WASHINGTON, D.C.: You try your hardest not to lose games to teams you’re better than when your ace pitches a gem.

Last night, Johan Santana maybe didn’t pitch a gem, but pitched well enough for the Mets to win. Once again, they couldn’t support him with any runs.

Therefore, the Mets will have to win the next three games against Washington to win the series. Right now, they’d settle for a split, and with Stephen Strasburg looming on Saturday, the Mets need to win tonight.

The good thing is, they will throw their most consistent starter of late, Jon Niese, against the Nationals. Niese has had a solid rookie season and has been extremely sharp since his return from the disabled list on June 5.

Niese made five starts in June and the Mets went 5-0. He went 4-0 and fell one out shy of five wins when he couldn’t get the final out in the fifth inning against the Tigers in a game delayed by rain on June 22.

That one bad inning was his only blip in June, the greatest month of his young career.

The difference was the effectiveness of his changeup to left-handers. He developed a pretty nasty curveball, used to get ahead in counts, and put righties away with the cutter.

He was so good that his potential trade value increased, especially to the eyes of the Seattle Mariners, in a potential Cliff Lee trade. Right now though, the Mets have him and hope he’s just as effective in July.

He bailed the Mets out in his last start against the Twins on Sunday, winning the Mets the rubber game of their series, shutting out the Twins over six innings, only allowing four hits. 

Niese will be opposed by Luis Atilano, who’s had a marginal rookie season with the Nationals. The 25-year-old has started 13 games for Washington and has had a gem against the Mets and a stinker.

Back on May 10, his 25th birthday, Atilano shut the Mets out at Citi Field over 5.1 innings, allowing five hits. Two starts later on May 20 in Washington, the Mets crushed him for six earned runs on nine hits in only 4.1 innings.

His last two starts have been decent, but they were against the Royals and Orioles. He didn’t do well in his start before those two against the Tigers.

Who he will face in the Mets lineup is a mystery at this point. Jose Reyes has missed the last two games after tweaking his back before batting practice on Wednesday and his return is uncertain.

Angel Pagan, on the other hand, is a curious situation. He has not started seven of the Mets last eight games, including last night’s when he could have.

Pagan pinch-ran for Chris Carter in the sixth inning and stayed in the game in center field. He batted for himself later on from the left side of the plate, the side he was having trouble from.

The question was, and since manager Jerry Manuel didn’t give a clear answer after the game, still is, why didn’t Pagan start the game if he was feeling better and available?

Even Manuel after the game said Pagan was feeling better in batting practice. Both parties say Pagan will start in tonight’s game.

Perhaps Pagan rushed himself back a little early with the news that Carlos Beltran’s return is going rather smoothly in rehab.

Beltran will play back-to-back games in the field over the weekend, and if he comes out fine, he may return when the Mets get back to New York on Monday.

The Mets though, with the loss, fell to two games behind the Braves for first place in the NL East.

They still hold a slim half-game lead over the Dodgers for the NL Wild Card lead, but they have to learn how to win consistently on the road, and have to learn how to score runs for Johan Santana.

Those are two obstacles standing in the way of the Mets playoff chances right now. They’ll try to get back on track tonight as we head towards the Fourth of July.

Jon Niese vs. Washington (May 11)
ND, 4.1 IP, 6 ER, 6 hits, 5 BB, 3 SO

Luis Atilano vs. New York this season (2 starts)
1-1, 5.59 ERA, 9.2 IP, 14 hits, 5 BB, 6 SO

2010 season series (New York vs. Washington)

April 9: New York 8, Washington 2
April 10: Washington 4, New York 3
April 11: Washington 5, New York 2

May 10: Washington 3, New York 2
May 11: New York 8, Washington 6
May 12: Washington 6, New York 4

May 19: Washington 5, New York 3
May 20: New York 10, Washington 7

July 1: Washington 2, New York 1

Nationals lead series 6-3

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