This weekend’s three-game series between the Nationals and Mets won’t provide the late September drama so many envisioned back in April. The Nationals already have the National League East crown in hand — and have had it for a while. They were the first to win a division in baseball this season in part because the NL East has been so awful, a reality the Mets had a significant role in creating.
The Mets, projected by some humans and computers alike to battle Washington for division supremacy, are limping to the finish line with one of baseball’s worst records and an unrecognizable roster. They sit in fourth place with a 65-87 record, which will almost definitely lead to Manager Terry Collins’s dismissal when the misery ends.
The Nationals, meanwhile, are 92-60 after taking two of three from the Braves and need to finish 8-2 for the first 100-win season in franchise history. Here are three things to keep in mind as the teams meet for the final time this season.
IT’S GOTTEN OFFENSIVE
Bryce Harper is coming. He’s expected to return sometime next week — if not in Philadelphia then definitely back in Washington against the Pirates for a four-game series to finish the regular season. He likely won’t return as the MVP-caliber player he was when he injured his left leg the night of Aug. 12 — there probably will be some rust to remove. But Harper’s presence alone should help a Nationals offense that’s stumbled without him.
In the 113 games before Harper slipped on that slick first base at Nationals Park, the Nationals averaged 5.41 runs per game. Their 620 runs were the second-highest output in the majors. Since then, they are averaging 4.21 runs in 38 games and have been held under five runs in 25 games. That’s a steep drop-off.
Harper’s absence isn’t the only reason — Daniel Murphy’s production has tumbled, among other factors — but Harper, a feared slugger, will make a substantial difference in Washington’s lineup. Until then, the Nationals will have to navigate at least three more games with relatively little meaning before Harper returns to initiate his final preparation for the postseason.
CY YOUNG RESUMES TO PAD
Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer will make their (likely) penultimate starts of the regular season on Saturday and Sunday, respectively. The overarching goal is to peak entering the postseason, but there’s also the Cy Young Award at stake. Scherzer has won twice, once in each league, and is the defending National League recipient. Strasburg has never finished higher than ninth in the voting — in 2014, the only year he pitched in a postseason game.
Both right-handers are in the thick of a race that includes Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke, Robbie Ray, and even teammate Gio Gonzalez. Entering Thursday, Scherzer’s 2.59 ERA was second in the National League to Kershaw. Strasburg’s 2.60 was third. Strasburg leads the NL in FIP at 2.78. Scherzer’s 2.94 is second. Scherzer is second in strikeout rate (11.90 per nine innings). Strasburg is fourth (10.51). Strasburg has the lowest home run rate (0.72) and seventh-lowest walk rate (2.43). Scherzer is seventh in innings pitched (191 1/3) and tops in total strikeouts (253).
Ultimately, Scherzer and Strasburg could become the first teammates to finish one-two in Cy Young voting since Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling did it for the Diamondbacks in 2001. The Diamondbacks won the World Series that year.
THE DARK PLIGHT
The last time the Nationals encountered Matt Harvey, there was hope he would rediscover his ace-like form to match the “Dark Knight” persona. That was on April 21 at Nationals Park. The Mets lost, but Harvey allowed three runs across seven innings. His ERA was a promising 2.84 through four starts — his first four since undergoing thoracic outlet surgery. Then Harvey and the Mets combusted in simultaneous dumpster fires.
Harvey allowed six runs in 4 1/3 innings in his next start, launching a free fall sprinkled with a couple of misleading points of optimism. His ERA in 13 starts since that April outing in Washington is 8.22. Opponents have posted a .945 OPS. (For comparison, AL MVP candidate Jose Ramirez has a .945 OPS this season). Harvey, scheduled to pitch on Saturday, is coming off his worst start of the season: seven runs on 12 hits over four innings against the Marlins on Monday.
Friday: RHP Edwin Jackson vs. RHP Robert Gsellman
Saturday: RHP Stephen Strasburg vs. RHP Matt Harvey
Sunday: RHP Max Scherzer vs. RHP Jacob DeGrom
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