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Loaded Nationals haven’t peaked yet

Former Met Daniel Murphy is leading the majors

Former Met Daniel Murphy is leading the majors with a .400 batting average for the Washington Nationals, whose hitters have not hit their full stride. Credit: Getty Images / Rob Carr

Daniel Murphy probably won’t say it, but it has to feel good. Here he is, the Mets’ spurned ex — the second baseman whom they never extended a real offer in the offseason — coming back to New York bigger and better than ever. First-place team? Check. A happy, comfortable life in D.C.? Check. Highest batting average in the majors. Check that one twice.

“We’re playing well,” Murphy said by way of understatement last weekend. “Bryce [Harper] is playing so well, really swinging the bat well, I know J-Dub [Jayson Werth] has had some good at-bats, Zim [Ryan Zimmerman] is coming around, hit two homers the other day, so, you know, you just try to get a good pitch to hit and hit it hard.”

This is what the Mets have to deal with for the next three days, and for six of their next nine games: A murderers’ row of big-swinging bats with something to prove, along with one of the most devastating pitching staffs in baseball. Just in the next three days, they’ll face Max Scherzer (fanned 20 batters in his last start), Gio Gonzalez (1.93 ERA), and Stephen Strasburg (6-0, 2.95 ERA).

But perhaps the scariest thing about these Nationals, who split a four-game series with the Marlins last weekend and are 1.5 games in front of the Mets and Phillies, is that they don’t think they’ve reached their full potential. Not even close.

“The big guys have got to pick it up,” manager Dusty Baker said during the Marlins series, later adding that they’ll be really dangerous when that happens.

After the Nationals won Game 1 of a doubleheader Saturday, centerfielder Michael A. Taylor also speculated what it would be like when the team finds its groove.

“If we can win these close games and tough games when the bats aren’t going like we want,” he said, “I think that puts us in a good position when we get hot.”

And so, the lukewarm Nationals, at an apparently unimpressive eight games over .500, will have to make due with Murphy, who is hitting .400. They’ll continue to labor on with their reigning NL MVP, Harper, who has teams so terrified, they’ve already walked him a league-high 41 times in 37 games. He’s only actually had 113 at-bats, though he does tend to make the best of it: Harper has 11 home runs.

And then there’s Scherzer, who threw two no-hitters last year (one against the Mets); On May 11, he became only the fourth pitcher to strike out 20 in a nine-inning game.

But no. They’re not at their best yet.

“I think there’s just a winning atmosphere here that we’re just going out there and doing our job and not looking at it from an individual perspective but as a full unit,” reliever Shawn Kelley said. “We’re getting big hits when we do and we’re rolling well as a team. That helps as a team. We all kind of feed off each other.”

That actually means that when Murphy or Harper or Scherzer aren’t doing what those three do, the Nationals still have a chance. The team has six pinch-hit home runs, including two on Friday from Stephen Drew and Chris Heisey. And that, Harper said, is key.

“I think [a big part of bench production is] just having faith in the guys and just throwing everybody out there and having them think they’re going to do damage when they get up there,” hesaid. “We have a very confident team and a very confident bench and I think that’s huge.”

With the exception of Daniel Murphy and catcher Wilson Ramos, the Nationals’ offense has yet to kick into gear. The batting averages for the regulars who are likely to face Noah Syndergaard in the first game of the series:

Ben Revere CF .093

Anthony Rendon 3B .227

Bryce Harper RF .265

Daniel Murphy 2B .400

Ryan Zimmerman 1B .234

Jayson Werth LF .208

Wilson Ramos C .350

Danny Espinosa SS .214

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