With extra emphasis on Mets series, Nats finish first half strong

NEW YORK - The situations weren’t identical, they never are from one season to the next. Rosters change, injuries happen, guys who had good years come back with bad years and vice versa.

But if nothing else, there was a sense of familiarity when the Nationals arrived in Queens on Thursday for the opener of a key July series against the team directly behind them in the National League East standings. They led the Mets by four games, with four games to play at Citi Field.

Not quite one year ago - on July 31, 2015 - the previous incarnation of the Nationals arrived in this same ballpark, leading the Mets by three games. New York was reeling a bit at the time but emboldened by their surprise acquisition of Yoenis Cespedes at the trade deadline. Manager Terry Collins lined up his best starters to pitch in the series, while Matt Williams and the Nationals tried to downplay the significance of that road trip.

You already know what happened. The Mets swept the series in dramatic fashion, twice rallying against the Nationals’ shaky bullpen. They left the division race tied, then never looked back in cruising to the NL East crowd and ultimately the NL pennant.

Who knows if anybody wearing a Nationals uniform this weekend recalled visions of that series. Several of them weren’t even here last year, including the majority of the coaching staff. But Dusty Baker made it clear this weekend was important to him and to his team.

gonzalez-gio-red-pitching-away-sidebar.jpgAnd that’s why the veteran manager kept his foot on the gas pedal straight through the final out of today’s 3-2 victory, one that ensured the Nationals would leave town having taken three of four while opening up a six-game lead in the division entering the All-Star break.

“It was big. We knew that coming here,” Baker said. “We knew if they swept us, they’d be tied with us. And if we split, we’d be right where we started before. But we wanted to win the series. This was perhaps the biggest getaway day, which I always talk about. It’s a two-game game. You’re playing the team that’s chasing you. Instead of being four up, now we’re six up. It’s a two-game game. It’s a very, very important win for us.”

How important? Consider the decisions Baker made not only today but throughout the weekend ...

* He gave Daniel Murphy and Danny Espinosa a day off in the previous series against the Brewers, wanting each to start all four games here. Murphy wound up going 7-for-17 with three homers and 10 RBIs. Espinosa had several key defensive gems at shortstop.

* He had Wilson Ramos catch all four games, even today’s matinee, not wanting to remove his .330-hitting All-Star from the lineup. Ramos proceeded to record at least one hit in all four games, driving in the eventual winning run this afternoon.

* When starter Gio Gonzalez needed to be pulled with two outs in the sixth inning today, he turned not to one of the regular members of his bullpen, but instead to Tanner Roark. Taking the mound on three days’ rest after a 99-pitch start, Roark proceeded to toss 2 1/3 perfect innings of relief, bridging the gap from Gonzalez to closer Jonathan Papelbon in the ninth.

Think Baker wanted to win this series just a little bit?

“I wasn’t looking past the Brewers, but we knew this was a very, very important series,” he said. “I want the guys to leave from here on empty. And then fill your tank and come back.”

The Nationals will attempt to refuel during their four-day respite until they take the field again Friday night against the Pirates. They haven’t necessarily played their absolute best baseball yet, but they’ve reached the All-Star break with a 54-36 record (best in franchise history) and a healthy lead in their division. They’ve beaten the Mets nine times in 13 head-to-head contests so far, with only six September showdowns left between the two clubs.

“I think we’ve put ourselves in a really advantageous situation,” Murphy said. “Six games up in the division, I think that puts us 18 games over .500. We’re playing really good baseball right now.”

And they saved some of their best baseball of the first half for their final weekend, recognizing the significance of this series in a manner that felt different than last summer’s comparable matchup with the Mets.

“You come to New York to face these guys and either even the series or win the series,” Roark said. “You definitely want to come out winning the series. So that’s what we had in mind. Everybody had that in mind, and that’s why we played our best.”

As Gonzalez summed it up: “We came in strong, and we finished strong.”

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