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Nationals vs. Marlins series preview: Giancarlo Stanton leads Miami’s charge

Giancarlo Stanton waves to the fans after hitting his 50th homer of the season Sunday. (Eric Espada/Getty Images)

For most of this season, the Washington Nationals have not had to look back. No one was near enough to see, let alone worry about. But the Miami Marlins are climbing into view. The Marlins are still 12 games behind in the National League East, but with 13 wins in their last 16 games, sparked by Giancarlo Stanton’s historic home run tear, they are charging. So as the Marlins head to Nationals Park for three games this week, the Nationals should feel some small measure of urgency.

Below, find a few things to think about as the two best teams in the National League East collide in a series that could end the division race once and for all — or perhaps add some drama to it.

STANTON’S HOME RUN TEAR

Giancarlo Stanton homered in the Marlins’ win over the Padres on Sunday and, in so doing, hit his 17th home run in August. The record for home runs in that month is 18, and Stanton has plenty of time to get there. He hit three of those home runs in four games at Nationals Park earlier this month.

That home run Stanton hit Sunday was his 50th of the season, making him the first player in the majors to hit 50 since Chris Davis did it in 2013. Davis, however, ended the season with 50 homers. Stanton is on pace for 63. He has hit 28 homers in his last 45 games.

Stanton is the 28th player in major league history with 50 homers; four of those 50 have come against the Nationals. It is a testament to his furious home run pace that he has hit more homers against six other teams than he has against the Nationals. Stanton is hitting .304 with an .801 OPS against the Nationals this season.

MVP candidate Giancarlo Stanton hits home run No. 50, and it’s still August

SCHERZER’S RETURN?

For most of the past week, Max Scherzer has seemed on the verge of returning from the disabled list, only to have his start pushed back a couple days here or a day there because his sore neck was not quite ready. But after Scherzer threw a successful bullpen Friday and reported no trouble after throwing Saturday, Dusty Baker said Scherzer was scheduled to pitch Monday night’s series opener against the Marlins.

The Nationals released their pitching probables for that series Sunday, and in keeping with their typical (if inexplicable) commitment to the clandestine, listed Monday’s starter as TBA. Baker said after Sunday’s game that Scherzer will pitch.

Still, this neck problem has caused Scherzer to be a late scratch twice now, and if for some reason he cannot go, the Nationals might have to get creative. Their most obvious fill-ins — A.J. Cole and Erick Fedde — pitched this weekend, so neither would be available to start Monday.

When Scherzer returns, he will resume his quest for a second straight National League Cy Young Award, a quest on which he had made great progress before the neck injury sent him to the disabled list for the first time at a Nat. Scherzer is leading the National League in strikeouts and strikeouts-per-nine innings and all starters with a .171 batting average against.

Erick Fedde’s velocity was down Sunday, but the rookie isn’t worried

MIDDLE OF THE ORDER DRAGGING

For much of the past week, Ryan Zimmerman and Daniel Murphy have looked tired. They’ve played through the trouble, but neither has hit particularly well lately. Zimmerman is 2 for his last 24. Murphy, normally slump-proof, is 2 for his last 14.

Since Bryce Harper went down with his knee injury, much of the production load has fallen on Murphy and Zimmerman, who have not exactly carried that load. Anthony Rendon, meanwhile, has four multi-hit games in his past seven. He started both games of Sunday’s doubleheader, though he did rest Friday evening.

In other words, the heart of the order is hurting, exhausted and slowing fast. Harper does not seem near a return, but perhaps the familiar Marlins pitching staff will inspire a revival. Jayson Werth might be nearing a return from the disabled list, and another veteran bat near the top of the order might help. In the meantime, they will probably have to keep piecing together runs each night until Murphy and Zimmerman find their way again — and hope they do not lose anyone else to injury.

PITCHING PROBABLES

Mon.: RHP Jose Urena vs. TBA

Tues.: RHP Vance Worley vs. RHP Edwin Jackson

Weds.: LHP Adam Conley vs. RHP Stephen Strasburg

More on the Nationals

Dusty Baker is still experimenting with his bullpen

Ryan Zimmerman’s left arm is just fine

Nationals expect Ryan Madson back for postseason

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