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AP - Sports

The Washington Nationals are sputtering, but they still hold an unlikely lead by the slimmest of margins in the cluttered NL East.

It may be even more surprising that the New York Mets aren't far behind.

The Nationals will try to reverse a sluggish stretch in the opener of this three-game series against the visiting Mets on Tuesday night.

Washington (30-22) and New York (31-24) are two of baseball's biggest surprises through the season's first two months.

The Nationals' emergence into a potential division contender has them sitting percentage points ahead of Miami for the East lead. However, the Mets are just one-half game back while Atlanta trails by two and Philadelphia by four in the NL's tightest race.

Washington, though, has lost four of five after wasting a two-run first inning to fall 3-2 to the Braves on Sunday.

New York also enters this series looking to bounce back, losing 5-4 to St. Louis on Monday after winning the first three games of the series while allowing just one total run.

The Mets have still won seven of 10 thanks largely to their rotation, which is 7-0 with a 1.50 ERA while allowing opponents to hit .175 during that stretch.

They'll try to continue that success by giving Chris Young his first start since May 1, 2011, as he returns from the same major shoulder surgery that Johan Santana had.

Young went 1-0 with a 2.35 ERA in four rehabilitation starts.

"I'd say just going in, there was just so much unknown, and there still is," Young told the team's official website. "There's been so much hard work, a lot of time, commitment and dedication. If that's what makes it smooth, then you can call it that, but I wouldn't say its been easy, and I don't expect it to continue to be."

Young, though, may draw some inspiration from Santana, who continued to show little rust from his surgery by tossing the first no-hitter in Mets history Friday.

"We've had good conversations along the rehab process, and he's always been encouraging and saying, 'Hey, it's going to happen, you'll get there,'" Young said. "To see him going out and having the results and the success, it's inspirational."

Young is 3-1 with a 2.63 ERA in six starts against the Nationals, winning both decisions in three visits to Washington.

New York was also expected to welcome Jason Bay back from a broken rib, but an illness has delayed his return.

The Mets have dropped six of seven to Washington, including two of three at home while hitting .181 and scoring six runs from April 9-11.

The two losses in that series came without an injured David Wright, who is among baseball's leaders with a .361 average. The All-Star third baseman is hitting .438 with 19 of his 32 RBIs on the road, and is 10 for 21 in his past six games at Washington.

Wright's 735 career runs tie him with Jose Reyes for the most in Mets history.

Jordan Zimmermann (3-5, 2.80) is scheduled to get the ball for the Nationals as he tries to win at home for the first time this year. He's received an average of 1.39 runs of support while going 0-3 with a 3.34 ERA in five starts.

The right-hander is 0-1 with a 3.52 ERA in three home starts against New York.

Bryce Harper, who will face the Mets for the first time, is hitting .386 with three triples, three homers and seven RBIs in his last 12 games.

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