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AP - Sports

The Washington Nationals' bullpen is among the best in baseball, but it hasn't resembled that lofty status lately.

Giving the ball to Doug Fister could limit its involvement.

Fister has gone seven innings in four of his last five starts, a trend he'll look to continue Wednesday night while trying to slow down Daniel Murphy and the visiting New York Mets.

Washington (60-51) has a three-game lead on Atlanta atop the NL East, and the relievers have been a big part of that success with a 2.95 ERA that ranks sixth in the majors.

The bullpen hasn't been nearly as effective as usual during a 3-6 stretch, compiling a 7.48 ERA while allowing opponents to hit .380. The relief corps has given up four runs and 12 hits with two hit batters in 5 2-3 innings while the Nationals have lost back-to-back games, including Tuesday's 6-1 defeat to New York (54-59).

Manager Matt Williams, though, wasn't assigning blame since Washington also had Asdrubal Cabrera get hit by a batted ball for an out in the second inning, while Jayson Werth was thrown out at the plate in the sixth as the potential tying run.

The Nationals have been outscored 28-9 in their last five defeats.

"There's no common thread," Williams said. "There's no way to say, 'OK, this is because, this is why.' No. I mean, I haven't seen a guy get hit with a batted ball in a while.

"It seems like it's going the wrong way the last couple of days, but we can turn that around."

Another strong start from Fister (10-3, 2.68 ERA) could help.

The right-hander has completed at least seven innings in nine of his 15 starts, including four of his five since July while going 4-1 with a 2.41 ERA. Fister allowed two runs in seven innings of a 2-1 loss to Philadelphia on Friday.

He yielded one run in 6 1-3 innings of a 6-1 road win for Detroit in his only career meeting with the Mets on Aug. 23.

Fister held Murphy without a hit in three at-bats in that meeting, but the second baseman is hitting .439 with five doubles, two homers, eight RBIs and nine runs over the past 10 games. He had his seventh multihit game of that stretch Tuesday, collecting three hits with a triple while plating two runs on a single off reliever Drew Storen.

He has a .451 average with 12 RBIs in his past 12 games in the nation's capital.

The Mets are turning to Jonathon Niese (5-7, 3.24), who has a 4.74 ERA while losing three straight starts since returning from a stint on the disabled list for a strained shoulder.

The left-hander allowed five runs - three earned - with two hit batters while throwing just 87 pitches in eight innings of a 5-1 loss to San Francisco on Friday.

Niese has tossed more than 90 pitches once over the last three games, and that's a concern for manager Terry Collins.

"We have to get this guy some work," Collins said. "If he keeps coming out after five innings or 60 or 70 pitches, he's not going to help us when we really need it in crunch time to where he gets into the 80- and 90-pitch mark. We've got to get some strength in his shoulder."

Niese surrendered five runs in four innings of a 5-2 loss at Washington on May 16. He had been 2-0 with a 1.67 ERA in his previous five starts at Nationals Park.

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