Of course the Nationals are mired in mediocrity … at a juncture at which the Mets would kill for mediocrity.
As if enough salt hadn’t already been rubbed in this gaping wound of a Mets season.
If the Mets wanted to torture themselves just a little more on Thursday, they could look across Citi Field and take note that their top current rival, the kings of the National League East for most of the Mets’ Sandy Alderson era, are a bit punch-drunk themselves. Had the Mets attained the heights for which they aimed — and briefly hit, in that 11-1 start — they would be regarding the Nationals in their rearview mirror.
Naturally, the Nats strolled in here, having lost three of their past four games, and prevailed, 5-4, behind their ace, Max Scherzer, to climb back over .500 at 47-46.
“We’ve got a lot of baseball left,” said Bryce Harper, who delivered a critical two-run homer in the seventh inning off fallen Mets lefty reliever Jerry Blevins. “I think [it’s a] good Mets team over there. Just got to keep grinding, keep doing our thing.”
Their “thing,” speaking more generally, is winning the National League East, which they did with Harper in 2012, 2014, 2016 and 2017. Like the Mets, they found themselves ambushed by the surprising 2018 surges of the Phillies and Braves, and they find themselves 5 ¹/₂ games behind the Phillies (52-40) and five behind the Braves (51-40), who also hold the second NL wild-card spot.
“I honestly think it might be good for us,” Ryan Zimmerman, the Nationals’ de facto captain, proclaimed of the Nats’ malaise before the game.
“The last few times we won the division, by now, we’ve had a double-digit lead,” the injured first baseman continued, to a group of raised eyebrows. “I think we’ve clinched the first or second week of September.
“Hopefully if we can come back after the break and maybe make a little run, we’ll be going into the playoffs on an uphill instead of trying to hold that intensity that we had and then didn’t really have to use for two or three weeks.”
Hmm … as Zimmerman freely admitted, he would take the cruise to the division title “every single year.” What choice does this group have but to rationalize, though? If the Nationals’ window of contention isn’t necessarily closing, given their talent supply that should make the Mets envious, an era surely is coming to an end, what with Harper, old Flushing pal Daniel Murphy and Gio Gonzalez eligible for free agency.
And so far, the era’s conclusion has proven as underwhelming as the “Seinfeld” finale. The Nats haven’t sufficiently covered for the injury absence (again) of Stephen Strasburg, who will throw a minor league rehabilitation start Sunday, or Murphy, who missed the first two and a half months after undergoing microfracture surgery on his right knee and has an underwhelming .256/.300/341 line. The Nats’ bullpen, too, has ebbed and flowed; recent arrival Kelvin Herrera barely survived a Mets eighth-inning rally.
Most notably, Harper, whose free agency has been anticipated for nearly as long as he has played in the major leagues, has puttered to a .213/.367/.473 line, suboptimal timing for both him and his team.
“Honestly, I really don’t have any concerns,” said rookie manager Dave Martinez, who succeeded veteran skipper Dusty Baker following two consecutive NL Division Series losses by the Nats. “We’re a good ball club. We’ve just go to start playing consistently better.
“I think this next four days, we come out and play the baseball we’re capable of playing, then come back after the All-Star break and start playing good baseball, we’ll be right in the thick of things.”
In a perverse way, maybe, as a Mets fan, would you rather see the Nats rebound and play like their old selves? Would it be more painful if the Nats finished, say, below .500, only to still reside above the Mets?
Or perhaps it doesn’t matter. You take no joy in your rivals’ misfortune. Not when you’ve got more than enough misery to contemplate with your own team.