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Chicago Cubs vs Washington Nationals Series Preview: Nats have opportunity to make a statement

With the defending World Series champions in town, the Washington Nationals have the chance to walk away from this series establishing where the power lies in the NL.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at New York Mets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Cubs (38-37) vs. Nationals (45-30) Series Info:

Game 1: Monday, June 26 at 7:05 p.m. EST (MASN/106.7 The Fan)

Game 2: Tuesday, June 27 at 7:05 p.m. EST (MASN/106.7)

Game 3: Wednesday, June 28 at 7:05 p.m. EST (MASN/106.7)

Game 4: Thursday, June 29 at 4:05 p.m. EST (MASN/106.7)

Pitching Matchups:

Monday: Eddie Butler (3-2, 4.19 ERA) vs. Gio Gonzalez (7-1, 2.96)

Tuesday: Jake Arrieta (7-5, 4.36) vs. Max Scherzer (8-5, 2.09)

Wednesday: John Lackey (5-8, 4.74) vs. Stephen Strasburg (8-2, 3.57)

Thursday: Jon Lester (5-4, 3.83) vs. Joe Ross (4-3, 5.40)

What to watch for:

Michael Taylor continues to defy all odds

After ripping five hits — including three home runs — in the series against the Cincinnati Reds, Michael Taylor is on pace to surpass 20 homers, 30 doubles and 15 stolen bases.

Only three players in Nats history (2005-present) have had such seasons: Alfonso Soriano (2006), Ian Desmond (2012, 2013) and Anthony Rendon (2014).

For the record, all four of those seasons were strong enough to earn Silver Slugger awards.

While Taylor might not be taking home any hardware for his numbers just yet, he’s well on his way to making a name for himself at the big league level.

Improvements evident in Joe Ross’s performance

Don’t look now, but Joe Ross is (2-1) with a 3.12 ERA and 8.0 K/9 in his last four starts.

The biggest difference for Ross has been greater use of his changeup, which has jumped from being thrown just 3.5 percent of the time in his first six starts to 10.3 percent in his last four.

Nobody has been able to homer off the pitch since he started using it more frequently, and with a 17.1 percent ground ball rate expect him to continue opting for that third pitch in his arsenal.

The Cubs’ struggles with mediocrity

Entering play Monday, Chicago ranks 16th in the majors in runs scored, 11th in starters ERA and trail the Milwaukee Brewers by a game a half in the NL Central.

Last season, the Cubs finished with the third most runs scored, the best starters ERA and a whopping 17.5-game lead over the St. Louis Cardinals for the division crown.

With Kyle Schwarber now down in AAA-Iowa, Dexter Fowler playing for the Cardinals, Addison Russell under investigation for domestic abuse accusations and both Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist on the disabled list, things aren’t going according to plan for the defending champions.

Who to watch out for: Javier Baez

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Miami Marlins Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Behind Chicago’s power duo of Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, Javier Baez is the most critical player in the Cubs’ lineup.

While he typically hits near the bottom of the order, his .260/.298/.471 batting line has given him an integral role in helping turn the lineup over.

Baez hits lefties extremely well (.825 career OPS against), so look for his matchups with Gio Gonzalez to play a big part of Monday’s series opener.