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Nationals-Blue Jays series preview: Can the offense find its rhythm?

The Nationals need Daniel Murphy to find his hitting form again. (Bill Kostroun/Associated Press)
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The last time the Washington Nationals played in Toronto was 2012. They won all three games, two of which were started by Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, all of which were closed by Tyler Clippard. Clippard is now reviving his career with the Blue Jays. Gonzalez will start Friday night’s series opener. Baseball’s winding ways are bringing the gang back together again, six years later.

The Nationals enter the series after a much-needed win over the New York Yankees in the Bronx on Wednesday night, a game in which 19-year-old Juan Soto lifted them from the depths not once, but twice. Their offense had been all but nonexistent without him, despite the recent returns of Adam Eaton and Daniel Murphy. Murphy probably will serve as the designated hitter, the role he played in this week’s series in New York. But how he looks outside the batter’s box will be just as important, as the Nationals will not have the luxury of a designated hitter for long.

The Blue Jays enter this series limping, too. The Rays — not exactly the American League East competition they hoped to be chasing — just swept them. They are 17 games out of first place. They are, in other words, a team the Nationals could use to start a strong stretch, should they find a way to do so.

OFFENSIVE PERFORMANCE

The Nationals need Murphy and Eaton to spark their lineup, as they have been the sixth-least productive team in the majors over the past 30 days. Their .670 OPS in that time is better than just five teams that have hardly contended or are quickly falling out of their races. While they have not been striking out much, the Nationals have the sixth-lowest walk rate in the majors in that stretch. Manager Dave Martinez would prefer they take their walks and enjoy Murphy’s beloved “traffic on the base paths.” They have not done that well lately.

As usual, Bryce Harper has been at the center of it all, for better or worse. He went hitless in New York and has walked three times since the beginning of June — and just 12 times since the beginning of May. By comparison, Harper walked 37 times in April. His fellow staple in the middle of the order, Anthony Rendon, is hitless since last weekend in D.C. With Eaton and Murphy settling back in, the Nationals need their stars to shine. Perhaps Rogers Centre will help them do so.

OFFENSIVE PERFORMANCE

The Blue Jays are struggling mightily, having scored five runs in their past seven games. They went without an extra-base hit in the final two games of their series against the Rays. The Nationals have struggled against left-handed pitching, but not nearly as much as the Blue Jays have. They have lost 11 straight games to left-handed starters entering Friday night.

Reports suggest slugger Josh Donaldson will be joining the Blue Jays in Toronto this weekend, which could signal a return from the 10-day disabled list. Donaldson, like Harper, is in a pressure-packed contract year. He is hitting .234.

STARTING A RUN

This series begins a stretch that will also yield games against the Yankees (the continuation of a suspended game and a makeup matchup Monday), the Orioles, the Phillies and the Rays. Philadelphia is hanging on in the National League East but has not looked as strong as the Braves of late and could be entering a midseason swoon. The Jays, Rays and Orioles are wrestling with decisions about whether to buy or sell as the Yankees and Red Sox run away with AL East.

In other words, this could be a stretch in which the Nationals make a push, though they will have to make it with a patched-up rotation that lacks Strasburg and Jeremy Hellickson. Erick Fedde seems likely to take Strasburg’s spot for now, but the Nationals won’t be able to avoid a fifth starter forever. When the healthy ones pitch — as Gonzalez, Max Scherzer and Tanner Roark will this weekend — they need to capitalize on their efforts.

PROBABLE PITCHERS

Fri.: LHP Gio Gonzalez vs. RHP Aaron Sanchez

Sat.: RHP Max Scherzer vs. RHP Marco Estrada

Sun.: RHP Tanner Roark vs. RHP Sam Gaviglio

Read more on the Nationals:

Unemployed in August, Justin Miller has been MLB’s best reliever with the Nationals

MLB unveils jerseys, caps and socks for 2018 All-Star Game at Nationals Park

Sean Doolittle has the best ideas for a Nationals Park bullpen cart

Nationals owner Ted Lerner, 92, to cede control of club to his son, Mark

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