Thursday, August 20, 2015

Rock Bottom Hit, Nowhere to Go but Up?

Maybe we have seen rock bottom. After the Nationals were led to a 4-1 win by the newly dominate and goatee-less Stephen Strasburg, the Nationals sit only 3.5 games out of first place since the Mets were walked off on up I-95 against the Orioles. Going back to the FanGraphs projections, they give the Nationals a 37.3% chance at claiming the NL East title, up from 30% only a few days ago.

Take all the action in Colorado with a grain of salt, though. The elevation plays tricks on batted balls and breaking pitches. Toss in the largest outfield by total area in all of baseball and you end up with a recipe for offense. Of course, a win at elevation still counts for a win in the standings, so the Nationals will obviously take the two wins, especially considering the hell they went through earlier in the road trip. The wins do cover up some basic mental and physical errors, including more errors from Harper and Desmond, missed pick offs, base running blunders, etc. The Nationals aren’t playing mistake free baseball, but sometimes talent can paper over those miscues. It just hasn’t played out that way for most of this year.

In news for the Nationals, Matt Williams played with the lineup! It resulted in 19 runs over two games! See above caveat about games in Colorado! With regards to the new lineup – pro: Michael Taylor and his sub .300 OBP is no longer hitting leadoff, con: Jayson Werth and his sub .275 OBP are hitting leadoff, pro: Danny Espinosa is getting extended playing time again and making it worth the while, con: Williams apparently isn’t clever enough to keep Espinosa in the lineup while also finding at bats for Anthony Rendon. Now, Jayson Werth may work as a leadoff man. Despite his struggles recently, he is still seeing a lot of pitches and his batting eye shouldn’t degrade much with time/injury. He hit well in the two games since the lineup shift, but the Nationals are operating on some really thin margins. I’m as big a Werth fan as any, but Williams needs to keep a short leash with Werth. The team can’t afford to sacrifice a game or two to let Werth work things out. Danny Espinosa should be getting fitted for an outfielder’s mitt and getting some practice reps in left field. Espinosa’s greatest trait is his ability to play nearly every position on the field. Remember how people were linking Ben Zobrist to the Nationals? Well, the Nationals have their own Ben Zobrist in Danny Espinosa, if they were willing to give him a shot playing the outfield to spell Werth every few days. As I have said before, give Escobar, Desmond, Rendon and Werth one day off a week and all of a sudden Espinosa is playing nearly every day and you keep some of the most important position players fresh down the stretch.

Sure, the new look Nationals offense has looked competent again following the lineup changes. But don’t forget, this same team put up an 8 spot against the Dodgers to start this road trip. That was quickly followed by 6 straight losses. It’s always a positive sign to see the team hitting consistently, but they need to do it for more than two games to call it consistency. And to really make a playoff push, they are going to have to do it against the quality Mets pitchers, not 40 year old Rafael Betancourt.

Finally, how about some Mets news? They finally announced their plan to deal with the imminent arrival of innings limits for their young aces. The Mets will skip starts of the young guys, specifically Matt Harvey and Noah Syndergaard, and plug in fellow phenom Steven Matz and AAA pitcher Logan Verrett in their place. Steven Matz impressed in a handful of MLB starts earlier in the year, but he is coming off of a torn lat muscle and is anything but a sure thing. Verrett has been respectable while not overly impressive in the minor leagues and does not have anywhere near the prospect status of the other big arms in the Mets rotation. Don’t forget that deGrom, who is likely not to be skipped, is also getting close to setting a career mark in innings pitched. He doesn’t have the injury history of Harvey, but it’s only his second full year in the majors. In a setting where every out, run, inning, game matters, those skipped starts or fatigued innings could make the difference between playoff baseball and fall tee times.

So where does that leave us? The Nationals finish out the series against the Rockies tonight. A win, of course, would be huge and leave the Nationals only 3 games back as the Mets have an off day. With home series against the Brewers, Padres, and Marlins lined up at home, this is the Nationals chance to make up some ground. They don’t need to close the gap between themselves and the Mets over this stretch. Although, by all means, go right ahead. If they can shave a game or two off the lead and go into the Mets series in early September in DC down by 3 games or less, they are in the position they need to be. If they can’t pick up ground, that series against the Mets is the last, great hope for this team.

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