Terry Collins insisted that the time eventually will come. At some point soon, he said the Mets will bridge the gap that exists between themselves and the Nationals.

He mentioned the return of ace Matt Harvey for next season, the emergence of young talent through the system, and the growth of a bullpen stocked with dynamic young arms such as Jeurys Familia, Jenrry Mejia and Vic Black. "I don't think we're that far away," Collins said after the Mets' 3-0 loss to the Nationals, winners of 13 of 16 meetings this season.

Perhaps Collins will be proved correct next season. But Sunday offered nothing but stark reminders about closing the talent gap and the monumental challenge that lies ahead for the Mets.

They also learned that one of those promising young arms could be shut down for the remainder of the season.

Black, 26, established himself this year as a key piece in what the Mets believe will evolve into a dominant bullpen. In 41 appearances, he has a 2.60 ERA in 34 2/3 innings.

But the hard-throwing righthander is scheduled for a precautionary MRI exam Monday, two days after he complained of an achy shoulder that robbed him of his typical velocity. "All the tests were fine except for just a few movements that he thinks is just fatigue," said Black, who was examined by doctors Sunday.

Though he said doctors were "encouraged" by the initial exam, Black acknowledged that he might be shut down for the year, even if Monday's MRI reveals no structural damage and he's suffering only from fatigue.

He believes his shoulder issue stemmed from returning to the mound after he was sidelined with a slightly herniated disc. Last season, a similar injury cut short Bobby Parnell's year and eventually required surgery.

Unlike Parnell, Black returned to action, though a dip in his fastball velocity Saturday sent up red flags.

"We're concerned about it, there's no question," Collins said. "This guy lives and dies with power stuff. And even though there's nothing wrong with 93, that's not Vic Black."

With Black's fate still in the air, the Mets went about what's become the usual business of exposing their deficiencies against the Nationals.

Wilson Ramos, the reputed Mets-killer, lived up to his billing. With one powerful swing, the catcher blasted a two-run homer in the seventh, one of few mistakes made by Mets lefthander Jonathon Niese.

With the game still scoreless, Ian Desmond led off the inning by legging out a grounder because Niese was slow to leave the mound and cover first base. Two batters later, Ramos pounced on Niese's belt-high two-seamer.

Said Collins: "He basically made one bad pitch and made one fundamental mistake."

Niese allowed two runs and six hits in seven innings, striking out seven. But it couldn't undo the Mets going 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position.

Notes & quotes: Lefthander Dana Eveland left the team after he was shut down for the remainder of the season with left elbow inflammation. Eveland, 30, went 1-1 with a 2.63 ERA in 30 appearances . . . Matt den Dekker legged out an infield single in a pinch-hitting appearance. It was his first game since Tuesday, when a pitch hit him on the left hand.