Go inside the numbers and matchups that will decide Sunday night’s showdown between the New York Mets and Washington Nationals (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET), and then vote on the most clutch player in baseball.
Inside the pitching matchup
When Max Scherzer is on the mound: The 2016 Cy Young winner is off to a great start for the Nationals, with 24 strikeouts and a .152 average allowed through three starts. Remember, last year he was plagued by home runs early in the season, with 15 allowed the first two months, but he’s yet to surrender one in 2017. Scherzer dominated the Mets last year, allowing just three runs in three starts while striking out 29 in 20.2 innings.
Scherzer has four pitches and likes to pitch up in the zone with his fastball. The more spin he gets on his fastball, the better. Statcast data shows that pitchers get more swings and misses when the spin rate is higher. Scherzer had the fifth-highest average spin rate on his four-seam fastball last year, with Justin Verlander the only starting pitcher with a higher rate. In the dozen starts when Scherzer had his highest spin rate in 2016, the righty posted a 1.46 ERA. In his one start in 2017 that would have cracked that top 12 in spin rate, he fanned 10 in six innings against the Cardinals.
Aside from that, against left-handed hitters he’ll primarily go to the curveball or changeup as his off-speed weapon, while he throws his slider against right-handers. — David Schoenfield
When Zack Wheeler is on the mound: Wheeler is back for the Mets after missing two full seasons following Tommy John surgery (he made one minor league start in 2016). His stuff has looked good so far, with a fastball hitting 94-95 mph. In fact, speaking of spin rates, Wheeler’s is much higher than it was pre-surgery, averaging 2625 rpm compared to 2133 rpm in 2014. That’s higher than Scherzer’s average last season, so that’s a great sign if Wheeler can keep that going.
As you might expect, Wheeler’s command may still be a work in progress. While the righty has walked just four batters in 14.2 innings, he also threw 99 pitches in five innings in his last outing, so pitch efficiency and pitching deeper into games remains his next step. Small sample size, of course, but lefties are hitting .333 off him compared to .143 for righties. See if he throws his changeup more against lefties Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy than he has so far. — Schoenfield
Player in the spotlight
Nationals slugger Bryce Harper. Sure, there is rarely a good reason to look away from Harper, but if you’ve got Bryce fatigue, now is not time to give in to it. After another big game in the Nationals’ extra-inning win on Friday, Harper had hit five homers with 12 RBIs in five games, with a slash line of .632/.696/1.632. That’s bad news for the Mets’ Wheeler in the early innings. And if Mets manager Terry Collins wants to match up a lefty reliever against Harper in the late innings? Through Friday, Harper is 7-for-8 with three walks against southpaws this season. — Bradford Doolittle
Something to watch Sunday night
The Nationals have Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman hitting behind Harper, but will he start getting the too-hot-to-handle treatment? Last season, Harper saw a lower rate of strikes (40.6 percent) than any qualifying hitter in the majors. This season, with Murphy and Zimmerman going so well, that number has risen to 43.0 percent. But given the results of the past few days, can any team afford to mess with Harper? — Doolittle
Did you know …
Scherzer averages 12.3 strikeouts per nine innings against the Mets. That ranks second among pitchers who have made at least 10 starts against them. The only better rate is by Scherzer’s teammate, Stephen Strasburg (12.5 K/9). — Mark Simon, ESPN Stats & Info
What will decide the game
Scherzer tends to go as his fastball spins, and the more spin the better. In the dozen starts in which he had his highest average fastball spin rates last season, he had a 1.46 ERA and allowed only 48 hits in 86 innings. He has had one start this season that would have cracked that top 12 last season — and he allowed one earned run with 10 strikeouts in six innings against the Cardinals. — Simon
Where the teams stand
The Nationals took the first two games of the series and have opened up a 4.5-game lead over the slumping Mets, who have lost seven of their last 10. — Schoenfield
Who will win?
This is a disadvantageous matchup for the Mets, given their many injuries and their history against Scherzer. They basically need to pitch a shutout to win — which they’ve done against Scherzer a couple of times — but Wheeler probably isn’t the man for the job. — Simon
Let’s see. Hot Harper. Hot Scherzer. Hot Zimmerman. The Mets are a little banged up, and you don’t know what you’ll get from Wheeler. So I’ll go … Mets, of course, because you can’t predict baseball. — Schoenfield
Who’s the most clutch hitter?
It’s the bottom of the ninth with two outs in a one-run game. Which player is guaranteed to make something happen for his team?
Get your vote in now! Then, ESPN’s Jessica Mendoza, Aaron Boone and Buster Olney will make their picks for the most feared hitter in Major League Baseball during Sunday’s game.