Weekend series in New York suddenly looms large for Nationals

The Nationals have led the National League East division for all but three days this season, every day since April 16. And they’ve led the division by at least seven games every day since May 13.

That’s about as comfortable as it gets this early in the baseball calendar. And yet this weekend the Nationals find themselves facing a sudden and surprising big series in New York.

The Mets, who have been beset with injuries and all other sorts of calamities in the season’s first 2 1/2 months, quietly have won five of their last six. At the same time, the Nats have lost five of their last six.

And so when the two teams meet tonight for the opener of a four-game series at Citi Field, the Nationals will find themselves owning an 8 1/2-game lead.

Make no mistake, that’s still a sizeable lead. But that lead had grown as large as 12 1/2 games less than a week ago. And, though it’s unlikely, it does create the possibility of a dramatic shift should the Mets somehow sweep this weekend’s series and reduce the lead all the way down to 4 1/2 games.

Baker-Points-Gray-Sidebar.jpg“You know, maybe we will go back on the road and get our act together,” manager Dusty Baker said after Wednesday’s 12-3 drubbing at the hands of the Braves. “Because we are one of the best road teams around.”

Fair point. The Nationals are 21-12 on the road this season, the fourth-best record in the majors. And they just went 7-2 on a long road trip through California. So they aren’t exactly going to be intimidated when they arrive in Flushing tonight, and perhaps they might just emerge from the weekend with a bigger lead in the division.

Baker has lined things up fairly well to give his team its best chance. He sat several regulars yesterday (including Anthony Rendon and Matt Wieters) and purposely avoided using several of his better relievers, acknowledging that he was saving them up for the next four days.

The Nationals also have their rotation lined up well for the weekend. It’ll be Gio Gonzalez (career 9-1 with a 1.62 ERA at Citi Field) vs. Robert Gsellman in tonight’s opener, with Max Scherzer facing Steven Matz and Stephen Strasburg facing Seth Lugo on Saturday. Only Sunday’s finale (Joe Ross vs. Jacob deGrom) looks on paper like an advantage for New York.

So maybe by the time they leave the Big Apple, the Nationals will be right back where they want to be. But suffice it to say, this has turned into a bigger weekend series than it looked only a few days ago, and the Nats would do best to treat it as such.

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