Nationals-Mets preview

NEW YORK -- The New York Mets have changed a lot in the eight days since they were swept by the Washington Nationals in Washington, D.C. But the Nationals hope the result remains the same during a four-game series this weekend in New York.

The series pitting the top two teams in the National League East begins Thursday night, when the suddenly scorching Mets host the first-place Nationals at Citi Field.

The Nationals remained four games ahead of the Mets by virtue of a 7-4 win over the Milwaukee Brewers on Wednesday. Earlier in the day, New York beat the Miami Marlins 4-2.

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The Nationals' lead was six games on June 29, the day they capped the sweep of the Mets. At that time, it seemed as if the final series before the All-Star break might present an opportunity for Washington to bury the defending NL champions.

But the Mets responded to the three straight losses by authoring a four-game sweep of the Chicago Cubs and then taking two of three from the Miami Marlins. New York outscored the Cubs and Marlins 46-24 in the last seven games -- a stunning turnaround for a team that scored just 47 runs in 15 games from June 14 through June 29.

"I said it a lot in the Cubs series: Coming into that series without playing well, (it was) really, really important to have a good series against them, and we did," Mets manager Terry Collins said Wednesday afternoon. "(The) Marlins, for all the years I've been here, play us tougher than any team we play, I think.

"Now we've got to go against the Nationals, who are going to come in here looking to put some more distance between us. So we've got our work cut out for us this weekend."

So do the Nationals, who went 3-3 between series against the Mets despite playing two NL Central non-contenders in the Brewers and Cincinnati Reds.

"I always want to go into the All-Star break hot and come out hot," Nationals manager Dusty Baker told reporters Wednesday.

Nationals right fielder and reigning NL Most Valuable Player Bryce Harper put his inimitable succinct spin on the weekend.

"How many games are we up on them? Four?" Harper told reporters Wednesday. "We could either be tied or up eight. It's plain and simple."

Mets right-hander Bartolo Colon is scheduled to start Thursday's opener against Nationals right-hander Lucas Giolito in perhaps the most distinct old vs. young battle of the season.

Colon is the oldest player in baseball at 43 and has 483 starts under his belt, most among active players. He has been pitching so long that his first appearance against the Nationals' franchise came in 2002, when the team was still the Montreal Expos. Colon is 4-6 with a 3.15 ERA in 11 career appearances (10 starts) against the Nationals/Expos.

The 21-year-old Giolito. meanwhile, is the seventh-youngest player in the majors and has made just one career start. He threw four shutout innings against the Mets in an appearance cut short by a rain delay on June 28.