WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — As the Mets sorted through a 2-1 exhibition win over the Nationals on Monday, the first of the teams’ six spring training meetings, hundreds of fans — some of them in Mets apparel — lined up on the rightfield concourse to take photos with the World Series trophy.
On March 26, Opening Day at Citi Field, the two teams will play the first of 19 regular-season games against each other as Washington formally begins its title defense. The next week, in the Nats’ first home series, the Mets will be on site as last year’s champions unveil a banner and receive their rings — on separate days in the same series.
Each step is a reminder that underscores a sentiment shared by at least some Mets last October when the Nationals made their unlikely run: Damn, that could have been us.
“I could lie and say we don’t care,” Michael Conforto said. “But when you play against these guys all year, it’s tough to ignore what they did last year. It was fun to watch and it hurt.”
What bugged Conforto and others most was how well the Mets played against the eventual 2019 champs. The Mets were 12-7 in the season series — including 7-3 in New York — but couldn’t catch the Nationals, the top wild card, in the standings. The Mets finished three games out of a playoff spot (and seven games behind Washington).
The Mets and Nationals both struggled for stretches but got hot in the second half (Washington earlier and for longer). Both had terrific rotations. Both had lineups with a blend of “some veteran presence and some young superstars,” Conforto said, motioning toward Pete Alonso’s locker. Both had bullpens with major question marks.
But it was the Nationals who were better over 162 games and put it all together at the right time. They slipped by the Brewers in the wild-card game, ousted the powerhouse Dodgers in the Division Series, swept the Cardinals to win the National League pennant and outlasted the Astros in the World Series.
Throughout, a half-dozen Mets — Conforto, Alonso, Jeff McNeil, Brandon Nimmo, J.D. Davis and Dominic Smith — watched from their offseason homes and lamented in their group text what could have been. Davis said they were “locked in” on the postseason.
“We just felt like we stacked up,” Conforto said. “We were a very similar team.”
Said Davis: “I don’t know, they just got hotter. Or they hit the timing right before us and never slowed down. So yeah, it stings.”
And Nimmo: “We could easily have done the same thing.”
That lingering hurt is critical to the Mets’ contention that they can contend this year. If they matched up so well with last year’s champion — which then lost one of its top hitters, Anthony Rendon, to the Angels via free agency — perhaps there is legitimate hope for the 2020 Mets.
That the Nationals were a wild-card team, second in the NL East behind the back-to-back division champion Braves, highlighted what already was clear to the Mets: Their division is loaded. They expect the same this year, too. As Nimmo noted, “Playing in this division is going to get you playoff-ready.”
“It was kind of like, if these guys can do it, then no doubt that we can,” Alonso said. “I know they’re an in-division rival, but when we play against them, they play the right way. I have a big respect for those guys because of how they go about their business. I see the guys all the time when they come over at first base. I don’t want to see them over there. I don’t want to see them on base. But having a couple conversations with all the people on that team, for me from the outside perspective, it looked like a special group.
“The way they went about it, as a baseball fan myself, I had to appreciate what was happening. For me, it killed me not to be there. In the worst way, I wanted to be there. But watching how the story unfolded, it was cool to watch from the outside. But we need to be there.”