- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 19, 2009

NEW YORK | Maybe there’s something about the New York Mets that has become a salve for the Washington Nationals this season. It might be the familiarity bred by facing a roster dotted with Nationals alumni, or it could be the cold comfort in knowing the Mets are one of the only teams in baseball that has endured as disappointing a season as the Nationals have.

Whatever the reason, there’s something about the Mets that soothes the Nationals. There was no reason to think Washington would pull as many solid performances out of slumping ballplayers as it did in a 6-5 victory against the Mets on Friday night. But there also was no reason to think the Nationals could deliver the kinds of body blows to the Mets’ playoff chances that they did in 2007 and 2008.

Ryan Zimmerman and Josh Willingham, each in the middle of prolonged droughts, punctuated two-hit games with home runs. Cristian Guzman broke a 12-at-bat hitless streak with an infield single in the first inning and scored on Zimmerman’s homer. Even Josh Bard, trudging through the second half after an impressive start to the season, homered and drove in three runs to help end a three-game skid.

It was Washington’s third straight victory against the Mets and improved the Nationals’ record against New York to 5-8, the best they’ve fared against any division opponent this season.

“The Mets, kind of like us, we’ve all had a disappointing year,” interim manager Jim Riggleman said. “They battled. They didn’t quit, and our guys are doing the same thing.”

Willingham saved runs with a pair of impressive defensive plays in left field - which became all the more important when the Mets came a hit away from tying the score against Mike MacDougal in the ninth. And J.D. Martin became the Nationals’ only starter with a winning record. It was the right-hander’s second consecutive win, improving his mark to 5-4.

“My goal [this season] was just to get as many innings as I can,” Martin said. “Getting five wins, that’s a bonus for me. That’s awesome.”

Martin gave up seven hits in 5 1/3 innings and walked two, but he allowed only two runs.

Both of those runs came in the third inning, when the Mets tagged Martin for four hits. But Willingham made an impressive running catch to rob David Wright at the left-field wall, slowing the rally.

In the fourth inning, Martin got a double play before retiring Mike Pelfrey on a comebacker. And after he left the game in the sixth, Willingham saved another run by throwing out Daniel Murphy at home - on a play the Mets’ television broadcast repeatedly reviewed to see if Murphy’s hand beat Bard’s tag.

While Martin was keeping the Mets from turning hits into big innings, the Nationals battered Pelfrey, turning hits into productive innings with rare efficiency.

They left just two runners on base. Zimmerman’s and Bard’s homers came right after base hits, putting Washington up 2-0 and then 4-2. Those extra runs, as well as Willingham’s solo homer in the ninth, became extra crucial after MacDougal’s high-wire save.

Entering in the eighth with a 5-2 lead, he came back with a four-run margin in the ninth. But MacDougal walked two of the first three batters he faced, then gave up hits to Luis Castillo and Wright.

The next two batters - Carlos Beltran and Murphy - hit grounders up the middle that could have ended the game, but neither did.

Beltran beat out Ian Desmond’s throw at first base to avoid a double play, and Murphy smoked a grounder to short that Desmond stopped with a nice play. He lost the handle on the ball while throwing to Adam Dunn at first, firing off the top of the first baseman’s glove as the Mets scored to pull within 6-5.

The inning mercifully ended with a Francoeur comebacker that smacked MacDougal’s glove cleanly off his hand. As the announced crowd of 38,063 erupted, MacDougal retrieved the ball and lobbed a throw to Dunn at first for the final out.

And the Nationals, as they’ve repeatedly found ways to do, scored some relief against the Mets.

“We needed a win, for sure, to get back and have a decent road trip,” Willingham said. “It was a big win for us.”