Nationals manager Dusty Baker wasn’t afraid to call Sunday’s first-half finale against the Mets an important game. Like each game in the four-game series between the teams, this would mean a two-game swing in the standings.
A Mets win would decrease the Nationals’ lead in the National League East to four games. A Mets loss would give the Nationals a six-game lead.
Unfortunately for Terry Collins, it was the latter scenario that prevailed. Daniel Murphy’s two-run home run in the first inning and Wilson Ramos’ RBI single in the third gave Gio Gonzalez just enough run support to outlast two solo homers by Jose Reyes in Washington’s 3-2 win.
“If they swept us, they’d be tied with us,” Baker said. “If we split, then we’d be right where we started at four [games ahead]. But we wanted to win the series. This is perhaps the biggest getaway day of the year.”
Before the game, Collins also cited the game’s importance, knowing that a four-game deficit — given how injuries have hampered the Mets — would be something of an accomplishment.
Now, even though a six-game deficit is more of a hill than a mountain to climb, the Mets have work to do in the second half.
“I think we’ve put ourselves in a really advantageous situation,” former Met Murphy said. “You know, six games up in the division, I think that puts us at 18 games over .500 [54-36]. We’re playing really good baseball right now.”
The Nationals’ 54 wins before the All-Star break tied a franchise record set by the 1994 Montreal Expos. That team was 54-33 before the break. (They didn’t make the World Series that year, though. No one did, because it wasn’t played, thanks to a strike by the players.)
“You want to always finish strong,” said winning pitcher Gonzalez after tossing 5 2⁄3 innings of two-run ball. “That’s a great team. You have to give them their respect. They still battled. They still fought all the way through.”
The Mets next play on Friday in Philadelphia. The Nationals open the second half the same day at home against the Pirates.
Baker is a manager known for getting the most from his players, and Jayson Werth said the team is starting to mesh, even if there still are areas that need improvement. He credited Baker for the first-half success.
“Dusty’s done a good job of pulling the right strings,” Werth said. “He took his time with learning this team and getting to know this team. I think he was really meticulous about how he went about it. He didn’t push the issue anywhere. He was really patient. It’s one of the things that really kind of set us apart.”
With Baker at the helm and plenty of firepower in the lineup, the Nationals are in good position to fight off the Mets and surging Marlins down the stretch.
Of course, the Mets quickly erased a two-game deficit against the Nationals at last year’s break and made it to the World Series. They’ll just have to work a little harder this time around.