Hunter Strickland and Bryce Harper could meet again this week. (Kelley L Cox/USA Today Sports)

The Nationals suffered another series loss this weekend, losing two games to the Dodgers they could have won. They are two games under .500 as they head to San Francisco to finish up this nine-game trip, and they are struggling to make any kind of sustained charge as the final week of April begins. At some point, it will no longer be early.

The Nationals’ starting rotation owns the third-lowest ERA in the National League. Their bullpen, taxed and inconsistent, owns the third-highest ERA in baseball. Their lineup has not produced like a lineup loaded with elite talent, though of course, much of that elite talent has been missing for large parts of this month. They are fourth in the National League East, five games back of the division-leading Mets, which is hardly an insurmountable deficit. But they will need to start winning series played against other struggling teams such as the Giants, who are coming off a series win this weekend, but remain three games under .500 as this week’s series begins.


When assessing the start of this season, particularly the past two weeks or so, one simply cannot hold the Nationals to the same expectations they carried at the beginning of the season. They have been without Daniel Murphy the whole time, a hitter of such caliber that he probably would have helped them win one or two close games — such as Sunday night’s one-run loss with a wasted ninth-inning rally — by himself. But he is not the only one.

Anthony Rendon has been out since last Friday after fouling a ball off his big toe, and will be out until at least this weekend after the Nationals placed him on the disabled list Sunday — a bungled disabled list situation if they’ve ever had one, as they played with a tired bullpen for a week and could have used his spot for help. Rendon, like Murphy, is one of the league’s elite producers. Rendon, like Murphy, can turn a one-run loss into a win.

Adam Eaton has been out for more than a week, too. Eaton proved himself an invaluable and game-changing spark at the top of the Nationals’ lineup. Without him, Trea Turner has settled into that leadoff spot somewhat, but the Nationals looked deeper with Eaton at the top of the order. He could be back this week in San Francisco, though he might need until the Nationals return home. Either way, when any one of these three hitters returns, the Nationals’ lineup will improve dramatically. When all three return, well…


Losing those three hitters would be problematic enough, but as of last week in New York, many of the crucial healthy regulars had not found their offensive stride, either. They are starting to do so.

Ryan Zimmerman followed up a two-homer game in the series finale against the Mets with a 3-for-11 showing in Los Angles — not exactly the kind of torrid streak of which he is capable, but further evidence that he is climbing out of his early April hole. Similarly, Michael A. Taylor — not quite as streaky as Zimmerman, but streaky nonetheless — showed signs of catching fire. Taylor went 5 for 10 against the Dodgers and 3 for 3 in Sunday’s loss, chipping in two doubles and a homer in three games. Turner finished with an 0 for 5 showing Sunday night, but has looked better at the plate over the last week, and seems to have pulled himself out of the worst of his early season slump.


Though it is an even year, these Giants are not exactly built for World Series contention. They are built around aging veterans such as Andrew McCutchen (.213) and Evan Longoria (.243). The most formidable offensive presence in their lineup, catcher Buster Posey, is hitting .243.

Some of those veterans, such as first baseman Brandon Belt, have played better lately. Belt set a record with a 21-pitch at-bat against the Angels Sunday, and is hitting .288 with five homers, most on the team. Second baseman Joe Panik continues to emerge as a threat, and is playing to a .766 OPS.

But the matchup most will be interested to see is not any of those hitters against these Nationals pitchers. Rather, this will be the first time Hunter Strickland faces Bryce Harper since the duo fought — or more accurately, exploded — when Strickland threw at Harper last season in San Francisco. Harper charged the mound, threw his helmet, and earned a three-game suspension for his actions. Strickland was retaliating for something that happened in the 2014 playoffs, so he seems unlikely to forget last year’s melee. Everyone will be trying to avoid last year’s showing, which effectively ended Michael Morse’s career when he suffered a concussion in the mess.


Mon.: LHP Gio Gonzalez vs. RHP Chris Stratton

Tues.: RHP Tanner Roark vs. LHP Ty Blach

Weds.: RHP Max Scherzer vs. RHP Jeff Samardzija