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Series Preview: New York Mets vs. Washington Nationals

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The Mets have been eliminated from the playoffs. The Nationals are certainly in the playoffs. This is where we find out who the real fans are.

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Mitchell Layton

After 156 games of Mets baseball in 2014, the team is still in the cards for a .500 record. It's not close to Sandy Alderson's 90-win "prediction" at the outset of the season, but 81 wins and second place is something that a lot of critics thought would be a pipe dream for the Mets this year.

And yet, here the Mets are, tied for second place in the National League East and with a chance to finish above .500 for the first time since 2008. It's not the most impressive thing in the world, but an 81-win season is something to shoot for as the final days of the season play themselves out. In the Mets' way stand the Nationals, who have already wrapped up the division title.

Washington can still fight for home field advantage in the NLCS, so Matt Williams' squad does have something to play for if the skipper chooses to deploy his best players.

One thing I didn't notice before about the Nationals before is that they don't have a big bopper in the middle of the lineup. I've always known Washington to have a very deep batting order, but it was surprising to see such a solid team without a single regular above an .850 OPS.

The Nats know how to spread it around, though. Adam LaRoche leads a trio of sluggers who have at least 20 home runs in 2014, and three more have hit between 10 and 19. Washington's talented pitching staff has been the team's calling card for a while now, but general manager Mike Rizzo deserves a lot of credit for building a potent lineup that doesn't have any discernible holes. While Bryce Harper gets all the hype and Jayson Werth gets all the money, pieces like Anthony Rendon, Denard Span, and Ian Desmond make sure opposing pitchers never get a break.

The star-studded Dodgers will be many a pundit's pick to win the National League Pennant, so don't overlook this well-rounded Washington team and its incredible plus-128 run differential.

Who's on the mound?

Opposing Bartolo Colon on the mound tonight will be Tanner Roark, the solidly unspectacular 27-year-old hurler who is having a terrific first full year in the majors. It will be interesting to see how Roark fits into Washington's postseason plans. Will the team send a decidedly less effective Gio Gonzalez to the bullpen to make room for the relatively inexperienced Roark? Or will management opt for its four most experienced pitchers and throw Roark into long relief instead? It's hard to go wrong when you have five starters as quality as Washington's set, but I think that Roark has earned the right to start a playoff game.

In Roark's latest start against the Mets he threw a lot of strikes and worked the edges of the zone really well. In other words, he does what he always does. In today's age of rising strikeout totals and Tommy John surgeries, it's nice to see a guy who understands the importance of efficiency. Even though he hadn't locked down a rotation job until the start of the season, Roark is second on the Nationals in innings pitched.

Colon, on the other hand, would do well to not let his two-seam fastball drift over the plate when LaRoche is in the box.

Ouch. The left-handed first baseman has hit five of his 25 dingers this year against the Mets.

Although Gio Gonzalez has been Washington's fifth-best starter in 2014, he's still probably in line for postseason starts because of his left-handedness and strong September. Gonzalez has struggled with walks for most of his career, but this month he has only issued three in four starts. He's also only allowed 10 home runs all season, which helps to explain why Travis d'Arnaud didn't hit a grand slam off of Gonzalez during his last meeting with the Mets.

Los Mets would need all three runs to hang onto a 4-3 win over Washington on September 12.

The final starter for the Nats this weekend will be Doug Fister, a pitcher whose veteran status and rock solid consistency (sub-3.00 ERA in every month since May) are enough to land him in the playoff rotation. That would seem to be the case, but it is worth noting that Fister's strand rate of 83 percent is a career-high and his BABIP of .267 is a career-low. The Nationals should be wary about the guy who they "stole" from Detroit over the winter for such a modest price. Fister's FIP and xFIP are higher this season than they were for the past three, and his ground ball rate has sunk below 50 percent for the first time since 2011.

The Mets will be throwing Dillon Gee against Gonzalez and Jon Niese against Fister. Both pitchers have been useful but far from overwhelming this season. Both got off to good starts, got injured, came back, and pitched a little worse. Both will be a big part of fan discussions in the offseason as we try to determine whom the Mets should keep for 2015 and whom they should deal away.

For now, Niese's stock is a little higher because he has 19 strikeouts, two walks, and five runs allowed in his last three starts and also because he's the only potential 2015 starter who is left-handed.

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