The Washington Nationals won two out of three games on the road against the Chicago Cubs this past weekend without any of their top three starters — Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez. They won three of six games on the road trip with a patched together rotation that did not exactly overachieve. And they won three more games without Jayson Werth, Trea Turner and Michael A. Taylor. In short, they survived.
The Nationals have been surviving for about a month and a half now, since injuries struck and the roster shuffled, tossing Class AAA regulars into bench roles and projected bench players into starting roles. But this week, as the Miami Marlins come to Nationals Park for the first of nine straight games at home, none of them against winning teams, the Nationals might finally begin to see their wounds close. Nineteen of their next 22 games come against losing teams, 15 of their next 21 are at home, and the schedule does not get much harder from there. August tests even the deepest teams. For the Nationals, it might signal the end of a midseason slog.
After marching ominously out of his last start following one scoreless inning of work, Scherzer will return, against the same Marlins, seemingly uninhibited by the neck spasm that doomed him a week ago. In the moment, Scherzer’s departure seemed to signal something more sinister than a pushed-back start. The extent of his health will become clear Monday night, when the Cy Young candidate faces the Marlins for the third time this season. The first time, he carried a no-hitter into the eighth inning. The second time, he left after one.
Scherzer’s return is not the only promising sign for the banged-up Nationals, who took Jayson Werth and Trea Turner with them to Florida, and seem likely to bring at least one back. Werth played in simulated games in West Palm Beach, Fla., his foot healed and able to withstand the rigors of running full-bore on treadmills. Turner was also in Florida, though he was not cleared to hit as of last week. Taylor, meanwhile, has played in six games on rehab assignment with the Potomac Nationals. He has played three games in center field and accumulated 19 at-bats, meaning he could be ready to return this week.
BULLPEN BEARS THE LOAD
In the course of a month, the back end of the Nationals’ bullpen has transformed from an agonizing and awkward weakness into a solid and increasingly trustworthy strength. Ryan Madson has seized the eighth inning with impressive vigor, striking out 11 men in seven innings while walking just one. Despite a few uncharacteristically shaky outings to start his Nationals tenure, Sean Doolittle is 5 for 5 in save opportunities. Washington’s most recent addition, Brandon Kintzler, seems likely to settle into a seventh-inning role and has allowed a hit and a walk in three innings as a National.
Since Madson and Doolittle joined the bullpen July 18, Nationals relievers have the second-best FIP (fielding independent pitching) of any National League bullpen (3.31). They have the fourth-highest strikeout rate in the majors: 27.8 percent of batters faced, 10.8 per nine innings. Narrowing the scope to the seventh, eighth and ninth innings, the Nationals have the lowest FIP and highest strikeout rate of any NL bullpen during that period. Opponents are hitting .212 against Nationals relievers in those innings.
Many times last season, as Marlins slugger Giancarlo Stanton was mired in a slump, Nationals Manager Dusty Baker warned that a slumping Stanton might be the most dangerous one, due for a breakout his team would have to dodge. But this week, the Nationals will find themselves experiencing Stanton in the midst of a hot streak — three home runs in his last 18 at-bats, including two this past weekend against the Atlanta Braves.
The Nationals have held Stanton this season to a .229 average and one homer in nine games. Traditionally, he has annihilated them, with a 1.020 career OPS and 29 homers against the Nationals in his career. Stanton is hitting .400 in August. Something, it seems, will give this week.
Mon.: RHP Max Scherzer vs. LHP Chris O’Grady
Tues.: RHP A.J. Cole vs. RHP Vance Worley
Weds.: LHP Gio Gonzalez vs. LHP Adam Conley
Thurs.: RHP Tanner Roark vs. RHP Dan Straily
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