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Washington Nationals Series Preview: Nine-game homestand wraps up against Milwaukee Brewers

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Two offensively-challenged teams go head-to-head this weekend as the Brewers visit the Nationals...

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Nationals reverted back to a familiar theme in their series against the Cincinnati Reds as the offense showed up for one game and went missing in the other two.

The Reds had generally been pitching fairly poorly coming into the series, so it was particularly frustrating to see the offense once again hold the team back from getting a series win. The Nats even could’ve swept with the team’s pitching impressing on the whole.

Anyway, next up for the Nationals is the Milwaukee Brewers, who have actually been having a similar problem in that their offense just refuses to find much consistency lately while scoring the fourth-fewest runs in the majors entering Friday’s slate of games.

That said, the Brewers have found huge success in their pitching. Coming into the series they are sporting the fifth-best rotation ERA in the majors at 3.16, led by the likes of Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff, and Freddy Peralta, two of whom will pitch this weekend.

Here’s the lowdown from Nationals Park ahead of the three-game weekend set...

The schedule

  • Game One: Friday, May 28th, 7:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN, Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Two: Saturday, May 29th, 7:15 pm EDT. TV: FOX, Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Three: Sunday, May 30th, 1:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN, Radio: 106.7 The Fan

Pitching matchups

  • Game One: Jon Lester (0-2, 5.33 ERA) vs Brett Anderson (2-3, 4.34 ERA)
  • Game Two: Patrick Corbin (3-3, 6.13 ERA) vs Freddy Peralta (4-1, 2.53 ERA)
  • Game Three: Max Scherzer (4-3, 2.27 ERA) vs Brandon Woodruff (3-2, 1.41 ERA)

Who’s hot?

Sam Clay: While Daniel Hudson’s performance out of the bullpen has gotten some acclaim recently, Clay’s strong start to the season has gone a bit under the radar.

On the season Clay has a solid 2.51 ERA but has not allowed an earned run since April 17th, though he has mostly pitched with his team behind. Since allowing that last earned run, he has surrendered 10 hits in nine innings while walking four and striking out just six batters.

In today’s game, the left-hander’s 17.5% strikeout percentage and 9.5% walk percentage would be cause for concern. In Clay’s case though, he is able to negate this by being excellent pitching to contact with an elite 66.7% ground ball percentage on the season.

Clay will have traffic on the bases with his walks and when the ground balls find holes in the infield, but he has been good at preventing too many baserunners from reaching in innings, something that the Nationals clearly valued in him when they signed him this winter.

Brandon Woodruff: While it has been Corbin Burnes who has stolen most of the headlines for the Brewers’ pitching staff this season, in May, it has been Woodruff who has been their best rotation arm.

Looking past the 1-2 record thanks to the Brewers’ often-anemic offense, in five May starts, the right-hander has pitched to a 1.29 ERA with 39 strikeouts and just five walks in 25 innings

Woodruff will face off against Max Scherzer in what looks set to be a tasty pitching duel in the series finale on Sunday, a rematch of the NL Wild Card Game in 2019. The Nationals will be hoping that this game goes the same way as that game, but with a bit less tension.

Who’s not?

Starlin Castro: Remember Castro’s 11-game hitting streak that was broken in the 17-2 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks? That now seems to be a thing of the past with the third baseman back in a slump.

In his last 13 games, Castro is slashing just .135/.193/.192 with only one extra-base hit, three RBIs, four walks, and 11 strikeouts, leaving his OPS at an underwhelming .644 on the season.

Castro isn’t in danger of losing any playing time to the likes of Luis García or Carter Kieboom, but the Nationals do need him to start racking up his hits again as he is the hitter who hits with runners in scoring position the most for the Nats, according to FanGraphs.

Christian Yelich: The past 10 months of baseball have managed to bring a perennial MVP candidate in Yelich back down to earth a little bit.

In the shortened 2020 season, the former NL MVP slashed an ok .205/.356/.430, but far from the standard he set the previous two seasons.

In 2021, while Yelich did start the season pretty well, a lower back strain has cost him a month’s worth of games in two IL stints.

Though he returned from the injury on May 18th, he’s still finding his way back at the plate.

In his eight games since being activated from the IL for a second time, he’s slashing just .087/.276/.217 with one home run, four walks, and eight strikeouts.

Eventually, it seems as though Yelich will return to his MVP form once he is clear of the back injury that has hampered his season so far. The Nats might be catching him at a good time though, as he has been a fearsome presence in the Brewers’ lineup when he’s fully healthy.

From the opposing dugout

Check out some of the top Brewers storylines from our friends at Brew Crew Ball...

One more thing to watch

In the series with the Reds, it was pretty clear why the Nationals were only able to pick up one win in the three-game series.

In the two losses, the lineup scored just one run — a Josh Bell solo home run, so it’s not like it was from a sustained rally — on six hits and three free passes across 16 innings. The offense, which appeared to be turning a corner lately, fell flat on its face yet again.

Nationals manager, Dave Martinez, made his disappointment pretty clear after the series on what he thought was the reason the offense went dormant in those two games.

“You can look at it and say we took too many fastballs and got behind in the count,” Martinez explained to reporters on Thursday. “We’re really good at hitting fastballs and so when they throw them, whether it’s one or two per bat, you got to be ready to hit them.

“When we’re taking them for strikes, it’s tough, all of a sudden now you’re hitting with two strikes, and then it gets really tough.”

But why did Martinez think that his hitters were taking so many fastballs in the series?

“Sometimes I think we go up there — because a guy is throwing a really good curveball or good changeup — that we start looking for pitches, instead of staying on the fastball and reacting to breaking pitches. The other way around, you can look for a fastball, get ready to hit a fastball, and then if a guy throws a breaking ball, you can react to it a lot better.

“I don’t know what goes through our hitters’ head sometimes, but I do know that we’re really good at hitting fastballs, and we need to go up there and be a little bit more aggressive, and if they’re going to throw us fastballs, be ready to hit it and square it up.

“I understand that we’re seeing a lot more breaking balls than normal, but be ready to hit the fastball. These guys, they’re good hitters, I know if they’re ready to hit the fastballs they can make adjustments and hit everything else.”

With some tough starting pitching coming up in the Brewers series, look out for whether the Nationals try to be more aggressive hunting fastballs early in counts against the likes of Woodruff and Peralta, who will make it particularly tough if they get ahead in the count.