It may be difficult to be brimming with confidence after the Nats recently completed homestand. The Nats went 3-4 on that homestand, splitting with an Arizona Diamondbacks squad that's essentially a .500 club and losing a series to a Rockies team that has the third worst record in baseball. The homestand was made even more frustrating by the fact that the Nats had plenty of opportunities to win each of the two games that they lost to Colorado.
They'll now head on the road for a gut-wrenching ten game, eleven day west coast trip. In the first two of those series, they'll take on the top two contenders for the NL West crown: The 62-49 Los Angeles Dodgers and the 59-52 defending World Series champion San Francisco Giants. This certainly sounds like a daunting task, and it likely will be. However, there's a possibility that the Nats could be catching these two teams at the right time.
The Dodgers are returning home after a 2-4 trip through Pennsylvania. They took two out of three from the Phillies to begin the trip, but head back to Chavez Ravine on a three game losing streak after being swept by the Pirates this past weekend. Their pitching looked shaky on that trip, as they allowed five runs or more in five of those six games. Even defending NL MVP/Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw got rocked for four runs in six innings last time out. Zack Greinke, now a few starts removed from his 45.2 inning scoreless streak, was touched up for six runs in six innings against the Phillies last Thursday.
The Dodgers starters aren't the only ones who are struggling on the hill. For all of the complaints that we've had about the Nats bullpen lately, they're certainly not the worst bullpen in baseball. Since the All Star break, the Dodgers bullpen has been...
The Nats won't play the Giants until Thursday afternoon, but San Francisco hasn't exactly been running all that hot lately either. They're on their way back home after completing a 3-7 road trip that took them through Texas, Atlanta, and Chicago. Just like the Dodgers, the Giants were swept this weekend, falling in four straight games at Wrigley Field. San Francisco is off today, but they'll play a two game set against another contender (the Astros) before the Nats come to town for a four game weekend set.
The Giants pitching has been struggling some as well lately. Madison Bumgarner and Jake Peavy (whining fit about Kyle Schwarber this weekend aside) have been fine. Matt Cain has struggled since returning from injury, and has a 5.59 ERA in seven starts. Chris Heston's rookie pixie dust seems to be running out, as he's been lit up in his past couple of starts. Ryan Vogelsong has resumed looking like the hittable back end starter that he's been for most of the past three years. Vogelsong has actually struggled enough so that the Giants went out and traded for Mike Leake at the deadline to replace him in the rotation; Leake has since hit the disabled list.
San Francisco's bullpen as a whole hasn't been terrible recently, but there's some trouble at the back end. Santiago Casilla seems to have yielded the closer's role back to Sergio Romo, as he's allowed five runs in two innings over his past three appearances. Jeremy Affeldt has been hit or miss since returning from the disabled list in late July. They still have supreme LOOGY Javier Lopez and flamethrower Hunter Strickland performing well, but they're not as dominant a bullpen as we've seen in the past.
Both the Dodgers and Giants have strong offenses, but run prevention has still been the Nats strength this season. The Nats 3.67 ERA ranks eleventh in MLB; Their 3.33 FIP ranks second in MLB; Their 15.2 pitcher WAR ranks third in MLB. If the pitching shows up on this road trip, the Dodgers and Giants are very beatable. Their pitching is struggling a bit lately, and they're both reeling after being swept on the road this weekend.
This road trip could end up making or breaking the Nats season. Obviously, we'd all like to see the Nats find a way to gain ground on the Mets as quickly as possible. When faced with a tough ten game stretch like this, though, the more realistic goal is to keep the current 1.5 game deficit where it is. The Mets will start with those same Rockies who just took two out of three from the Nats, but they will also face a red hot Pirates team and a solid Orioles squad before the Nats return home. If the Nats can at least earn a split on this road trip, they should remain within striking distance.