NEW YORK — For years there were a few certainties about playing in the National League East. The Phillies ruled the division, the Braves always competed. The Marlins were almost always a mess. The Nationals were the up-and-comers, and now reigning champions.
The Mets? Well the Mets were looked at as an easy part of the schedule. They almost always play the Nationals tough, but generally, most on the outside see series’ against the Mets as winnable ones.
That is changing.
The Nationals will look for a series win against the Mets Sunday afternoon, but to get it they’ll have to face top prospect Zack Wheeler, making the third major league start of his career. Friday night, the Nationals faced ace Matt Harvey — and pulled off a victory only by attacking the relievers who followed him to the mound.
But with those two young arms — and, in the Nationals’ case, Dillon Gee — the complexion of a series against the Mets, perhaps more for the near future than right now, is different.
“It’s kind of hard not to see what’s going on over there,” said Nationals center fielder Denard Span.
“Their pitching staff is much-improved over the years,” added manager Davey Johnson.
This will be the Nationals’ first look at Wheeler. In his first two starts he is 1-0 with a 3.18 ERA. In his debut, Wheeler pitched six shutout innings against the Braves. In his second, against the White Sox, he was pulled after 5 1/3 innings and allowed four earned runs. He’s walked eight in his first two starts, and there was a lot of discussion this week about Wheeler tipping his offspeed pitches.
Still, the fact remains that the return to the Mets in the Carlos Beltran trade from 2011 has the potential to be another impressive arm for the Mets.
Wheeler is 23. Harvey is 24. The Nationals are going to have to deal with them for many years.
“The Mets have played us well over the last couple of years and though we don’t fear any team we certainly don’t take any team for granted,” said general manager Mike Rizzo. “You’ve got two studs there pitching. They can beat any team at any time.”
Here are the full lineups:
Denard Span CF
Anthony Rendon 2B
Ryan Zimmerman 3B
Adam LaRoche 1B
Jayson Werth RF
Ian Desmond SS
Roger Bernadina LF
Kurt Suzuki C
Gio Gonzalez P
Eric Young Jr. LF
Daniel Murphy 2B
David Wright 3B
Marlon Byrd RF
Josh Satin 1B
John Buck C
Juan Lagares CF
Omar Quintanilla SS
Zack Wheeler P