Although most major projection systems favored the Mets in the NL East heading into this season, the game’s more human evaluators tended to take a wait-and-see approach. As talented as the Mets were on paper, they were not the three-time defending division champions. That epithet belonged to the Braves, who represented the greatest challenge to the Mets for NL East supremacy.
At least, that’s how things looked in March. Here in late June, the situation has changed. After dropping an 8-4 contest in Washington on Monday, the Mets -- losers of nine of their past 14 games -- had to admit that the Nationals may be the foremost threat to their postseason aspirations.
Relatively forgotten due to their age, as well as their struggle last year with superstar third baseman Anthony Rendon gone to Orange County, the Nats were easy to overlook heading into this season. But the Mets aren’t overlooking their division rivals now. Kyle Schwarber hit two more homers against them on Monday, both off starting pitcher Jerad Eickhoff, bringing his total to seven in his past three games against the Mets.
“Everybody’s kind of plugging away,” said Eickhoff, a former Phillies pitcher who has been in the NL East since 2015. “Everybody’s staying right in the mix. It’s not an easy division.”
Dating back to last September, the Mets have now lost seven of their past eight games in Washington -- the latest of those a makeup game from their opening series of this season, which was postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak in the Nationals’ clubhouse. Most of New York’s recent struggles in the District have been due to Schwarber, whose otherworldly run of 15 homers in 17 games has haunted the Mets more than any other team.
Schwarber’s ascendance, as well as Josh Bell’s recent hot streak, has given the Nationals a potent top of the lineup that also features perennial standouts Trea Turner and Juan Soto. Washington’s pitching has likewise stabilized -- even without injured starter Stephen Strasburg -- due in large part to Patrick Corbin’s improvements in the rotation.
Given all that, it’s little surprise the Nationals sit in second place in the NL East, staring at a deficit of merely three games after Monday’s win.
“It’s a tough division,” Mets manager Luis Rojas said. “We’ve said it always since the offseason, since Spring Training, and now during the season. We said it’s a tough division. I think everyone in the division has dealt with a lot of injuries. Significant pieces of every team in this division have been out for a period of time, but that just keeps the division balanced. It’s still tough. We’ve all got to find a way to keep our teams moving forward.”
For weeks, a struggling New York team has taken solace in the fact that every other NL East team was struggling, too. Despite losing eight of 13 during one recent stretch, the Mets saw their division lead -- which they’ve held for more than seven weeks consecutively -- slim by just a single game. But they’ve now lost 40% of their NL East lead in two nights, and while it's far too early to be scoreboard watching, some of their trends have been difficult to ignore.
Entering Monday’s play, the Mets ranked 30th in the Majors in runs and runs per game, 29th in slugging and 26th in OPS. The returns of Michael Conforto and Jeff McNeil have yet to spark the offense in a meaningful way while the pitching staff has struggled to cobble together innings, with Eickhoff and rookie Tylor Megill currently occupying rotation spots.
A trade (or two, or three) may be inevitable if the Mets want to continue fending off their rivals in the NL East -- particularly if the Nationals keep playing as well as they have.
“Everybody in the NL East right now is close,” McNeil said. “It’s nice for us to be in first so we have everyone chasing us. They’re good ballclubs. We just need to keep playing well, keep winning ballgames, and hopefully at the end of the year, we’re at the top.”