Reeling Nationals face suddenly critical series in New York

Davey Martinez won’t look at the standings, certainly not in April. He doesn’t believe it does him or his players any good to pay attention right now to the records of other teams in relation to their own record.

Which is all well and good except for one teensy little fact: The Nationals head to New York tonight for the opener of a three-game series trailing the Mets in the National League East division by six games.

Good luck ignoring the standings now, right?

martinez-big-smile.jpg“We’ve got to play tomorrow,” Martinez said Sunday evening after his team suffered a 6-5 loss to the Rockies to wrap up a dismal 3-7 homestand. “Worry about tomorrow. It’s just another game. I told the guys: Keep your heads up. Go in there tomorrow, play like we’re capable of playing.”

Is this just another game, though? Is this just another three-game series in a season full of them? Yes and no.

The Nationals have played 16 games, one-tenth of the season. No matter what happens the next three nights at Citi Field, they’ll still have nearly nine-tenths of the season left to play.

And yet it’s impossible to ignore the numbers altogether. If the Nats were to get swept, they’d trail the Mets by nine whole games before then heading out west for a series with the defending NL champion Dodgers. Does anybody want to be staring up at a nine-game deficit at any point in a baseball season?

“We just need to play well, play our A game and see what goes on there,” catcher Matt Wieters said. “You can’t worry about wins and losses before playing the game. That’s the whole thing about saying who’s going to win, who’s going to win the division and going to win this. You’ve got to play the game. So we’ve got to go out and play the game as well as we can.”

The Nationals’ 7-9 start wouldn’t cause quite so much consternation around town if not for the fact the Mets are off to a scorching hot 12-2 start to their season. Their star-studded but star-crossed rotation is healthy for the first time in a long time, and they appear to be for real.

The Mets also catch a break knowing they won’t have to face either Max Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg in this series, one week after avoiding Scherzer during a three-game sweep at Nationals Park.

No, instead it’ll be Jeremy Hellickson on the mound for the Nats tonight, the 31-year-old journeyman right-hander set to be added to the big league roster after spending the last three weeks since signing a minor league contract building his arm up in West Palm Beach.

The Nationals made the call now to add Hellickson (who had a 5.43 ERA in 30 starts with the Phillies and Orioles last season) and drop A.J. Cole from the big league rotation. They haven’t officially announced a corresponding move to account for Hellickson’s arrival, but Cole (who is out of minor league options) is likely to shift to the bullpen and serve as the club’s long reliever.

All Hellickson needs to do in his Nationals debut? Outduel Jacob deGrom and help lead his team to victory after it lost four of its last five games.

The pitching matchups for the remainder of the series: Gio Gonzalez versus Zack Wheeler on Tuesday evening, then Tanner Roark vesus Steven Matz on Wednesday night.

“It starts with Game 1 up there,” right fielder Bryce Harper said. “We’ve got a tough road trip coming up, and it starts Game 1 tomorrow against deGrom and we’ll go from there.”

If all of this sounds vaguely familiar, you must’ve been a fan back in 2015 when a Nationals club expected to run away with the division found itself with a 9-13 record heading to New York to face a Mets club that was six games up in the marathon race.

The Nationals did win three of four in that series and headed home having trimmed the NL East deficit to four games. They took over first place in mid-May and led by as many as 4 1/2 games on July 5 before things began to go south. The real blow came during their next trip to Flushing - July 31-Aug. 2, when they were swept and found themselves stuck in a temporary tie for first place, one that quickly devolved into an insurmountable deficit.

So that would seem to suggest the results of this week’s series aren’t that critical to the Nationals’ overall fortunes in 2018. Then again, who right now really wants to be staring up at a seven- or-nine-game deficit, no matter the date on the calendar?

“You know, let’s come out tomorrow ready to play tomorrow,” Martinez said. “That’s how we go about it. Let’s stay in the here and now, be in the present. And we do that, we’re going to hit. I see signs of guys starting to come out of it. ... Good things are going to start happening.”

The Nationals had better hope so, lest they strap themselves in for a very long and painful ride over the next 5 1/2 months.

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