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Why Daniel Murphy could haunt Mets in first season with Nationals

Daniel Murphy #20 of the Washington Nationals fields

Daniel Murphy #20 of the Washington Nationals fields against New York Mets in the first inning of a spring training game at Space Coast Stadium on March 3, 2016 in Viera, Fla. Credit: Getty Images / Joe Robbins

VIERA, Fla.

The comparison Jayson Werth made was Chase Utley, his former teammate on the Phillies and eternal Mets nemesis. The intensity, the single-minded focus on doing everything within one’s power to beat you.

We saw what happened in October when Ruben Tejada turned his back on Utley. Now, after snubbing the homegrown Daniel Murphy, the Mets could be looking over their shoulder in the National League East, hearing the footsteps of another Utley. But this one was forged in Flushing.

As much as Werth burned to beat the Mets, the shaggy-haired slugger always saw a bit of himself in Murphy. It’s the trait Werth believes is going to be a big asset in the Nationals’ effort to dethrone the division champs.

“I think you dislike everyone on the other team,” Werth said Thursday. “But you respect guys that are like that. A good friend of mine, Chase Utley, is like that. And I always respected Murph.”

Probably a heck of a lot more than the Mets’ front office did. Sandy Alderson dangled a $15.8-million qualifying offer to Murphy that the GM was confident he would not accept, and he was right. Instead, Murphy agreed to a three-year, $37.5-million deal with the Nationals. And judging by his hallway chat with reporters Thursday, the Mets, as a franchise, are dead to him.

During the six-minute conversation, Murphy never uttered the word “Mets” — instead using “the ballclub over there” multiple times. When asked how the transition is going and if he feels like a full-fledged National yet, he replied in typical fashion. “I’m good with baseball player,” Murphy said. “Father. Husband.”

In other words, he’s the same guy, despite the red jersey, and that’s exactly whom the Nationals want. He probably is better off. We can’t see him fitting in at all 70 miles down I-95, where Tradition Field has been part petting zoo, part auto show.

It’s not that baseball isn’t fun for Murphy. He’s just all about the baseball — at least after he walks though the clubhouse door.

When the Nationals’ travel squad — a roster of backups and minor-leaguers — showed up at 7 a.m. Wednesday for the three-hour trip across the state to Port Charlotte, new manager Dusty Baker was astonished to see Murphy in the clubhouse, even though he was staying behind with the other veterans.

“He told me he was there to say goodbye to his teammates, to wish them well,” Baker said, laughing. “I was a pretty good teammate, but I don’t know if I’d have been there.”

Most wouldn’t have.

Murphy isn’t the perfect ballplayer. His glove betrays him at inopportune times and his baserunning can trend toward maniacal. But he’s a solid top-of-the-order hitter who gets on base, rarely strikes out and wrecked the 2015 NLDS and NLCS with a power display rivaling Barry Bonds.

Odds are Murphy won’t morph into that type of masher for the Nationals, because his seven-year profile says so. But they’re not banking on that. Baker is fine putting him somewhere in front of Bryce Harper, and the reigning MVP is capable of driving in Murphy from any base at any time.

“He’s the epitome of the grinder at-bat,” Nationals GM Mike Rizzo said. “Murphy hits really good pitchers, was a big-game, bright-lights type of guy, and he’s a really tough out. He kind of gives us a different dynamic offensively.”

Rizzo extracted that skill set from the Mets, who couldn’t wait to turn the page. To be so quickly replaced, after spending his baseball life with the Mets, had to sting Murphy, even if he didn’t cop to any hurt feelings Thursday. But the Nationals have to know he’s still simmering beneath the surface, to their eventual benefit.

“Having a guy like Murphy come here, with that emotion, that fire, just makes us better,” Harper said. “I can’t wait to see what he does.”

Plus, Murphy’s been on the other side of enemy lines in this rivalry. And with Baker describing him as a “student of the game,” who knows what intel Murphy brings to Washington about his former club?

“It can’t hurt,” Baker said through his toothpick grin. “We took one of their main generals.”

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