The no-doubt-about-it, slam-dunk best series in baseball will take place at Nationals Park this weekend. The center of the baseball universe will be Washington, D.C. When is the last time you could say that? And, with the giddiness that surrounds the Nationals and their fan base right now, what does it even matter?
In a series of first-place team against first-place team, the Nationals will find out just how hot they are against the New York Yankees. Or maybe it’s time to reverse that – the Yankees, after all, are the team trailing the Nationals in the standings, like every other team in the majors except the Dodgers. But they have, like the Nationals, won six games in a row, and they still pack as much star power as any club.
“The big, bad Yankees are coming to town,” Nationals Manager Davey Johnson said. “Arguably the best ballclub almost every year, forever. A lot of tradition. They’re in first place, we’re in first place. I don’t think, even with the off day, you’re going to have to get the guys up. It’s going to exciting.”
On paper, the Nationals have the advantage in starting pitching. Gio Gonzalez will face Phil Hughes, Jordan Zimmerman will face Andy Pettitte and Edwin Jackson will face Ivan Nova. In their last starts, Gonzalez, Zimmermann and Jackson allowed a combined total of eight runs in 21 1/3 innings.
Pettitte has been outstanding, and he could give the Nationals’ left-handed-heavy lineup issues while shutting down their running game. But Danny Espinosa will get to bat right-handed — no small thing, given his splits this year — and Bryce Harper has been better against lefties than right-handers, anyway.
The Yankees’ offense provides a compelling counterweight to the Nationals’ pitching staff. They rank seventh in the majors with 4.73 runs per game, and seven of their regulars own an OPS+ over 108. They have no hitters with outlandish stats – Robinson Cano leads the Yankees with an .871 OPS – but the lineup is relentless. They lead the majors with 96 home runs, and not all of that is a product of their homer-happy stadium.
The Nationals’ success this series will depend in part on how they handle the atmosphere. The attention paid to the Nationals has reached a fevered level. Analysts are calling them the best team in baseball. Reporters have flocked to their clubhouse at every road stop. They will have to manage all of that while they face the team with the best record in the American League.
“We expect a lot out of ourselves,” Nationals ace Stephen Strasburg said. “We’re going to play hard, day in, day out. If we keep on going in the right direction, we’re going to win more ballgames. We’re not satisfied by any means. It’s still early. We need to keep pushing, keep showing up and playing.
“We have a lot of veterans. They’ve done a great job on really making sure that we’re focused on what we can control. That’s the effort that we put in, day in and day out. That’s all that matters.”
FROM THE POST
Bryce Harper could be both an all-star and the best 19-year-old hitter ever. “Places I’ve never been,” Mike Rizzo said.
Dave Sheinin examines why there have been so many no-hitters lately.
A very cool piece from my man Mitch Rubin, a lifelong Yankees fan dealing with a phenomenon unique to Washington: He’s falling for the Nats and worried his expected son will do the same.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse 10, Scranton/Wilkes-Barre 0: Brett Carroll went 2 for 5 with a home run. Xavier Paul went 2 for 5 with a double. Mark Teahen went 1 for 3 with two walks. Zach Duke allowed no runs in 5 2/3 innings with six hits and one walk, striking out five.
Erie 5, Harrisburg 4: Jimmy Van Ostrand went 1 for 3 with a double and a walk. Kevin Pucetas allowed three earned runs in 6 2/3 innings on five hits and two walks, striking out six.
Potomac 5, Myrtle Beach 4: Rick Hague went 2 for 3 with a home run. Blake Kelso went 2 for 4 with a walk.
Hagerstown 8, West Virginia 6: Caleb Ramsey went 4 for 5 with a double and a triple. Billy Burns went 2 for 4.
AN IMPORTANT NOTE
There is some construction going on around Nats Park. If you’re going to the game tonight and have to drive, leave at least 45 minutes before you typically would. If you don’t have to drive, take Metro.