MIAMI — The New York Mets won the NL East last season, finishing 19 games ahead of the third-place Miami Marlins.
This year, the Marlins have made up that gap — all of it — and lead the Mets in the race for the second and final wild-card spot by 1 1/2 games.
The Mets, who made the World Series last year, are in danger of not even making the playoffs this season, thanks, in part, to the improvement by the Marlins.
Starting Friday night, the Marlins (52-43) will host the Mets (50-44) in a key three-game series.
“(The Marlins are) playing very, very well,” Mets manager Terry Collins told the New York media this week. “We've got to win two (of three). We've got to make up ground. It's going to be a big weekend.”
The highlight of the series will come on Saturday night, when Miami's Jose Fernandez (11-4, 2.53 ERA) will face New York's Jacob deGrom (6-4, 2.38).
Fernandez is 25-1 with a 1.43 ERA in his career at Marlins Park. In six career starts against the Mets, home or away, Fernandez is 2-0 with a 1.32 ERA.
“He's almost unbeatable at home,” Collins said. “That's no fun (for opponents).”
Friday's opener will feature Miami left-hander Adam Conley (6-5, 3.61) against Logan Verrett (3-6, 4.21).
On Sunday, New York will start the left-hander when it sends Steven Matz (7-6, 3.56) against Miami's Jose Urena (1-1, 6.23).
Given the pitching matchups and how New York's offense has struggled lately, especially with runners on base, the Mets may be battling just to avoid a sweep by Sunday.
Still, as bad as things seem for New York at the moment, Mets fans can take solace in the fact that their team looked similarly lifeless at this point last season. Then they made one major trade, getting slugger Yoenis Cespedes, and added several smaller pieces such as reliever Tyler Clippard and veteran hitters off the bench such as Kelly Johnson and Jose Uribe.
The moves worked, and the Mets overtook the front-running Washington Nationals.
This year, the Nationals — backed by former Mets standout Daniel Murphy — are in front again. But now the Nationals have two serious challengers in the division — the Marlins and Mets — instead of just one.
With this year's non-waiver trade deadline looming at midnight on July 31, the Marlins and Mets are hoping to be active as buyers. The Marlins are looking for one of two starting pitchers, while the Mets could use more offense in addition to pitching depth.
The Marlins' offense figures to get a boost on July 28 when second baseman Dee Gordon returns from an 80-game suspension after it was ruled that he had used performance-enhancing drugs.
Marlins manager Don Mattingly has said Gordon would be slowly eased back into his former role as a starter.
Gordon, who won an NL batting title and led the league in steals last year, is the only true speed threat on the team and also plays excellent defense. He figures to be the every-day starter before too long, assuming he retains his previous form.
That would displace Derek Dietrich, who has done an excellent job filling in at second. The Marlins could look into trading third baseman Martin Prado and replacing him with Dietrich. After all, Prado is a free agent after this season, doesn't provide much power and will turn 33 in October.
But Prado is a team leader, and the Marlins are reluctant to trade him now that they smell playoffs.
Power-hitting first baseman Justin Bour is also set to return soon from an ankle injury, further complicating Mattingly's decisions on playing time.
In addition to the pennant race and the imminent return of Gordon and Bour, the other major story is Ichiro Suzuki's chase to become the 30th major-leaguer to reach 3,000 hits. He would tie Roberto Clemente on the hit list once he reaches the milestone.
Suzuki needs four more hits to get there, and the Marlins are hoping it happens during this 10-game homestand.
Either way, Suzuki is immensely popular in Japan, Seattle and pretty much anywhere there are baseball fans. It's hard not to root for the 42-year-old star, who has contributed in outstanding fashion this season as Miami's fourth outfielder.
Meanwhile, the Mets are awaiting the return of first baseman Lucas Duda (back) and starting pitcher Zach Wheeler (elbow surgery) — two players they hope to get off the disabled list next month.
On Wednesday, Duda swung a bat and took grounders for the first time since landing on the DL in May. Wheeler, meanwhile, is set to throw a bullpen session in front of Mets coaches on Friday in Miami.
In other story lines regarding the series:
The Marlins tied a season best on Thursday night by going nine games over .500. Before this year, the last time they were nine games over was in 2011. The last time they were nine games over in the second half of a season was in 2009.
Marlins closer A.J. Ramos has 31 saves. With one more save, he ties his career high, which was set last year.
Mets closer Jeurys Familia has saved 49 consecutive chances, the longest active streak in the majors and fourth-longest in baseball history. Eric Gagne has the record with 84, followed by Tom Gordon (54) and Jose Valverde (51).
The Marlins are 11-5 in July and have not lost consecutive games this month.
Mets infielder Wilmer Flores already has seven homers this month.