Nationals set their aim on Clayton Kershaw

Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

The Nationals own perhaps the hottest lineup in the majors, and certainly the most powerful in recent days. They have smashed 14 homers in their last four games, and since Aug. 1 no team has hit more than their 44 home runs. On Friday, they thumped Felix Hernandez, becoming the first team to ever hit four homers off him in one game.

Hernandez may be an all-time great, but facing him may have just been the sound check for Tuesday night. The Nationals will face Clayton Kershaw for the second time this season. Back on May 6, just Kershaw’s second start of the season, the Nationals swatted nine hits in seven innings, but Kershaw still surrendered zero runs, walked none and struck out nine.

In May, Kershaw was just recovering from a spring training injury. He has since authored an all-time season, perhaps the best by a starting pitcher since Pedro Martinez’s prime. In 161 1/3 innings, Kershaw has a 1.73 ERA with 194 strikeouts and 23 walks. The last time Kershaw allowed more than three runs in a start was May 17. Since then, he’s failed to pitch seven innings in two of 18 starts. Over that span, the Dodgers are 16-2 in his starts and he has a 1.29 ERA, with opponents hitting .176 against him.

“Perfect,” Dodgers right-hander Zack Greinke said. “As a pitcher, he’s perfect. If he had another a pitch and could do other stuff, you’d say maybe he could do slightly better. But you can’t be better. He works harder than any pitcher I’ve played with. He’s a very good team guy.”

The Nationals’ surging lineup will be tested, but they’ve passed other stiff challenges this season, even before they toppled Hernandez. The Nationals had hung losses this season on Andrew Cashner, Greinke, Johnny Cueto, Tyson Ross, Alex Wood, Madison Bumgarner, Julio Teheran, Jeff Samardzija and Cole Hamels. All but Samardzija, an all-star this season, have a sub-3.00 ERA.

Before the Nationals faced Hernandez, Manager Matt Williams made the point that the Mariners also had to face Jordan Zimmermann. Tuesday night, the Dodgers will have their own challenge in Doug Fister. He’ll try to rebound from his past two starts, which while not awful were his worst in three months. In total, Fister allowed nine runs – eight earned – in 11 2/3 innings. Fister has still been great this year, one of the best pitchers in the National League, and he should benefit from an extra day of rest.

The Nationals have stunned some aces at the top of their form this season, most notably the poundings they put on Cueto and Hernandez. But beating Kershaw may be more about preventing runs than scoring them. Most likely, they’ll need to play clean defense behind a strong performance from Fister, keeping it close enough so that a couple runs will win it.

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