TODAY'S PAPER
Overcast 47° Good Evening
Overcast 47° Good Evening
SportsColumnistsDavid Lennon

Unlike last year, Nationals playing with confidence

The Washington Nationals' Jayson Werth (28), Danny Espinosa

The Washington Nationals' Jayson Werth (28), Danny Espinosa (8) and others celebrate after the first game of a split doubleheader against the Miami Marlins at Nationals Park, Saturday, May 14, 2016, in Washington. Photo Credit: AP / Alex Brandon

What does everyone remember most about the Nationals from a year ago? Jonathan Papelbon attacking Bryce Harper in the dugout? Max Scherzer showing up then-manager Matt Williams? The Mets reducing them to roadkill by winning seven of the final nine meetings in cruising to the NL East crown?

Well, forget all that.

The Nats you will see Tuesday night at Citi Field are not the dysfunctional, banged-up, rudderless crew the Mets put out of their misery last season. This is a different, more motivated, first-place team, cooly piloted by new manager Dusty Baker, with a lineup that still hasn’t performed up to its capabilities yet.

General manager Mike Rizzo also isn’t shy about opening up the checkbook, as Steven Strasburg’s brand new $176-million deal reminded us, and a willingness to spend huge is something to keep in mind come July.

These Nationals have something else the ’15 version didn’t possess in their previous showdowns with the Mets: a chip on their shoulder. And that can make a talented group more troublesome this time around for the defending NL East champs, who limp home after a 4-7 West Coast swing that ended with a Rockies’ three-game sweep.

“We’ll be ready come Tuesday,” Michael Conforto said. “You know those games will always have big significance so we’ll try not to harp on the negative things that happened on this road trip and just make sure we’re ready to go.”

The Mets are sending out the right guy for the job in Noah Syndergaard, and on an extra-day’s rest after dominating the Dodgers for eight innings (95 pitches) last Tuesday at Chavez Ravine. That should ensure Sydnergaard’s fastball will be at its triple-digit best, and a recharged Thor (10.7 K/9) is among the top weapons in the game.

Then again, so is Scherzer, who is coming off a record-tying 20-strikeout performance against the Tigers, only he’s taking the mound on his regular turn after firing 119 pitches. Scherzer no-hit the Mets last season at Citi Field, and he’s a less than ideal assignment for a team that averaged 3.09 runs during the 11-game road trip, including two shutouts.

“He’s a veteran, he’s savvy, he really knows how to pitch,” Neil Walker said. “You really have to take advantage of his miscues. He’s got an exploding fastball and it kind of rises. So it’s something a little different than you see from most starters.”

And for an unexpected plot twist, the Nats’ rotation has the NL’s second-best ERA (3.01) and K/9 rate (9.10), while the Mets’ much-heralded bunch is fourth (3.41) and sixth (8.17) in those categories, respectively. The Nats also aren’t pulling any punches in this series, with their top three of Scherzer (4.15 ERA), Gio Gonzalez (1.93) and Strasburg (2.95) going.

The Mets? After Syndergaard, it’s looking like Bartolo Colon followed by the baffling Matt Harvey, who keeps saying how “uncomfortable” he feels on the mound lately. They likely will choose to play it safe by sitting out Steven Matz for the series, despite Newsday’s Marc Carig reporting that the Long Island lefty basically received a clean bill of health from Monday’s checkup at the Hospital for Special Surgery.

There are two schools of thought on that. The Mets could have sent him back from Los Angeles last week when he first complained of forearm stiffness, and if cleared back then, he would have been a go for the Nats. Instead, a source explained the Mets were fine with Matz just getting the extended breather six weeks in, a strategy that’s been consistent with how they’ve treated the entire rotation. In the Mets’ thinking, this Nats’ visit is merely the start of a season-long grudge match.

“Is it the biggest series of the year?” Terry Collins said. “That’s yet to be determined.”

It surely is, so far, for Daniel Murphy, who returns to Citi Field maybe more dangerous than when he left. The scorned Murphy is batting an MLB-best .400, with a stunning 1.062 OPS in the cleanup spot behind Bryce Harper. We don’t expect Murphy to be channeling Ted Williams all season, but he’s synced with Harper to be the Nats’ offensive engine.

Is Murphy’s desire for revenge fueling some of that production? He’ll never say, but now he’s the Mets’ problem, one that wasn’t draped in the Nats’ red-and-white last season.

New York Sports