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Washington Nationals Series Preview: Potentially decisive road trip starts against Atlanta Braves

After a disappointing homestand, the Nationals now have a crucial seven-game stretch on the road against divisional opponents, starting with the Braves on Monday...

MLB: Game One-Washington Nationals at Atlanta Braves Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

The less said about the Washington Nationals’ awful display at the plate against the Milwaukee Brewers over the weekend, the better.

It was yet another lackluster effort from a lineup that had struggled to consistently produce runs.

For most of the season, the problem has been capitalizing when they get runners in scoring position. They couldn’t even get that far during this series though, going 3-for-38 with runners on base, giving them a pitiful slash line of just .079/.167/.105 in the three games.

Now the Nationals have seven divisional games, which could be decisive if they want to try and climb back into the National League East, starting with four against the Atlanta Braves.

The Braves have been completely snake-bitten by injuries lately, losing Marcell Ozuna, Huascar Ynoa, Cristian Pache, Grant Dayton, Travis d’Arnaud, and Alex Jackson to injury this month. Mike Soroka also suffered a setback in his recovery from his Achilles injury.

Despite the lengthy Injured List, the Braves are still hovering towards the top of the division and sit at 24-26 coming into the series against the Nationals this week.

Here’s what you should expect from the four-game set in Atlanta...

The schedule

  • Game One: Monday, May 31st, 5:10 pm EDT. TV: MASN 2, Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Two: Tuesday, June 1st, 7:20 pm EDT. TV: MASN, Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Three: Wednesday, June 2nd, 7:20 pm EDT. TV: MASN, Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Four: Thursday, June 3rd, 12:20 pm EDT. TV: MASN, Radio: 106.7 The Fan

Pitching matchups

  • Game One: Joe Ross (2-4, 5.19 ERA) vs Charlie Morton (3-2, 3.98 ERA)
  • Game Two: Stephen Strasburg (1-2, 4.43 ERA) vs Max Fried (2-2, 4.63 ERA)
  • Game Three: TBD (0-0, -.-- ERA) vs Drew Smyly (2-3, 5.95 ERA)
  • Game Four: Patrick Corbin (3-4, 6.23 ERA) vs Ian Anderson (4-2, 3.27 ERA)

Who’s hot?

Ryan Zimmerman: He may not be able to start more than a handful of times a week like he used to, but when he is called upon, Zimmerman deserves a lot of credit for what he’s done.

On the season, Zimmerman has a strong .318/.348/.565 slash line with five home runs and 15 RBIs. Since May 18th, he’s been particularly hot though, going 7-for-13 in his three starts with a home run and 5 RBIs while sporting a 1.495 OPS and 303 wRC+ in that time.

Seemingly every time Zimmerman starts and produces, the cries from fans grow louder for him to start more frequently, but even he admits that he’s not able to anymore.

“It’s been nice to start a couple times a week and pinch-hit,” Zimmerman told reporters earlier this month. “Really be able to kind of take care of my body and do the most that I can to stay healthy, so when it is my chance to play I can produce.”

The reduced role is a big reason for Zimmerman’s increased production and the Nats will likely keep it this way for the foreseeable future to get the most out of the franchise icon.

Austin Riley: This is exactly who was in this section for the Braves the last time the Nationals played Atlanta earlier this month and he proceeded to go 0-for-12 over those three games.

Since that series though, Riley resumed being the most fearsome hitter in the Braves lineup.

In his 19 games since the Braves’ trip to D.C., Riley has slashed .348/.443/.758 with seven home runs, 15 RBIs, and he’s walked 11 times while striking out 28 times.

The BABIP is still pretty high for Riley with a .485 mark in that 19-game stretch and a .406 mark on the season, suggesting some regression is still overdue for him at some point. The Nats will be hoping they will once again benefit from that and handle him this series.

Who’s not?

Juan Soto: You could make a good argument that almost the entire offense deserves to be here after a putrid series against the Brewers. Perhaps the most frustrating to watch though is Soto, who continues to struggle with elevating the ball lately.

In his last 10 games, the 2020 batting champ is slashing a poor .226/.368/.258 with only one extra-base hit and one RBI, though he has walked seven times and struck out only six.

Since returning from the IL on May 4th, Soto has a launch angle of just 2°, leading him to a 60.6% ground ball percentage in that span. Both of those are a long way from his career figures, with an average launch angle of 11.9° and a ground ball percentage of 48.5%.

With the lineup struggling as a whole, they could do with their talisman returning to his previous form and quickly before it’s too late for the Nationals to climb out of the hole they’re digging.

Ender Inciarte: When Inciarte first arrived in Atlanta in the Shelby Miller-Dansby Swanson trade, he became one of the most underrated players on the then-up and coming team.

He’s underperformed the past couple of years though and has slipped into more of a part-time role, a role that could be set to expand temporarily during the series with the Nats due to the injuries to Ozuna and Pache that may open up a spot in the outfield in the meantime.

In 2021, Inciarte has an underwhelming .235/.297/.265 slash line, but it’s even worse in the month of May in part-time duty as he has slashed .176/.222/.176 with one walk and five strikeouts.

Inciarte looks set to at least start a couple of games in this series against the Nationals, though he is no longer the pesky hitter he once was earlier in his tenure with the Braves.

From the opposing dugout

Check out some of the top Braves storylines from our friends at Talking Chop...

One more thing to watch

Ok, we’re not going to pile on the Nationals’ offense anymore down here. Instead, the Nats may end up welcoming back a couple of reinforcements at some point during this series.

First up, Victor Robles looks as though he is closer to returning to the major league team.

“He’s done some agility stuff,” Martinez explained on Sunday. “He’s going to go down to Harrisburg and DH today, if the conditions over there, the field, I’m assuming they’re pretty wet, but we said if he can go down there, and get some work in and DH and get his at-bats,

“He feels good enough to do that, so if everything goes well he’ll DH today and then we’ll reevaluate tomorrow.”

In his rehab start, Robles did DH and went 1-for-2 with a double and a pair of walks before being removed from the game in the eighth inning.

It’s still unclear whether the Nationals want Robles to play the field or not in Harrisburg, but with Luis García being optioned back to Triple-A after Sunday’s game, that may be an indicator that the team wants their center fielder back in time to open the series in Atlanta.

The Nationals may also get Erick Fedde back in the near future after he threw a sim game.

“He threw — he was at four innings, 65 pitches, so it wasn’t bad,” Martinez said. “I’m waiting to hear from him today, I want to talk to him today and see how he feels.

“It’s usually next day after sitting out that long. So I’ll talk to him today and then we’ll see where he’s at after today.”

Because of the doubleheader against the Brewers on Saturday, the Nationals need a starter for the Wednesday game of this series, as none of their current rotation members would be on full rest. That could accelerate Fedde’s rotation return to this week.

“We need somebody June 2nd to pitch,” Martinez explained. “We haven’t decided who that’s going to be yet, it’s TBD, but we’ll see how he’s feeling here after today.”

Fedde has been on the COVID IL since testing positive before the team’s May 19th game, so it’s not so much a physical ailment and could allow him to step right back into the rotation without a rehab start, even if it’s slightly abbreviated as he gets his pitch count back up.

Robles and Fedde aren’t huge difference-makers, but the Nats need all the improvements they can get to give them every chance to win some ballgames against their divisional rivals.