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Can the New York Mets catch up to the Washington Nationals before the All-Star break?

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It's going to take a four-game sweep over a very good team, but it's not like we've never seen one of those before.

Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

You can be excused for thinking that the Nationals would run away with the National League East after sweeping the Mets in three games last week. After all, Washington has loads of talent and revenge on its mind while New York's elite pitching staff continues to be hampered by injuries.

The tables haven't completely turned since then -- The Nats still hold a four-game lead in the division -- but the door still appears open for the Mets to make a run in the second half after they dominated the Cubs for four games and took two of three from the rival Marlins. Washington, meanwhile, took care of business with three wins in four games against Cincinnati before falling in two of three to Milwaukee.

So it comes as a surprise that the Mets are only four games behind the Nationals as we enter play on Thursday night. While Terry Collins's resilient team has a chance to make up more ground on Washington before the All-Star break, Dusty Baker's squad can put some serious distance between itself and the rest of the East. Even if it wasn't going to drive a week's worth of narrative during the break, this series between senior circuit contenders would be a big one.

Big games normally feature big players, and that's why Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy are headed to San Diego this Tuesday to team up with Mets All-Stars Yoenis Cespedes, Noah Syndergaard, and Jeurys Familia as they take on the American League.

Harper has had an awesome first half and looks every bit the star who won the NL MVP last year, but his batting average is still a little low for a guy who walks more than he strikes out. In fact, Harper has cut his strikeout rate down to 16 percent this year only to see his BABIP drop over 100 points. That might be due to some bad luck, but it's also due to Harper's line drive rate sinking from 22 percent in 2015 to 14 percent this season. If the phenom gets back to hitting frozen ropes, his second half could be even more dominant than his first.

Believe it or not, Murphy is about to play in his second All-Star Game, and most of you probably believe it because you remember the gritty second baseman being the token guy for a bad Mets team at the 2014 midsummer classic. This year, he's the real deal with an improved power swing and a league-leading batting average. Murphy's line drive rate, though, is lower than it was two years ago when he finished the season hitting .289, so it's a good thing he's striking out even less now despite all the home runs. Those long balls are in part caused by a career-high 43-percent fly ball rate.

We already know that Harper and Murphy might kill the Mets, though. One guy that was harder to see coming is Danny Espinosa, who appears to finally be fulfilling his destiny at age 29 after a couple of disappointing campaigns. While he's not nearly as selective at the plate as Murphy or Harper, Espinosa is taking his walks and hitting for some immense power. Not only do his 18 home runs tie Harper for the team lead, but his isolated power has risen to .230 after averaging .169 for his entire career. Plus, Espinosa a switch hitter who is more effective from the right side, which makes him a great weapon to use against the left-handed pitchers that opposing managers will deploy against the middle of Washington's order.

Along with the ascension of Espinosa, who took home NL Player of the Week honors after hitting five home runs between June 30 and July 3, another positive for the Nationals' offense has been the demotion of out machine Michael Taylor. Baker loved putting Taylor near the top of his batting order, and the 25-year-old outfielder rewarded him this season with a .266 on-base percentage in 203 plate appearances. With Taylor out of the way, Ben Revere will have more time to get his swing in order. It just doesn't make sense for a guy with his kind of speed to be hitting .225/.273/.289 with a nine-percent strikeout rate. If his 4-for-5 game with three stolen bases against the Mets on June 27 was any indication, Revere is still capable of being a valuable contributor.

Wilmer Flores could also be on his way to being a valuable piece for the Mets, as the versatile infielder has four home runs in his past four games. Now in his third year with the team, Flores is showing signs of an improvement with stronger walk and fly ball rates in 2016. If he gets steadier playing time in the second half, the 24-year-old could reach 20 home runs.

But that playing time might be hard to come by thanks to the acquisition of Jose Reyes. Since the veteran shortstop was called up on Tuesday, Collins has found a way to keep both him and Flores in the lineup each day, but as the Mets are currently organized, there are six infielders on the roster and only four spots to play them at. With guys like James Loney and Neil Walker on the team, it's always going to make sense to play Flores against lefties, but with the way he is swinging the bat, New York should want to get its young slugger into the lineup all the time. Doing so at this point is going to require some sacrifice on the part of Reyes, who hasn't yet proven to be a stronger hitter than Loney or the middle infielders. It will be interesting to see how Collins handles the situation going forward, especially if Reyes starts to look like his old self.

Probable pitchers

Date Time Television Nationals Probable Starter Mets Probable Starter
July 7, 2016 7:10 PM SNY, MLBN Lucas Giolito Bartolo Colon
July 8, 2016 7:10 PM SNY Stephen Strasburg Noah Syndergaard
July 9, 2016 7:15 PM FOX Max Scherzer Logan Verrett
July 10, 2016 1:10 PM WPIX, TBS Gio Gonzalez Steven Matz
Lucas Giolito

Important stats at Double-A Harrisburg: 71.0 IP, 72 K, 34 BB, 2 HR, 3.17 ERA, 3.31 FIP, 1.42 WHIP

Favorite pitches: four-seam fastball (94 mph), curveball (81 mph), changeup (85 mph)

It was a bit of a surprise to see Giolito make his major league debut last week against the Mets given the way he has struggled with his control in the Eastern League this year. Still, the 21-year-old right-hander got the job done with four scoreless frames and just three baserunners allowed. The return of Stephen Strasburg to the rotation was supposed to beckon Giolito back to the minors, but now that Joe Ross is on the disabled list with a shoulder injury, the phenom gets another crack at the Mets.

