneider clapped his hands twice at second, and the Nationals in the dugout pointed out to him.

"Obviously, you look back on it, you wish it had gone out," Schneider said.

It didn't, and the Nationals had one other chance in the top of the 10th when Guzman singled, was sacrificed to second and moved to third on a fly ball. Carroll walked and Nick Johnson then laid into a pitch from Mets reliever Roberto Hernandez. The ball, though, sailed to the deepest part of the park, straightaway center, and Carlos Beltran settled under it, the last out.

Majewski then lost it, in large part because he gave up a one-out walk to Gerald Williams. With two outs, he walked Reyes on a full count, setting up the situation for Woodward. And when he sent the ball back through the middle, the Mets gathered, full of relief, and the Nationals slowly walked off the field.

Chris Woodward celebrates with teammates after his game-winning single in the 10th inning off Gary Majewski.Nationals third baseman Vinny Castilla dives unsuccessfully for a ball hit by Victor Diaz during the second inning, when the Mets went ahead 8-0. Diaz later scored on a home run by Jose Reyes.Mets' Marlon Anderson, second from left, and David Wright, right, greet Ramon Castro (11) at the plate after Castro's three-run homer in the second.