In their last two games, the Washington Nationals faced a pair of starting pitchers who combined to throw 16 scoreless innings against them while striking out 25, walking one and allowing just six hits, all singles. It is not surprising, then, that they lost both games. It is even less surprising when one learns that those starting pitchers were former Cy Young winners Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke.
However, bidding farewell to the Dodgers won’t offer much relief for the Nats. To start this week, they welcome the Mets and their own trio of impressive starters to Nationals Park for a three-game series in which first place in the National League East is on the line. Here are the start times and pitching matchups for those games, two of which will be on national television, with New York's pitchers listed first:
Monday, 7:05 pm ET (ESPN): Matt Harvey (8–6, 3.07 ERA) vs. Gio Gonzalez (6–4, 3.99 ERA)
Tuesday, 7:05 pm ET: Jacob deGrom (9–6, 2.14 ERA) vs. Joe Ross (2–1, 2.66 ERA)
Wednesday, 12:35 pm ET (MLB Network): Noah Syndergaard (4–5, 3.05 ERA) vs. Jordan Zimmermann (8–5, 3.27 ERA)
The pitching gauntlet the Nationals are running at the start of the second-half of the season doesn’t end there. After the Mets leave town, the Nats travel to Pittsburgh for a four-game set in which they will have to face Francisco Liriano and two All-Stars in A.J. Burnett and Gerrit Cole. They’ll then head down to Miami and run right into 2013 NL Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez. Two games later, they’ll be up in New York rematching against the same trio of dominant Mets arms that they’ll be facing this week. From their game against Kershaw this past Saturday through the end of that series in New York on Aug. 2, Washington will have faced a starting pitcher currently sporting an ERA of 3.07 or lower in 12 of 15 games.
That would be a tall task for any team, but the Nationals are particularly vulnerable right now because half of their everyday lineup is on the disabled list. Anthony Rendon, Denard Span, Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman aren’t just any four hitters from Washington's lineup, either. They’re the four men who would be occupying the top five spots in the lineup around MVP front runner Bryce Harper if they were healthy. Take four of the top five men out of any lineup and that team is going to have trouble scoring runs. Even with Harper continuing to produce in the manner that has made him the best hitter in baseball this season, the Nationals scored just 3.8 runs per game in the 16 contests between Rendon going back on the disabled list in late June and their run-in with Kershaw on Saturday.
The good news for the Nats is that Rendon and Zimmerman, who were out with a quadriceps strain and plantar fasciitis, respectively, are close to returning. Both started minor league rehab assignments over the weekend and hope to be activated at some point this week. Zimmerman will slot right back in at first base when he returns. However, Rendon’s return will result in something of an infield crunch that could prompt the team to bench shortstop Ian Desmond.
Desmond, who will become a free agent in November, has been having a disastrous year both in the field and at the plate. His nearly daily errors in April contributed to Washington’s surprisingly slow start, but his collapse at the plate over the last two months has been far more problematic. Since May 30, Desmond has hit .128/.167/.213 in 151 plate appearances with 50 strikeouts against just six walks and five extra-base hits. Yes, he’s having abysmal luck on balls in play (.167 BABIP), but his slump is only deepening. In his last 13 games he’s hitting 3-for-44 (.068) with one extra-base hit and two walks, and he brings an active 0-for-18 slump into this week’s series against the three best pitchers in the Mets’ vaunted rotation.
With manager Matt Williams having said that third base is easier on Rendon’s legs than second, it’s clear that Yunel Escobar will have to move off the hot corner upon Rendon’s return. With Escobar a natural shortstop, albeit one whose typically excellent fielding appears to be slipping in his early 30s, it would only make sense to give Escobar a chance to stick at shortstop in place of Desmond. After all, Desmond was already due to be replaced at the position by prospect Trea Turner (currently hitting .296/.333/.451 in Triple A) after this season. If the team would already be better without him, it should make that move now.
Of course, that depends on Rendon’s ability to get and stay healthy. He lasted all of 18 games in June before re-aggravating the quad strain he originally suffered in spring training. Still, replacing the flat-lining Desmond in the lineup with Rendon, now a career .280/.345/.439 hitter in the majors, would be a huge boost to the Nationals’ lineup at a time when they desperately need it, as would a return to health from the oft-injured Zimmerman, who has managed to play just 117 games over the last season and a half.
As for Washington's other key players currently on the DL—outfielders Werth (fractured left wrist) Span (tight back) and starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg (strained left oblique)—none are expected to return before August arrives, but all could be back early next month. The thought of the Nationals having everyone healthy for the stretch run does a lot to quell concerns about the task facing them over the next two weeks. However, Rendon, Span, Strasburg and Werth are all on their second DL stints of the season, and Zimmerman missed 99 games due to injury last year. In other words, the Nats have already gotten those players back from injury recently only to lose them to the DL again.
Despite the fact that Washington is the clearly superior team when both are at full strength, we could have a real race between the Nats and Mets in the National League East this summer. If so, it could be a classic, as the two teams play the final three games of the season against each other at Citi Field on the season’s final weekend in early October.
Until then, the next two weeks could be the most crucial moment in the race, particularly from New York's perspective. In addition to their head-to-head matchups, the trading deadline will pass mere hours before the two rematch in Queens a week from Friday. The Mets won’t be able to match quantity of ugprades the Nationals will get from the disabled list over roughly the same span of time, but failing to make any impact moves at the deadline could all but hand the division to Washington. New York still has time to allow things to develop on that front, but with the two teams set to meet six times in these two weeks and their three best pitchers lined up to pitch both series, the Mets need to make a move now.