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Series Preview: Washington Nationals vs. New York Mets

The Mets have a chance to bring the magic back to Citi Field after a rough week.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

It was the worst of times and it was the worst of times. That's how the past couple of days have gone for the Mets and their fans. On Wednesday, the team was on the verge of making a game-changing trade for Milwaukee's Carlos Gomez only to see the deal fall apart for medical reasons or financial reasons or some other reason. Then, on Thursday, New York lost its first game of the season in which it had scored six runs or more.

Still, these Mets are just three games behind the Nationals for first place in the National League East. Despite all that recent turmoil, Terry Collins's bunch can erase the entire deficit with three wins this weekend. And if we're really lucky (or not, depending on your disposition), the Mets might even have an extra outfielder in tow by the time the action kicks off tonight.

Washington's last chance to pull away?

We've been hearing it all season long. The Mets stink, and the Nationals are eventually going to run away with this division because they're so much more talented. With all those sexy bats and arms, it's hard to blame the prognosticators for thinking that way. However, we're one day from August, and the Mets are still hanging around despite that anemic offense. Like New York, Washington has seen its club hampered by various injuries this year. Last time we talked about how Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, and Anthony Rendon were all close to returning to the lineup.

Well, all those guys are back now, so it's time for the Nationals to put up or shut up. Either they demolish the Mets with their offense back in good shape, or they have to bear down for a battle that could last into September and beyond. Zimmerman in particular appears rejuvenated. With all the issues he's dealt with these past few years, I was surprised to learn that he's only 30 years old, but he looked like a man in his prime when he homered and doubled during Washington's 1-0 win over Miami yesterday.

With three big bats back in the lineup, Matt Williams doesn't feel obligated to bat Michael Taylor in the leadoff spot anymore, and that's a big bummer for the rest of the National League. Although the athletic 24-year-old is on a hot power streak, he's still only hitting .247/.293/.385 for the year. Until Denard Span overcomes his back injury, Taylor is the only center fielder on Washington's roster.

Now that Rendon has replaced Taylor at the top of the order, the Nationals offense doesn't look like Bryce Harper and a bunch of bums anymore. If Werth and Zimmerman can play up to their potential and Williams can resist putting Clint Robinson in too many games, Washington will have a nice little middle of the lineup to go with its potent pitching staff. That gets seven scarier if Ian Desmond continues to heat up. The disappointing shortstop got on base seven times in his last three games against the Mets and followed that up with a home run in three straight games in Pittsburgh.

Battle of the revamped bullpens

It's going to be difficult for the Mets to reach the postseason if their bullpen pitches as poorly as it did on Thursday. Consistent closer Jeurys Familia has seen his ERA balloon to 2.22 after he allowed a total of five runs in his last two outings. Now it's tough to find a right-hander in the bullpen whom the Mets can rely on. Hansel Robles is still too young and raw to trust in huge situations, and Bobby Parnell hasn't pitched well at all since returning from Tommy John rehab. The two of them combined to give up four runs that San Diego needed to start its comeback yesterday.

Those performances make the Mets look a little smarter for acquiring Tyler Clippard from Oakland in exchange for high-upside arm Casey Meisner. While Clippard's walk rate has spiked this year, he's kept the valuable and strange ability to prevent home runs despite low ground ball rates. That, combined with his ability to get both righties and lefties out consistently, makes Clippard a solid addition.

Plus, more help could be on the way. Maybe the Mets are able to acquire another reliever before the trade deadline hits, or maybe they find a way to get Logan Verrett and his 0.73 major league ERA (12.1 innings) back on the 25-man roster. Either way, the team appears to need another reliable arm or two to avoid blowing more leads down the stretch.

Before trade mania hit, the Nationals already had a pretty powerful bullpen. Drew Storen has 29 saves with more than 11 strikeouts per nine innings. He, along with the left-handed Matt Thornton, have ERAs below 2.00 and WHIPs below 1.00. Casey Janssen is also having a really nice season with less than one walk per nine innings.

Still, general manager Mike Rizzo decided to go out and trade for Jonathan Papelbon anyway. You can't really blame him considering how consistently excellent the right-hander has been over the years as a closer for Boston and Philadelphia. This year, with his strikeouts per nine below 10 for the third year in a row, Papelbon has been able to boost his ground ball rate by 10 percent to deal with the increased contact. That development has led to an ERA below 2.00 for the first time since 2009.

With the Nationals lining up Janseen, Storen, and Papelbon for the seventh, eighth, and ninth innings, respectively (plus, Thornton doesn't have an issue getting righties out), the Mets will be under pressure to strike early and often against Washington's starters.

Mets miss Scherzer again

For the second straight series against Washington, the Mets won't have to face Opening Day starter Max Scherzer, but like New York, the Nationals have a rotation that's deep and talented enough to give the team a decent chance at victory every day. You know the Mets can't be too eager to face Joe Ross again. The rookie was two outs away from defeating the Mets back on July 21, when he allowed three runs in six innings. Just over a week later, Ross's brother Tyson limited New York to one run in five innings.

Tonight's starter Gio Gonzalez fell one inning shy of his fifth straight quality start in his latest outing with three runs allowed (one earned) in five innings at Pittsburgh. Before that, Gonzalez defeated the Mets with two runs allowed in six innings on July 20. At least that wasn't as good as Gonzalez's other start versus the Mets this year. On May 2, he shut them out for seven innings with nine strikeouts and two walks. Historically a guy with high strikeouts and high walks, Gonzalez has traded some swings-and-misses this year for an increased ground ball rate (58 percent) that has helped him allow only five home runs in 105.2 innings.

Jordan Zimmermannn will toe the rubber for Washington during the series finale on Sunday Night Baseball. Unlike Gonzalez, Zimmermann's decreased strikeout rate this year doesn't come with a sexy trade-off, but he's still quite effective considering his ability to limit free passes and make batters earn everything they get. After struggling through April, the right-hander has been closer to his old self for the past three months of the campaign.

Date Time Television Nationals Probable Starter Mets Probable Starter
July 31, 2015 7:10 PM SNY, MLBN Gio Gonzalez Matt Harvey
August 1, 2015 7:10 PM SNY Joe Ross Jacob deGrom
August 2, 2015 8:08 PM ESPN Jordan Zimmermann Noah Syndergaard

The Mets will counter Washington's trio with their three best starters. Harvey's low strikeouts and high home run totals continue to be a concern, but he was able to hold the star-studded Dodgers to two runs in seven innings during his last start. I'd be more optimistic about the Mets' chances if Harvey was getting closer to his 2013 form as the season grows older, but that doesn't appear to be the case. He's struck out more than six batters in a game only two times since June began.

The good news is that Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndergaard have been nigh unhittable lately and are coming off of particularly brilliant outings. deGrom has managed to cut his walks and his BABIP from an already awesome 2014 rookie campaign. Syndergaard has already surpassed all expectations with his two controllable fastballs and devastating breaking ball. With both of those guys on the hill this weekend, it's hard to imagine the Mets not coming away victorious.

Prediction: Mets win two of three.

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