Nationals-Mets series preview

WASHINGTON — When the season began a shade over five months ago, few Nationals fans had the three-game set beginning Labor Day afternoon circled as the biggest series of the season.

There were those that believed the Marlins, against which Washington plays seven games over the next couple weekends, would be the Nats’ lone threat to the NL East crown. But as we enter play Monday, they sit a full four games back of the visiting New York Mets, making the series a make-or-break affair for Washington.

As we discussed last week, when the deficit was 6.5 games, even taking two of three simply may not be good enough. Washington has one remaining homestand after this series and, once they begin their weekend set in Miami, only one off day for the final three and a half weeks. If they go into that stretch three full games back (or worse), it could be tough to gain ground, given the teams’ remaining schedules.

Washington would be facing a steeper climb if it weren’t for a recent stroke of good fortune: The Mets were six games up entering Friday, but gifted Washington back a third of the deficit by losing a pair of games they led in the seventh inning or later in walk-off fashion in Miami over the weekend. On Sunday, former Nats reliever Tyler Clippard allowed both the game-tying run in the eighth and the game-winning run in the ninth.

Meanwhile, after cruising to a weekend sweep of the hapless Braves, the Nationals seemed to be in position to rest both of their top bullpen arms, but chose to throw Drew Storen and Jonathan Papelbon on Sunday in a four-run game. While the team has an off-day after the series on Thursday before traveling to Miami, it will be interesting to see whether either player’s availability comes into play over the next three days.

The Nationals finally lined up their rotation to try to throw their best arms for this crucial series. Of course, those aces haven’t been what the Nationals expected them to be of late. After a blistering first four months, Scherzer scuffled in August, and allowed 11 hits in six innings of work his last time out. Jordan Zimmermann has been solid overall, but had allowed four or more earned runs five times and 15 home runs overall since the All-Star break. And Stephen Strasburg, who started August with his most dominant start in recent memory, left his last one with a strained back muscle, the sixth time he’s failed to finish five innings of work due to either injury or performance this season.

But as we all know, the Mets come in with rotation questions of their own. Matt Harvey is listed as Tuesday’s probable starter, but with the public infighting between agent Scott Boras and Mets management over Harvey’s post-Tommy John surgery innings limit, his status seems very much up in the air.

Both lineups have performing well lately, with Washington finally looking like the team many believed they would see all year long. Since the Nats visited Coors Field Aug. 18, here are the triple-slash lines for some of the team’s key contributors:

Ian Desmond: .296/.367/.465

Yunel Escobar: .438/.534/.542

Bryce Harper: .407/.571/.746

Anthony Rendon: .309/.397/.485

Jayson Werth: .304/.382/.570

Ryan Zimmerman: .365/.429/.794

Other than Escobar and Harper, who are both having career years, that is a marked departure from the vast underperformance from everyone else up to that point in the season. Those numbers have come against a lot of bad pitching staffs, but if Washington’s bats can stay hot, it will take a ton of pressure off the starting pitching.

New York, meanwhile, has undergone a massive transformation on offense after a flurry of deadline deals brought in the likes of Kelly Johnson, Juan Uribe and Yoenis Cespedes to bolster the lineup. After hitting .240 or below as a team in each of the season’s first four months, the Mets batted .269 in August and are off to a .319 start through five games in September. Cespedes (.301/.351/.636 with 12 home runs in 33 games) has been a revelation, and Wilmer Flores, whose emotional reaction to the news that he would be traded became national news, only to have him stay put in New York, has become a folk hero. He has come up with several dramatic hits and is slashing .310/.343/.570 since finding out he would be staying in Queens.

Looking ahead, the Mets have seven left with the reeling Braves, three at home with Miami, four in Cincinnati, three at home against the Yankees and three in Philly (against whom New York has gone 14-2 this season) before the final home series with Washington. The Nats, meanwhile, have seven against Miami, six more with Philly, three at home against Baltimore, a single makeup home game against Cincinnati and a final three-game road set in Atlanta before heading to Queens. The schedule strengths are comparable, but the Mets have fared slightly better against their remaining opponents, going .500 or better against each team. The Nats have beaten up the Braves (13-3) and fared well against the Phillies (8-5) but are just 6-6 against the Marlins and winless in five tries against the Reds.

Each team has just 23 games left after this week’s showdown, making these three games the biggest on the schedule for each.

Game 1: LHP Jon Niese (8-10, 4.17) vs. Max Scherzer (11-11, 2.89) — Monday, 1:05 p.m.

Game 2: RHP Matt Harvey (12-7, 2.60) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (12-8, 3.38) — Tuesday, 7:05 p.m.

Game 3: RHP Jacob deGrom (12-7, 2.40) vs. RHP Stephen Strasburg (8-6, 4.35) — Wednesday, 7:05 p.m.

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