This weekend’s three-game series at Nationals Park was supposed to be a possible playoff preview, a headline matchup to enliven August’s dog days. But it will not be that. It will be a meeting between a first-place club not facing a real threat to its playoff chances (the Nationals) and a division doormat light-years from the postseason picture with the third-worst record in baseball (the Giants).
The Nationals (68-45) returned home to beat the Marlins three out of four times this week to build a season-high 15-game lead in the National League East. The Giants (46-70) spent their off-day Thursday in Washington after taking two of three games from the Cubs in San Francisco. The series victory pulled them to within 35.5 games of the first-place Dodgers in the National League West and 19.5 games of the Diamondbacks for the second wild card spot.
ANY BAD BLOOD LEFT?
There’s a strong chance Bryce Harper and Hunter Strickland will stand 60 feet 6 inches apart at some point this weekend. The question is whether Harper will feel the need to run the distance to confront Strickland with haymakers again.
Most likely, no. Most likely, if the two face off, Strickland will not throw the baseball at Harper. He probably ejected that yearning from his system back on Memorial Day, when, nearly three years after Harper admired a long home run he hit off Strickland in the 2014 NLDS, he intentionally plunked Harper at AT&T Park. Harper sprinted at Strickland, sparking a brawl. Harper was originally suspended four games, but the ban was reduced to three games after appeal. Strickland was suspended for six games. His suspension wasn’t reduced.
The two combatants have gone on to continue standout seasons. Harper is a contender for his second NL MVP in three years with 29 home runs and a 1.036 on-base-plus-slugging-percentage. Strickland, meanwhile, has been one of the few positives in San Francisco’s nightmare season. The right-hander has a 2.09 ERA in 48 appearances.
Jeff Samardzija, whose attempt to spear Harper during the fiasco was sabotaged by a violent collision with teammate Michael Morse, will pitch Saturday. Morse, a former National, suffered a concussion ramming into Samardzija and hasn’t played since.
MELANCON COULD RETURN
The Giants prioritized upgrading their disastrous bullpen over the offseason, and emerged with Mark Melancon, one of the three big-name closers on the market. The right-hander was signed away from the Nationals for $62 million over four years. It was the largest contract ever given to a closer until the Yankees signed Aroldis Chapman for five years, $86 million a few days later.
Melancon became a free agent at the right time — just after revolutionary bullpen usage was one of the postseason’s main story lines — and was rewarded for a dominant four-year stretch, which included a 1.64 ERA and 47 saves for the Pirates and Nationals last season. He was to shore up the back end of San Francisco’s awful bullpen. Instead, he’s compiled a 4.35 ERA in 22 games, and hasn’t pitched since June 22 because of a pronator strain in his pitching elbow. San Francisco is reportedly expected to reinstate him this weekend, perhaps as early as Friday.
Sam Dyson has assumed the bulk of the closing duties in Melancon’s absence. The right-hander, acquired from the Rangers in June, has a 2.22 ERA in 22 games since joining the Giants.
GIANT FREE FALL
It’s difficult to fathom that the Giants were a catastrophic bullpen collapse away from pushing the Cubs to the brink in the NLDS last fall. Or maybe it isn’t. While the Giants tested the eventual World Series champions last season, they floundered in the second half, which, in hindsight, may have been a precursor this season’s stunning downfall. Since the 2016 all-star break, the Giants are 76-112 during the regular season. They haven’t been good for over a year.
Major injuries haven’t helped. Right-hander Johnny Cueto (finger) and first baseman Brandon Belt (concussion) are on the disabled list. Ace Madison Bumgarner spent much of the season on the DL after injuring his shoulder in a dirt-bike accident in Colorado in April. He has made six starts since returning on July 15, pitching to a 2.52 ERA. The Nationals will not see him this weekend.
But injuries don’t mask the letdowns across the roster. While the rest of baseball is clubbing home runs at a historic rate, the Giants are last in the majors with 92, which is 16 fewer than the next-lowest total. Their third basemen were so bad they brought back Pablo Sandoval, whom the Red Sox discarded despite owing him roughly $50 million. They rank 17th in team ERA even though they play half their games in the pitching-friendliest park in the majors. The misery culminated in AT&T Park’s sellout streak ending at 530 games last month. The problems, in short, run deep for the last-place club.
Friday: RHP Chris Stratton vs. RHP Edwin Jackson
Saturday: RHP Jeff Samardzija vs. RHP Max Scherzer
Sunday: LHP Matt Moore vs. RHP A.J. Cole
NATIONALS’ MAGIC NUMBER: 35
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