But none of that changes what lies straight ahead of Washington: Four games in three days against the New York Mets at Nationals Park. A chance to both inch up the standings and shift their season narrative.
The Mets are in first place in the National League East with a 35-26 record. The Nationals are in fourth, and just a half-game behind the Atlanta Braves, at 30-35. So they are seven back of the Mets heading into Friday’s matchup between Erick Fedde and Joey Lucchesi. That will be followed by a split doubleheader on Saturday and Sunday’s afternoon finale.
“We’re trailing in the division, so I don’t think we can take any series lightly,” Hand said after the Nationals beat the Pirates, 3-1, on Wednesday. “But we’re playing the first-place team in our division. It’s definitely nice to beat up on them. That’s the way you make up ground quick. You don’t talk about it, but everybody knows it. The Mets are coming to town.”
Luck has the Nationals missing Jacob deGrom and Marcus Stroman. They will instead face Lucchesi, David Peterson and Taijuan Walker, with the Mets still deciding how to handle the second doubleheader game. Washington will send Fedde, Joe Ross, Jon Lester and Patrick Corbin to the mound, using Monday’s off day to avoid a spot starter or opener out of the bullpen. And while Hand is right to call this an opportunity to climb the standings, the Nationals have to prove they can compete with contending teams.
They are 9-0 against the Pirates, Miami Marlins and Baltimore Orioles, all last-place clubs. They are 4-3 against the Arizona Diamondbacks, who have lost 23 straight road games and counting. That puts the Nationals at 17-32 against everyone else, including early series losses to the Atlanta Braves and Los Angeles Dodgers, when they were dealing with a coronavirus outbreak; then series losses to the Mets, Braves, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies (twice), Chicago Cubs and Milwaukee Brewers in the time since.
In that stretch, they were swept by the Braves and Brewers, and split four-game series with the Braves and Cincinnati Reds. Recent series splits with the Rays and Giants, each first-place teams, were slight progress. But clicking against the Mets would have bigger implications. The Nationals wouldn’t just show the division that they’re relevant. They could show themselves, and perhaps veer off the collision course with selling at the trade deadline.
They have five weeks, give or take a few days, before deciding whether to ship pieces, add them or hold with the current roster. At the moment, they are without starter Max Scherzer (groin inflammation), starter Stephen Strasburg (nerve irritation in his neck), reliever Daniel Hudson (elbow inflammation) and reliever Will Harris (on the 60-day injured list after undergoing surgery for thoracic outlet syndrome). They are undermanned, yet clicking at a good time.
Of course, this series will decide if the last three were an aberration or steppingstone. The Nationals have 16 more games with the Mets this season, and need the first four of those to go well.
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