Plenty of storylines to first Nats-Mets series of the season

When last the Nationals and Mets faced each other in a game of actual significance, the lasting image was that of Yoenis Cespedes circling the bases while Drew Storen fumed on the mound, the final dagger of a miserable three-day stretch for the Nats having been delivered in the harshest possible manner.

That scene pretty much encapsulated the 2015 pennant race between these two teams. A Nationals club that was supposed to run away with another National League East title instead wilted in moments of pressure, particularly when asking its bullpen to put games away, while a Mets club that was offensively anemic for four months was suddenly unstoppable, catapulting this surprise team all the way to a World Series berth.

Though the Nationals and Mets would meet again before the 2015 season officially was complete, their final-weekend series at Citi Field was merely a matter of 162-game protocol (which made Max Scherzer's 17-strikeout no-hitter that weekend somewhat bittersweet).

Max Scherzer no-hitter Citi Field.jpgNow, at long last, the Nationals get their first chance to square up again with their chief division rivals. Tonight, they'll play the first of 19 regular season games against the Mets, their first opportunity to prove to everyone this year will be different.

And, yes, they are looking forward to that opportunity.

"Yeah, that's the team that beat us," said Scherzer, who will start tonight's opener against Noah Syndergaard. "Much respect to what they did last year, and they get all the credit and deserve all the credit. It's just that ... we want to come in and beat you, simple as that. We're competitive. We know we're a great team. Obviously, we have a lot of respect and we think they're a great team as well. We just want to come in there and beat you and want to be better."

There are myriad reasons why the Nationals didn't win the NL East last season, and we won't rehash all of them here. But for now, just consider the fact they went 8-11 against the Mets, and in six of the losses, they blew a lead in the sixth inning or later.

Flip the outcome of only four of those games, and guess what happens? The Nationals finish 87-75, the Mets 86-76.

It doesn't actually work that way, of course, and the point isn't to suggest the Nats deserved to win the division if they just had a better bullpen. The point is: These head-to-head games do matter a lot come season's end.

"Last year, I don't think we were getting crushed by the Mets," first baseman Clint Robinson said. "I remember we were winning a lot of ballgames and ended up losing at the end. We had some good games with them. We hung with them. I think it just came down to them being extremely hot at the time."

Neither team enters this series particularly hot. The Nationals have been rather inconsistent over the last three weeks, going 9-11 with two winning streak of at least three games and two losing streaks of at least three games. The Mets, meanwhile, just got swept in Colorado and are facing questions about the performance and health of starters Matt Harvey and Steven Matz, plus a streaky lineup that ranks second in the NL in homers but 12th in total runs scored.

And then there is the Daniel Murphy factor, which should be front-and-center this week. The longtime Mets second baseman, such an integral part of their October surge, makes his first appearance at Citi Field in an opposing uniform. And he'll do so while sporting an MLB-best .400 batting average.

Murphy, as he always does, is trying to deflect attention away from himself entering this series - "Should be fun," he said. "Should be a lot of fun." - but the Nationals know the significance of this reunion, and are curious to see how he is greeted by the locals.

"You know, the people in New York are probably ... some will jeer him, but I think most will cheer him," manager Dusty Baker said. "Because if the Mets had wanted to keep him, they had plenty of chances to keep him. It wasn't as if Murph left. It was kind of like Murph wasn't invited to stay."

If things play out as expected, there will be many more games of more significance between these two teams later this summer. But this week does offer a first taste of what could be an enticing pennant race.

"We're in a good position," Baker said. "If somebody said in the middle of May that we'd be going to New York in first place, I'm sure everybody would've been happy. It's just once you're in first place, everybody wants you to be 5-6 games up. We're all greedy. Fans are greedy. You guys are greedy. I'm greedy. But we are where we are, and we've just got to keep fighting."

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