WASHINGTON -- After the game nearly got away from the Nationals with a ball that carried about 400 feet from home plate, the one that skipped just a few from the plate was their ultimate saving grace.
In a topsy-turvy ballgame that had as many late twists and turns as the interstate, it was a late wild pitch that -- at least for that time being -- outweighed a superb outing from left-hander Ross Detwiler and an equally forgettable save situation for closer Tyler Clippard.
The 5-4 victory against the rival Mets carries just that much more weight because of the opponent and the game the Nationals gained to pad their first-place standing in the National League East. Washington stands now 3 1/2 games ahead of second-place Atlanta, which lost Tuesday for the first time in eight games.
"They're very big games," said Washington infielder Danny Espinosa, who delivered a game-tying RBI single with two outs in the ninth. "It's tough, 2 1/2 games up. You lose a couple games and they're back in it. Every game we can scratch out in the late innings like this is a tough game. They have a tough bullpen, so when we pull out games like that, it means a lot for us."
It means as much to the Mets, who have lost five in a row and dropped to a full seven games back in the division. The Nationals now have 21 come-from-behind victories this year and 11 victories in their last at-bat. More importantly, they're 8-3 against NL East rivals at home and 19-11 overall against teams from the division this year. That intradivision winning percentage (.633) is best in baseball.
But as stellar as Detwiler was for the first seven innings, it twice seemed as if this series opener would get away late. Working with a 2-0 lead in the ninth, Clippard issued two singles to open the frame before Jordany Valdespin came up with one out.
Clippard came at the pinch-hitter with two offspeed pitches before bouncing a meaningless fastball in the dirt. With Valdespin down in the count 1-2, Clippard went back to his bread-and-butter changeup.
"Threw one right down the middle and just didn't execute it," Clippard said. "It was frustrating and probably wasn't the right pitch to throw, in my opinion. I threw it anyway, and just didn't really execute it."
Valdespin drove it deep to right-center field, where it carried just over the wall for Clippard's first blown save since he took over the closer's role in late May. A fan reached over and touched the ball as it was falling toward the stands, and Bryce Harper played the ball off the carom with hopes of a play at the plate. He had no chance at nailing either Ronny Cedeno or David Wright as home-plate umpire Angel Hernandez signaled it was, in fact, a homer.
A replay review upheld the call on the field, and the Nationals found themselves behind for the first time in the game.
Down 3-2 in the ninth, the Nationals clawed back for a run when Ian Desmond moved to third on a perfectly-executed hit-and-run with Adam LaRoche at the plate. With first and third and two outs, Espinosa delivered against Mets reliever Bobby Parnell.
The New York right-hander threw Espinosa five straight curveballs to begin the at-bat before Espinosa laced a 99-mph heater up the middle to tie the ballgame.
"For a guy that throws that hard, you're always ready for his fastball," Espinosa said. "But he has a good offspeed [pitch], as well. You go up there and try to stay with your approach and get a pitch you can handle, and take a good swing at it."
But the Nationals' bullpen would falter again in the 10th, when Josh Thole doubled home a run off Mike Gonzalez. That left it up to the Washington lineup and Harper, who drilled a 10th-inning triple off Tim Byrdak to right field, scoring Jhonatan Solano from second.
After two intentional walks and a fielder's-choice grounder that nabbed Harper on a forceout at home, the pitch from Pedro Beato skipped by Tyler Moore at the plate and catcher Thole behind it for the winning run as Ryan Zimmerman hustled home from third base.
"Curveball in the dirt," Thole said. "I've got to block that. That's the bottom line."
Detwiler, who threw 62 of his 86 pitches for strikes and left the game with a 1-0 lead, wound up with a no-decision. It was the best start of his 2012 campaign -- he went seven, scattering five hits and zero walks, while striking out four -- and the third time in his career he lasted seven innings in an outing.
"This is definitely up there," the lefty said. "I don't remember the last time I finished seven. This is definitely what I want to do. I want to go deep into the game, and as deep as possible."
He outdueled Jon Niese, who was perhaps even better overall, allowing just three hits and no walks while striking out eight Washington hitters. He made one mistake on the first pitch he threw to Moore in the fifth, which Moore drove just over the right-center-field wall for an early Nationals lead.
"The first eight innings were kind of laid back, I thought we may not win the game right there," Moore said. "Bad luck on [Clippard], but he's been solid for us all year. But whatever, we just picked him up and that's kind of what it's all about. Danny [Espinosa] picked me up in the ninth when I didn't get that run across. It's kind of what this team's all about."