What's going on with the Nationals?
Washington clearly is in the driver's seat of not just the National League East, but of the entire senior circuit. With a league-best run differential of +105 and one fewer loss than the NL West's Dodgers, it's tough to paint the Nationals as anything other than favorites to go to the World Series.
Still, it's not as though Matt Williams' team has been a picture of excellence lately. Washington did a lot of work in August, rolling off 10 straight wins and taking control of the division race. Since then, the Nats have cooled off with a 5-4 record in September. Just yesterday they had a chance to sweep the Braves into oblivion, but Stephen Strasburg somehow was bested by Aaron Harang and his 4.07 second-half ERA.
So now the Nationals march on to Queens, where they have hopes of spanking the Mets again and putting some space between themselves and the Dodgers for the right to home field advantage in the NL playoffs. Sure, our boys are riding high with a 7-2 mark this month and out-of-nowhere Wild Card aspirations, but look at the teams the Mets have faced: Miami, Cincinnati, and Colorado aren't exactly a murderer's row of opponents, especially when Colorado is playing on the road. Nevertheless, if New York's pitching stays sharp, the club has a chance to keep the good times rolling against one of the best teams in baseball.
Who are these guys?
The lineup that the Nationals roll out against the Mets this weekend will be very similar to the one we've seen all season long. The team's consistent and deep offense is one of the reasons that it has been so successful this year. When it comes to Adam LaRoche, however, you might as well substitute the name of Barry Bonds. The left-handed slugger has been that good against the Mets this season. In 41 plate appearances, LaRoche has 10 walks and 11 hits, nine of which have gone for extra bases. That all adds up to a .355/.512/.903 line that is far better than what LaRoche is doing to any other club in 2014.
Who's on the mound?
Thursday: Tanner Roark vs. Bartolo Colon
Pitching a full major league season for the first time has not fazed Roark, who at 27 years old is a bit more polished than your average rookie starter. With command being his specialty, Roark has been very consistent this season; with only 38 walks and 15 home runs allowed, he doesn't get too high or too low. Back in July, he somewhat remarkably hurled four straight games with seven innings pitched and just one run allowed in each. When Roark last faced the Mets in May, New York was able to run up his pitch count quickly and force him out after five innings.
Like an older version of Roark who throws more fastballs and is more prone to the longball, Colon has also found great success this season. Although there have been some rough patches, none of those came against Washington. Colon has allowed just seven runs in 21 innings versus the Nats in 2014.
Friday: Gio Gonzalez vs. Dillon Gee
After Gonzalez dominated the Mets through six innings during his first start of the season, New York fared much better against him later in the year. On May 17, the Mets shelled Gonazlez for five runs in three innings (the lefty's shortest stint of the season), and in August they scored four more runs off of him in six frames. Although it once seemed as though Gonzalez could become one of the top pitchers in the National League, his 3.78 ERA and nine-percent walk rate aren't very ace-like this season.
2014 has been a down year for Gee overall. He should be peaking at age 28, and yet he's struggled to strike out opponents as consistently as he used to. Still, Gee has looked decent lately with three straight quality starts. His outings against Washington have not been so decent, as Gee has allowed eight runs in 12.2 innings. LaRoche, who might be the new Ryan Howard, has homered off of Gee in both of those games.
Saturday: Doug Fister vs. Zack Wheeler
Fister spent the first month of the season on the disabled list, which resulted in the Mets not seeing him until August. When he finally did face our boys, Fister proved himself to be something worth fearing. In two straight outings against the Mets, Fister dominated with a total of 10 strikeouts, zero walks, and just on unearned run in 14.1 frames. His pitch-to-contact approach is one that this patient Mets team does not seem well equipped to deal with.
We're near the end of Wheeler's second season of the big leagues, and it's still tough to figure if he's going to be a really good pitcher or just a mid-rotation guy. About one strikeout per inning: good. 72 walks: bad. Stuff: good. Pitch count: bad. This is far from a lost season from Wheeler. We know what he's good at and what he needs work on. If he can improve his command over the winter, Wheeler has the chance to be something really special. As of now, Mets fans will have to deal with him being third in the 2015 pecking order behind Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom.
Sunday: Jordan Zimmermann vs. Jon Niese
Zimmermann is the type of consistent, boring player that no one likes to talk about. He's also the best pitcher on Washington's staff. While all the sexy pitchers are from California, Zimmermann is from Wisconsin. All the other guys try to strike batters out, Zimmermann just focuses on throwing strikes. He's not unlike Fister in this regard, but Zimmermann's stuff is powerful enough to having his strikeout rate ticking well above 20 percent. Now that's hot.
Like Gee, Niese has generally been lousy in the second half of 2014, but he recently pitched one of his best games in a while. Against the Rockies on Monday, Niese allowed just one run in 6.2 innings with one walk and seven strikeouts. You have to go back to June 12 to find another Niese start of at least five innings with that few runs allowed. That same date was also the last time Niese had so many strikeouts. While we're hoping for a repeat performance from the lefty, it doesn't seem likely.
Prediction: The feisty Mets earn a split to stay on the edge of the playoff race.
What about some highlights?
Even lucky plays like this one couldn't stop the Nationals from winning a remarkable 11 straight games at Citi Field.
Asdrubal Cabrera channeled his inner Derek Jeter and let his momentum carry him into the seats on this play. What an iconic moment!
Leave it to the Mets to almost lose Michael Taylor's first career home run ball.
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