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What the Nationals could learn from the Mets’ success

The reality, for Nationals fans, has already sunk in: The Mets are in the World Series. Hailing from the weakest division in baseball, the Mets reaching the Series felt unfathomable as late as July, when they had a 53-50 record and were two games behind the Nationals on the final day of that month.

The Nationals can perhaps glean some lessons from a team they know well. There is no one formula to postseason success, but the Mets’ run highlights how they changed their fortunes in the second half. Their dominant starting rotation – powered by Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Matt Harvey, with help from Bartolo Colon, Steven Matz and Jonathan Niese – has carried them. The Nationals’ rotation, while strong, wasn’t as good, betraying the team at the some of the worst times. The Mets’ pitching depth, led by Matz, Syndergaard and even Logan Verrett, filled in better when needed than the Nationals’ depth of Joe Ross, Tanner Roark, Taylor Jordan and A.J. Cole.

When the standout closer Jeurys Familia and the bullpen needed help, the Mets traded for versatile Tyler Clippard and Addison Reed, and dispatched struggled relievers. The Nationals tried to fix their many bullpen issues by calling up young relievers and trading for David Carpenter and Jonathan Papelbon. But that plan backfired when the rookies stumbled, Carpenter got hurt and Papelbon blew up at Bryce Harper in the dugout. Bullpen patching shouldn’t only be dependent on talent and the cheaper deal.

When the Mets’ offense, which sputtered throughout the first half, needed help, they traded for Juan Uribe, Kelly Johnson and second-half catalyst Yoenis Cespedes, willing to part with future talent (read: prospects). They knew three healthy and capable players would help the lineup and bench. And the Mets, for the record, lost more games to injuries this season than the Nationals.

The Nationals counted on too much too soon from key players – Jayson Werth, Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman — who missed a lot of time, an assessment General Manager Mike Rizzo admits backfired. Even knowing Denard Span’s back and hip were bothering him at the trade deadline, the Nationals added only Papelbon because Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel would have cost too much.

The Mets took their depth and the trade deadline seriously. From the first trade, for Uribe and Johnson, they went 41-24. Normally tight with money, the Mets added payroll at the deadline. They played their best against the Nationals in the second half, going 7-2 after the all-star break. Improved defense and offense buoyed the Mets’ pitching, while the Nationals failed to find any rhythm. Their under-performance had dug too deep a hole, some managerial blunders exasperating the issue.

This is not an argument for mortgaging the future, but something failed in the Nationals’ process. Because of ownership, the front office had little wiggle room in adding payroll. The confidence in oft-injured players was too high, and mistakes from the beginning of the season lingered.

Talent alone doesn’t win a title. Players should complement each other; the Nationals struggled at times to fit together. Several players were pushed out of their best defensive positions – Danny Espinosa, Anthony Rendon, Clint Robinson – because of inflexibility elsewhere. Young relievers were forced into key roles for which they were unprepared. Bullpen roles were unclear even late in the season for many reasons.

However the Mets’ season ends, the Nationals will open next season as the pursuer. The Nationals should evaluate what went wrong in an effort to ensure the same mistakes aren’t made again. This offseason will be a busy one in Washington, from choosing a manager to overhauling the bullpen to tweaking the rest of the roster. Watching the Mets during the postseason may be painful, but it should also serve as motivation.