NEW YORK, NY - JULY 08: Jonathon Niese of the New York Mets pitches in the first inning against the Chicago Cubs at Citi Field on July 8, 2012 in the Flushing neighborhood of the Queens borough of New York City. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
The New York Mets were one of the feel-good stories of the first half. Their first three games after the break, however, have set them back in a way that makes the next stretch of games the most pivotal of the season. Losers of their last four, the Mets (46-43) visit the Washington Nationals (51-36) for a three-game series. Tuesday's game will begin at 7:05 p.m. EST and be televised on SNY.
New York will face the National League-best Nationals in six of their next nine games -- and the three others are against the 48-43 Los Angeles Dodgers -- meaning this stretch could be season-defining. Already six games out of the NL East, the Mets need to win these series or be put in a hole that leaves the Wild Card their only playoff realistic route; it's also a spot the Mets have fallen to three back in.
On the hill Tuesday will be Jonathan Niese, who is coming off his worst start of the season -- seven runs in seven innings against the Cubs -- but enjoyed a solid first half with a 7-4 record, 3.73 ERA, 1.23 WHIP and 91 strikeouts in 103 2/3 innings. He'll look to stop the bleeding against another young lefty, Ross Detwiler, who has a 3.43 ERA, 1.27 WHIP and 4-3 record. The Nats' lefty has twirled seven scoreless innings (partially in relief) with seven strikeouts against New York this season. Niese has a 2-0 mark with a 3.42 ERA versus the Nats in his career, though Tuesday will be his first start against them this year.
While the Mets miss Stephen Strasburg in this series, the Nationals' rotation is the best in the game, and they won't be able to avoid the sensational talents of Jordan Zimmermann (6-6, 2.48 ERA) and Gio Gonzalez (12-4, 2.93 ERA, 10.62 K/9). Despite just a .246/.312/.373 line against southpaws, the Mets' best chance for a victory in the series is in Game 1. Wednesday, Chris Young (2-3, 4.28 ERA) will take the hill, while R.A. Dickey (12-1, 2.66 ERA, 9.14 K/9) will look to get back on track in Thursday's finale.
Washington is coming off an uneven four-game series against the Miami Marlins in which they alternated wins and losses; the latest result was a 5-3 loss. The Nationals' hitting has been a little better lately, but it's their dominant pitching that has carried them. Are the Mets for real? We'll get some answers to that question over the next three games.