(Aaron Heilman, shutting down DC)

The Nationals are 20-4 in their last 24 games at RFK Stadium. Two of those losses have come in the past 3 days to the New York Mets, winners this evening, 5-3 in a game highlighted by Aaron Heilman’s exceptional performance in middle relief (Two and a third innings, no hits, no walks). Braden Looper pitched a perfect 9th inning for his 19th save in 22 opportunities. Now might be a good time for me to admit that Looper’s handful of meltdowns, all of ’em morale killers at the time, aren’t nearly as plentiful as those of say, Keith Foulke, and in fairness, he is not the biggest reason the Mets are merely a .500 team.

I won’t say the Nationals have been doing it with mirrors, but there is something mindblowing about a first place club using Carlos Baerga as their cleanup hitter one night, and Will Cordero the next.

The New York Times’ Dave Curtis reports that GM Omar Minaya thinks the half full glass of Rheingold tastes pretty good.

“When you look at the teams, there’s separation between us and the Nationals,” Minaya said. “If you look at the wild card, everybody’s kind of in the same spot. We’re a good week away from being the leaders.”

After the Mets gave Manager Willie Randolph a 51st birthday present with their second victory in three days here, they were five games behind the Atlanta Braves, who lead the wild-card standings and were rained out Wednesday night.

After finishing a trip this weekend in Pittsburgh and taking the three-day break, the Mets will welcome the Braves for four games. Strong play over that stretch would keep Minaya optimistic and leave the Mets in position to seek a trade for proven performers, namely a power hitter and a relief pitcher.

“Today, we’re buyers,” Minaya said. “I feel like we’re in the race, as far as the wild-card race. And there’s still a lot of baseball left in this division.”

Last season, the Mets remained buyers through late July, when they dealt prospects to Pittsburgh for Kris Benson and to Tampa Bay for Victor Zambrano, two of the Mets’ 2005 starting pitchers.

If the Mets remain buyers this season, they appear to be in good position to improve. Ownership has given Minaya room to increase the payroll, he said, clearing the way to acquire veterans with big salaries.

And the team possesses a wealth of healthy starting pitchers with major league experience, always a valuable trading commodity. Aaron Heilman, now the team’s long reliever, made seven starts early in the season and pitched a one-hitter against Florida. Jae Seo, now at Class AAA Norfolk, went 2-1 with a 2.00 earned run average in three major league starts earlier this season.

Sony’s new priceyrobot, Qrio (above) threw out the first pitch last night at RFK. Moments later, Qrio refused to relinquish the ball to manager Frank Robinson and was demoted to New Orleans after the game.