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Mets meet Daniel Murphy and the Nationals for the first time this season

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The Mets broke up with Murphy, and he's come back to Citi Field looking fantastic.

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

The Mets have played 37 games so far this year, but none of them have felt as important as the next three on the schedule against the rival Nationals. Not only is Washington still considered New York's main competition for a second straight National League East crown, but one of the best players to sport the curly W this year has been beloved former Mets second baseman Daniel Murphy. The seven home runs that Murphy hit in 14 postseason games with New York last season may come at an absurd pace, but it appears as though they weren't a total fluke.

With five home runs so far in 2016 Murphy is on pace to surpass 2015's career high of 14 regular season home runs and have his best ever season in his first year playing outside of Queens. Even with Neil Walker impressing at the plate, the way Murphy is hitting the ball cannot sit well with Mets fans who just saw their team allow Murphy to walk after he declined the one-year qualifying offer during the offseason.

That might yet turn out to be the right decision, especially with Walker also on pace to top 20 home runs and second baseman of the future Dilson Herrera playing well in Las Vegas, but for now Murphy is hitting .400/.433/.629 for a division rival, and that doesn't feel too good. He might be striking out a little more often than he did last year, but Murphy's combination of contact rate and power have made him one of baseball's best hitters in the first two months of the campaign.

Unfortunately for the Mets, Washington has yet another player who can consider himself one of the best in the league. That's Bryce Harper, last year's MVP because apparently you're allowed to vote for a guy who doesn't make the postseason as long as he doesn't play for the Mets. As bitter as that sounds, Harper certainly deserved the honor last year with his 42 home runs and .460 on-base percentage, and he's back at it again in 2016 with 11 home runs and a .456 OBP. This time, though, the prodigy has more walks than strikeouts with 41 of the former and 30 of the latter. That's a 200-walk pace for those keeping track at home, and it has a lot to do with Harper walking at least once in his last 10 games. The streak includes seven games with multiple free passes, including one against the Cubs that saw Chicago walk Harper six times.

It's games like that as well as the 23-year-old's outstanding left-handed power that has many experts making comparisons to Barry Bonds. That's kind of crazy, though. When Bonds was 23 years old, he hit only 24 home runs with a .368 OBP. We might be selling Harper a little short, if that's possible.

Even with Harper and Murphy playing about as well as you can imagine, the Washington offense is around league average in both runs per game and OPS thanks to the rest of manager Dusty Baker's lineup. No other regular save for catcher Wilson Ramos has an OPS above .700, including previously productive veterans Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman, and potential All-Star third baseman Anthony Rendon. So what's Ramos doing right? He's found a way to cut his strikeouts and increase his power since last year's disappointing campaign, and it doesn't help that he's sporting a .383 BABIP right now. No, Ramos isn't going to continue batting .350 with a .387 OBP, but he's always had the potential to blossom into an above-average offensive backstop, and he's still only 28 years old.

Compared to the Nationals, New York has a much more balanced lineup, with six of eight regulars topping that arbitrary .700 OPS mark. The Mets have only one player who is playing like an MVP in Yoenis Cespedes, but others around the diamond have pitched in plenty, at least until the scoring started to dry up on the west coast. With Washington sending a trio of All-Star hurlers to the mound this week, it will be interesting to see if the Mets can revitalized their offense and get back to slugging like they were before the recent road trip.

One player in particular who can contribute to that goal is Curtis Granderson, who isn't giving the Mets the production they need out of the leadoff spot these days. The good news is that the problem mostly seems to be related to the outfielder's BABIP, which is just .227 this year compared to .305 in 2015. Granderson has seen his walk rate drop compared to last season, but he's still at around nine percent, which should be adequate, especially when combined with a .207 isolated power. If Granderson can just find a few more holes when he makes contact and maybe try to avoid the shift a little more, he should see his OBP start to rise close to where it was in 2015.

Pitching probables

Date Time Television Nationals Probable Starter Mets Probable Starter
May 17, 2016 7:10 PM SNY, MLBN Max Scherzer Noah Syndergaard
May 18, 2016 7:10 PM SNY, ESPN Gio Gonzalez Bartolo Colon
May 19, 2016 7:10 PM SNY, MLBN Stephen Strasburg Matt Harvey

Max Scherzer

Important stats: 52.0 innings, 66 strikeouts, 15 walks, 11 home runs, 4.15 ERA, 4.21 FIP

Favorite pitches: four-seam fastball (94 mph), slider (86 mph), changeup (85 mph)

It's easy to forget that Scherzer was having a mildly disappointing start to the season before he struck out 20 Detroit batters last Wednesday and etched his name once again in the record books. That performance was nearly as impressive (but probably more important) than the 17-strikeout no-hitter he threw against the Mets last September. In fact, Scherzer was dominant in three of the four starts he made against New York in 2015. The Mets managed five runs against the ace in a more meaningful September 7 game, but overall Scherzer had a 1.82 ERA with 41 strikeouts and three walks against the team he is being paid big bucks to beat.

