Last year, the Washington Nationals were major players in the New York Mets’ dramatic collapse, winning five of six against the NL East leaders down the stretch as the Mets crumbled and missed the playoffs.
New York will be on guard against a repeat performance starting Tuesday, when it opens a two-game home set against the last-place Nationals in the first of six remaining games between the teams this season.
As they chase the 2008 division title, the Mets (80-63) have often been reminded of how their 2007 season ended. They held a seven-game lead over Philadelphia with 17 to play, but lost 12 of those games as the Phillies surged into the playoffs.
Five of the losses came against Washington, which scored at least nine runs in each of those games. That included a three-game sweep at Shea Stadium in which the Nationals outscored New York 32-19.
The Mets’ lead in the East is 1 1/2 games, as they won the back end of Sunday’s doubleheader against second-place Philadelphia. New York, which dropped the first two games of the series, rode two Carlos Delgado home runs and 7 1-3 strong innings from Johan Santana to a 6-3 victory in the nightcap.
The club has plenty of confidence entering the stretch run, having won 18 of its last 25 games, starting with a three-game sweep at Washington from Aug. 12-14.
“We think we’re the team to beat. We think that what happened last year is not going to happen again and we’re very confident that we can get this done,” said Delgado, who leads the NL with 16 home runs and 48 RBIs in 47 games since the All-Star break. “It’s definitely a different atmosphere here, a different feeling than what it was last year.”
The Mets will have to press on without their closer. Billy Wagner hasn’t pitched since Aug. 2 due to a sore elbow, and the team announced Monday that he’ll miss the rest of this season and 2009 after undergoing surgery to repair a torn medial collateral ligament and forearm muscle.
Despite Wagner’s absence, New York’s bullpen has allowed only 14 hits and one unearned run in 24 innings over the last seven games. Mets relievers have struck out 24 and walked seven over that span.
Oliver Perez (10-7, 3.86 ERA) has done his share to help the bullpen lately. The left-hander has thrown at least six innings in 13 consecutive outings, going 5-2 with a 2.44 ERA over that span.
He beat the Nationals on Aug. 14 after allowing three runs in 6 2-3 innings of a 9-3 win, improving to 3-3 with a 5.45 ERA in seven career starts against Washington.
The Nationals (56-88) will counter with another left-hander in John Lannan (8-13, 3.88). Lannan has allowed two runs in six innings in each of his last two starts, though he took a loss against Philadelphia on Tuesday in a 4-0 defeat.
He’s 0-2 with a 5.09 ERA in three career starts against the Mets, but he was dominant at Shea Stadium on April 17, allowing three hits and one run while striking out 11 and walking none in six innings of Washington’s 3-2, 14-inning loss.
Washington won in 14 innings Sunday, beating Atlanta 7-4 to earn their 10th victory in 13 games. Elijah Dukes, whose three-run double broke provided the winning margin, has four home runs and 13 RBIs in 11 games since being activated from the disabled list Aug. 27.