Two days after Nationals players and fans were unabashedly rooting for the Braves, tomahawk chop and all, in a strange scene at Nationals Park, the National League East foes will ditch that brief alliance when they meet for a three-game series in Washington beginning Tuesday night.
The Nationals will take the field for the first time as 2017 NL East champions — thanks to Atlanta’s walk-off win over the Marlins Sunday — after a well-timed off-day Monday. They’re 88-55, 11 wins shy of a franchise record with 19 games remaining. Six will be against the 64-78 Braves, who have played the Nationals tough this season. The Nationals are 7-6 against Atlanta this season — their worst record against a division opponent — after going 29-9 against them the past two years.
Here are three things to keep in mind as the clubs meet for the final time in Washington this season.
HOME-FIELD ADVANTAGE AT STAKE?
A month ago, the thought of the Nationals catching the Dodgers in the race for best record in baseball was preposterous. There wasn’t a race. The Dodgers were on pace to challenge the record for most wins ever. They were being compared to the best teams in history. One magazine even asked if they were the best team ever on its cover. Then the jaw-dropping free fall began.
The Dodgers have lost 11 consecutive games and 16 of their past 17 — territory even the worst teams in baseball haven’t traversed. The Nationals, meanwhile, are 11-4 over their past 15 contests, leaving them 3.5 games behind the Dodgers for the best record in baseball and home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.
The first-place clubs will meet for a three-game set this weekend, and Nationals Manager Dusty Baker said he values home-field advantage, which is up for grabs for the World Series because Major League Baseball removed the All-Star Game’s result as the deciding factor this season. Whether the unexpected possibility impacts how Baker deploys his roster over the remainder of the regular season remains to be seen.
When Jayson Werth returned from a nearly three-month absence Aug. 28, he and the Nationals were encouraged because it gave him more than a month to find his stride before the playoffs. There’s still plenty of time, but Werth hasn’t found it yet in part because a sore shoulder has kept him off the field since last Wednesday.
The 38-year-old Werth went 3 for 7 in his first two games back, but then went 0 for 20 with two walks over his next six games. He attributed the struggles partly to the discomfort in his left shoulder, which stemmed from getting hit by a pitch on Aug. 23 during his rehab assignment. He said the problem worsened during an 11-pitch at-bat in his first game back. Last Wednesday, he was pulled after the sixth inning in Miami and hasn’t played since.
Werth said he expected to miss two games, but on Saturday, Baker said the team decided to keep him out through Sunday and would reevaluate him Tuesday. In all, Werth has had 49 plate appearances across 14 games during the rehab and with the Nationals — six in the minors and eighth in the majors in right field.
TURNER IS SLUGGING AGAIN
Trea Turner, the other key piece who recently returned to the Nationals following a long absence, was the only regular starting position player who started Sunday, as the Nationals fielded a lineup of youngsters to close out a four-game series against the Phillies. And the shortstop continued what he’s been doing recently: hitting baseballs hard.
Turner finished the game 2 for 4 with a triple and his second home run in three games, continuing a slugging trend. Of Turner’s 14 hits since returning from a broken wrist Aug. 29, 10 have been for extra bases — two home runs, two triples and six doubles. His slugging percentage over the 13-game stretch is a hefty .612. He’s also stolen four bases in four attempts. The 24-year-old, who hasn’t missed a game since returning, is crucial to the offense. He’s the sparkplug and disrupter ahead of a middle chunk of the lineup they hope will be complete with Bryce Harper’s return. So far, so good.
Tuesday: RHP Julio Teheran vs. LHP Gio Gonzalez
Wednesday: LHP Luiz Gohara vs. RHP Max Scherzer
Thursday: RHP Mike Folynewicz vs. RHP Tanner Roark
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