The Washington Nationals have reached a point in this season where those who’ve been around the team almost as long as it has existed, such as our columnist Barry Svrluga, wonder how deep the damage could go. Is this miserable season also a misbegotten one? Cracks show in the foundation — most noticeably when the Nationals were nearly no-hit Sunday against the Los Angeles Dodgers — and it’s unclear whether they a fix.
Now, the Nationals (16-24) open the second quarter of the season by hosting the division rival New York Mets (19-20) in three games at Nationals Park. Important ground in the division is at stake when Nationals righty Jeremy Hellickson marches to the mound for a 7:05 p.m. first pitch Tuesday against the Mets and righty Noah Syndergaard.
Here is what to look out for as the 15th series of the season begins:
SOS: The Nationals offense
The offense is spiraling. After scoring the fewest runs of any series this season in Milwaukee (six), the Nationals’ encore in Los Angeles ended with one run in the final 27 innings against the Dodgers, and a near-no-hitter by lefty Hyun-jin Ryu. In the past 14 days, the Nationals have the worst offensive wins above replacement in baseball (minus-1.8), according to FanGraphs.
It’s not the plate discipline. The Nationals have chased pitches out of the zone at about the league average rate (31.5). It’s not a fluke. The Nationals’ metrics, like hard-hit balls percentage (35.1) and their batting average on balls in play (.247), don’t seem particularly egregious given their performance. It’s not even all about the injuries.
The Nationals’ lengthy injured list contributed to the lack of runs, of course, but star third baseman and slugger Anthony Rendon returned for the second game against the Brewers, and he hasn’t found the groove he rode at the beginning of this season to jump-start this team. Without a big bat leading the way, the Nationals have floundered.
But: Kind turn through the rotation
The Mets started this season with a rotation among the best in all of baseball, headlined by reigning National League Cy Young Award winner Jacob deGrom. The Mets supplemented the slight right-hander with hulking righty Noah Syndergaard and quality mid-rotation options in lefty Steven Matz and righty Zack Wheeler.
In this series, the Nationals only face Syndergaard and Wheeler from that bunch. Sandwiched between them, the Mets will give the ball to Wilmer Font, an uninspiring-if-serviceable righty starting for Matz, who hit the 10-day injured list May 9 with radial nerve discomfort. The Nationals cannot afford to squander a fortunate turn through the Mets’ rotation.
Even Syndergaard, normally one of the better starters in baseball, has struggled mightily. In eight starts, one of which was a complete-game shutout, “Thor” has a 5.14 ERA and career-high 1.33 walks plus hits per innings pitched. In his most recent start against the San Diego Padres, he threw six innings and allowed four earned runs on nine hits, including a pair of homers.
Despite his struggles against the Nationals this season — 11 runs allowed in two starts — Wheeler is dealing. In his past six starts, he has a 2.93 ERA and 49 strikeouts in 40 innings. Wheeler looming in a potential rubber match makes it even more crucial to get to Font on Wednesday. The Mets traded future considerations to the Tampa Bay Rays for Font on May 6, and the righty’s debut performance against San Diego — four innings, two runs allowed — was enough to earn another turn. The key, though, is that Font threw only 60 pitches. He might get up to 75 on Wednesday, according to multiple reports, but the Nationals need to get into the Mets bullpen and wear them out early.
Help wanted: Back-end starters
The Nationals’ top three starters are among the best in baseball in wins above replacement. Max Scherzer is first, Stephen Strasburg, fourth and Patrick Corbin 29th. The offense and bullpen shoulder the load of the blame for often not actualizing those theoretical wins, because those pitchers often leave the game having put the Nationals in a position to win. The same cannot be said for the back end of the rotation with journeymen Jeremy Hellickson and Anibal Sanchez.
The Mets also get an even more fortunate turn through the Nationals’ rotation; they miss Scherzer and Strasburg and get the two struggling righties.
If the Nationals are to win this series, their rotation depth needs to step up. Hellickson has it in him, as evidenced by his run of allowing three or fewer runs in 20 of 21 starts. Since an April 17 win over the San Francisco Giants, though, he’s allowed five or more runs in three of his four outings. The debacle in Milwaukee last time out, six runs in the first two innings, wasn’t entirely his fault because the Nationals misplayed several balls and made an error behind him.
Sanchez has largely pitched well over his past three appearances. He’s allowed three runs or fewer each time, including May 5 against the Philadelphia Phillies when he allowed no earned runs but suffered the same poor defense many of the Nationals starters have in the past three weeks. Sanchez’s problem, though, is that he hasn’t given the Nationals much length. In his past two starts, Sanchez hasn’t been able to escape the fifth inning. With the Nationals’ MLB-worst bullpen (6.34 ERA), that hasn’t given his team much of a chance to win.
RHP Noah Syndergaard vs. RHP Jeremy Hellickson
RHP Wilmer Font vs. LHP Patrick Corbin
RHP Zack Wheeler vs. RHP Anibal Sanchez
Read more on the Washington Nationals: