Mets see Nationals’ championship path that could’ve been theirs

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — An enlarged imitation World Series trophy serves as a backdrop for fans to take pictures at Ballpark of the Palm Beaches during Nationals’ exhibition games.

It’s a reminder of what the Nationals accomplished last year, entering the playoffs as the NL wild card before upsetting, most notably, the Dodgers in the NLDS and Astros in the World Series for the franchise’s first world championship.

The Mets will perhaps be reminded of that trophy — the real one — at least 25 times this year, as in scheduled meetings with their heated NL East rival, including the Grapefruit League.

And the question Monday, during their first encounter with the Nationals in 2020, was whether a World Series trophy for a familiar foe provides extra motivation for the Mets.

“These guys, they got hot and played really well in the postseason and found a formula that worked and I think we easily could have done the same thing,” Brandon Nimmo said on a day the Mets won 2-1. “I think the motivation for us is just we were literally three games away last year from almost doing the same exact same thing.”

The Mets rallied after a disastrous first half to finish 86-79, three games behind the Brewers for the NL’s second wild card. The Nationals finished with 93 victories after their own shaky start — they were 20-31 after losing to the Marlins on May 24 and in worse shape than the Mets.

The Mets will play their season opener against the Nationals on March 26 at Citi Field. A week later the Mets will be the opponent in the Nationals’ home-opening series and all the celebrations that will accompany it.

“Watching them get their rings, we’ll see that and we’ll be like, ‘That is what we want to do,’ ” Michael Conforto said. “That is what we want to have in the future.”

But as far as the “defending World Series champion” label goes, Jacob deGrom doesn’t want to put the Nationals too high on a pedestal.

“I think of it as a new year and each team made few acquisitions and there’s new players on each team, so it’s just a new year,” deGrom said. “What they did last year is obviously impressive, but it’s our goal to do this year.

“How we played after the All-Star break, if we had started doing that a month earlier or something where would we have ended up? You just never know. We just kind of dug ourselves too deep of a hole to escape.”

One projection, by PECOTA, predicts the Mets for 88 victories and a first-place finish in the NL East this season. Next are the Nationals (87 victories), Braves (83 victories), Phillies (77 victories) and Marlins (71 victories).

The Nationals are the first defending World Series champion from the NL East since the Phillies, who won the title in 2008.

DeGrom says he can handle watching the Nationals accept their rings. It won’t be the first time many of these Mets witness such a ceremony.

“They won the World Series and all that stuff is going to happen,” deGrom said. “We did it in 2016 in Kansas City. We had just played them, so that was a little more, hit home a little more, because we had just lost to them in the World Series.

“But I think everybody’s mindset in here is new year, and for me coming in last year, what I had done the previous year, I kind of had to try to block out and focus on it being a new year so I think that is kind of the same thing for the whole team.”

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