Every game might make a difference in this race. The Mets and Nationals may not have started out as fast as Atlanta in the compelling National League East, but they've both demonstrated the capacity to stick around all season. Washington will seek some separation from third-place New York on Sunday, when Jordan Zimmermann faces off against Dillon Gee, and Nationals top prospect Anthony Rendon makes his Major League debut.
Rendon, the Nats' top-rated prospect, will bat sixth and start at third base for the injured Ryan Zimmerman, who was placed on the disabled list Saturday with a strained left hamstring. The No. 6 overall pick in the 2011 draft, Rendon was hitting .292 with two homers, seven RBIs, 14 walks and nine strikeouts in 14 games with Double-A Harrisburg.
"He's swinging pretty good in Harrisburg, he had a good spring for us," Nationals manager Davey Johnson said. "It's no slight against some of the guys I have here who filled in [for Zimmerman during the last couple of days]. But it's good to get [Rendon] some experience here."
The Mets took the first game in this series, but Washington won a one-run game Saturday on the strength of two home runs from phenom Bryce Harper. The Nationals are now in second place and own a 1 1/2-game cushion over the Mets, but the balance could swing back Sunday, and the two teams will still play 16 more times over the course of the season.
Zimmermann, 26 years old, has been impressive for the Nationals this season, and he's won all three of his starts. The right-hander allowed one run in six innings in his season debut against Miami, and he held the White Sox to two earned runs in seven innings in his second start. Zimmermann threw a complete game in a 10-3 win over the Marlins on Monday.
Gee, meanwhile, has been all over the opposite side of the ledger. Gee pitched well but lost a 2-1 game in his season debut, but he hasn't been able to finish five innings in either of his last two starts. The 26-year-old worked three innings and allowed seven earned runs in a loss to Philadelphia, and then he gave up five earned runs in an 8-4 loss to the Rockies.
Harper went deep twice -- once in the third inning and once with the go-ahead shot in the eighth -- in Saturday's victory for the Nationals, and the Mets got another RBI from catcher John Buck. Buck, who doubled in the tying run in the seventh inning on Saturday, has a league-leading 21 RBIs in his first 16 games. Buck is third in the NL with six home runs.
Washington is the only NL team with a winning record and a negative run differential (-12), while the Mets have a .500 record and have scored 16 more runs than they've allowed thus far this season. The Nationals have been shut out twice this year, and both games -- a 15-0 loss to the Reds in the first week and a 9-0 loss to Atlanta last Sunday -- were blowouts.
The Nationals have gone 6-5 against NL East opponents, and the Mets are 4-4 against the division. The Mets take on the Dodgers after Washington, but then it's Philadelphia, Miami and Atlanta on the docket. The Nationals, interestingly, will get a mini-break against the East and will play just one series against a division rival (Atlanta) through the middle of May.
Nationals: Middle infield piling up extra-base hits
Washington's middle-infeld trio -- Danny Espinosa, Ian Desmond and Steve Lombardozzi -- has combined for 18 extra-base hits in 17 games this season, tops among all NL teams. Desmond, the Nationals' shortstop, homered Saturday, and he leads all NL middle infielders with 11 extra-base hits. Seven of those hits are doubles, tied for the lead among NL middle infielders.
That's a huge start for Desmond, who's batting .308 through his first 17 games. The 27-year-old broke out last season with a .292 average and 60 extra-base hits, and he was elevated to the fifth slot in the order on Saturday. Desmond, a third-round draftee by the Montreal Expos in 2004, has hit 37 of his 50 career home runs against right-handers.
Mets: Wright showcasing his defensive skills
David Wright doesn't just lead with the bat. New York's third baseman has played in 71 straight games without making an error, the longest streak at his position in the Majors and a franchise record for the Mets. The six-time All-Star has played in 140 innings at the position without making an error this season, and he hasn't made a miscue since Aug. 1 of last year.
Wright tripled and walked twice for the Mets in Saturday's loss, and he tripled in Friday's victory. Wright, a two-time Gold Glover and a two-time winner of the Silver Slugger Award, has 10 RBIs in his last seven games.
• The Nationals have won 13 of their last 15 games at Citi Field, and they're 9-2 in one-run games against New York since the start of the 2011 campaign.
• Washington has won this season series in each of the last two years.
• The Mets are 6-3 when their pitcher throws a quality start.
• New York went homerless Saturday for the first time in eight home games in 2013. Their streak -- homers in seven straight home games to start the season -- was tied for the longest since the 1962 team went deep in 14 straight at the Polo Grounds. The 2002 team also homered in seven straight games, but that time at Shea Stadium.
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.