- The Washington Times
Monday, May 16, 2016

A four-game stretch from May 8 through May 11 messed up manager Dusty Baker’s plans. His outlook is fueled by optimism, which made it easy for Baker to think the Washington Nationals could lead their division from wire to wire.

“We already messed that up a little bit,” Baker said.

He’ll have to settle for 39 days in first place so far this season. It’s where the Nationals rest during an off-day Monday that consists of a baseball break and an afternoon train ride for the season’s first series with the rival New York Mets.

The Mets are not only the defending division champions and defending league champions, they are the only National League East team the Nationals did not beat up on last season. A late July series in Queens last year produced a New York sweep and catapult effect. The Mets went 36-19 during the next two months. The Nationals were 26-31 during the same span.

“They played us tough the last half of the year,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “Pretty much after the trade for [Yoenis] Cespedes. They kind of played everyone tough after that. If you want to a win a division, you have to beat the teams in your division — whether it’s them, it’s the Braves, the Phillies, [the Miami Marlins]. That’s the important part. It can obviously swing things or gain momentum.”

Daniel Murphy watched, and helped, the Mets slingshot past the Nationals last season. He hit .281 in the regular season, before being named National League Championship Series MVP. In the offseason, the Mets decided not to retain Murphy after he had played seven seasons at Citi Field. Initially, the Nationals made a run at Ben Zobrist to take over an open spot at second base. When Zobrist joined the Chicago Cubs, Murphy entered the Nationals’ plans. He signed a three-year, $37.5 million deal with Washington. This will be his first trip to New York as an opponent.

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“You know the people in New York,” Baker said. “Some will jeer him, but most will cheer him because if the Mets wanted to keep him, they had plenty of chances to keep him. It wasn’t as if Murph left. Murph wasn’t invited to stay.”

Murphy leads Major League Baseball with a .400 batting average. He’s shown good power and know-how at the plate. Of late, the detriments in his game have popped up, too. Last week, he made two errors. Zimmerman saved a third. Murphy also took a heavy-footed route to a pop-up behind him that he did not catch, though it was not scored an error. Plays like that, combined with errors and missed opportunities to turn double plays, make his fielding suspect.

Murphy’s ability to not make statements about himself is as consistent as his batting swing. No matter the framing of a question, Murphy is able to pivot his answer into one of limited depth — he often refers to getting his “A swing” off against a pitch in his “zone” — or talks about his teammates. Both styles are intriguing aspects of Murphy, who is referred to as one of the most habitual users of the information-filled iPad in the Nationals’ dugout and someone who has a prickly demeanor toward opponents.

Take the questions about his return to New York. Murphy said “it will be nice to play a division opponent.” The series should be “a lot of fun.” As far as the reception he expects?

“I’ll have a better idea about that after I get it,” Murphy said.

Mets fans are not weeping over his loss because of Neil Walker. Murphy’s replacement has 10 home runs, though just one in May. His fielding has been very good. Walker has committed one error and carries a .993 fielding percentage.

Those two are likely to be back stories by the time the series is moving along. There’s too much pitching to talk about.

Max Scherzer will start the opener. In his last start, he became the fifth pitcher in major-league history to strike out 20 batters in nine innings — it was a draining, emotion-based effort. On Sunday, he was thankful that he will have an extra day of rest between that start and his return to Citi Field, where he threw a no-hitter the last time he entered.

“Let’s just say I’m happy that we had six days,” Scherzer said.

Gio Gonzalez will follow him. Stephen Strasburg will pitch the finale. The Mets open with Noah Syndergaard — “My god, he’s got unbelievable stuff,” Scherzer said — but have not announced their next two starters. Last season, Mets manager Terry Collins aligned his best starters to pitch against the Nationals.

“Look, that’s the team that beat us,” Scherzer said. “Much respect to what they did last year. They get all the credit and deserve all the credit. It’s just that, look, we want to come in and beat you. It’s as simple as that. We’re competitive. We know we’re a great team. Obviously, we have a lot of respect. We think they’re a great team, as well.”

The trip is also Baker’s first time in New York at the helm of the Nationals. His public approach to management continues to be the opposite of his predecessor, and friend, Matt Williams. Baker called the series with the Mets “big,” stepping from the one-game-at-a-time automation so often associated with sports. He went on to point out the Nationals travel to Miami over the weekend, then host the Mets next week in Washington. Outside of the Atlanta Braves, the National League East is compacted, with four teams within 2.5 games of first place. For now, it’s the most competitive division in baseball.

“We’re still in very good position even though we’re not playing great, we’re not hitting great,” Baker said. “We’re in a good position. If somebody had said in the middle of May, that we’d be going to New York in first place, I’m sure everybody would be happy.

“It’s just once you’re in first place, everybody wants you to be five, six games up. We’re all greedy. The fans are greedy, you guys are greedy, I’m greedy. Everybody’s greedy. We are where we are and we just got to keep fighting.”

• Todd Dybas can be reached at tdybas@washingtontimes.com.

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