The New York Mets have been grinding through a divisional stretch to start the season, going 8-8 through series against the Braves, Marlins, and Phillies. Now, the page turns to the big target as the Washington Nationals come into town for a three-game series in Queens, as the two division winners from the past two seasons do battle for the first time in 2017.
The Mets enter the series having stumbled to losses in five out of their last six, including dropping a rubber game to the Phillies with Noah Syndergaard on the mound. The club has found ways to lose over the past week, whether it come from a lack of offense, to bullpen meltdowns, to some terrible defensive plays. Dealing with some injuries, the Mets will need to clean their act up as they square off with one of the National League’s better teams.
In the other dugout, Dusty Baker’s team in on a completely opposite wave of momentum, having won five out of their last six ballgames, including a sweet of Atlanta in the first leg of this road trip. Bryce Harper appears to be back to his MVP caliber form, Daniel Murphy has been outstanding, and Ryan Zimmerman has had a resurgent month. Washington is still trying to figure out its bullpen situation, but outside of that and a few injuries, things have started off well for D.C.
So far for the Mets, April has been a mixed bag as they sit exactly at .500 after 16 games. With six out of their next nine games against the Nationals, the story of this month will be written in the next 10 days. Here’s a preview of what to look for.
Game 1: Matt Harvey (2-0 2.45 ERA) vs Tanner Roark (2-0 3.50 ERA)
The last time Matt Harvey faced the Nationals in Citi Field, it was probably the low point of the pitcher’s career. Harvey let up nine runs and exited the third inning to a chorus of booing fans. Since that time, Harvey has undergone surgery for Thoracic Outlet Syndrome, and has rehabbed and made three starts in his return. So far, things have gone well for The Dark Knight. Harvey does not quite have the consistent velocity or life on his fastball yet, and it is costing him some strikeouts, but he is pitching smart and it has led to three straight quality starts including six strong innings in Miami his last time out.
The Nationals will send out one of the league’s most underrated pitchers in Tanner Roark. After a stellar 16-win, 2.83 ERA campaign in his return to the rotation in 2016, Roark is off to another good start, in 18 innings of 2017. Roark is not a strikeout pitcher, but he does an excellent job of throwing strikes, and keeping the ball in the ballpark. His skillset matches up well against a Met lineup hoping to hit home runs, and he will look to build off the success he’s had against the Mets in the past.
Game 2: Jacob deGrom (0-0 1.89 ERA) vs Gio Gonzalez (1-0 1.33 ERA)
Jacob deGrom was originally scheduled to throw in Friday night’s opener, but due to a stiff neck is being pushed back a night. Jake has been faced with some bad luck in the win-loss column, as he remains without a record despite a 1.89 ERA and more than a strikeout per inning. Last time out, deGrom was as good as it gets, striking out 13 over seven innings, and showing the type of explosive stuff that made him an All-Star in 2015. He will need to be sharp again to hold down one of the better lineups in the National League. The right hander didn’t make any starts against the rival Nationals a season ago, however, he did have success over 34.1 innings against them in 2015.
Washington will go to their lefty Gio Gonzalez who has gotten off to a nice start in 2017. The veteran has pitched into the seventh inning in two of his three starts, and is coming off a well-pitched no decision against Philadelphia last week. Gio is not the top end starter he was at the beginning of his tenure with Washington, but he can still be effective enough to pitch his team to important wins.
Game 3: Zack Wheeler (1-1 5.52 ERA) vs Max Scherzer (2-1 1.37 ERA)
This three-game set will conclude under the lights at Citi Field, in front of a national audience as the Mets play on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball for the second time in three weeks. Zack Wheeler gets the ball in this one, as he will look for his signature moment in his first month pitching since 2014. Wheeler has looked very much like the pitcher Met fans remember him as through three starts. He has thrown hard, he has struck batters out, and he has looked dominant for flashes. On the other end, however, he is still battling issues with efficiency and getting deep into the game, and that was on display in his previous start, where Wheeler needed 99 pitches to get through five innings against the Phillies.
Zack Wheeler will have to be sharp in this game, as on the other end is reigning Cy Young winner Max Scherzer. The Nationals’ ace battled an issue with his finger in Spring Training and got off to a delayed start to the season, but he has looked like he is just as dominant as ever when on the mound. Scherzer is always a handful for the Mets, and has a no-hitter to his name against them, so expect the Mets to have to really battle in this game.
Three Things To Watch For
Who Is Playing For the Mets?
The Mets health situation took a quick turn for the worst over the final two games of the series against the Phillies. On Wednesday night, Lucas Duda left the game with a hyperextended elbow and Travis d’Arnaud was right behind him with a hand injury. Thursday night, Wilmer Flores was held out with a knee infection after spending Wednesday in the hospital. Finally, Yoenis Cespedes left Thursday night’s game with what the team originally called a hamstring cramp, but appears to be something more serious that will require at least a few days off. Add in Jacob deGrom having to be pushed back a night for neck stiffness, and the Mets are a banged up team entering this series. The expectation is that one or two of these guys will go to the DL before the game Friday so that New York can have a real bench, but it still remains to be seen who will be available to contribute and in what capacity.
Does Daniel Murphy Continue His Dominance Over the Mets?
Not long ago, Daniel Murphy was an October hero for the Mets, rattling off a historic postseason performance that landed the Mets in the World Series for the first time since 2000. The club decided to go in a different direction at second base, and have likely been regretting that decision ever since. Daniel Murphy, who signed a cheap three-year deal with Washington showed his postseason performance in 2015 was the new Daniel Murphy, as he emerged as one of the league’s best hitters and nearly won the MVP award. Murphy hurt a lot of teams last year, but he really did damage to his old club. The former Met hit seven home runs in 19 games, including four in his old stomping grounds of Citi Field. Add in 21 total RBI’s in those 19 games, and it was clear Murphy was a problem for Met pitchers all season. The Nationals lineup is good, and once again Daniel Murphy is a big part of that, slashing .344/.375/.557. How he fares in this series will certainly be a factor in its outcome for both teams.
Yes, These Games Are Important
April baseball can be a dangerous thing for fans. The game itself is determined over large sample sizes, however, the freshness of a new season often leaves people unable to keep perspective after a few weeks. That being said, the games still count on the record, so the notion that anything that happens in April is not relevant is also not a good way of looking at things either. As far as this series is concerned, the reality is that every game the Mets and the Nationals play against each other is important whether they are played in April or September.
In 2015, the Mets went 11-8 overall against Washington, but they ran away with the division with six straight victories late in the year. In 2016, the script was flipped with Washington going 12-7 against the Mets and taking over the NL East for good when they took six out of seven over two series in late June and early July. At any point in the season, if one of these teams puts together a big stretch against the other, it could ultimately be what is seen to have moved the needle in the division, and if neither team has that dominant stretch, it is possible this race comes down to the wire and the head-to-head record is what separates them.
The Marlins have a good team, and figure to be competitive for a Wild Card, but at the end of the day, the National League East still appears to be a two-team race, and with that in mind, all of these games are critical.