Mets open pivotal series against Nationals (Jul 03, 2017)

BY AP • July 3, 2017

WASHINGTON -- The New York Mets may not be dead yet.

The Mets were 11 1/2 games behind the Washington Nationals in the National League East before Thursday's play, but New York's deficit is down to 9 1/2 games as the teams begin a three-game series Monday in the nation's capital.

The Nationals (48-34) have lost four of seven games while the Mets (38-43) have won four of five after a 7-1 home loss Sunday afternoon to the Philadelphia Phillies.

Washington will field a lineup that is expected to include top National League All-Star vote-getter Bryce Harper, and two other NL All-Star starters, first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and second baseman Daniel Murphy. Harper hit two homers and a double Sunday night in Washington's 7-2 win at St. Louis.

"We got our work cut out for us, but there's no reason why we can't be optimistic and think you're going to have a good second half because our pitching's starting to come around and Yoenis Cespedes is not going to continue to struggle. He's too good of a player," Mets manager Terry Collins said Sunday.

Two pitchers coming off strong starts will take the mound Monday.

Washington right-hander Stephen Strasburg (9-2, 3.51 ERA) will face Mets lefty Steven Matz (2-1, 2.67 ERA), who went seven shutout innings with four strikeouts in his last outing Wednesday at Miami.

Strasburg, another NL All-Star, dealt with back spasms at home against the Chicago Cubs on Wednesday but still fanned 13 batters in seven innings while allowing three runs (two earned).

"My arm feels really good. I am just taking it one start at a time," said Strasburg, who is throwing out of the stretch all the time this year.

The former San Diego State star is 8-4 with a 2.69 ERA in 14 career starts against the Mets, with a mark of 1-1 and a 3.65 ERA in two starts this year.

Current Mets hitters are 56-for-228 (.246) against Strasburg. That includes success by Jay Bruce (8-for-19, .421) and Cespedes (7-for-12, .583).

"We still have a lot of work to do," Bruce said last week. "We still have to play great baseball to have any chance."

Matz is 1-2 with a 2.86 ERA in three career starts against the Nationals. He lost his only previous start against Washington this season, when he allowed four runs and eight hits in seven innings on June 16.

Washington has been dealing with a poor bullpen and injuries all year.

The Nationals lost center fielder Adam Eaton in late April possibly for the rest of the season. Shortstop Trea Turner, who was leading the league in steals, was hit on the wrist by a pitch Thursday. He will be out for several weeks with a broken right wrist.

"You wish it hit you in the back or arm or something -- not the hand or wrist," Turner said.

The same day Turner got hurt, Washington's relievers gave up three runs in the ninth inning in a loss to the Chicago Cubs. Over the weekend in St. Louis, the Nationals bullpen allowed eight runs in eight innings.

"We are a really young team now," Nationals manager Dusty Baker said. "We still need some help (in the bullpen)."

The Nationals own a 5.09 bullpen ERA, the worst in the National League. The Mets are next-to-last at 4.87.

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