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Washington Nationals Series Preview: Lowly Pittsburgh Pirates come to nation’s capital

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After facing two of the best teams in baseball in the last two series, the Nationals get some respite with the Pirates...

San Francisco Giants v Washington Nationals Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Much like their series with the Tampa Bay Rays, the Washington Nationals would ordinarily be relatively happy with a series split against the San Francisco Giants, who had the best record in Major League Baseball coming into the four-game set.

But again, in the two losses, it wasn’t a case of being outplayed as such, it was that the Nationals’ anemic offense let plenty of opportunities slip, especially in the second game of Saturday’s doubleheader when they lost in extra innings.

That leaves the Nationals hoping for a sweep of the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates, who have the second-worst record in the National League and third-worst in baseball, in order to try and make up for lost time and kickstart any potential comeback they might be able to do.

While many Nationals fans lament their team’s offense, the Pirates are the ballclub with the worst offense in the league. They sport a league-worst .651 OPS, the fewest home runs in the league with just 45 long balls, and a wRC+ of 81 that is the second-worst in the league.

Here’s what to expect from the three-game series at Nationals Park...

The schedule

  • Game One: Monday, June 14th, 7:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN, Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Two: Tuesday, June 15th, 7:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN, Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Three: Wednesday, June 16th, 4:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN and MLB Network (out-of-market only), Radio: 106.7 The Fan

Pitching matchups

  • Game One: Jon Lester (0-2, 4.19 ERA) vs JT Brubaker (4-5, 3.90 ERA)
  • Game Two: Patrick Corbin (3-5, 6.21 ERA) vs Tyler Anderson (3-6, 4.52 ERA)
  • Game Three: Max Scherzer (5-4, 2.21 ERA) vs Chase De Jong (3-3, 4.80 ERA)

Who’s hot?

Kyle McGowin: A couple of series previews ago, we looked at how well Paulo Espino had done for the Nationals in a low-leverage, innings-eater role. Similar to Espino, McGowin has also provided strong innings in a lower-leverage role for a bullpen that badly needs them.

Though he’s been up and down between the majors and Triple-A a lot this season, since he was last recalled on June 2nd, McGowin hasn’t allowed an earned run in six innings of work with 11 strikeouts and no walks.

On top of that, the last earned run that the slider-heavy reliever allowed was at the end of April, with 10.1 innings of work in the meantime.

After a strong shortened 2020 season, McGowin is now making a case to stick around on the roster longer-term with plenty of impressive outings of late.

Ke’Bryan Hayes: I get it, you probably saw Hayes have a brain fart on the bases on Tuesday when he hit a ball over the fence and then did not step on first base, causing him to be out. Despite that, Hayes might be the main attraction on a pretty bad Pirates team right now.

The third baseman had a strong 2020 meaning he entered this year the NL Rookie of the Year favorite. After a wrist injury sidelined him two games into the season, he returned to the big leagues just over a week ago and has gone right back to last year’s form.

In his nine games since being activated from the Injured List, Hayes is slashing an impressive .316/.350/.579 with two home runs and five RBIs. Obviously, were it not for missing first base last week, he’d have even better numbers, but alas, it did happen.

Combine his offensive skills with his glove at the hot corner and he’s easily the standout on a poor Pirates team.

Who’s not?

Trea Turner: To be clear, there are certainly players on the Nationals performing worse than Turner right now. However, in recent games, the shortstop hasn’t been his usual self.

In his last 19 games, Turner is slashing .240/.305/.267 with just two extra-base hits while striking out 18 times and walking on seven occasions.

That line is why batting average can be misleading at times. Sure, .240 doesn’t look awful, but when there aren’t many walks and most of the hits are singles, it’s a pretty hollow average in that span. Especially for a player who has been as good as Turner in the last 18 months.

The Nationals are going to need Turner back near his borderline-MVP best if they’re going to pull off the unlikely turnaround in the postseason picture before the trade deadline.

Gregory Polanco: Nobody would blame you for thinking that Polanco is in his early 30s, it feels like he’s been with the Pirates in the big leagues for longer than the eight seasons he actually has been with the team.

The 29-year-old outfielder hasn’t put it together though after being a highly-touted prospect who many thought could be part of a big part of a future outfield with Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte. This season is no different as he once again is having a poor year to this point.

Since May 20th, despite flashes of promise, Polanco is slashing just .164/.207/.288 in 20 games with a pair of home runs but has struck out a whopping 29 times in that span.

With Pittsburgh in a deep rebuild and 2021 being the final guaranteed year on Polanco’s contract, if he keeps performing like this, he likely won’t be in a Pirates uniform much longer.

From the opposing dugout

Check out some of the top Pirates storylines from our friends at Bucs Dugout...

One more thing to watch

In the first game of the series with the Giants, the Nationals sent Max Scherzer to the mound hoping for a long effort to get some rest for a particularly taxed bullpen of late.

Instead, the Nats’ ace could only make it to the second batter of the contest after he felt something in his right leg and was removed from the game. Scherzer confirmed after the game that he felt a tweak in his groin and that he didn’t feel it was that serious.

“Fortunately enough got the MRI back and the good news is that it’s not a muscle strain,” Scherzer explained. “It’s just a little inflammation of the adductor, fascia of the adductor, something like that. Basically, it’s not a muscle strain.

“It’s really a best-case scenario in terms of what the injury is, and that I’m really day-to-day and that this could subside pretty quickly here.”

As to whether Scherzer can make his scheduled start against the Pirates on Wednesday, the Nationals let the right-hander throw a little on Sunday which, combined with a potential bullpen session on Monday, will determine his availability for the series finale.

“He’s going to go out today and get loose try to play a little catch,” manager Dave Martinez said on Sunday. “Then we’ll see where he’s at. He was in there getting some treatment, and then he’ll go out and play catch, and then we’ll see where he’s at from there.”

So, what are the Nationals looking for from Scherzer before they make a decision?

“We’ll see how he feels after he plays catch, we’ll go from there. He’s scheduled to throw a bullpen tomorrow, so if he can make that bullpen then we’ll make a decision then.”

If Scherzer can’t make his scheduled start, then the Nats will likely need to make another call to Triple-A for a starter as Jefry Rodriguez, who filled in admirably on Saturday, would only be on three day’s rest for Scherzer’s spot in the rotation.

Rogelio Armenteros would seem to be the most likely candidate as he would be on an extra day’s rest having last pitched on Thursday and is already on the 40-man roster.

That said, there appears to optimism among the Nationals that Scherzer will make his next start.