WASHINGTON — On the morning of July 7, the Nationals held a four-game lead over the New York Mets in the NL East, and the two teams were about to kick off a four-game series at Citi Field — the final four games for each team before the All-Star Break.
Four days later, on the morning of July 11, the Nationals (54-36) hold a six-game lead over the Mets, who are now tied by record with the Miami Marlins at 47-41.
Washington lost the first game of the series, a back-and-forth, home-run filled affair that rookie Lucas Giolito started. It was just his second appearance as a major-leaguer, and he gave up seven hits, four walks and four earned runs in just 3.2 innings.
However, the Nationals helped themselves in the 9-7 loss by getting to Mets starter Bartolo Colon early, forcing New York to use five relievers over 4.1 innings. Those relievers combined to throw 75 pitches, which hurt them when Noah Syndergaard had to leave after 4.2 innings in the second game, a 3-1 Nationals win, and the relievers were needed for another 78 pitches. Meanwhile, Stephen Strasburg threw seven innings of two-hit ball, allowing just one run while striking out nine, and the Nationals bullpen was needed for just 24 pitches — 11 by Jonathan Papelbon, who pitched a perfect ninth inning for the save.
In the third game and fourth games, the Nationals had their choice of relievers. They used Felipe Rivero, Matt Belisle and Papelbon for an inning each, and Tanner Roark for 2.1; the four pitchers combined to allow two hits and walk one batter while striking out seven over the 5.1 innings, and they didn’t allow a run. Washington’s early offense in those games was enough, and the bullpen did its job late, and the Nationals pulled out wins in each of the final two games.
All in all, the Nationals won three straight to end the series and put a sizable gap between themselves and the Mets entering the All-Star break. It was a huge momentum boost for Washington, which could have found itself tied for the first-place lead if it had lost all three games, or holding a narrow lead if it had split the series.
Instead, the Mets are not only trailing by six games and tied for second place, they’re also plagued by injuries to starting pitchers Matt Harvey (out for the season), Noah Syndergaard (status unknown, but not pitching in the All-Star Game) and Steven Matz (bone spur in elbow, but still pitching for now), and outfielder Yoenis Cespedes (missed final two games with a strained quad, status unknown).
The past four days should play a role in what moves each team does before the Aug. 1 trade deadline.
The Mets might be inclined to be sellers rather than buyers this year, a year after they traded for Yoenis Cespedes at the end of July. Cespedes was a huge catalyst for New York, going .275/.331/.542 with eight home runs in August and .300/.345/.673 with nine home runs in September and October.
New York not only has to overcome a six-game hole against the Nationals, but it has to hold off the Marlins, who are riding a three-game win streak of their own, and it has to do all this with a team full of players who are struggling to stay off the Disabled List.
The Mets still might try to make a last-ditch effort to add a difference-maker for the second half of the season and hope they can supplant the Nationals for the division lead, but that seems unlikely given their situation. Considering the Mets gave up a pair of prospects — Michael Fulmer, who is dominating for the Detroit Tigers this year, and Luis Cessa, who has pitched 13.2 innings for the New York Yankees this season — to add Cespedes, they might not be too interested in further depleting their farm system for a shot at surging back into the postseason.
Instead, they might prefer to pawn off some players they don’t plan to keep around for the long haul, add a few new prospects and try again next year.
The Nationals, on the other hand, might now be more inclined to part with a prospect or two in hopes of making a deep run this year. Their bullpen is overworked and could use another supplemental arm, and another bench bat wouldn’t hurt. Most of all, they might still be looking to replace Jonathan Papelbon as the closer, but he’s been dominant since coming off the Disabled List.
Of course, with Miami surprisingly just six games behind Washington for first place, the Marlins might be tempted to make a win-now move to sneak into the playoffs.
Trades are frequently made around the All-Star break, and this year figures to be no exception. With the NL East going a different direction than many anticipated — four of five CBS Sports analysts predicted the Mets would win the division — there could be more commotion than usual in the division.