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Series Preview: The Nats have lost 7 of 10

What this series preview presupposes is... maybe that’s good for the Giants.

Washington Nationals vs. Atlanta Braves baseball Photo by Katherine Frey/The Washington Post via Getty Images

The Nationals spent the offseason losing Bryce Harper but adding a whole bunch of different players to fill that void and bolster their depth. There was no consideration of them hitting the ground with a thud, but that’s exactly what happened.

Two months into the season, they were nine games out of first place in the NL East and had a 24-33 record. Their bullpen was a disaster grafted onto a tragedy stored inside a nightmare warehouse. By now it’s an annual tradition: the Nationals look like they’re one of the best teams in the league, top to bottom, and then they can’t find anyone to pitch in relief from the sixth inning on. Their bullpen ERA in the first half of the season was 6.08.

But at some point during that mess, they figured something out. Their turnaround didn’t start as soon as Gerardo Parra joined the team and hit the snot out of the ball, but it’s important to note that after the Giants cut him, he blossomed in Washington.

It was somewhere between Parra’s emergence and Max Scherzer getting his nose broken while practicing bunt drills when the Nationals finally started to realize their potential. They won 12 of 16 from May 24-June 10, and after the adrenaline of his broken nose led Scherzer to strike out 10 in seven scoreless innings against the Phillies, they won 13 of 17 before the All-Star break to propel them firmly into the Wild Card conversation.

The arbitrary endpoint upon which I’ve based the headline of this series preview, however, calls into question all of that. The Nationals had much higher expectations and, obviously, they have more talent in the starting rotation — not only Scherzer, but Patrick Corbin, Stephen Strasburg, and Anibal Sanchez — and lineup than the Giants, but consider this:

  • From June 1-July 25, the Giants went 30-16. They’re now 4-6 in last 10 and 56-56 overall.
  • From June 1-July 25, the Nationals went 31-13. They’re now 3-7 in last 10 and 58-53 overall.
  • The Giants averaged 5.21 runs per game over that stretch; the Nationals averaged 5.23.

Obviously, the Nationals are just one of 10 NL teams battling for the five postseason spots available, with all the underlying variables — run differential, overall talent, strength of remaining schedule — in their favor, but for nearly three months of the season, they’ve been on parallel paths. The Giants were 22-34 after the first two months of the season and then turned things around behind solid starting pitching and surprise production from hastily inserted outfield talent.

The two teams that faced each other in April look almost completely different. Does that mean the Giants have a better shot this week than they did in the first series? Hard to say. After Jeff Samardzija, the rotation is now an open question, and the relief corps, such as it is, will very quickly start to hit the fatigue wall from overuse.

Dave Martinez might not have been a top manager coming into the season, but by virtue of weathering the storm of a terrible bullpen and disparate parts playing poorly and with nine players on the IL presently, he’s probably a lot better than we might’ve considered after the first two months of the season. Given the talent of his roster, he might just have to be better than Matt Williams at deploying it in order to best the Giants in a crucial spot.

The Giants haven’t played well at home this season, but they’ll need to if they’re to keep their sputtering and improbable playoff odds even barely alive for another week. They’ll miss Scherzer, Howie Kendrick, and Ryan Zimmerman this series (all on the IL), which is a good start towards winning a game or two.

Hitter to watch

I can’t remember Gerardo Parra playing in 30 games with the Giants. That seems like entirely too many. It feels like it was in the 12-17 game range. Not the case! He really did appear in 30 games for the 2019 Giants.

In 97 plate appearances, he hit .198/.278/.267. Then the Giants cut him. His first 97 plate appearances with the Nationals were completely different: 275.320.473 (.792) with 4 home runs and 21 RBI.

Overall, he’s played in 54 games for Washington, starting 22 of them, with a line of .282/.331/.500 (.831 OPS) in 119 plate appearances, good for a 109 OPS+. He’s basically been Mike Yastrzemski for them. Can he be Gerardo Parra for the Giants this week? They’ll need some easy out in the lineup, because the rest of it is pretty danged formidable.

Pitcher to watch

The Nats’ bullpen has gone back to its old, bad ways over the last two weeks, with a 6.61 ERA and -0.4 fWAR in 49 innings. They’ve been the third-worst bullpen in baseball over that stretch. Kyle Barraclough was the worst of the bunch in just plain WAR. A -0.3 in just 0.1 innings pitched. The Nats optioned him.

Gerardo Parra and Brian Dozier have also appeared in games over the past two weeks. Wander Suero has been good for them, but I’m dancing around the pitcher to watch:

As the Nationals do every year, they trade a chunk of their farm system for a few league average relievers to bring their ‘pen back to average. This year, they grabbed the likes of Daniel Hudson, Roenis Elias, and Hunter Strickland.

Strickland has walked one and struck out two in two innings so far. It seems as though Strickland made a lot of friends in the Giants’ clubhouse over the years, but something tels me we’re about to find out about at least one of the enemies he made, too.

Prediction

Anthony Rendon will have a great series, to the point that we’ll wonder in the offseason if the Giants will offer him a long-term contract. They won’t, because he turns 30 next season, but he’s the type of player we’ll get excited about the Giants developing perhaps some time in the future.