Youth leads the way for Nationals as they take step closer toward NL East title

NEW YORK — Don’t be afraid. Your opponents might be older and more experienced than you, but you can handle it.

Don’t be afraid. That was the refrain repeated by the Nationals as the secret behind their youngsters providing the impact in their 4–1 win over the Mets at Citi Field on Friday night.

Four players under 24 years old were the catalysts of the victory. Trea Turner, 23, smacked a hit, stole two bases, set a Nationals record and scored a run, all before the end of the first inning. A.J. Cole, 24, pitched six innings of one-run ball for his first major-league win. Koda Glover, 23, squashed a seventh-inning Mets rally with a key strikeout of an MLB veteran. Bryce Harper, who at 23—albeit with five years of major-league experience—seems like the grizzled veteran of the group, led the offense with two doubles and an RBI.

“If you don’t step up to the plate and give it all you’ve got and compete, you’ll get replaced,” Turner said after the game. “You’re going to need to go in there and attack and not be scared of anything. And tonight those guys we were talking about did that, and it was special.”

Turner—who has usurped Ben Revere’s role as leadoff hitter since his July 15 call-up, a role he has solidified by hitting .347 with 20 stolen bases in his first 45 big league games—set a new Nationals record for most stolen bases in a rookie season on Friday. He swiped stolen bases 19 and 20 in the top of the first inning off Noah Syndergaard, whose 45 stolen bases allowed are far and away the most in the majors.

Facing off against Syndergaard was supposed to be a lopsided pitching matchup for the Nationals, with Cole entering the game with just three major league starts under his belt against the All-Star Met. But despite the situation—pitching against a presumably superior opponent in a September pennant race on a division rival’s home field—Cole took the challenge in stride. If he was afraid, he didn’t show it.

“Whenever we get a chance, we have to prove it, and show that we are able to throw here at any time no matter the situation,” Cole said.

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Prove it he did, turning in a performance that was remarkably similar to his more experienced counterpart. Cole lasted less time but allowed fewer runs, giving up one earned run on a solo homer by Asdrubal Cabrera over his six innings of work.

Syndergaard faced the minimum in five of the seven innings he pitched against the Nationals, but Washington made him pay for his few mistakes, scoring two runs before he was pulled after the seventh inning.

In the first inning, Turner’s leadoff single and two consecutive stolen bases set the table for Harper, who sent a ball hovering high over centerfield before thudding into Curtis Granderson’s mitt, giving Turner time to tag up and scamper home to give the Nationals an early lead.

In the fourth, Harper was the thief, stealing third after his first of two doubles of the night. Wilson Ramos rolled a single up the middle, allowing Harper to score easily and building a lead the Nats would add to in the top of the ninth when Harper would again turn a double into a score.

Mired in struggles and hitting just .233, Harper was recently given a week off to reset. In the 19 games since his return, he has 13 extra-base hits. In the 56 games before his mini-vacation, he also had 13 hits that went for extra bases.

Asked if he was impressed with Harper’s display of power on Friday night, manager Dusty Baker responded saying he’s been impressed with the young slugger for longer than just one night.

“I’ve been impressed about the last week or so,” Baker said. “We need Bryce and … Bryce isn’t going to continue to struggle forever, and he’s getting it together right on time.”

Harper is warming up right on time for the postseason, where he has been relied upon before. But less experienced teammates like Glover, who delivered a huge strikeout of Jose Reyes with a 98 mph fastball in the seventh inning to strand two base runners and kill a Mets rally, figure to be leaned up on just as heavily even in spite of their lack of seasoning.

“Koda is doing an outstanding job,” Baker said. “We were told when he came here that he was a gamer, and he wasn’t afraid. And he doesn’t seem intimidated by the big stage or by the circumstances whenever we put him in the ballgame.”

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Of this we can be nearly certain: In first place in the NL East, the Nationals are playoff-bound, and the Mets are likely not going to catch them. From 10.5 games out of first place with a 69–66 record, there is just too much ground to make up before the season ends on Oct. 2, and waves of injuries have repeatedly dampened their hopes of mounting a comeback.

On Friday, the Mets announced Jacob deGrom would likely miss his next start with arm soreness, adding him to the Mets’ long list of injuries that already included David Wright, Lucas Duda, Neil Walker, Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler and Steven Matz. All but Wheeler, Matz and deGrom are lost for the season, and Wheeler has yet to join the team in 2016 as he continues to work his way back from Tommy John surgery. But despite its rotation being positively dismantled by injuries, New York has somehow stayed in the wild-card chase, remaining just two games back of the St. Louis Cardinals for the second spot.

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With the Mets limping toward the postseason relying on replacement-level players, the Nationals have excelled using their young talent when they have needed it.

“Hey if you’re here, we’re going to use you,” Baker said of relying on his young players. “But we’ll see. We still have a ways to go and the pressure cooker is about to bounce so we’ll see.”

With 28 regular-season games to go, the pressure will be on the Nationals to close out the division and position themselves well for the postseason. If they make it to a postseason face-off with the league-leading Cubs, Baker’s pressure cooker will be whistling furiously. But from their veterans to their prospects, the Nationals are confident they can handle the heat. They aren’t afraid.

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