After being swept at the hands of the Philadelphia Phillies at home, playing another rebuilding team for a bounceback series would be a nice way for the Nationals to snap out of their funk. Tough luck. Instead, Washington will face off against the team that has caused more problems, frustration, and anger for them than any other in the team's eleven year history, the St. Louis Cardinals, in a three game series in Busch Stadium.
Heading into the series, the Nats are struggling mightily offensively - against the Phillies, they only put up three runs total in the entire series, all of which came in the first game. It has been twenty two innings since the Nationals have scored a single run.
"Not much worked our way," Dusty Baker said after being shut out for the second game in a row. "We'll get it fixed - you've just got to keep playing and keep grinding and hopefully, we'll get it fixed on the road trip."
Of all the road trips to try and fix things on, this one is not exactly ideal.
To this point in the season, the teams the Nationals will face, the Cardinals, Royals and Cubs, have combined for a 3.25 ERA, and all three play in divisions with teams that are very strong offensively.
But, there may be hope for this series - at least for a few games. Although a strong team, the Cardinals aren't as intimidating as they look. Mike Leake, the starter who the Nationals will face tonight, has a 5.46 ERA so far this season. Jaime Garcia, who they'll face on Saturday, has a 3.24 ERA, but has only gone five innings in his last two starts, which may suggest that the Nats will see the Cardinals' bullpen, which has been inconsistent thus far.
Here's the bad news - the series is being played in Busch Stadium, where the Nationals, no matter how good they look, simply cannot win.
Since 2012, the Nationals have only won twice at Busch Stadium in the regular season, with a collective record of 2-10. In those twelve games, the offense has only hit .201, and the pitching staff has an ERA of 5.18, two totals that make winning look nearly impossible in that ballpark. (Will it help now that the Nats switched their official beer to Budweiser?)
At Busch Stadium, what can go wrong will go wrong. Aces like Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg will give up a half-dozen runs, and MVPs like Bryce Harper will go 0-4 with three strikeouts. It's not a happy place for the Nats or their fans.
Tonight, Stephen Strasburg will get the ball, coming off of an odd start against the Minnesota Twins. Through his first seven innings, he only allowed one run, before giving up a three run home run to Brian Dozier in the eighth.
"I tried to give him a chance to win that game, because this guy has been dealing," Baker told the media regarding Strasburg and his decision to keep him in as Dozier stepped to the plate.
"The worst thing is to take a pitcher out that's been dealing all game."
In his career, Strasburg has a 2.81 ERA versus the Cardinals, but a 4.05 ERA at Busch Stadium.
Tomorrow, Joe Ross will get the ball. Early in his second major league season, he's allowed as many runs as he's scored - one.
Although Ross has only faced the Cardinals once, an outing in which he gave up three runs in 2.2 innings, it came late in the 2015 season, where his performance fell off towards the end, as he pitched more than he had ever in his career.
Ross is returning from a blister that forced him to leave one start early and miss another.
In the meantime, the offense will attempt to pick up the strong pitching after struggling this week.
Anthony Rendon, who was in the conversation for the MVP award in 2014, has had a rough season thus far, hitting a mere .229 with only one RBI.
Dusty Baker, though, is not too worried about his third baseman.
"He's been making wonderful contact... they're crowding him, they're pitching him tough" said Baker. "Now, it's up to him to make the adjustment to what they're doing to him."
Additionally, the Nationals are poised to get an offensive boost at some point on the road trip, as Ben Revere could be healthy enough to play by the time the Nats get to Chicago to face the Cubs. "If things go perfectly, which they usually don't," Baker noted, "then he said he could come back sometime during the Chicago series.
Nobody really knows what to expect from this series. The Cardinals look good but not great thus far. The Nationals' offense is struggling, and playing St. Louis is never a good solution to any problems, especially hitting problems.
The Cardinals may have a slight advantage in that they have the home advantage, but the series could easily go either way.
The other problem with predicting the outcome of the series is that the Nationals have not been challenged by a contender to this point in the season, which means that it's unclear how they stack up against good teams.
By the end of the road trip, though, the Nationals should have a better idea of who they really are.
"There are three or four times on the schedule where you say, 'Hey, this is going to be a heck of a road trip,' said Baker. "This is going to be a test -- a barometer to see how good we are right now."
What to watch for in St. Louis
Carlos Martinez looks extremely good
The Cardinals are undefeated in games Martinez pitches, and for good reason. The righty has only allowed six runs in twenty eight innings, and sixteen hits in four games. Sunday could be a long afternoon.
Joe Ross hopes to pick up where he left off
Ross, who is 2-0 to this point, has only allowed one run, and seems to get better with every start. (Plus, we now know the real story behind Dee Gordon's leadoff hit in Ross' first start). Although he exited against the Marlins with a blister, if he's pitching anywhere close to the way he was earlier, it could be a lot of fun to watch.
Ryan Zimmerman could break out
Although the first baseman has struggled early this season, the Cardinals could be a welcome sight (for him, and for him only). In his career against St. Louis, Zimmerman has a .285 average against the Cardinals, including ten home runs (one of which was the 200th of his career).
Friday, April 29th: Nationals vs Cardinals - 8:15 PM (MASN2, WJFK)
Probable Pitchers: Stephen Strasburg (3-0, 2.17 ERA) vs Mike Leake (0-2, 5.64 ERA)
Saturday, April 30th: Nationals vs Cardinals - 2:15 PM (MASN, MLB Network, WJFK)
Probable Pitchers: Joe Ross (2-0, 0.54 ERA) vs Jaime Garcia (1-1, 3.24 ERA)
Sunday, May 1st: Nationals vs Cardinals - 2:15 PM (MASN2, WJFK)
Probable Pitchers: Max Scherzer (2-1, 4.35 ERA) vs Carlos Martinez (4-0, 1.93 ERA)