NEW YORK —When the Washington Nationals play the New York Mets at Citi Field, they seem to find a different atmosphere, one weighted with emotion, loaded with possibility. Something about the matchup conjures close games, something in the standings stokes high tensions. When the meetings come late in the season, their fortunes change — sometimes subtly, sometimes for good.
Last season, the Nationals lost all three games of an early-September weekend series here and spiraled. Their conquerors, buoyed by the reversal, rocketed to a division title, then into the World Series.
This weekend, the Nationals entered Citi Field with a chance to build a comfortable lead into a substantial one, to stamp out the hopes of the battered but not-yet-beaten Mets. The visitors set a tone with a 4-1 win in which they beat Mets’ ace Noah Syndergaard with unproven rookie A.J. Cole to move to 24 games over .500, tying a season high.
Citi Field haunted the Nationals last year. It was the place their season unofficially pivoted toward its end, the place it actually ended in the first week in October, the place Mr. Met tried to fist bump their general manager after the Mets beat up their bullpen to steal win after win.
Friday, the best start of Cole’s career carried them into the sixth inning with a one-run lead, the kind of lead that slipped away last season. They fought off the demons.
In the sixth, Cole walked leadoff man Asdrubal Cabrera before facing the heart of the Mets order. The rookie held firm, inducing a flyout from Yoenis Cespedes, striking out Jay Bruce and getting Wilmer Flores to pop out. Cole’s work was done. He allowed one run, three hits and struck out five to earn his first major league win.
“The second time through and the third time through, I knew I had to make my pitches and I couldn’t just throw one over the plate,” Cole, 24, said. “I knew it was going to happen eventually. I didn’t [just] want it to happen. . . . I just battled back and fought and made my pitches and got it.”
So the Nationals carried that one-run lead to the seventh, which newly acquired left-hander Marc Rzepczynski began by striking out two left-handed hitters. He then walked the first right-hander he faced, Rene Rivera, and hit the second, Travis d’Arnaud. At that point, Nationals Manager Dusty Baker turned to rookie Koda Glover to face Jose Reyes.
Glover will get chances like these because the Nationals think he could be a big piece of their bullpen down the stretch, but they only have one way to find out.
“You have to get your feet wet to get experience,” Glover said. “I’m fortunate enough that I’m getting to throw in big situations like tonight. I’m just thankful.”
After throwing a few 91-mph cutters to get two strikes on Reyes, Glover blew him away with a 98-mph fastball to end the inning. Glover began the eighth inning by striking out Cabrera before getting Cespedes to pop weakly to second base.
Bryce Harper said Glover “has a lot of [fortitude].” Trea Turner said Glover’s attitude is exactly what he would want in any reliever. “Not scared, going right at you and if something happens, it happens,” Turner said. “. . . That’s the toughest person to face in the box, a guy that continuously comes after you.”
With the left-handed Bruce due next, Baker chose struggling left-hander Oliver Perez to get the final out of the eighth inning. Perez struck him out. The Nationals went to the ninth with their lead in tact.
They had that lead in part because of another piece they did not have last year, Turner, who singled to lead off the game. Syndergaard is notoriously slow to home plate, so after one pitch, Turner had stolen second. After four pitches, he had stolen third. He scored when Harper (13 RBI in his past 19 games since returning from neck soreness) hit a sacrifice fly to center. Those stolen bases were Turner’s 19th and 20th, a Nationals rookie record, achieved in 45 games.
Harper doubled in the fourth and scored on Wilson Ramos’s two-out single, so the Nationals carried a one-run lead to the ninth — built largely on the work of four players (three rookies) below age 25: Harper, Turner, Cole and Glover.
“Remember in spring training, I said I looked forward to having some youthful exuberance, and the veterans give them wisdom and knowledge,” Baker said. “I like that combination of old and young.”
Instead of letting that lead slip, the Nationals built. Ex-Met Daniel Murphy singled, then Harper doubled again. Anthony Rendon drove them both home, which gave new closer Mark Melancon plenty of room with which to work. He did not need it, and threw a scoreless inning for his 38th save.
Friday, like a few evenings late last season, the Nationals clung to a lead at Citi Field. This time, they held it, and in so doing built another: They now stand 10½ games up on the Mets in the National League East with 28 games to play.