During spring training, plenty of people would have found it plausible that six games would separate the New York Mets and Washington Nationals by April 16. But few would have expected the Mets to be the ones off to the fast start.
The Mets will look to continue the best start in franchise history -- and continue digging the Nationals an early-season hole -- on Monday night when New York hosts Washington in the opener of a three-game series at Citi Field.
Jacob deGrom (2-0, 3.06 ERA) is scheduled to take the mound for the Mets against the Nationals' Jeremy Hellickson (season debut) in a battle of right-handers.
The Mets gained another game on the Nationals on Sunday when Wilmer Flores' walk-off homer in the ninth inning lifted New York to a 3-2 win over the visiting Milwaukee Brewers. Meanwhile, host Washington fell to the Colorado Rockies 6-5 on Ian Desmond's solo homer in the top of the ninth.
With the win, the Mets improved to a National League-best 12-2. Before this season, New York has twice started 11-3 -- in 1986 and 2015. It made the World Series both seasons.
There's a long way to go between now and October, of course, but getting off to such a fast start has infused the Mets, who went 70-92 last season and finished 27 games behind the National League East-winning Nationals -- with a cohesion and a confidence they are building something sustainable.
"This team is really close, even though it's only been together for a couple months now," said Mets outfielder Brandon Nimmo, who finished a double shy of the cycle Sunday. "I think everybody's pulling for each other. And when you're pulling on the same end of the rope and everybody's trying to get that team win and put good at-bats together, you're going to break through every now and then."
The Nationals (7-9) could use a breakthrough in the midst of a 3-9 spell, a stretch in which they've been outscored 58-38. Washington, which is ahead of only the dismantling Miami Marlins in the NL East, has squandered a lead in five of its losses, including Sunday, when the Rockies came back from deficits of 1-0 and 3-1.
"We've just got to keep pushing," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. "We're going to win games, I know that. We've just got to play. We've got to capitalize in big moments. We haven't done that. And we've got to be able to put teams away early, when it counts, not wait until late. We had opportunities to put this team away today early and we couldn't do it."
DeGrom didn't factor into the decision in his most recent start last Tuesday, when he gave up four runs in six innings in the Mets' 8-6 win over the Marlins.
Hellickson, who signed with the Nationals in March, made two starts in extended spring training league games in Florida but hasn't pitched in an official game since his final start of last season with the Baltimore Orioles. He will be officially added to Washington's 25-man roster on Monday.
DeGrom is 6-4 with a 2.68 ERA in 13 career starts against the Nationals. Hellickson is 2-4 with a 7.81 ERA in eight career starts against the Mets. It is the highest ERA that Hellickson has posted against an opponent he has faced more than twice.