WASHINGTON -- Over and over and over again, New York Mets manager Jerry Manuel left the dugout, made the slow trek to the mound and took the ball from his pitcher.
By the time the game was over, and Manuel's beleaguered bullpen had given away nearly all of a six-run lead, he had used a franchise record-tying eight pitchers.
At least Manuel and his Mets could savor a victory, something suddenly scarce for them. Carlos Beltran homered from both sides of the plate, Jose Reyes and Carlos Delgado also went deep, and New York held on to beat Washington 9-7, snapping a three-game losing streak.
When his team was ahead 7-1 in the fourth inning, did Manuel think he could enjoy an easy night at the ballpark?
"No. I can't do that. They won't allow me to do that," the skipper said. "They'll make a laugher a tearjerker, that's what they'll do."
The Mets have blown 27 save chances, including 11 in the ninth inning, and there was the potential to add to those totals against the Nationals.
Brandon Knight (1-0), a 32-year-old journeyman back from the Olympics, earned his first major league victory with five solid innings -- but even he was nervous. It took seven relievers to get the final 12 outs, the last coming when Luis Ayala, acquired from the Nationals last month, struck out pinch-hitter Roger Bernadina with a runner on to earn his eighth save.
"It was a little bit like, 'Really? Is this really happening?'" Knight said. "All of us who had pitched were in here, taking deep breaths, saying, 'OK, everything's going to be fine.'"
The Mets had lost four of their previous five games to fall out of first place in the NL East. By winning, they remained a half-game behind the division-leading Philadelphia Phillies, who beat Atlanta 6-1 Wednesday.
And New York retained its half-game lead over Milwaukee for the wild card. The Brewers defeated the Cubs 6-2.
"We're approaching these games like playoff games, because they are playoff games," said Beltran, who hit a two-run homer off Shairon Martis (0-3) in the third inning, then moved around to bat righty and add his 26th homer off left-hander Charlie Manning in the eighth.
"We needed the win. There's no more options for us. Basically, every game counts and today was great -- we went up there and scored a lot of runs," Beltran said. "It would have been better if we'd won with a good lead, but things happen."
Manuel was asked if this late-season stuff is fun.
"No, I'm not enjoying this. Are you crazy? Walking out there every three minutes? [Fans] didn't come to see me. They come to see the guys play," Manuel said with a smile. "This is not the way we drew it up, but we've got to do what we've got to do to win. We'll laugh about it, hopefully, in November."
Clearly in need of a victory -- and one day after Manuel held a closed-door, 15-minute team meeting -- the Mets got a big lift from a few of their high-profile players.
Reyes, Delgado and Beltran went a combined 1-for-22 with zero runs and two RBIs over the first two games of this series, both losses, against a Nationals club trying to avoid finishing with baseball's worst record.
"You can only keep those ... guys down for so long," Nationals manager Manny Acta said. "When those guys are on, you just can't stop them."
That trio was on Wednesday, going a combined 6-for-11 with four homers, three walks, six runs and seven RBIs.
"I always say, you've got to pitch perfect, almost perfect, to these guys to win," Washington catcher Wil Nieves said. "We made a couple mistakes today."
Reyes began things by hitting Martis' fifth pitch over the out-of-town video scoreboard for his 15th homer this season, third leading off a game. Two outs later, Delgado delivered his 36th homer.
Knight, who pitched for the Yankees in 2001 and 2002 and was on the U.S. baseball team at the Beijing Games, performed well in his second career start in the majors.
After he left came the parade of relievers.
And then, Ayala, who ended it.
"We needed to win a ballgame," Manuel said. "That was the most important thing, regardless of how it got done, was for us to win a game and to kind of stop the slide."
Beltran has three multihomer games in 2008. ... Nieves had his first three-hit game in the majors.