Mets opponent: With a 2.87 ERA in 94 innings, it's a shame that Bartolo Colon didn't get more serious consideration for the All-Star Game, but maybe that oversight will put a chip on the veteran's broad shoulders. Either way, it's hard to imagine Colon pitching much better than he has with his eight straight starts of fewer than three runs allowed. If this keeps up, Zack Wheeler will need to find someone else to replace in the starting rotation when he returns from his Tommy John rehab.

Stephen Strasburg

Important stats: 99.2 IP, 123 K, 28 BB, 10 HR, 2.71 ERA, 2.91 FIP, 1.03 WHIP

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

The Mets were able to avoid Strasburg during their last series with Washington because the right-hander had just gone on the disabled list with a back injury. Thanks to the magic of retroactive dating, he's already back and ready to tear up the Mets again. Back in May, he faced New York for two starts in a row and gave up three runs in 12.2 innings with 21 strikeouts and three walks. And those were just two of the seven games this year in which Strasburg has a double-digit strikeout total. In his first start after his DL stint, he had a no-hitter going through six innings before being removed by Dusty Baker due to pitch count concerns.

Mets opponent: Considering all the hype that New York's rotation got before the season started, it has to be disappointing that only one starting pitcher made the NL All-Star team. At least we know that Noah Syndergaard deserves the honor. The big right-hander's excellent first half has been highlighted by 123 strikeouts and just 15 walks for a 1.88 FIP that is even lower than his 2.41 ERA. Two starts ago, Syndergaard left us worried about his elbow when he was shelled by the Nationals, but he bounced back tremendously with seven great innings against the Cubs. He even picked off Javier Baez at first base to show that he means business against potential base stealers.

Max Scherzer

Important stats: 120.2 IP, 155 K, 32 BB, 21 HR, 3.21 ERA, 3.71 FIP, 0.97 WHIP

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

Home runs remain the one thing keeping Scherzer from completely dominating the National League, as he's on pace to give up almost 40 of them this season. That wasn't a problem for him during his last start against the Mets, though, as the former Cy Young Award winner allowed just two hits and a walk while pitching into the eighth inning against New York. Even with the extreme amount of home runs he has given up, it's still weird to see Scherzer miss out on the All-Star Game. Hey, he's got nine wins! Let's get him in there!

Mets opponent: The Mets haven't announced who will start against Scherzer on Saturday because they just got done announcing that Matt Harvey is going on the DL with a shoulder injury. Getting the call to replace Harvey on Saturday will likely be spot starter extraordinaire Logan Verrett, although he has struggled mightily during his most recent three starts. In those games, he has 11 walks and only six strikeouts in 11.2 innings. Numbers like that might open the door for someone else to get the start, but it's still probably going to be Verrett thanks to his ability to move back and forth between the rotation and the bullpen as well as the success he had as a starter back in April.

Gio Gonzalez

Important stats: 97.2 IP, 101 K, 35 BB, 11 HR, 4.79 ERA, 3.86 FIP, 1.40 WHIP

Favorite pitches: four-seam fastball (90 mph), two-seam fastball (90 mph), curveball (77 mph), changeup (83 mph)

Gonzalez was having a really nice season before the Mets tagged him for seven runs and three home runs in five innings on May 23. Since then, the lefty has been a disaster with a 6.95 ERA in six starts during June. The weird thing is that Gonzalez's strikeout rate was phenomenal during the stretch with 44 in 33.2 innings, and he only let up three home runs during the month. The struggles were more of a BABIP and walks thing, and he rebounded with a quality start against Milwaukee to start his July. In the final game before the All-Star break, will the Mets be able to trounce Gonzalez again?

Mets opponent: Just like Syndegaard did in his latest start, Steven Matz gave the impression on Tuesday that he could be an effective pitcher despite the bone spur in his elbow. The outing didn't end well as Matz eventually gave up a game-changing home run to Giancarlo Stanton, but along the way we saw him show control with only one walk allowed as well as great stamina and a solid ground-ball rate. Those three things will serve the southpaw well if he hopes to keep helping the Mets from the rotation down the stretch.

Bullpens

After about a month spent on the DL, Jonathan Papelbon returned to action this week against Milwaukee and looked pretty darn good with two hitless innings that featured five strikeouts. Even if he's not the dominant closer he used to be, Papelbon still lengthens the Washington bullpen, pushing Shawn Kelley back into a set-up role alongside Blake Treinen and allowing Baker to avoid more unreliable hurlers like Felipe Rivero and Oliver Perez.

The Harvey injury means that the Mets will welcome back Seth Lugo to the major league ranks. The right-hander is perhaps the most unspectacular pitcher on the team, so he shouldn't be relied on in high-leverage situations, especially with Addison Reed bouncing back from his late-June struggles. Lugo's best path to playing time might be as a starter, as he was working in Las Vegas's rotation earlier this season and could be seen as an option if Verrett doesn't pan out.

Prediction: banana split

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