The Nationals are heating up at precisely the right time. With their 8–4 defeat of the Braves on Sunday, the Nats completed a four-game sweep of Atlanta and extended their winning streak to five games heading into a potentially season-defining series against the Mets on Monday.
In four games, the Nationals took 2 1/2 games off the Mets’ lead in the NL East to pull within four games of first place. Don’t look now, New York, but your opponents haven’t surrendered just yet.
Washington has lost just one game so far in September, and is 13–6 since the team’s mid-August losing streak. The Mets went 12–6 during that same span and are 2–3 in September. Though the teams have nearly identical records as well as offensive statistics during this month, the results of Sunday’s games pushed the momentum slightly in favor of the Nationals.
If Washington was to sweep New York this week, it would end its home stand just one game behind its rival and we would have ourselves a veritable postseason race. The reverse result—a Mets sweep—would put the Nationals seven games out of first, which would almost completely erase their postseason hopes.
One way or another, this series will be a decisive one.
Both teams battled in their final games before the face-off. The Nationals’ offense clobbered the Braves early in Sunday’s matchup, knocking rookie starter Manny Banuelos out after just two innings and tacking six earned runs onto his ERA. In Miami, former Nationals pitcher and current Mets reliever Tyler Clippard blew a lead by allowing an eighth-inning home run to Justin Bour. Clippard stayed in for the ninth, and after a 12-pitch duel with Martin Prado, in which Prado fouled off six straight full-count pitches, Prado hit a sacrifice fly for his second walk-off of the series.
The Marlins’ 4–3 win was a two-fold victory for the Nationals. Not only did it narrow their margin for an NL East lead, but the 41 pitches Clippard threw made it unlikely they will have to face one of the Mets’ best relievers in at least the first game of a series that will feature top-notch pitching.
Power hitters came through for the Nationals in Florida and D.C. with Bour, Jayson Werth, Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon all homering to electrify a Nationals Park audience that was also keeping a mindful eye on the out-of-town scoreboard. Werth hit a three-run home run in the second inning after Michael Taylor’s RBI double. Harper followed with his 34th long ball of the year in the third inning for his third consecutive game with a homer. Rendon capped the power surge with a solo shot in the fourth inning.
The Nationals hitters will need all the power they can muster against the slate of Mets pitchers they will face. On Monday, Max Scherzer will go head-to-head with Jonathon Niese. Tuesday will feature Jordan Zimmermann versus Matt Harvey, and Wednesday could pit Stephen Strasburg against Jacob deGrom if Strasburg’s back is no longer bothering him after causing him to miss his last start. deGrom is not yet listed as the starting pitcher for the Mets. Mets rookie lefthander Steven Matz left his start against the Marlins on Sunday with a blister on his throwing hand.
The runs won’t come easy against the Mets starters though, who have limited opponents to 2.6 runs per outing with a .247 batting average and a .291 on-base percentage. During their five-game win streak, the Nats scored a total of 40 runs for an average of eight runs per game. Granted, the Braves have the fourth-worst collective ERA in baseball compared with the Mets’ third-best of 3.33. But, the Nationals’ only hope of making the postseason is to fight hard against good teams and capitalize on matchups with inferior teams, which is what they did this weekend against Atlanta.
After this series, the Nationals and the Mets will face a slew of inferior teams. The Nats will play a series against the Marlins (twice), Phillies (twice), Braves and Orioles, plus one game against the already-eliminated Reds. Not one of those teams has a winning record.
The Mets face an almost identical lineup of teams across their final 26 games. Instead of the Orioles, they will play the Yankees, who have a 76–59 record and are battling the Blue Jays for the AL East lead.
The Nationals will be counting on the Yankees to play the spoiler over those three games, but only if they are in a position to take or retain a division lead by the end of September. Washington’s chance of reaching the postseason according to Baseball Prospectus stood at just 14.2% before Sunday’s game, but the series against the Braves helped increase that number, which had been on a steady downward trend since the end of July.
After Sunday’s game, Scherzer expressed his understanding of the gravity of the coming series to MLB.com’s Jacob Emert.
“They’ve circled this on their calendar. We’ve circled it on our calendar,” Scherzer said. “They’re going to come ready to play. We’re going to give them everything we’ve got. This is playoff baseball.”
Scherzer is absolutely right as the season enters its final stretch, and this series between the Nationals and the Mets will give each team the opportunity to show which deserves to play in October.