The Washington Nationals and New York Mets have played thirteen games so far this season. There has been one common theme in those games: The first team to four runs has won every game. In fact, there have only been two instances in thirteen games where the losing team scored three runs (a 4-3 Nats victory on July 22 and a 6-3 Mets victory on April 9).
On the whole, the season series has been very evenly matched so far. The Mets lead the series 7-6. New York has outscored the Nats 38-34 (2.92 to 2.62 runs per game) so far this season. We've been able to count on these head to head matchups being close, low-scoring games.
Of course, those previous games might not tell us a whole lot about what we're going to see the next three days. Over the past thirty days, these two teams rank second (Mets, 163) and fourth (Nats, 151) in runs scored. That's a stark contrast from the seventeenth (Mets, 551) and ninth (Nats, 588) spots that the two teams occupy over the full season in that category. Both teams are still built around fantastic starting rotations, but their offenses have improved substantially compared to earlier in the year.
When the Nats last faced the Mets, the Mets were among the five worst offensive clubs in the majors. They still rank just seventeenth in runs scored (565) on the season, but they've scored the second most runs in baseball so far in the second half (255). The contributions of deadline acquisition Yoenis Cespedes, catcher Travis d'Arnaud, and rookie outfielder Michael Conforto have been huge in helping transform the Mets offense from a weakness to an asset in the past month.
- Cespedes has led the way with a .301/.351/.636 line in 33 games for New York. He's hit 12 HR and swiped 4 bases. He's also both scored and driven in 29 runs while leading the team with 2.3 fWAR.
- Like Cespedes, d'Arnaud was available for the Mets in their most recent series against the Nats, but the two games he played in that series were his first two back from the disabled list. Since then, d'Arnaud has hit .293/.398/.573 with 6 HR and a team-leading 170 wRC+.
- Conforto was sent back to the minors briefly upon Cespedes' arrival, but didn't stay down for long. All that the rookie left fielder has done is bat .300/.379/.550 with 5 HR in 116 PA since the All Star Break.
While the Mets offense has improved over the course of the second half, the Nats are also finally clicking offensively. Early in the year, the Nats had to lean a bit too much on Bryce Harper and Yunel Escobar. While leaning on the best player in the National League to carry the offense wasn't necessarily a huge shock, the lack of any support around him in the lineup really limited the Nats offensive capabilities. Role players such as Danny Espinosa and Clint Robinson stepped up, but the Nats injuries combined with the first half disappearances of Ian Desmond and Wilson Ramos' bats made them a pretty easy lineup for opposing teams to plan for.
For most of the first half, the Nats couldn't seem to keep Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, or Ryan Zimmerman on the field together. Even when they returned in late July, it took a solid three weeks for Rendon and Werth to even remotely seem to find their timing. It's now been five weeks since those three players returned, and they seem to have hit their stride. An improved second half from Ian Desmond (.282/.349/.511) has also helped to lengthen the lineup. Since the band's been back together, the Nats lineup has produced a .273/.352/.466 line (123 wRC+) in the past thirty days.
Even though these two offenses are no longer playing with one arm tied behind their back, there's still an excellent chance that these games end up being low-scoring. The Mets rank fourth in MLB in ERA (3.36) and seventh in FIP (3.57). The Nats rank ninth in ERA (3.77) and fourth in FIP (3.44).
In three games, we're going to see five All-Star caliber starting pitchers. The Nats adjusted their rotation so that their top three pitchers (Scherzer, Zimmermann, Strasburg) will pitch in this series... like the Mets did when they were the team trailing in the division. The Mets will counter with their top two starters on Tuesday and Wednesday, as we'll see both Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom. Jonathon Niese will start Monday's game for New York, and he's no slouch himself either. Niese is a solid, established middle of the rotation starter who has finished with an ERA of lower than 3.71 in each of the past three seasons.
The series obviously has huge playoff implications for both teams. The Nats have climbed above the San Francisco Giants at this point, so there's no team between whoever loses the NL East and the NL's current second wildcard (the Chicago Cubs). Of course, the Cubs have a 7.5 game lead on the Nats and have gone 23-10 since the calendar turned to August. While the Cubs will face the two best teams in the NL this season (Pittsburgh and St. Louis) thirteen times the rest of the way, it seems unlikely that they'll suffer a big enough collapse to allow the NL East loser to sneak past them. Neither the Mets nor the Nats have any head to head games remaining with the Cubs.
That leaves the Nats and Mets fighting for two spots, which is what most of us have believed to be the case for quite some time. The two game swing over the weekend has given the Nats an outstanding opportunity to put themselves back in the race. Both teams will face weak schedules the rest of the way. While the Nats can hope for teams like the Marlins to knock New York off a few times, they may have a difficult time gaining ground even if they're nearly perfect against everyone else. They'll have no greater chance to gain ground on the team ahead of them and forcing their way back into the race than the one they have the next three days.