Mets opponent: Noah Syndergaard has seen his strikeout rate dip lately with only 17 in his last three games. It's not anything to worry about, though, especially as the right-handed flamethrower continues to get ground ball at an outstanding clip. For the season, he's at 57 percent, which makes you think that the two home runs he gave up to the Dodgers in his latest outing are not something that will turn into a trend.

Gio Gonzalez

Important stats: 42.0 innings, 35 strikeouts, 12 walks, two home runs, 1.93 ERA, 1.12 WHIP

Favorite pitches: four-seam fastball (90 mph), changeup (82 mph), cuverball (76 mph)

Having made at least 30 starts in five of the last six seasons, Gonzalez doesn't get enough credit for being a consistent lefty that Baker can hand the ball to every fifth day. That might have something to do with a somewhat disappointing walk rate and last year's 3.79 ERA, but while Gonzalez might put too many runners on base, he keep the ball in the park. In 2015 he allowed just eight home runs, and he's posted consistently good ground ball and home-run-to-fly-ball rates throughout his career. So far in 2016, Gonzalez has cut his walk rate by more than two percent, and that's led to a lower ERA and WHIP even though he's striking out fewer batters than he's used to.

Mets opponent: Steven Matz was supposed to return to the rotation in this spot for an epic battle of left-handed pitching, but it appears that Mets fans may have to settle for Big Sexy. The good news is that there is no damage inside of Matz's elbow after he was skipped for a turn in the rotation because of soreness. While the southpaw hasn't gotten the same kind of press that Syndergaard has received early in the season, he's arguably been just as outstanding.

Bartolo Colon, meanwhile, is coming off of the type of outing in Los Angeles that you expect him to have every once in a while: one in which he gets hit very hard and gives up some runs. Of course, Colon is still perfectly fine for a fifth starter, and his style makes it seem like every pitcher can work as a 40-year-old if he just throws the ball over the plate.

Stephen Strasburg

Important stats: 55.0 innings, 65 strikeouts, 15 walks, four home runs, 2.95 ERA, 1.07 WHIP

Favorite pitches: four-seam fastball (95 mph), slider (89 mph), changeup (89 mph), curveball (81 mph)

I feel like I say it every year, but Strasburg is probably the most underrated great pitcher we have, which is surprising considering how much hype the guy came to the majors with. Maybe it's because of that hype, though, that we're disappointed he's still not as good as Clayton Kershaw, even if he consistently strikes out 10 batters per nine innings every year with minuscule walk rates. Even in his off-the-field business, Strasburg comes up a little shorter than we want him too. Just last week he signed a contract with Washington that will keep his family secure for generations to come, and yet we can't help thinking how much money he could have reeled in on the open market. By the way, that slider is a new thing for the right-hander who has lived off his fastball/changeup combo during his first six years in the big leagues.

Mets opponent: The way Matt Harvey has pitched this year, it would have been a surprise to see him escape Colorado unscathed, and he did indeed get roughed up. Five runs in five-and-two-thirds innings is not what Mets fans wanted to see from the star right-hander, but these numbers are promising: six strikeouts, zero walks, zero home runs. When you throw in his 10-strikeout performance in San Diego, Harvey's peripheral stats are on an upward trend, so there is potential for a return to greatness on the Citi Field stage.

Bullpens

There are a couple of former Mets on Washington's relief staff in Oliver Perez and Yusmeiro Petit, but the guys we should really watch out for are Felipe Rivero and Shawn Kelley. Rivero's 10 runs surrendered in 17.2 innings feel like a fluke when you consider that he has 23 strikeouts and five walks so far for a 1.02 WHIP. The 24-year-old southpaw had a 2.79 ERA in 48.1 innings last year and had little trouble getting right-handed hitters out. Kelley is more of a journeyman who was brought in on a free agent deal after shining for San Diego in 2015. He's building off that momentum with 19 strikeouts, two walks, and zero runs allowed in 13.1 innings so far. Those figures are much stronger than the ones Jonathan Papelbon has posted this season. The veteran closer has a 3.45 ERA to go with a 1.40 WHIP and isn't striking out opponents like he used to.

New York's bullpen got a nice boost from Sean Gilmartin on the west coast. The left-hander was called up last week to take a roster spot after Wilmer Flores was placed on the disabled list and Logan Verrett was shifted to the rotation. Gilmartin pitched five scoreless innings spread over two games with five strikeouts and zero walks, but he's likely to be sent down again before the series with Washington begins on Tuesday. With Matz now set to rejoin the rotation, Verrett can go back to the bullpen and the Mets appear ready to call up Matt Reynolds to extend the bench to the standard five-guys format.

Prediction: Mets win one of three.

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