The Nationals’ opening month of the season is surprisingly packed with top competition, that is, if you subtract the six more game against the Miami Marlins and New York Mets. The Nationals dispatched the Marlins in the most convincing fashion of the series on Thursday, a 6-1 thumping in which every facet of the team had an impact. But now, finally, this Nationals overflowing with expectations will get an early test of their talent and potential against a team that nearly matched them in wins last season and could contend again this season, the Cincinnati Reds for a three-game series in Ohio.
“We look at every game as a big game,” said Manager Davey Johnson, downplaying the significance of the series. “That’s the way we look at it. Everybody likes to hit in that ballpark. So it should be fun.”
The Reds are a popular pick to repeat as division champions and even reach the NLCS. They return a team nearly intact from a 97-win campaign. The lineup is balanced and potent, even with the loss of Ryan Ludwick for a few months, because of the bandbox ballpark and presence of Joey Votto, who should be a top MVP candidate every season he is healthy. They also boast Jay Bruce (34 home runs last season), Brandon Phillips (18 home runs), Todd Frazier (.829 OPS as a rookie) and new leadoff hitter Shin-Soo Coo (career .382 OBP).
Their durable starting rotation of Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Bronson Arroyo and Mike Leake made every start last season, and returns for an encore. Aroldis Chapman is one of the most dominant pitchers, let alone closers, in baseball, posting an unreal 15.3 SO/9 ratio last season. Adjusted to the ballparks, the Reds’ pitching staff, not the Nationals, posted the best ERA (127 ERA+) in the majors last season.
The series in the small confines of Great America Ballpark may help jump start the slow starts of Ian Desmond, Adam LaRoche and Danny Espinosa. It may also prove challenging for some flyball pitchers. It will also bring the season debut of Zach Duke, the lone lefty in the bullpen, saved for this series because Votto and Bruce are left-handed batters.
Whatever the outcome this weekend, it will be viewed simply as an early gauge, nothing more. It is too early in the season for a defining series.
“If we sweep or get swept or whatever, I think it’s a little too early to talk about that kind of stuff,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “We play them and then we come home and we’ll be done with them I think before April, which is kinda unfortunate because neither team will get a chance to kinda get in the groove or establish themselves as what kinda teams they are. It’s a good team and a good matchup. And whether it’s April or September, you still gotta go in there and try to win the series just like everyone else.”
If you’re curious, the pitching matchups this weekend:
April 5, at Reds, 7:10 p.m.: Dan Haren vs. Homer Bailey
April 6, at Reds, 1:10 p.m.: Ross Detwiler vs. Mike Leake
April 7, at Reds, 1:10 p.m.: Stephen Strasburg vs. Johnny Cueto
FROM THE POST
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse 11, Lehigh Valley 2: Ross Ohlendorf allowed only two hits over six strong innings. J.C. Romero pitched a scoreless seventh inning, allowing no hits or walks. Micah Owins, the pitcher-turned-hitter, went 2 for 6 with four RBI including a three-run home run. Zach Walters homered, too. Chris Marrero drove in two, and Corey Brown and Jeff Kobernus each drove in one.
Harrisburg 4, Bowie 3: Brian Broderick started and allowed three runs over five innings. Destin Hood drove in the winning runs in the eighth with a two-run single. Steven Souza went 3 for 4. Anthony Rendon went 1 for 2 with two walks.
Delmarva 4, Hagerstown 3: Third baseman Mike McQuillan went 2 for 5 and shortstop Stephen Perez added two hits. Dixon Anderson allowed two runs over five innings.