The Nationals’ last chance to bury their closest National League East competitors, the Miami Marlins, comes this week in Miami as the Nationals wrap up their penultimate road trip of the regular season.
After losing three out of four in this weekend’s series against the Milwaukee Brewers, the Nationals still have a chance to push their magic number into single digits before a three-series homestand. A strong showing in Miami could make it much easier on them through the rest of September — although, whatever happens, their September shouldn’t be too tough.
During three games in Washington last week, the Nationals did what few teams have been able to do over the last month: They held down Giancarlo Stanton. He did homer once, but got nothing more in 10 at-bats.
That any team would consider this a victory is a testament to Stanton’s remarkable August run. He hit 18 homers in August and has hit one in two September games. If the Nationals can shut him down like they did in D.C. — beating him with fastballs and avoiding hanging sliders — they will still have to deal with elite offensive talents Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna. But they will certainly improve their chances of slowing the Marlins’ offense as a whole.
Despite the returns of Trea Turner and Jayson Werth to the Nationals’ lineup, the most productive offense in the National League averaged two runs over four games against the Brewers in Milwaukee. Is the absence of Bryce Harper this destructive to the Nationals lineup? Are the struggles of Daniel Murphy, who has struck out more in the last two weeks than he has for month-long stretches, this debilitating to their offense?
“You’ve got to give them credit. Their guys threw the ball well this series too,” said Ryan Zimmerman, who hit his 30th home run of the season this weekend against the Brewers.
“But yeah, not having [Harper] hurts. As far as not pressing, I think it’s that time of year where everyone’s kind of worn down a little bit. It’s not any excuse for playing like crap offensively, but you go through those periods through the year.”
In this recent slow stretch, Murphy’s struggles have stood out most. Murphy has been one of the hardest players to strike out in all of baseball the last two years. Murphy struck out five times in the last three games in Milwaukee. He struck out eight times in June.
Murphy is not the sole reason for the Nationals’ recent offensive struggles. Matt Wieters was unavailable for much of this weekend’s series in Milwaukee due to injury. Turner and Werth, both of whom have been relatively successful since returning, are not quite back in form yet. Perhaps the familiar Marlins pitching staff will act as a spark for all of them.
After teasing the idea of the six-man rotation, the Nationals moved their starting pitchers back on turn this weekend in Milwaukee. But instead of starting Stephen Strasburg on normal rest Monday, the Nationals will insert A.J. Cole into their rotation, thereby giving every one of their established starting five an extra day off.
Max Scherzer assured reporters he would be okay after taking a blow in Saturday’s game. The move to push all five Nationals starters back a day seems unrelated to his condition.
But while Dusty Baker announced that Cole would start Monday, he did not announce the move that will clear space on the expanded Nationals roster for him. Cole was sent down to Class AAA Syracuse a week ago Saturday. Any player optioned to the minors must stay there 10 days before being recalled, even after rosters expanded September 1. The only way that 10-day rule evaporates is if an injury requires a call-up.
Consequently, the Nationals seem likely to announce an injury-related move Monday. Perhaps Scherzer, who seems to be just fine, will head to the disabled list briefly. More likely, rookie right-hander Erick Fedde will be shut down for the season. While Fedde has thrown just 105 innings this season, as opposed to 121 innings last season, he looked like a tired pitcher in his last major league outing, when his velocity dropped a few miles per hour and his stuff didn’t bite like it did earlier this season.
Either way, and even in the case of an entirely unforeseen disabled list arrival, the Nationals seem to be taking things slowly and carefully heading into the last month of the regular season. They have afforded themselves that right and seem likely to begin taking advantage of their lead this week in Miami.
Mon.: RHP A.J. Cole vs. LHP Adam Conley
Tues.: RHP Stephen Strasburg vs. RHP Odrisamer Despaigne
Weds.: LHP Gio Gonzalez vs. LHP Dillon Peters
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