Nationals-Mets preview

NEW YORK — A series that began Thursday with the New York Mets hoping to close the gap on the Washington Nationals in the National League East will end Sunday with the Mets merely hoping to get back to where they were Thursday — and the Nationals striving to return to where they were 12 days ago.

The Mets and Nationals will close out the first half Sunday with the finale of a four-game series at Citi Field. Washington won its second straight game Saturday, when former New York second baseman Daniel Murphy went 3-for-4 with four RBIs in a 6-1 victory.

With the win, the National League East-leading Nationals (53-36) increased their lead over the second-place Mets (47-40) to five games. Even if New York wins Sunday, Washington will have the same four-game lead it maintained entering the series.

“Really excited about where we're at right now,” said Murphy, who belted his 16th homer of the season Saturday, two more than his previous career high set with the Mets last season. “Try to finish the first half off the right way (Sunday).”

A win by the Nationals, meanwhile, will give them the six-game lead they had following a sweep of the Mets in Washington, D.C. on June 29. After Sunday, the Mets and Nationals have just six head-to-head games remaining, all in September.

“They're keyed up coming in here trying to open up a big lead,” Mets manager Terry Collins said. “We've just got to get back (Sunday) and grind it out. We've got one more chance to finish up and even the series, which would be a good finish for us going into the break.”

A pair of slumping left-handers will take the mound Sunday, when Steven Matz pitches for the Mets against the Nationals' Gio Gonzalez.

Matz, who will be starting for the third time on the Mets' season-long 11-game home stand, is winless in his last seven starts, a stretch in which he is 0-3 with a 4.58 ERA. He took a hard-luck loss in his most recent start Tuesday, when he carried a shutout into the seventh before giving up a two-run homer to Miami Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton in what turned out to be a 5-2 defeat.

Matz earned his most recent win in his lone career start against the Nationals on May 25, when he threw a career-high eight shutout innings in the Mets' 2-0 victory.

Gonzalez, meanwhile, is just 1-7 with a 7.66 ERA in his last nine starts. He took the defeat on Tuesday, when he gave up three runs over six innings as the Nationals lost to the Milwaukee Brewers, 5-2.

Fortunately for Gonzalez, he will be pitching in a place he has enjoyed plenty of success. Gonzalez is 7-1 with a 1.53 ERA in 12 career starts at Citi Field, where he allowed one run over 6 1/3 innings in earning the win in his most recent outing May 18.

Gonzalez is 10-5 with a 3.04 ERA in 19 career starts against the Mets.