Fading Nationals, Mets open weekend series

NEW YORK — The last time the Washington Nationals faced the New York Mets, the Nationals appeared ready to reward the faith of the upper management figures who resisted the urge to tear down the perennial National League East champions.

But a little more than three weeks later, it’s becoming clearer by the day the Nationals will end the season closer to the Mets than the playoffs.

Two teams getting ready to play out the string will square off Friday, when the Nationals visit the Mets in the opener of a three-game series at Citi Field. Washington’s Gio Gonzalez (7-10, 4.51 ERA) is scheduled to oppose New York’s Jason Vargas (3-8, 7.67) in a battle of left-handers.

Both clubs lost highly anticipated pitcher’s duels Thursday.

Nationals ace Max Scherzer was the losing pitcher as the Nationals fell to Aaron Nola and the visiting Philadelphia Phillies 2-0.

Jacob deGrom, pitching for the host Mets, absorbed another hard-luck defeat when San Francisco Giants left-hander Madison Bumgarner picked up the win by allowing five hits in eight innings of the Giants’ 3-1 victory.

Scherzer and deGrom pitching Thursday robbed the series of its one potential bit of intrigue. Scherzer, the two-time defending NL Cy Young Award winner, is locked in an entertaining duel for the trophy this season with deGrom and Nola.

Scherzer leads the Senior Circuit in wins (16), strikeouts (244) and WHIP (0.89). DeGrom leads the majors with a 1.71 ERA and is second in the NL in strikeouts (214) and WHIP (0.97). Scherzer and Nola are tied for second in the NL in ERA at 2.13 and Nola ranks second in wins (15) and fourth in strikeouts (169).

DeGrom’s pursuit of the Cy Young has long been the main motivating factor for the Mets (56-71), who fell out of playoff contention by going 5-21 in June.

“Our playoff hopes are not great because of where we are in the standings, but I feel like everybody’s trying to go out there and win games,” Mets manager Mickey Callaway said Thursday morning. “They obviously know that Jacob’s in the run that he’s in and it’s going to be a good (race). I think that motivates guys to a certain degree because of that.”

The Nationals (64-64) looked like they might have more to play for than individual accolades when they throttled the Mets 25-4 on July 31, just hours after general manager Mike Rizzo declined to trade impending free agent stars such as Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy despite Washington entering the trade deadline at 52-53.

A 5-3 win over the Mets the next day pulled the Nationals within five games of a playoff spot, but the momentum proved to be short-lived. Washington, which won the NL East in four of the previous six seasons, has gone 10-11 since Aug. 2 to fall 6 1/2 games behind in the race for the NL’s second wild card and eight games out of first place in the division.

Scherzer will never acknowledge his Cy Young candidacy is the biggest remaining objective for the Nationals, but Rizzo began to wave the white flag Tuesday, when he traded Murphy to the Chicago Cubs and allowed the St. Louis Cardinals to claim first baseman Matt Adams.

“Just go 1-0 every single day,” Scherzer told reporters Thursday afternoon.

Gonzalez took the loss in his most recent start Sunday, when he allowed eight runs in 4 2/3 innings as the Nationals fell to the Miami Marlins 12-1. Vargas picked up the win Sunday, when he gave up two runs in 5 1/3 innings as the Mets beat the Phillies 8-2 in the Little League Classic in Williamsport, Pa.

Gonzalez is 15-5 with a 2.90 ERA in 25 career starts against the Mets, including 11-1 with a 1.78 ERA in 16 starts at Citi Field. Vargas is 0-3 with a 1.15 ERA in five career games (two starts) against the Nationals.