And you would not be wrong. It is only with the benefit of hindsight and a season’s worth of context that early-season pivot points take shape. Take the 2017 Mets, for example, whose season died at Nationals Park at the end of April — something that wasn’t confirmed until much later.
When the Mets arrived in Washington at the end of April 2017, struggling but with the raw materials to be a contender, they still had Yoenis Cespedes in the middle of their lineup and Noah Syndergaard atop their rotation, and when they left three days later, they had neither. Cespedes went on the disabled list on a Friday, and Syndergaard walked off the mound in the second inning on a Sunday — the former out for six weeks, the latter for five months. The Mets never recovered.
Everyone in baseball knows how the rest of that season played out: The Nationals went 97-65 and won the National League East by 20 games. The Mets went 70-92, matching their worst season in nearly a decade, and finished fourth.
The Mets team that showed up at Nationals Park on Thursday and took the first of 19 games against the Nationals this season has little in common with the 2017 version, save for the uniforms and many of the names on their backs. With a new manager (Mickey Callaway), an overhauled medical department and a record that grew to 5-1 with Thursday’s win, they have every right to think this season is going to be vastly different from the one that preceded it.
“Any time you can come in here and beat a team of this caliber is huge,” said Mets right fielder Jay Bruce, whose towering grand slam off Nationals reliever Brandon Kintzler in the seventh inning broke the game open. “When we come in and match up against their [top starters], and we have our guys going, it’s good to win those games. We understand it’s going to be like this all year. They’re going to be big series. … Everyone’s goal is to be playing meaningful baseball in September, and if we’re going to do that, we’re going to have to beat these guys.”
The Nationals’ dominance of the Mets has been a near-constant for a startlingly long time. Since 2012, when Washington launched an era that has produced four division titles in the past six years, and before Thursday’s matchup, the Nationals are 74-39 against the Mets, outscoring them by 149 runs in the aggregate. The only year in that span when the Mets won the season series — 2015, when they went 11-8 — they made it to the World Series.
“We all know the importance” of games against the Nationals, said Mets center fielder Michael Conforto, who, in his season debut accounted for the go-ahead runs with a three-run homer off Strasburg in the fifth. “They’re a great team. We’re a great team as well. You take every game like it’s the same opponent, but I think there is something different when you come here and play. … It’s a rivalry, and one that we want to come out on top of.”
Conforto, who underwent season-ending shoulder-capsule surgery last September, was a perfect example of what is different about these Mets than the ones who met their fate at Nationals Park a year ago this month.
In 2017, the Mets couldn’t seem to get their injured players healthy, or keep their healthy ones so — a year-long drama that resulted in a medical overhaul over the winter, featuring a new head trainer and the hiring of both a nutritionist and a “high performance director.”
But by the time the 2018 season was five games old, the Mets were a Conforto away from being at essentially full strength. On Wednesday, Callaway, the Mets’ rookie manager, asked Conforto — who was still on the disabled list — if he really wanted to make his season debut against the mighty Strasburg.
“He wanted Strasburg” is how Callaway summed up that conversation.
“I felt like I wanted to jump back in there in a big game,” Conforto said. “Against the Nationals.”
In their first six games, the Mets have outscored their opponents 30-15. Their pitchers have struck out 72 batters in 54 innings. The lineup they ran out against the Nationals on Thursday featured eight all-stars. Even things that would have seemed unfathomable in 2017 are happening, such as Matt Harvey throwing five shutout innings in his 2018 debut.
“I think we’re where we expected to be,” Conforto said. “We had high expectations coming out of the spring.”
In an age of unprecedented stratification in baseball, where the landscape more than ever is divided into a half-dozen or so “superteams,” perhaps a dozen other teams with no hope of contending (or much stomach for trying) and a dwindling middle class, the Nationals, one of the haves, are seen as the undisputed kings of the NL East, fully capable of running away with another division crown. And one game in early April doesn’t change that.
But after a week’s worth of games, we can at least say the Mets look like they will be a factor again. The Nationals wisely regard them as such. “If they can stay healthy, they’re a really good team,” Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “I don’t think anybody in this locker room thinks we have anything [won].”
The Mets believe it, too. Asked late Thursday afternoon whether the Nationals must regard his team as a threat in 2018, Callaway could have brushed off the question and said it’s not his place to tell another team how it should think. He didn’t do that.
“I would hope they think that,” Callaway answered. “We’re going to go out there, and we’re going to play as hard as we can every day. We’re going to play the game the right way. If we do that, then they do need to worry about us.”
Adam Kilgore contributed to this report.