Mets prove they're NL East contenders with weekend sweep of Nationals
In the span of 72 hours, the Mets have turned the NL East into baseball's most interesting divisional race. On Sunday night, behind an unexpected barrage of power and the right arm of Noah Syndergaard, New York downed the Nationals 5–2 at a boisterous Citi Field to complete a three-game sweep and move into an unlikely tie for first place in the East with Washington. It was a series that capped off a weird and wild week on a blistering high note for the Mets, but one that should be decidedly worrisome for the Nationals.
Each night, it seemed, featured a different star for the Mets. It was perhaps fitting that on Friday, it was Wilmer Flores who struck the first blow of the series. Nearly traded on Wednesday night and reduced to tears on the field, Flores survived the trade deadline still a member of the Mets and immediately made New York thankful that its proposed deal for Carlos Gomez had fallen through. He turned in a fantastic diving play at second base in the opening frame to earn the first of what would be many standing ovations throughout the evening, then he sent the Mets faithful home happy with his walk-off homer in the 12th inning, breaking a 1–1 tie and shaving the Nationals' lead to two games in the East.
Saturday was supposed to be the star turn for the Mets' latest addition—trade deadline pickup Yoenis Cespedes—but it was another slugger who stole the spotlight, as Lucas Duda continued what's been an absurd power surge by bashing two homers and hitting the game-winning double in the eighth inning of New York's 3–2 win. After slumping through a .187/.312/.264 month of June and a horrid start to July—.145/.234/.290 in his first 77 plate appearances—Duda has found his stroke once more in the last week and change. On July 25, he started his current hot streak by homering twice against the Dodgers, and on the night of the failed Flores deal, he quietly hit three homers in a losing effort against the Padres, but on Saturday, his blasts made all the difference, carrying the Mets to within one game of first.
On Sunday, it was Syndergaard's turn to shine. Painting the corners of the strike zone with a fastball that topped out at 100 mph and complementing it with a darting, dipping curveball, the lanky Texan dropped the hammer on the Nationals' lineup, striking out nine across eight brilliant innings. He made a few mistakes, leaving fastballs up to Anthony Rendon and Yunel Escobar that were promptly deposited beyond the outfield walls, but on the whole, the rookie stymied Washington. Only in the sixth inning did he truly run into trouble: After a solo homer by Escobar, Syndergaard gave up line-drive singles to Rendon and Harper to put two on with one out. From there, though, he buckled down, coaxing a fly ball to center from Ryan Zimmerman and an inning-ending grounder to second from Jayson Werth. Washington threatened again in the eighth on a two-out, ground-rule double from Rendon, but Syndergaard finished his night with a flourish, punching out Harper on 100-mph heat.
It was that kind of night for Harper, who finished with the lone single. It wasn't his worst outing of the weekend—he was tossed from the game on Friday in the 11th after objecting vociferously to a called third strike—but it was overall a series of little distinction for him and the rest of the Nationals' lineup. All told, Washington managed just five runs in 30 innings; worse, the Nationals got little to nothing from the newly healthy Zimmerman and Werth. The former picked up all of one hit in 12 at-bats over the three games, striking out five times, while the latter went 2 for 12 with a double and a walk, providing little if any protection for Harper in the lineup.
Suffice to say that the Nationals won't get far with Zimmerman and Werth not producing. The return of Rendon has been crucial; he was one of the few Washington hitters to produce over the weekend, collecting five hits, including Sunday night's 3-for-4 showing with a homer and a double. But Ian Desmond remains mired in his brutal season-long slump, with his OPS still hovering in the low 600s and his OPS+ still well below league average (it was 71 heading into Sunday's game). That, combined with Denard Span's continued absence due to a back injury, has left the Nationals’ lineup riddled with holes. That showed in the stats: For the month of July, the team hit just .213, the worst mark in the game, with a .283 on-base percentage that ranked 29th (ahead of only the Athletics) and a .343 slugging percentage that beat only the A's and Cubs. All told, Washington averaged just 3.25 runs per game on the month.
As the Nationals’ offense slumped, the Mets’ offense seems ascendant—or, at least, a step better than its early summer doldrums. Much will be expected of Cespedes, who has just one hit in his first two games with New York but comes to the National League toting 18 home runs and a 126 OPS+ that would be second only to Duda on the Mets’ current roster. But he may not have to carry the load alone. Duda has erupted, cracking nine homers in his last eight games, while Curtis Granderson has rediscovered his power stroke as well. On Sunday, he got the Mets on the board with a booming two-run homer to left in the third, the first of what would be three bombs that inning, including Duda's 21st of the season. The team's addition of Juan Uribe at third, meanwhile, gives manager Terry Collins a two-way player at a position that has been more or less a hole since David Wright went on the disabled list.
Then there’s the pitching staff. Few teams can trot out a top three like the Mets can of Syndergaard, Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom. Over the weekend, New York unleashed its three top hurlers, and all three delivered as needed. The Mets will need to keep riding that trio as long as possible. Jonathon Niese has a 3.63 ERA but a 4.20 FIP thanks to his less-than-inspiring 5.9 strikeouts-per-nine rate. Worse, Bartolo Colon has started looking every bit of his 42 years of age. Since May 10, he has a 6.01 ERA over 79 1/3 innings, including a disastrous outing of eight runs in 2 1/3 frames in his last trip to the mound.
It’s easy to see the potential obstacles standing between the Mets and a surprising division crown: A thin lineup; a rotation that lacks depth and will face some innings crunches with Syndergaard and possibly deGrom; a top-heavy bullpen with a closer who has been worked to the bone. But at the same time, a Nationals team that was supposed to cruise to the NL East title has shown its fair share of weaknesses: An injury-prone offense relying on some increasingly creaky veterans; a rotation with some troubles at the back (Doug Fister's 4.39 ERA is a virtual match for his 4.36 FIP, while Gio Gonzalez, who managed just 4 2/3 innings in the series opener on Friday, has a middling 100 ERA+ through 110 1/3 frames); and most importantly, a total unknown in Stephen Strasburg. The former No. 1 pick has alternated between struggling on the mound (5.16 ERA, 73 ERA+) and sitting on the disabled list. Currently, he's working his way back from an oblique strain, but his first rehab start (four innings, three earned runs, five strikeouts) was far from inspiring. He'll take another turn Monday, but what the Nationals will get from him on the major league stage remains to be seen.
The NL East, then, is as wide open as it has ever been. The Nationals are most likely the favorite going forward. If everything clicks offensively and everyone stays healthy, they are by far the better hitting team, and they have both the best player in Harper and the best pitcher in Scherzer. But as this season has proven, those hypotheticals have meant largely zero through the first four months of the season. Fifty-seven games remain for the Mets this season; 59 are still on the calendar for the Nats. With the division all knotted up after this weekend’s series, every one of them will matter far more than either team could have imagined this late in the year.