WASHINGTON -- The burning memory of Terry Collins' offseason came on the 17th green of a Florida golf course, where Collins was doing his best to relax before the bulk of his roster came pouring into camp. He made the mistake of picking up his cell phone. He learned that the Nationals, who pummeled the Mets 15 times in 19 tries the previous season, had just signed Max Scherzer to a $210-million megadeal.
The Nats were Collins' measuring stick, his fear, his challenge, his whitest of whales. They were a pest -- a gnat, pardon the pun -- and a glaring reason why he had never enjoyed a winning season in four years as manager. Already prohibitive favorites in the NL East, the Nationals with Scherzer seemed better than ever.
So contrast Collins' emotions that winter morning to how he felt Wednesday, after his Mets capped a sweep of the Nationals with a 5-3 victory to effectively boot them from playoff contention. With 23 games left, Collins knows bad things can still happen. But a seven-game lead is sturdy. This is not 2007, nor even '08; the Mets possess a better pitching staff than in either of those years, as third baseman David Wright put it, and maybe even a bit of extra pluck.
"This has been the biggest three games I've had in my career," Collins said. "Exciting games, every one of them was a great game, just huge comebacks, big hits, inspirational play by every guy that was out there. It was really, really great to be a part of it all."
Wednesday's finale was almost formulaic for a Mets team that has done it time and again this summer. They sunk into an early deficit. They fought their way out, tying things on a Kelly Johnson pinch-hit homer in the eighth. Then they won it on a Yoenis Cespedes two-run shot, as tenants of the visiting dugout vacillated between complete amazement and an utter lack of surprise.
"The way we've won these three games was big for our psyche, big for our confidence moving forward," Wright said. "We need to keep that same intensity, keep that same mentality that we need to win every game."
These three, however, were different. These three were personal. The Mets lost all but four of the games they played against the Nationals last season, posting a winning record against everybody else. Collins knew it. Wright knew it. Everyone with a working memory or an Internet connection knew it, just as they knew it would be difficult to change things. On paper, the Nationals remained clear NL East favorites, with Scherzer in the rotation and Bryce Harper primed to blossom into maybe the best player on Earth.
But the Mets held their ground, trading wins with their rivals early this season before carrying a four-game lead into Washington this week. A nervous fan base pointed out that a sweep, or even a more modest series loss, would nonetheless put the NL East back up for grabs.
Instead, the opposite happened. The Mets came from behind to win Monday, then again on Tuesday, then once more on Wednesday. Cespedes, the Mets' own Scherzer-sized acquisition, drove home seven runs in three games. Johnson homered twice. Collins managed perhaps his best series in five years. And the Mets, barring a 2007-style collapse, vanquished their ghosts in the District of Columbia.
Now, the division belongs to them and them alone.
"It's definitely got that feeling," Johnson said. "Teams that get to the World Series, guys always talk about how everything went right. Hopefully, we've got a little bit of that magic."