Dusty Baker and his players worried about this three-city road trip. More accurately, they dreaded it, in large part because of the cross-country flight looming after an 8 p.m. game in New York Sunday night that ended in a 6-3 win. Even as intimidating travel days go, Sunday’s trip stood apart.
So that the Nationals hopped on that New York-to-Denver charter as winners of seven straight, all on the road, the most recent a 2:43 Max Scherzer gem, qualified as best-case scenario. Though the Nationals arrived in Denver early Monday morning and got to sleep a little nearer to game time than they probably would have hoped, they will do so without the draining burden of mounting losses. In other words, they will arrive in Denver with some wiggle room, to the extent a baseball team can ever have such a thing.
Below, find three things to consider as the Nationals hit Coors Field for the only time during the regular season.
The Rockies charge into the four-game series after sweeping the Giants at home for the first time since 2002. They lead the National League West with a 13-6 record, the only other team in the National League with as many wins as the Nationals. Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the Rockies have built that success as much around strong April pitching as major offensive output. While the Nationals are first in the league with a .793 OPS and second with 93 runs scored, the Rockies sit in the middle of the National League pack in both categories.
But Colorado’s pitching staff is third in the National League with a 3.59 collective ERA, a spot ahead of the Nationals. Their bullpen, bolstered this offseason, has the best ERA of any relief corps in the NL. In part because of its pitching staff, in part because of a characteristically powerful start from third baseman Nolan Arenado (1.064 OPS, six homers), Colorado enters this week in the midst of the second-best start in franchise history.
“Colorado’s playing good. They’re always tough at home,” Baker said after Sunday’s game. “We’re going in with a pretty fresh bullpen. It’s always challenging going to Colorado because you never feel safe anytime.”
COORS FIELD CRUSH
Despite Baker’s obvious concerns about the health of his pitching staff this week at Coors Field, he — like most managers — can count on some level of added offensive comfort thanks to Coors Field’s friendliest of offensive confines. Bryce Harper is a .340 career hitter there with a 1.040 OPS. Daniel Murphy is a .315 hitter with an .817 OPS. Ryan Zimmerman hit .359 with a 1.090 OPS and eight home runs in 131 plate appearances there. Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon also hit well above their career rates in Denver. In other words, the Nationals’ lineup — which has the best average and OPS in the NL — could look even more dangerous this week.
Baker’s aforementioned concerns about this series are not so much based around the performance of his offense, but rather the performance of his pitching staff. After a stressful and herky-jerky start to the season, the bullpen has calmed down considerably since the team appointed Shawn Kelley and Koda Glover to ninth-inning duties and moved Blake Treinen back to his more malleable late-inning role. After the bullpen struggled early then nearly handed away a few games last week, it has compiled a streak of 10 consecutive scoreless innings entering Monday’s game.
Even without Sammy Solis, who is on the disabled list with left elbow inflammation, the relief corps seems to be settling in, with Enny Romero finding some stability as a key left-handed option. Should the Nationals’ starters pitch deep into games, the bullpen should be able to retain that recently created rhythm. Should they struggle to do so — which can happen at Coors Field — that bullpen could find itself stretched and strained again.
TURNING TO TURNER
As baseball’s cruel humor would have it, the first game of the series seems most likely to require the services of that bullpen, and could therefore dictate much of what happens during the three games that follow. Jacob Turner will start the game in place of Stephen Strasburg, who will take paternity leave. Joe Ross, Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez — all of whom looked strong in their most recent outings — will follow, leaving Turner as the most substantial unknown heading into this series.
The big right-hander joined the Nationals on a minor league deal this spring, and pitched his way onto the radar with tantalizing stuff that sometimes worked and sometimes didn’t, but always seemed to have the potential to dominate. He relies heavily on downward movement, something that should help him somewhat in Coors Field, where the difference between getting groundball outs and flyball outs is roughly equivalent to the difference between plugging a lamp into an outlet and sticking a fork in it instead.
The 25-year-old has made 53 starts in the majors, owns an 11-24 record and is pitching to a 5.22 ERA in those starts. He pitched to a 2.61 ERA in 10 1/3 innings in Class AAA Syracuse this year, though the Nationals cut his last outing short (1 2/3 innings on April 20) in anticipation of Monday’s start against the Rockies. Turner flew to Colorado Sunday.
“He’s on the roster. He was the best choice that we had,” Baker said. “We thought about other guys, but we didn’t really want their first start in the big leagues to be in Colorado. He has big league experience and Stras is having a second child. If not, it would’ve been Stras out there.”