Nationals

Nationals

WASHINGTON -- Two walk-off wins. An extra-inning win. Bullpen meltdowns. Shortstop breaks finger. Setup man can’t record an out. Mistakes on the bases. Mistakes in the field. Twenty-four unanswered runs against a division opponent. A cabbage-smashing postgame. All against division opponents.

Washington’s first two weeks went by with the consistency of a squirrel in the street. A turn and sprint here, a head-scratching decision there, no predictability at all times. 

Back home following a six-game road trip, the Nationals leave division play and look to settle down in a three-game series against Pittsburgh starting Friday. 

The end of the series against Philadelphia hinted normalcy may be coming. Or at least getting closer. Trevor Rosenthal recorded three outs Wednesday. Brian Dozier is starting to find his way at the plate. The bullpen -- still a concern -- turned from raging blaze to a smoldering pile.

“I feel like for the most part we were in every game,” Matt Adams said. “We battled and that’s what this team is capable of doing. We get guys on base, we drive them across the plate, and we just keep the line moving and that’s kind of the mentality that putting together some good quality at-bats and passing the baton to the next guy.”

The National League East is already clustered. The Mets are 8-4, Phillies 7-4 (three of their four losses are to the Nationals), the Braves 7-5 and the Nationals 6-5. The Marlins, 3-10, have begun their expected slink to the abyss.

 

Washington has the best run differential in the group, plus-14. Wednesday’s 15-1 romp in Philadelphia skews the total, and other statistics, but it’s not fully misleading. It averaged six runs per game coming into the night. If the Nationals matched that average instead, they are still a viable plus-5. 

The Nationals are tied for fourth in the National League in runs, sit sixth in the more fair assessment of team OPS. Even without Trea Turner, the offense has shown depth and profitability. 

Their pitching staff, however, has gone the other way, damaged of course by the bullpen. The Nationals are 12th in overall ERA and last in all of MLB in bullpen ERA (though closing in on 29th-ranked Baltimore). And their teetering bullpen work is not alone in the division. The Phillies are eight, Braves 11th and Mets 13th in the National League. Everyone is nervous when their starters come out.

Friday, Washington opens the series against Pittsburgh (6-5) with Patrick Corbin. The Pirates counter with location-focused Trevor Williams. He throws a 91-mph fastball 70 percent of the time. That four-seam fastball mixes with a sinker to produce outs. Like Anibal Sanchez or Jeremy Hellickson, Williams needs to be fine to be successful.

Max Scherzer is expected to follow Saturday. He threw from flat ground Wednesday, then rooted on the Capitals on Thursday. This will be his first start of the season on an extra day of rest. If, for some reason, the Nationals feel Scherzer needs another day to heal from the comebacker which hit him last Sunday, Anibal Sanchez will move into Saturday’s start. If things hold, Sanchez pitches Sunday. 

The Nationals have 17 games remaining this month. Just three are in the division. Those are against Miami. A three-series stretch against sub-.500 teams is also on the schedule. Which means the rest of April provides room to move forward in a more calm fashion after a rollicking start.

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