Defending NL champion St. Louis Cardinals come to town

(Associated Press)

(Associated Press)

brushback_harperMuch is made of the Nationals’ struggles against the Atlanta Braves, their fiercest rival and defensing division champion. But the Braves aren’t the only team that Nationals have stumbled against in recent seasons.

Since the start of 2013, the Nationals are 8-29 against the 2013 National League division winners — St. Louis, Los Angeles and Atlanta — and 87-53 against all other teams. The latter means the Nationals have beaten up the team they should. The former shows the Nationals have struggled against the best teams.

In fact, since the start of the 2012 season and including the playoffs, the Nationals are 6-11 against the Cardinals, who open a four-game series in Washington on Thursday. In 2012, the Cardinals ended the Nationals’ season. Last season, they eliminated the Nationals from playoff contention in September. The Nationals went 0-6 in 2013 against the eventual NL champions. Both teams have identical 9-6 records through two-plus weeks of the season.

“These guys are obviously one of the best teams in the league year in, year out,” right fielder Jayson Werth said. “I look forward to it. These are fun games. We match up well against them. I liked where we’re at. This is a new year. You can throw all that other stuff out the window that happened before. We’ve got some stuff going here, and I like our chances.”

The Cardinals have changed since last season. Carlos Beltran is gone and Allen Craig is now patrolling right field while Matt Adams the everyday first baseman. In the offseason, they added speed in Peter Bourjos to center field and power to shortstop in Jhonny Peralta. Even with starter Joe Kelly’s hamstring injury this week, the pitching staff is still deep, powerful and among the best in baseball.

After facing Jose Fernandez on Wednesday in Miami, the Nationals flew home to Washington and arrived after 2 a.m. Then they will face Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright on Thursday. Wainwright and Fernandez finished second and third respectively in the National League Cy Young voting last season. Then on Friday, the Nationals face the Cardinals’ young star pitcher, Michael Wacha, one of their playoff heroes last season. In addition, the Nationals are in the beginning parts of a stretch in which they play 20 games in 20 days, including an 11-game homestand.

“They’ve got a really good team,” Manager Matt Williams said of the Cardinals. “They do a lot of things really well. It starts with their guys on the mound. Their starters are quality. They go deep in games. They’ve got a potent offense. They drive runs in. They run the bases well. They do all those things. Every game is different in that respect but we have to play well if we’re going to challenge them and beat them. If we ever get to where we want to get to, it’s through those guys. And it’s through the Braves, the Marlins and everybody else, too.”

FROM THE POST

Jayson Werth and Zach Walters hit late home run to power the Nationals to a 6-3 win.

FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL

Bryce Harper scratched with quad tightness but expected to play Thursday

Matt Williams on the early defensive, starting pitching troubles

Rehab plans for Denard Span and Doug Fister

Steven Souza Jr. gets first major league hit, Zach Walters hits first homer

Nationals starting pitchers have struggled early

NATS MINOR LEAGUES

Syracuse 6, Lehigh Valley 5: Danny Rosenbaum allowed four runs on eight hits over 5 2/3 innings. Christian Garcia allowed one run and struck out three in two innings to earn the win. Ryan Mattheus earned his second save. Brian Goodwin went 1 for 2 with two RBI and two walks, Brandon Laird also drove in two runs.

Altoona 5, Harrisburg 2: Felipe Rivero started and allowed two runs on four hits over five innings. Scoreless innings for Ryan Perry, Neil Holland, Gabriel Alfaro and Richie Mirowski.

Potomac 3, Myrtle Beach 1: Brett Mooneyham allowed one run over five innings and Gilberto Mendez fired two scoreless. Cole Leonida homered. Randolph Oduber went 2 for 4.

Delmarva 1, Hagerstown 0: Lucas Giolito started, allowed only two hits, walked two and struck out six over five innings. James Yezzo went 2 for 5.

Hagerstown Game 2 was postponed.

Also on Nationals Journal

Bryce Harper scratched with quad tightness but expected to play Thursday