Mets-Nationals Preview

The Washington Nationals’ lead in the NL East is shrinking due

to an inconsistent stretch.

Unfortunately for the New York Mets, they’re not the team

closing the gap.

The Nationals begin a key 10-game stretch against their two

closest pursuers in the division Tuesday night when they host the

sliding Mets in the opener of a three-game set.

Washington (51-36) has alternated wins and losses in its last

eight games, concluding a four-game split at Miami with a 5-3 loss

Monday.

Since July 5, the Nationals’ lead in the East has slipped from 4

1/2 games over New York to 2 1/2 ahead of second-place Atlanta,

which has won seven in a row. The Mets (46-43) are third and trail

Washington by six games after losing four straight, including three

to the Braves over the weekend.

“We knew coming into here that every game is important,

especially coming into Atlanta and then (going to) Washington,”

said Johan Santana, the losing pitcher in Sunday’s 6-1 defeat. “If

we compete, we’re right there. It’s tough.”

Washington is hoping to create some separation. After this

series, the Nationals play a four-game home set against the Braves

before visiting the Mets for three more meetings.

A red-hot Ryan Zimmerman should help. The third baseman is

hitting .373 with seven homers and 21 RBIs in his last 18 games,

going 8 for 15 with a pair of homers in the last four and coming a

triple shy of the cycle Monday.

He’s batting .329 in his last 18 meetings with New York, and is

4 for 8 against Tuesday’s scheduled starter Jonathon Niese.

Niese (7-4, 3.73) is getting his first start against the

Nationals this season. He’s 2-0 with a 3.42 ERA and 24 strikeouts

in 23 2-3 innings over four career starts versus Washington.

The left-hander was hit hard in his latest outing July 8,

surrendering four runs in the opening inning and three more in the

seventh in a 7-0 loss to the Chicago Cubs. That was in stark

contrast with his previous six outings, in which he went 4-1 with a

1.74 ERA.

The Nationals will turn to Ross Detwiler (4-3, 3.43), who has no

record and a 3.78 ERA in three starts since returning to the

rotation in place of Chien-Ming Wang. The left-hander wasn’t very

sharp in his most recent start July 5, allowing three runs and 11

hits in five innings before his teammates rallied for a 6-5 win

over San Francisco.

Detwiler is 3-1 with a 3.60 ERA in seven games – four starts –

against the Mets, beating them twice this year. One of those

outings was his season debut April 10, when he fanned six in five

scoreless innings during a 6-2 victory in New York.

The Mets may have Jason Bay back from the disabled list Tuesday.

A concussion has kept him out since June 15, and he’s played in

only seven games since April.

The outfielder went 3 for 16 with six walks during his latest

rehab stint in the minors. He’s batting .187 with four homers in 22

games for New York.

Bay’s possible return may be timely if Lucas Duda is out of the

lineup for a third game in a row with an injured left hamstring.

Duda is 6 for 19 with three homers and six RBIs in his last six

games at Washington.