Matz-Strasburg pitcher's duel a reminder of what could've been in the NL East

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Tuesday July 4th, 2017

A hot summer night in Washington the day before the 4th of July. The Mets visiting the Nationals at the start of a three-game series. Steven Matz and Stephen Strasburg going pitch for pitch against one another. Instead of being a crucial midsummer meeting between two heavyweights, which so many believed would be the case at the start of the season, it was a tale of what could have been, in more ways than one.

Matz twirled a gem, tossing seven shutout innings, holding the Nationals to four hits and two walks while striking out four. Strasburg was just as good on the other side but the Mets worked up a big pitch count on him, forcing Dusty Baker to turn to the bullpen in the top of the eighth inning of a scoreless game. The Mets loaded the bases against Matt Grace, bringing Yoenis Cespedes to the plate with two outs. Baker then turned to Joe Blanton, who got Cespedes to ground into a fielder’s choice. In the bottom half of the inning, with Matz now out of the game, Michael Taylor blasted a two-run homer off Jerry Blevins. The Mets tied the game on a Curtis Granderson homer in the top of the ninth, only to watch as Ryan Raburn knocked a two-out, walk-off single in the bottom of the inning.

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Games like Monday’s were supposed to be the norm when the Mets and Nationals got together in 2017. The Nationals entered the season as the favorite in the NL East, but the Mets were allegedly right on their heels. Matz, Monday night’s hero, was seen as the fourth starter in one of the league’s best rotations. With Noah Syndergaard, Jacob deGrom and a rehabbed Matt Harvey in the first three slots, the Mets looked poised to make their third straight postseason while challenging the Nats for primacy in the division.

That script has proved nothing short of fantasy. After Monday’s loss, the Mets are 10 1/2 games behind the Nationals. They aren’t even in second in the East, sitting three games behind the Braves. Syndergaard hasn’t pitched since April because of a torn right lat. Harvey has stayed mostly healthy, but has a 5.25 ERA and 1.45 ERA in 70 1/3 innings, and made headlines for the wrong reasons early in the season. Even deGrom hasn’t fully lived up to his end of the bargain. He has made 16 starts and struck out 125 batters in 104 innings, but his performance has been uneven, resulting in a 3.55 ERA and 1.22 WHIP.

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Matz, who showed what he’s capable of on Monday, is just rounding into form. He missed the first two-plus months of the season with a flexor strain in his left elbow, Matz has now made five starts on the year. Monday’s shutdown effort against the Nationals was his best outing yet, lowering his ERA to 2.12 and his WHIP to 1.03, to go along with 22 strikeouts against nine walks in 34 innings.

And yet, all that seemed to do was add another “if” to a season that has been filled with them for the Mets rotation. If Syndergaard were healthy. If Harvey returned to form. If deGrom were consistent. If just one of those were true, the Mets would be in a much different place. If two of them were true, they’d likely be right in the thick of the NL East race. If all three were true, the entire senior circuit could have a different look. In reality, though, none are true, and the Mets are guaranteed to go into the All-Star break under .500. 

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