It's early. We've heard this throughout April. Most of us are still going to be saying that throughout the month of May. Baseball is a six month marathon of a season, so a slow start doesn't necessarily cripple teams that have enough talent to contend. At times this month, the Nats have appeared eager to test the boundaries of just how poorly a team can play in April and still give themselves a shot to come back the rest of the year. They're showing some signs of life the past few days, though.
While the Nats were trudging through April, the New York Mets started the season extremely hot. They began the season 2-3, but then ripped off eleven straight wins (this included all ten of their home games so far this season) to open up a huge early lead in the division. They've shown some signs that they're starting to cool off a bit, and will head back to Citi Field to host the Nats after a 2-4 road trip. However, they still find themselves with the largest division lead in baseball (4.5 games over Atlanta) and lead the preseason favorites by six games heading into this four game set.
Despite how early it is in the season, this series has a fair amount of significance for both teams. A sweep for either team would be a massive early swing. If the Nats were to take all four games in Citi Field, they'd enter next week just two games out in the division.... a dream scenario considering how much they've struggled for most of the past month. If the Mets were to take all four games, they'd open up a huge ten game gap between themselves and the preseason favorites. While the Nats would still look like the better team on paper, that's a lot of ground they'd have to make up.
Of course, it is still only April 30. After this series, the Nats will still have five months to try and make up ground on the Mets. This series will determine whether the deficit they'll have to make up over the final five months of the season is 2 (Nats sweep), 4 (Nats 3-1), 6 (split), 8 (Mets 3-1), or 10 games (Mets sweep). Even if the worst-case scenario happens and the Mets take all four games, the Nats would still only be looking at having to make up an average of two games per month to catch New York.
This series won't end the Nats season if they perform poorly. It won't lock up a division title if they go in and sweep the Mets. It could be a chance for one of these teams to set the tone for how the next five months will go, though. The Mets will be brimming with confidence and start to feel like they really are the favorites if they take this series. The Nats can start putting a lot more doubt in the Mets minds by going into Citi Field and taking three out of four.
The bluelineswinger preview
I'll bust out the old nickname for my series preview. As always, I'll point you to dc roach (who should be back for this series) if you want a more detailed breakdown on the lineups and Brendan Sheridan if you're looking for some infographics. Those two features should be up later today. I'll take my own look at some of the things we should be looking for.
One of the more impressive things about the Nats comeback on Monday night was that their position players weren't all going up there trying to hit six run homers from the third inning on. They chipped away at the lead, plating one run in the third, four in the fifth, another run in the sixth, three more in the seventh, and then...
The Nats can't make up six games in this series. They can make up a little ground, or at least keep the deficit from getting worse. There are still five months to play, so keep playing better baseball and make those minor dents in the Mets' lead when the chances arise. Don't worry about rattling off a ten game winning streak... Win series.
Blueline's take on the pitching matchups
- Stephen Strasburg vs. Jacob deGrom - Push
- Max Scherzer vs. Matt Harvey - Push
- Gio Gonzalez vs. Jonathon Niese - Advantage: Nats
- Doug Fister vs. Dillon Gee - Advantage: Nats
The Mets will throw their two best pitchers to start this series, but the Nats will counter with arguably their two most talented starters against them. Scherzer vs. Harvey figures to be must see TV, while Strasburg vs. deGrom won't be anything to sneeze at either. Based more on career performance than the small sample we've seen so far, the Nats should have a clear edge in both the Saturday and Sunday matchups. Niese and Gee are both nice back end starters pitching at the back of their rotations. Gio and Fister are both nice middle of the rotation types pitching at the back of their rotations.
Ironically, the Mets are the more banged up team offensively right now. They're missing both their top hitter (David Wright) and their stud young catcher (Travis d'Arnaud), who were each off to hot starts before getting injured. While the Nats still haven't seen much life in Jayson Werth's bat early on in his return from shoulder surgery, the only starter missing from their lineup is Anthony Rendon.
The Mets have probably had some slight overachievement from their top hitter so far this season. Lucas Duda is currently batting .311/.409/.486, which is a significant bump over his career .251/.347/.444 line. Duda is a really nice left-handed bat (at least as long as a right-handed pitcher is on the mound) with tremendous power and a great batting eye, but his performance so far has been fueled by a .373 BABIP. That's not going to last. Hopefully it regresses this weekend.
While Duda has been on fire, one of the Mets' more consistent hitters over the past few years has been struggling. Daniel Murphy battled a hamstring injury late in Spring Training, which could partially explain why he got out of the gate slowly. However, he's also been particularly unlucky with his BABIP. Murphy's BABIP entering play Thursday is just .197, or 120 points lower than his career rate. This could have something to do with the fact that he's batting 80 points below his career .288 average so far this season. That BABIP can start stabilizing a bit on Monday.
The Nats lineup has shown some signs of life the past two games. Denard Span (yes.... Denard Span!) has two homers and six extra base hits in twelve plate appearances the past two nights. Danny Espinosa has reached base seven times in his past ten plate appearances. Dan Uggla had his first homer in over a year on Tuesday, hit two triples in the Atlanta series, and drove in eight runs against his old ballclub in the last three days. Ryan Zimmerman was just 3 for 15 in the series against Atlanta, but he's really starting to crush the ball and has run into some bad luck on balls in play.
The two guys who just haven't been able to really get it going are Jayson Werth (RBI single last night to snap an 0 for 14 skid) and Ian Desmond (0 for his last 23). Both Werth and Desmond have a long track record that says that they should break out of these slumps in the near future. When they start hitting, look out!
What's a good result for the Nats in this series?
When I subbed for dc roach before the Braves series, I added this instead of his "Can they be swept?" feature. I do enjoy Magnus' optimism, but I tried to take more of a realist's approach. I said I'd be happy if the Nats took two out of three from Atlanta, and they did! They sure got there in a different manner than I expected (no-show against Stults, big days from the bats against Teheran and Wood) and prompted a pretty lengthy rant from me after the first game. Still, they won the series.
I'll take a similar approach with this series in New York. The Nats should have clear pitching edges on Saturday and Sunday, so I'm expecting them to win both of those games. The first two games see less favorable matchups, though both are winnable. Split the first two games, win the last two. I'll be happy if the Nats take three out of four. I'll be content if they split. With a fairly clear edge on the mound in two of the four games and tossups in the other two, failing to at least win two of the games here would be a disappointment.
Win the series, trim a couple of games off the Mets' lead, and keep that confidence building. Go Nats!