Weekend series with Mets suddenly carries more weight

We’ve spent most of the summer emphasizing the Nationals’ matchups with the team they’re chasing in the National League East (the Braves) and the team that’s been right alongside them in the wild card race (the Phillies).

The Mets? There hasn’t been much reason to talk about them, at least not since April and early May, when they still harbored visions of being part of a four-team race in the NL East. But then came a collapse and the drama that too often seems to overtake New York’s second-favorite ballclub, and we pretty much forgot all about these guys.

But when the Nationals arrive at Citi Field tonight for the opener of a three-game series, they won’t be facing an also-ran counting down the days til the season ends. They’ll be facing the hottest team in the league, one that has surprisingly thrust itself right back into the thick of the pennant race right under our very eyes.

Yes, the Mets are on fire. They’ve won six in a row and 13 of their last 14. They were 10 games under .500 at the All-Star break. Now they’re three games over .500 and only 1/2-game out of the NL’s second wild card position (currently held by the Brewers).

Howie-Kendrick-Scores-at-NYM-Gray-Sidebar.jpgWhich means this weekend’s series suddenly carries a lot more significance than it figured to only a few weeks ago.
Like the Nationals, the Mets have turned their season around behind a dominant and deep rotation. Since the All-Stark break, New York starters have gone 14-3 with a 2.62 ERA, best in the majors.

And that group was bolstered prior to the trade deadline with a surprising addition: Marcus Stroman. Few understood first-year general manager Brodie Van Wagenen’s thinking when he traded away prospects for the Blue Jays right-hander, but it turns out Stroman was brought in not only to help this team win down the road but to help it win right now.

Stroman will get the ball for tonight’s series opener, and though his Mets debut last week (three runs, seven hits in 4 1/3 innings against the Pirates) wasn’t particularly good, he’s still in the middle of a big season and capable of taking control of a game he starts.

The Nationals also will have to contend with New York’s elite 1-2 pitching combo in Noah Syndergaard and Jacob deGrom the rest of the weekend. Not that they aren’t sending some fairly accomplished pitchers to the mound themselves.

Max Scherzer may remain on the injured list, but the Nats should feel plenty good about their chances with Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez starting this weekend. Strasburg and Corbin were roughed up in Arizona in their last outings but otherwise have been excellent of late. Sánchez continues his dominant turnaround from an ugly April and May. In 12 starts since returning from a hamstring strain, he’s 7-0 with a 2.82 ERA.

So the Nationals will be fielding the best they’ve currently got this weekend against a Mets club that still needs to prove it can have success against quality competition. It must be noted that their recent surge has come entirely at the expense of the Padres, Pirates, White Sox and Marlins.

It sounds kind of similar to the Nats’ torrid closing stretch to the season’s first half, when they went 10-2 against the Marlins, Tigers and Royals. Since then, they’ve gone 14-11. It’s not great, but it’s not bad given the tougher competition.

All of which adds some context to this weekend’s showdown. The Nationals are the best team the Mets have played in weeks. The Mets are the latest tough team the Nationals will have faced over the last several weeks.

The results of these three games might tell us a lot about the true status of both clubs.

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