Mets sweep Nationals, in catbird seat in NL East race

WASHINGTON -- Through six straight losing seasons, New York Mets fans clamored for meaningful games in September. Now, it looks like they still won't get them.

For a third straight game, the Amazin's produced a comeback win at Nationals Park. This time, Kelly Johnson and Yoenis Cespedes homered in the eighth as the Mets turned a one-run deficit into a two-run lead en route to a 5-3 win against the Washington Nationals on Wednesday to complete a series sweep.

The Mets (78-61) opened a seven-game lead over the Nationals (71-68) for first place in the National League East. Although 23 games remain for each team, the division race looks nearly over. A final showdown between the teams during the last weekend of the season at Citi Field may end up meaningless.

"I hope so," ex-Nat Tyler Clippard said when asked if the Mets had finished off Washington. "You know what? They're a good club. They're not going to give up. We did our job here in Washington, and we've got to continue to put our head down and play good baseball. And we will. And they will, too. But we made it tough on them after this series."

Said Johnson: "We were going to leave with a lead regardless. But, at the same time, there's just enough games that if you let them stay close, anything can happen. We've still got enough games for them to do some work. I think at this point in the season, two or three weeks left, you're looking pretty good if you've got a six- or seven-game lead. We've just got to take care of business from now on. Hopefully those games that we play them in New York won't matter and we can celebrate early."

Of course, Mets fans will have a hard time feeling comfortable with a seven-game lead with 23 to play. After all, in 2007, the Mets blew a seven-game lead with 17 remaining.

Still, captain David Wright said the same flaws that surfaced during that collapse do not exist now.

"I'm not sure why we're even talking about this. I think it's just me, probably, that was here," said Wright, the longest-tenured Met. "For the sake of having a conversation, if you want to try to compare the two teams, I think that those teams were built a little more around offense, whereas this team -- and no offense to our pitching staff back in '06, '07, '08 -- but we didn't have this type of staff, how deep this staff is. On top of that you sprinkle in the offense we have here, and it just seems like this is a more consistent team and a team that those arms we're running out there, you feel like you have a pretty good chance to win on a nightly basis."

Trailing 2-1 and with Stephen Strasburg dominating, manager Terry Collins sent up Johnson to hit for Wilmer Flores to open the eighth. The book says that righties perform better than lefties against Strasburg, according to Collins. Still, Collins thought Strasburg was getting pitches in on the righty batters, including Flores, so Johnson -- a quality fastball hitter -- made sense. Johnson gave the Nats' postseason hopes a near-fatal blow with a solo homer.

Cespedes' ensuing two-run homer came against Drew Storen, who also had a meltdown as the Nationals squandered a six-run lead Tuesday in the seventh inning.

"I'm not sure how it works, but he should be in the discussion for National League MVP," Wright said of Cespedes. "It's impressive. Kelly [Johnson] and I were talking. It's very Andruw Jones-like, I can't remember the year, but one of my first years. Or, I remember around that same time, Adrian Beltre with the Dodgers. Or kind of what Manny [Ramirez] did when he went over to the Dodgers after the trade. It's impressive.

"You see it this series," Wright continued. "He's been a big-time run producer for us. It seems like those big situations find him, and more often than not he comes through. Extra-base hits. Home runs. The speed. It just seems like he's got a very complete game."

Now the Mets head to free-falling Atlanta, which won Wednesday for only the third time in its past 22 games.

Collins said he plans to rest several of his starters in the opener at Turner Field after an emotionally draining series in Washington. The difference between now and the start of the season: The fill-ins are quality major leaguers, too.

"The biggest now, though, is we have to look ahead to Atlanta and not have a letdown series," Wright said. "Keep that same intensity. Keep that same mentality that we need to win every game and bring it into that series."

Said Johnson: "We're in an enviable position."