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This was the weekend most Washington Nationals fans had circled on their schedules for some time — after 143 games, a trip to Turner Field for a weekend set against the Braves which could have gone some way to deciding who would clinch the division. It looked like it would be even more important on August 22 when the Braves won in Washington to start a five-game skid for the Nationals, which ended with their lead in the NL East at four games.
Since that date, however, the Nationals have gone 12-3 and go to Atlanta on the back of a sweep of the New York Mets, while the Braves will be looking to bounce back from their sweep at the hands of the Brewers. With the gap at the top of the Division now 8.5 games, this series doesn’t look as important as it once might have been. What it might do, though, is give us some good indicators about the postseason run the Nats might have.
With the likelihood of clinching a play-off spot early next week and perhaps the division shortly after, this could be the last series where we get a look at the Nationals first choice line-up as they take on some decent pitching in a series for the first time in a while. In the last three series, with the exception of R.A. Dickey who got no run support in a pretty good outing on Tuesday and Ricky Nolasco who shut them down on Sunday, Washington has faced a steady diet of triple-A pitching.
So far this month, Michael Morse and Jayson Werth are the only members of the Nationals everyday lineup not hitting over .300, with Adam LaRoche, Bryce Harper and Ian Desmond having OBPs of over .400 and their teammates (other than Werth) not far behind. The team has also found some serious pop, hitting 30 home runs so far this month, more than they managed in the whole of August.
Expect big things from Ryan Zimmerman this weekend. He’s batting .359 against the Braves this year, with four homers and 15 RBIs in 15 games. Catcher Jesus Flores could also make a return to the lineup, as he’s 11-for-32 against Braves pitching this year, with three home runs. The Nationals bats could come under increasing pressure in October with Stephen Strasburg being shut down and the move to a four-man rotation. The weekend against Chris Medlen, Tommy Hanson and Mike Minor should be a good examination.
Medlen has been a sight to behold this season against the Nats, making four relief appearances and one start with an ERA of 2.10. In his only start against the Nationals, he pitched seven scoreless innings on seven hits, striking out seven. Hanson has recently struggled, giving up 11 earned runs off 24 hits in his last four starts, lasting a combined 20.1 innings, and Minor has given up only three hits in his last 12 innings of work.
But it isn’t just the Nationals batting that will be put to the test, the most talked about pitcher in MLB is no longer taking the mound, which means the pressure on the remaining guys has increased, even though they always knew it would come down to this.
Ross Detwiler will take the hill on Friday, having made four starts against the Braves this year, giving up 10 earned runs in 23.1 innings. He’s blown hot and cold so far this year, but looks to be steady going into the stretch; in his last three starts he’s allowed six earned runs on 17.2 innings. Edwin Jackson goes Saturday having pitched only once against the Braves this year, giving up one earned run on seven innings. Like Detwiler, Jackson has struggled for consistency, and with Strasburg now finally shut down, he’ll need to be on top form throughout the postseason. Gio Gonzalez will look to regain the control he didn’t have against the Mets on Monday, where he walked five in six innings. He goes for his 20th win of the season on Sunday Night Baseball.
This might not be a series many baseball fans pay attention to, but with the remainder of Washington’s schedule against teams who have at least an outside bet of still making the postseason, the Nationals will want to send out a signal that they are still the team to beat in the National League as the race for October draws to a close.