Nationals 6, Mets 5

When the Washington Nationals built a three-run lead Thursday afternoon against the New York Mets, their workhorse of a starter, Livan Hernandez, gave it away with one pitch. When Hernandez had to come out after only six innings -- half a day for him -- they sent out five relievers, including three rookies, and their prolific closer wasn't among them. When the Mets held the lead into the top of the ninth, the Nationals sent up a kid who was in college just four months ago, Ryan Zimmerman, to start the game-tying rally. And when they needed a tough, two-out hit in extra innings -- the kind that has been absent for ages -- up trotted third baseman Vinny Castilla, hobbled by his aching left knee since March.

Anybody else?

"Keep going," Manager Frank Robinson said.

The point is well taken, because in the Nationals' most significant series sweep of the year, nearly all of the 34 men on the roster contributed. And on a muggy Thursday afternoon at Shea Stadium, 21 different Nationals chipped in on a 6-5, 10-inning victory that was swiftly added to the already endless list of games that have, seemingly, saved the season.

"That's what it's about," outfielder Brad Wilkerson said.

Pick somebody, anybody, on the roster -- be it rookie relievers Travis Hughes or Jason Bergmann fearlessly recording key outs, be it rookie set-up man Gary Majewski logging his first save of the year to rest closer Chad Cordero, be it Preston Wilson with four hits or Nick Johnson drawing the walk that started the game-winning rally. Whoever you choose, he likely did something positive on Thursday.

The specifics: With one out in the top of the ninth, Wilkerson hit a bullet at Mets second baseman Kazuo Matsui. It skipped under his glove, a tough error on which pinch runner Kenny Kelly, on base for Zimmerman, scored the tying run. And with two outs in the 10th, Castilla served notice that he is not yet ready to cede his job to Zimmerman, aggressively sending the first pitch he saw from New York's Roberto Hernandez into right, scoring Johnson from third, the hit that won the game.

And, for good measure, toss in Majewski, who was asked to appear in his fourth straight game -- and save it. The response? A leadoff single, followed by a popup, a groundout, a strikeout -- and a heck of a fist pump.

"I love the pressure," Majewski said.

And because he and others dealt with it, there was frivolity in the clubhouse as the team headed to San Diego for yet another crucial three-game series. Veterans forced rookies to don dresses and even, in the case of Tony Blanco, a leather mini-skirt. Everyone smiled.

"You know, if we lose," outfielder Jose Guillen said, "none of this would be as fun."

Say it again, and repeat it to remind yourself. This team, which has looked and felt out of it countless times in the past month, remains in the chase for the playoffs. The three-game sweep of the Mets was just the Nats' second such series in the second half, but it came at a time when they could ill afford anything else. They boarded a flight knowing that they would, at the worst, remain three games back in the race for the National League's wild-card playoff berth. And they had the feeling they had during their ride to first place in the first half.

"You got that feeling when we came into the clubhouse," Robinson said. "How long will it last? It may be like the pennant fever used to be in Cleveland, a 24-hour virus. . . .

"It might not last until we get to San Diego. But it certainly should show these guys what they're capable of doing if each individual would go up there and do what he's capable of doing, and think about it being a team effort."

There were, indeed, some missteps on Thursday, such as Wilson getting caught off first base after he singled in the 10th, a play that infuriated Robinson. Hernandez was in the middle of another error in the top of the fifth, with the Nationals up 4-1.

Hernandez said he was pitching with some kind of sickness, one that caused him to sweat profusely and become dizzy during pregame warmups. With the bases loaded and two outs, he faced Cliff Floyd, and the count went full.

"He knows," Hernandez said, "I'm not going to walk him."

So he didn't, throwing a sinker down and in. Floyd turned on it, sending it on a line over the wall in right, a grand slam. The Mets, suddenly, had a 5-4 lead.

The Nationals' response? No hits over the ensuing three innings.

"It would have been a tough loss," Wilkerson said.

Yet it became a win. Zimmerman pinch-hit to lead off the ninth against Mets closer Braden Looper, and he lined a single to right, then took second when Gerald Williams misplayed the ball. A groundout and a hit batsman put runners at the corners. That brought up Wilkerson. With the count full, Mets Manager Willie Randolph moved the infield in -- even though a ground ball could have ended the game on a double play.

"We wanted to play in," Randolph said, "and cut the run at home plate."

Yet when Wilkerson scalded the ball through Matsui, that was no longer an issue, for the game was tied. And when Castilla came up in the 10th with Johnson on third, Randolph might have pitched around him to get to Keith Osik, the third-string catcher. Instead, Roberto Hernandez came with a fastball, and Castilla delivered the game-winner.

And thus, when the Nationals congratulated each other on the field, the list of players who deserved those pats on the back never seemed longer, and the possibility that the final week of the season might mean something never seemed greater.

Washington's Nick Johnson scores on Vinny Castilla's 10th-inning single as Mets catcher Ramon Castro can only hang his head.New York third baseman David Wright can't make play on Preston Wilson's single in the fifth inning at Shea Stadium. Mets have lost 15 of their last 18 games.