NEW YORK -- The slow-starting Nationals were looking up from five runs down and staring at falling seven games back of the fast-starting Mets, but then they showed the fortitude that helped them win the National League East each of the last two years. Washington's inconsistent, injury-depleted lineup climbed out of the five-run hole against the Mets in the eighth, ultimately pulling off a stunning rally Monday night in the opener of a three-game series at Citi Field.
The fourth-place Nats erased a five-run deficit, scoring six times in the eighth en route to an 8-6 win. They hope this is the game that leads to them taking off.
"For us, it's a big pick-me-up," said Dave Martinez, Washington's first-year manager. "I told them all along, 'We're going to do this. We're going to snap out of it. And when it happens, it's going to be really fun.' You saw it happen, and it was fun. That dugout was electric."
The Nationals improved their record to 8-9 and are within five games of the Mets -- with 145 to play.
"You don't want to get too far behind and have to play catch-up all year," shortstop Trea Turner said. "So this series is definitely big for us, but [there's] a lot of baseball left."
Bryce Harper hit a broken-bat homer in the first -- his MLB-leading eighth of the season -- and delivered a two-run single in the big rally for a Washington team that's missing Adam Eaton, Anthony Rendon and Daniel Murphy.
• Injury updates: Eaton, Rendon, Murphy
So what did the comeback show Harper about this group?
"I just think we're a team that's going to battle to the end, no matter what, if it's 6-1 or we're up 6-1," Harper said. "It's just how we are. We're going to battle every single day. We've got a great manager in that office that believes in us and pulls on the same rope with us every single day. We're excited to get going [Tuesday]."
The Mets (12-3) had already swept the Nats across three games in Washington, and they stretched their lead to 6-1 when Asdrubal Cabrera hit a two-run homer off A.J. Cole.
Then the Nationals went to work against the five pitchers Mets manager Mickey Callaway used in the game-turning inning. Starter Jacob deGrom struck out 12, but he departed with one out and two on. Harper's single to right off Jerry Blevins cut it to 6-3. AJ Ramos walked former Mets infielder Matt Reynolds with the bases loaded to force in the next run.
Closer Jeurys Familia came on to try for a four-out save, but Wilmer Difo grounded a single into right to drive in two more, and it was tied. Then Familia hit Moises Sierra to load the bases and walked Michael A. Taylor to force in the go-ahead run.
"They put good at-bats together," Martinez said.
Howie Kendrick homered off Hansel Robles in the ninth to set the final margin.
Brandon Kintzler threw a perfect eighth, and Ryan Madson picked up his second save with a one-hit ninth.
As Madson put it: "That's going to create a lot of momentum for us."
Cole got the win. He had lost his job as the No. 5 starter in the rotation to Jeremy Hellickson after two starts. Hellickson, who signed in mid-March, came up from extended spring training and was activated before the game. The 31-year-old righty used up his approximate pitch count in 4 2/3 innings, allowing two runs and seven hits while throwing 61 of his 88 pitches for strikes. Hellickson sure enjoyed the view of the eighth inning from the Nats' dugout.
"I don't think anybody in this clubhouse moved for about 30 minutes," Hellickson said. "It was a lot of fun to watch. I've seen these guys do it the last few years, so it's good to be a part of it this time."
Harper is one homer away from equaling his career high for March/April homers, which he has accomplished three times, including last year. Ryan Zimmerman set the Nationals March/April homer record with 11 last year. Harper holds their overall record for most homers in a month when he hit 13 in May 2015.
HE SAID IT
"That was big, super big. I'm not going to sit here and lie. The boys are fired up. It's a testament to them. They don't quit. They're going to keep battling, and you saw that today." -- Martinez, on the comeback win
MITEL REPLAY OF THE DAY
Trailing by two runs, the Mets received a flicker of life in the ninth inning when Asdrubal Cabrera doubled with one out. But when an errant pitch scooted away from Nationals catcher Pedro Severino, Cabrera attempted to take third base, despite the fact that he did not represent the game-tying run. Severino threw him out, and although the Mets challenged, replays plainly showed Cabrera was out.
Giovany Gonzalez (1-1, 2.20) has yielded two earned runs or fewer in all three of his starts. His fourth outing comes Tuesday at 7:10 p.m. ET against the Mets at Citi Field, where he has a 1.69 ERA in 15 career starts. He'll face right-hander Zack Wheeler (1-0, 1.29), who will be making his second start of the season.