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Series Preview: New York Mets vs. Washington Nationals

It ought to feel like October has already started when the Mets take on the Nationals in Washington this week.

H. Darr Beiser-USA TODAY Sports

September series don't get much bigger than the one that starts this afternoon between the Mets and Nationals. Despite outscoring Miami by five runs over the course of three games, the Mets dropped two of three to the Marlins and now stand just four games ahead of Washington in the National League East standings. Bryce Harper and company may have been counted out by some pundits, but the Nationals got right back on their feet with a four-game sweep of Atlanta that helped them gain ground on New York over the weekend.

The next three games for both clubs will set the stage for the remainder of the season. While a sweep by the Mets will leave Washington buried again, a sweep by the Nats will set off every "collapse" alarm at every media outlet in New York.

Even two wins in Washington would do wonders for the Mets' postseason chances (and the sanity of their fans), but the Nationals are going to do everything in their power (perhaps including the use their best relievers in high-leverage situations) to make sure that all three games end in curly W victories.

That means throwing Cy Young Award candidate Max Scherzer at the Mets even if he has been going through a bit of a slump lately. The right-hander racked up a 6.43 ERA in five August starts before rebounding with 10 strikeouts, zero walks, and two runs allowed in Wednesday's win over St. Louis. Still, that August swoon is reason to believe that Scherzer isn't the same guy that let up just four runs (one earned) against the Mets in two prior starts back in April and May.

The new Mets have fun middle-of-the-order bats

One thing is for certain: The Mets don't have the same lineup that they played Washington with back at the start of the season. This new outfit featuring red hot sluggers like Yoenis Cespedes and Michael Conforto — neither of whom played a huge role in the sweep of Washington in early August — will probably have a major impact on New York's fate this week.

Since joining the Mets, Cespedes is hitting .295/.347/.619 with an incredible 11 home runs (as of Saturday). That's just the kind of kick in the rear that general manager Sandy Alderson was hoping for when he dealt for the outfielder just minutes before the July 31 trade deadline. Meanwhile, Conforto looks like a remarkably polished hitter for a guy who is just one year removed from Oregon State. Not only is he walking a bunch, but the rookie is hitting for power (five homers, eight doubles) while only striking out 20 percent of the time. If Conforto's ceiling turns out to be a full season of that, Mets fans should be thrilled.

With Cespedes and Conforto playing like All-Star outfielders and David Wright contributing (multiple hits in six of 10 games since his return) when he feels good enough to play, it's no wonder how New York's offense has gone from one of the worst to maybe the best in the senior circuit.

Harper isn't overrated anymore... he might be underrated

Of course, Washington's offense isn't exactly chopped liver. Although he might not win MVP thanks to his team's underachieving ways, Harper is the most valuable player in the National League. And it's not really that close, as Harper continues to do everything right on offense at the ripe old age of 22. He's hitting for average (20 percent strikeout rate, .384 BABIP for a.337 average), walking nearly as much as he strikes out, and showing off his strength with 34 homers and a ridiculous .309 isolated power.

Harper has multiple hits and one home run in all three of his last three games, and before that he put on a historic performance by walking in all four of his plate appearances while scoring four runs and driving one in during Washington's 15-1 win over Atlanta.

So when Harper doesn't win MVP this year, just remember that the Nationals would likely have 10 fewer wins without him. Due to injuries and disappointing performances, Washington has just two other offensive players who are worth at least two WAR: Danny Espinosa and Yunel Escobar.

Harvey and drama go together like Batman and Robin

This afternoon could be tough sledding for the Mets with Scherzer going up against Jon Niese and his three-game streak of poor pitching. It looked like an aberration when Niese gave up seven runs in Denver, but since then he's gotten pounded by Philadelphia twice in a row. That's a sign of trouble, especially when Niese is failing to get ground balls, miss bats, or control the strike zone. If the lefty can regain his early-August form and upset the Nats, it would be a huge victory for the Mets.

Failing that, New York looks to have pitching advantages on both Tuesday and Wednesday. After a brief flirtation with turning heel, Matt Harvey appears to be back in the good graces of Mets fans. We don't know how many more regular season starts he has left, but he seems to be willing to start this week and again in the postseason at the very least. That's good news, because the hero whom Mets fans need right now has been on fire in the second half. Since July 20, Harvey has a 1.66 ERA with 76 strikeouts and 20 walks in 86.2 innings.

Even though the Harvey momentum slowed a bit on Wednesday when he allowed four runs against the Phillies and struggled with dehydration, the Mets still have a good chance of winning his matchup with Jordan Zimmermann. The 29-year-old Wisconsin native has had trouble missing many bats this year, and he's grown progressively worse in his performances against the Mets. Back on April 8, he allowed one run in six innings, but then New York scored three off of him in seven innings on July 22 and five runs in six innings on August 2. Tuesday could be a fun night for Cespedes, who is hitting the ball very hard when he makes contact these days.

Date Time Television Mets Probable Starter Nationals Probable Starter
September 7, 2015 1:05 PM SNY Jon Niese Max Scherzer
September 8, 2015 7:05 PM SNY Matt Harvey Jordan Zimmermann
September 9, 2015 7:05 PM SNY, ESPN Jacob deGrom Stephen Strasburg

On Wednesday, the series finale will be decided by Jacob deGrom, who has been less than spectacular lately, and Stephen Strasburg, who had to have his last turn in the rotation skipped due to a back issue. Strasburg can't seem to stay healthy this year, but the former top overall draft pick can be a beast when he's on, as evidenced by his brilliant 12-strikeout performance against Colorado on August 8.

That outing was Strasburg's first after a disabled list stint, so hopefully he doesn't come out with a similar fire against the Mets. Against New York this year, he has allowed eight runs in 10.2 innings, but all of that came during two starts in April.

deGrom has been fine in his last two outings since getting pounded in Philadelphia, but it's likely that the Mets will once again rely on the bullpen to get three outs in the seventh inning. The new man for that role appears to be Addison Reed thanks to the four shutout innings he's pitched for the Mets so far. As a fly-ball pitcher, the right-hander seems to be a much better fit for Citi Field than Phoenix's Chase Field.

Prediction: Mets win two of three.

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