In the past week, the Nationals have won five of their past six games, including a three-game sweep of the Philadelphia Phillies. They have shaved 2 1/2 games off their division deficit and now trail the Atlanta Braves and Miami Marlins by only one game in the National League East standings. The starting pitching has hit a groove, the offense has picked up dramatically and the defense has been mostly sharp.
Now, however, the Nationals face a stiff trail. They travel to San Diego for a weekend three-game series and then a four-game series in San Francisco, finishing the road trip with three games in St. Louis. As of Friday morning, only the Padres have a losing record at 27-33. The Cardinals have struggled some and are only one game over .500 at 31-30 but are in second place in a jumbled NL Central.
The Giants have the best record in baseball, 39-21, are on a 105-win pace, and will be the best overall team the Nationals have faced since the Oakland Athletics. The Nationals split a four-game series against the Padres in late April despite outscoring them 20-9. And the Cardinals, despite their troubles this season, are the NL defending champion and one of the most consistent and talented organizations in baseball.
“It’ll be a good test,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said.
“Of course it’s nice to go on the road with a series like this,” Manager Matt Williams added after sweep-capping win over the Phillies on Thursday. “It is a test. We’re playing a top of the division in San Francisco certainly. And the Padres played us tough here when they were here. And we have to go through St. Louis. It is a tough trip? Yeah.”
The Padres are the Nationals’ first test. San Diego continues to struggle hitting — a major league-worst 3.18 runs per game — but have some of the best pitching in baseball, a fifth-best 3.37 team ERA. The Giants have been the best team in baseball because of a strong pitching staff, especially a rotation led by Madison Bumgarner and veteran newcomer Tim Hudson, and a power-hitting lineup. Former Nationals slugger Michael Morse leads the Giants with 13 home runs, 41 RBI and a .916 OPS.
The Nationals are slated to send some of their best pitchers against the Giants: Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister, Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez, coming off the disabled list. The Cardinals have struggled because of a lagging offense, 3.8 runs per games, and hiccups in the bullpen, but not because of their strong starting pitching. The Nationals, obviously, have history with the Cardinals and have beaten them only twice in the past 11 meetings, including the 2012 playoffs.
“What happened in 2012, last season or even this April, that’s that,” closer Rafael Soriano said. “This is June. We’ll see how it goes. I’m not sure they’ve playing better than us or not right now. But whoever plays the best baseball will win. We’ll try to do that ourselves, too, and play the best baseball that we can.”
The Nationals will face all of these teams while on the upswing. At least a 6-4 roadtrip would be a big accomplishment and show a lot about this team. A 5-5 trip probably wouldn’t hurt their division standings.
“We’re happy with where we’re at right now but we have to continue to push,” Williams said. “Guys know that. They’ll do that. They’ll be prepared.
FROM TODAY’S POST
Doug Fister and the Nationals complete the sweep of the Phillies with a 4-2 win, writes Adam Kilgore.
FROM YESTERDAY’S JOURNAL
NATS MINOR LEAGUES
Syracuse 7, Indianapolis 3: Taylor Jordan allowed two runs on six hits and three walks, and struck out nine over six innings. Ryan Mattheus and Xavier Cedeno combined for 2 1/3 scoreless innings. Jhonatan Solano hit his ninth home run and Brian Goodwin his third. In his first game back from the Nationals, Tyler Moore hit a grand slam.
Harrisburg 8, Reading 7: Matt Skole hit a walkoff three-run home run in the bottom of the 12th. James Simmons started and allowed four runs on three walks and seven hits over 5 1/3 innings. Michael A. Taylor went 2 for 5 with two RBI. Quincy Latimore homered and collected three hits. Jason Martinson had two hits.
Potomac 3, Wilmington 2: Dakota Bacus allowed two runs on six hits and three walks over six innings. Wander Suero struck out three over two innings. Oscar Tejeda and Shawn Pleffner each drove in a run. Stephen Perez went 2 for 4.
Hagerstown 9, Greensboro 4: Jake Johansen allowed two runs on five hits and five walks over four innings. Ryan Ullmann earned the win allowing two runs, one earned, over 3 2/3 innings. In his first rehab game from a surgically-repaired broken finger, Jeff Kobernus went 0 for 2 with an RBI, walk and a run. Wilmer Difo went 3 for 5. John Wooten and Drew Ward each drove in two runs.