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Series Preview: New York Mets vs. Washington Nationals

With the Nationals quickly getting healthier, the Mets must strike while the iron is hot.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

No matter how much grumbling there was about the lack of offense the Mets displayed against St. Louis (only the best team in the majors this year at preventing runs), the important thing is that New York got out of there with a win to maintain its two-game deficit in the National League East. That sets up a potentially pivotal three-game series in Washington in which the Mets send their three best starters to the hill against the Nationals. If all three win, the Mets will be back in first place for the first time since June 20.

The Nationals have offensive issues as well

At the start of the year, Washington was supposed to be a club that was carried by its dominant pitching staff featuring Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Jordan Zimmermann. The offense, while considered the weaker part of the team, was not supposed to be a weakness. If someone told me back in March that Bryce Harper would break out into a terrifying MVP candidate, I would have told you that Washington was a lock for the postseason.

But due to various injuries and struggles of role players, the offense has held the Nationals back to the point where they still haven't been able to pull away from our terrible Mets. That doesn't mean that New York's front office can sit back and hope that one bad offense outscores the other, though. Even with starting shortstop Ian Desmond hitting.204/.248/.324 in one of the most disappointing campaigns we've seen this year, the Nationals have still managed the fourth-best runs-per-game average (4.21) in the NL.

Part of that is due to Harper's greatness and part of that is from pleasantly surprising production by Washington's other middle infielders. Offseason acquisition Yunel Escobar (.324/.370/.422) and the perennially frustrating Danny Espinosa (.251/.326/.424) are doing enough to keep this injury-riddled offense afloat while 30-year-old journeyman Clint Robinson (.270/.345/.409) somehow holds his own in the cleanup spot.

Performances like that are how a team gets through injuries like the ones the Nationals have sustained. Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, and Anthony Rendon are all on rehab assignments right now and will hopefully be back with Washington in August. With Denard Span on the mend as well, the Mets must strike now if they hope to continue the battle with the Nationals in September.

The odds are not in your favor

Even with the Mets trailing the Nats by two games at the All-Star break, Las Vegas oddsmakers did not view the two clubs equally as far as their chances of winning the World Series were concerned. Before baseball started up again last Friday, Washington held the best odds of any NL team (tied with St. Louis) at 8/1, while the Mets were seventh at 33/1.

That seems to account for more than a two-game difference in the standings, and the Nationals are still a sexy pick when you consider they might have the Cy Young Award and MVP winner on their team at the same time. Add in the players they could be getting back in August, and Washington still seems like a safe bet, but the Mets and their fans know what it's like to wait for players to return from injury. All season long it seems, we've been imagining that the offense would look close to average if only David Wright and Travis d'Arnaud were healthy and doing what they're capable of. And with New York's pitching staff, an average offense is good enough to win a lot of games.

Although d'Arnaud appears to be approaching full health, the Mets are still closer to another disabled list stint than they are to a decent lineup. Michael Cuddyer's troubling knee might finally force him to rest for a lengthy amount of time. If that happens, the Mets may have no choice but to gamble on top prospect Michael Conforto or continue to hope that Kirk Nieuwenhuis can shake his replacement-level status. Or maybe the front office will give in and "overpay" for a helpful piece that resides outside of the organization. That might be the only way to shift the odds right now.

The three Mets pitchers of the apocalypse

Well, there is one other way, and that's to win some games against the Nationals this week. Thanks to Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom sitting out against St. Louis, the Mets are set up to throw their best starters at Washington's weakened lineup. With Scherzer having just been bested by the Dodgers on Sunday, New York appears to have a clear advantage in the pitching category.

While Harvey's post-surgery struggles have seen most of his stats dip below the 2013 peaks, he's still shown that he can be a dominant force on any given day. If he can get over the home run problems that have plagued him this season, Harvey will get back to ace status in short order.

Right now, though, as marvelous as Harvey is, he's the weakest of the three starters pitching for New York in this series. That's how dominant deGrom and Noah Syndergaard have been over the past month. While deGrom is coming off one of his best career outings against San Francisco as well as an All-Star appearance that left jaws dropping in awe, Syndergaard has continued to increase his efficiency and work deeper into games without allowing runs. That skill has turned him into yet another must-watch spectacle for Mets fans.

Going up against New York's trio are Gio Gonzalez, Zimmermann, and a mystery starter for Tuesday. The mystery man is supposed to be Tanner Roark, who has seen his strikeout rate dip drastically from last year's breakout campaign. Relegated to the bullpen at the start of the season, Roark has been called upon to start occasionally due to the injuries of Strasburg and Doug Fister.

Date Time Television Mets Probable Starter Nationals Probable Starter
July 20, 2015 7:05 PM SNY, ESPN Matt Harvey Gio Gonzalez
July 21, 2015 7:05 PM SNY Jacob deGrom Tanner Roark
July 22, 2015 12:35 PM SNY, MLBN Noah Syndergaard Jordan Zimmermann

Back in late May and June, Roark started five turns in a row with mixed results, then appeared once out of the bullpen before a disastrous outing against Philadelphia on June 28. If the Nationals aren't feeling confident in him, they can always go to a minor league arm instead. Taylor Jordan, as well as prospects Joe Ross and A.J. Cole have all made starts for Washington this year.

While Zimmermann has also seen his strikeout rate drop from last year's, he's quietly turning in another very solid season. His past two starts haven't gone that well thanks to Baltimore bats as well as power outages that suspended his game against Los Angeles, but before that he was working on a streak of four straight quality starts with at least seven innings pitched in each.

Gio Gonzalez has traded some strikeouts for ground balls this year, and it appears to have worked out for him. Despite a 3.99 ERA, he's sporting a 3.26 FIP thanks to an impressive 58-percent ground ball rate. He's never even been above 50 percent in any year before this one, so it's like we're seeing a whole new Gio.

Gonzalez got off to a rough start this year, but in his last three outings before the break, he allowed a total of just two runs. Back on May 2, he dominated the Mets with nine strikeouts, two walks, and zero runs allowed in seven innings. The lefty might just be able to outshine Harvey tonight, so hopefully Mr. Dark Knight can be better than someone besides Strasburg.

Prediction: Mets win two of three

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