Having ceded to more than a month of actual play on the field, preseason predictions have already lost what scant relevance they had to begin with. Still, when the prognostications came flying in, the most frequent World Series pick was the Nationals against the Tigers. After the Tigers have played up to expectation and the Nationals have shown recent signs of heading that way, they’ll meet tonight at Nationals Park, weather permitting.
The first meeting between the Tigers and Nationals figures to be as compelling as early May can get. Prince Fielder, the first baseman the Nationals pursued before the Tigers offered a nine-year megadeal, will make his first trip to Nationals Park since he signed for more than $200 million. And Jordan Zimmermann, perhaps the best pitcher in the National League so far, will face the best offense in the majors.
Zimmermann has zoomed ahead of Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez and emerged as the Nationals’ ace. He will carry not only a 1.64 ERA and a league-leading 0.75 WHIP to the mound, but also a consecutive scoreless streak of 18 innings. In his first six starts, Zimmerman is 5-1 with two complete games, including a shutout, and one outing in which he tossed eight innings of zeros.
The Tigers have lived up to their big-swinging reputation. Miguel Cabrera, the reigning AL Triple Crown winner, is on pace for an absurd 194 RBI with a .385 average. Fielder has eight homers and a 166 OPS+. They are scoring 5.47 runs per game. When Zimmermann faced the Tigers in spring training, he allowed a leadoff single – and then retired the final 18 batters he faced, against a lineup that included both Cabrera and Fielder.
As the Tigers try to solve Zimmermann, the Nationals will be shaking their fist at having to face a right-hander they just can’t get away from. The Tigers got Anibal Sanchez out of the NL East when they acquired him in a trade with the Marlins last year and then signed him to an $80 million deal this winter. Now, the Nationals have to face him, anyway. Sanchez has a 1.82 ERA so far this year, and in his career, he’s 8-0 with a 1.97 ERA against the Nationals.
No pitcher, not even longtime nemesis Tim Hudson, has dominated the Nationals like Sanchez. Jayson Werth is 5 for 30 against him, and Danny Espinosa is 1 for 13. Ian Desmond and Wilson Ramos have had better luck, going 8 for 25 and 5 for 15 against Sanchez.
The end of the game will provide intrigue, too. In the offseason, the Tigers passed up the chance to sign closer Rafael Soriano, allowing the Nationals, with a push from owner Ted Lerner, to sign him to a two-year, $28 million deal, half of which is deferred. Now, Soriano has tossed 10 straight scoreless innings and converted eight consecutive save chances. Detroit, meantime, re-signed Jose Valverde to a minor league deal and quickly promoted him, rolling the dice once again with Papa Grande. As a team, the Tigers have blown four saves, but Valverde is three for three since rejoining the club.
The forecast calls for rain, perhaps the only thing that could dampen the matchup. The Tigers, at 19-11, have played like a World Series contender. The Nationals started slow but have won four of their last five, and a strong showing against Detroit could vault them right back into the mix as one of baseball’s best teams. For two games in early May, it will feel a little like late fall at Nationals Park.
FROM THE POST
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse 5, Durham 0: Yunesky Maya allowed no runs in 7 2/3 innings on six hits and one walk, striking out nine. Zach Walters went 1 for 4 with a home run. Eury Perez went 2 for 4 with a double.
Altoona 3, Harrisburg 1: Anthony Rendon went 0 for 4. Brian Goodwin went 0 for 2 with a walk. Sandy Leon went 2 for 3. Ian Krol walked one in a scoreless relief inning, lowering his ERA to 1.10. Krol, a lefty, was acquired as the player to be named later in the Nats’ Michael Morse trade.
Potomac was off.
Hagerstown was postponed.