By Paul DiSclafani
It’s never too early in the season to face a challenge head on, and just five games into the 2018 Campaign, the Mets (4-1) face their first serious challenge – the dreaded Washington Nationals (4-2). Over the next 12 games, the Mets and Nationals will go head-to-head six times, completing 1/3 of their regular season meetings before we even get to Tax Day. The next time these teams are scheduled to play again will be the last weekend before the All-Star break.
A lot can happen in three months, so that makes these two series more than just games on the schedule. If the Mets want to take their pre-season hype and early season success seriously, they have to give the Nationals a run for their money. You always need to play well against the team you are challenging if you want to get to the top of the hill. Calling the big bully names and saying you are better means nothing if during a confrontation they squash you like a bug.
In 1969, it was the Chicago Cubs coming to town in early September for a 2-game series. The Mets had pared down their 8-game NL East lead to just 2 and 1/2 games. Leading 2-1 in the ninth inning of the first game, Cubs centerfielder Don Young misplayed two balls, leading to two Mets runs and a 4-3 win. The next night, with Ron Santo in the on-deck circle, a mysterious black cat came out of the stands and passed in front of Santo and the entire Cubs bench. The Mets won the game 7-1 to pull within a half-game of the Division lead and the cursed Cubs would never recover.
In 1986, after losing two of three to start the season, the Mets swept a five-game series at home against Pittsburgh and took their 7-3 record into St. Louis for a four game series. The Cardinals, who had tortured the Mets in the previous two seasons, started their season 7-1 (including beating the Mets in their Shea home opener), but had lost three straight. The Mets, looking to make a statement early in the season and to prove they were no fluke, swept the Cardinals and put 4.5 games between them. The Mets never looked back as they dominated the rest of the regular season, winning 108 games and the World Series.
In 2015, the Nationals came into Citi Field in late July for a 3-game weekend series, holding a 2-game lead against a Mets team that had won just 5 of their last 13. By Monday, the Mets had swept the Nationals and taken over First Place and never looked back.
The Nationals beat up on the Mets last season, winning 13 of 19, including sweeping an early April series at Citi field that pushed their NL East lead from 2.5 to 5.5 games. When they met again in late April, the Mets won the first two games of a weekend series in Washington (cutting the nationals NL East lead to 5.5 games) and were looking for the sweep with Noah Syndergaard on the mound that last Sunday afternoon in April. Instead, their season ended as Syndergaard left the game with an arm injury, never to return in 2017, as them Mets (now 10-14) were embarrassed in a 23-5 loss. They never recovered. By the time they got another crack at Washington in late June, they lost three of four at Citi field and were 10.5 games behind.
Mathematically, a win in April counts as much as a win in September. When you are running out of scheduled games late in the season, fans will tend to look back at the April and May games their team lost and lament what could have been if they had reversed just a hand full of those early “meaningless” losses. But sometimes you need to make a statement. The team you are chasing needs to know you are going to be battling them all year. Early in the season is when you have a chance to lay claim to all of your pre-season hype about “this year being different”.
The Nationals have nothing to fear from the Mets six games into the 2018 season. In the last two years, the Nationals are 25-13 against the Mets, but if felt like they were 38-0. Pennants are not won in April, but they can certainly be lost in April.
If the Mets want top give themselves and their fan base some hope for the 2018 season, they have to show up against the Nationals and prove they can play with the Big Boys. New manager Mickey Calloway has instilled a new attitude in the Mets clubhouse and his handling of the bullpen has produced wins in 3 of 4 games. The Mets bullpen has a stingy 1.33 ERA.
even the players know the importance of these three games. “It’s crucial. It’s going to set the pace for the rest of the season with those guys,” Syndergaard said, “They’re our rivals. They’re the front-runners. It’s always nice to go out there and give them a little bit of a challenge. It’s going to be very crucial for us to go out there and attack them.”
After a 4-0 start, the Nationals lost their last two games, dropping their series in Atlanta. They come back to Washington for their Home Opener and get to look at a familiar, yet different Mets team across the diamond. They will be facing a revamped offense, a solid bullpen and Jacob deGrom (1-0, 1.59), Steven Matz (0-1, 6.75) and Matt Harvey (0-0, 0.00) in the Sunday night finale.
No doubt about it, Mets need to take 2 of 3 to make a statement to the Nationals that this season is going to be a dog fight. At least they won’t have to worry about Daniel Murphy this weekend…