David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
WASHINGTON - For the first time since Sept. 12, 2007 the Mets have a seven-game lead as they sit atop the National League East.
Calm down. Deep breaths. Think happy thoughts.
Might as well be 17.
We put this off for a while because having a front-row seat to that '07 Flushing disaster flick forever changed the way we thought about September. Particularly when the Mets are involved.
But after watching these three games in D.C., a Mets' sweep that featured three comeback wins after Wednesday night's 5-3 victory, why should we expect any reversal of fortune from this point? It's not just the Mets' sizable cushion and the weak schedule ahead. The Nats' ineptitude (Neptitude?) in their biggest series of the season, helped convince us the division race is over
Sure, the Mets won all three, and by doing so, kept their NL East firewall intact. But the way they swept the Nats revealed what's inside these two teams. The Mets have a heartbeat, and a 38-man roster (yes, 38) that's capable of spawning a different hero every night.
"We're in an enviable position," said Kelly Johnson, whose pinch-hit homer off a dominant Stephen Strasburg tied the score at 2 in the eighth inning. "We're in a good spot."
And the Nats? They're a star-spangled Tin Man in stirrups, with a gun-shy manager who probably has nightmares about the bullpen phone. In the eighth inning, after Johnson's homer, Curtis Granderson forced Matt Williams' hand with a one-out single.
As soon as Williams emerged from the dugout, he was booed loudly, and taking the ball from Strasburg -- who had whiffed 13 -- may end up being his last meaningful act as manager of the underachieving Nats. Once Drew Storen trotted in, you could cue up the hanging slider, and Yoenis Cespedes mashed the pitch into the Mets' bullpen, where the relievers celebrated the baseball's arrival by waving towels and jumping around.
"I've never had this much fun playing baseball," Travis d'Arnaud said.
D'Arnaud was the lone Met to do damage against Strasburg through the first seven innings. He drilled a one-out homer off the top of the leftfield fence in the second inning and Strasburg retired 19 of the next 21 before Terry Collins called on Johnson to open the eighth.
Collins didn't like what he saw during the earlier at-bats from Wilmer Flores, who was getting tied up inside by the dominant Strasburg, and figured that the lefty-hitting Johnson would have a better chance of starting a late rally. Oh, and there was the fact that Johnson on Monday night homered against Max Scherzer. Could lightning strike twice?
"I wasn't thinking home run," Collins said, smiling.
It doesn't matter. The Mets got the best possible outcomes this week in D.C. and there's no reason to think this roll will stop. Jacob deGrom, despite the manager's pregame worries about him perhaps being tired, looked fine in striking out nine over seven innings. The Mets still have some pitching issues to resolve -- namely how to use Matt Harvey in September, and how to successfully deploy a six-man rotation -- but those should be ironed out.
Plus, when the starters do struggle, as Harvey and Jon Niese did against the Nationals, the Mets now have the bats to bail them out. Chief among them is the unstoppable Cespedes, who is rapidly proving to be one of the greatest rental sluggers to ever switch teams midseason.
Cespedes delivered the home run that pretty much ended the competitive portion of the Nats' season. He's hitting .308 (48-for-156) with nine doubles, three triples, 14 homers and 36 RBIs since joining the Mets.
"It's amazing," Johnson said. "All the stuff he's doing. He's Bugs Bunny."
And think about this: the Mets finally have a player capable of going to toe-to-toe with Bryce Harper, whose two-homer performance Wednesday was too little, too late from the likely NL MVP. That's enough to carry a team through the bad times, but we're not expecting any more of those this September.
"This showed we're legitimate," Collins said. "That we're not a fluke."
And this is nothing like 2007, either.