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Washington Nationals Series Preview: Chance to cut into the New York Mets’ division lead

Fresh off a sweep of the Pirates, the Nationals face the NL East-leading Mets with a chance to try and cut into the visitor’s lead atop the division...

MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Finally, something resembling a tangible sign of progress for the Washington Nationals.

With one of Major League Baseball’s worst teams visiting in the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Nats relatively comfortably dispatched of them, restricting them to only four runs across the three contests this week and recording just their third series sweep of the season.

The level of competition does have to be taken into account though. Remember, the Pirates are a team that has made baseball fundamentals optional a few times recently.

However, sometimes all a team needs is a spark to start a roll. That’s what the Nats will be hoping that three-game sweep will end up being as they look to make a comeback.

If they are to haul themselves back into postseason contention, then this weekend's four-game series with the division-leading New York Mets is going to be crucial towards that.

Despite a wave of injuries so far this season, including potentially another one for their ace Jacob deGrom, the Mets have kept rolling along at the top of the National League East with a 35-26 record thanks to some unexpected contributions from up and down the roster.

Here’s the lowdown ahead of the weekend series at Nationals Park...

The schedule

  • Game One: Friday, June 18th, 7:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN 2, Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Two: Saturday, June 19th, 1:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN 2, Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Three: Saturday, June 19th, 6:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN 2, Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Four: Sunday, June 20th, 1:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN 2, Radio: 106.7 The Fan

Pitching matchups

  • Game One: Erick Fedde (4-4, 2.86 ERA) vs Joey Lucchesi (1-4, 5.18 ERA)
  • Game Two: Jon Lester (0-2, 4.09 ERA) vs David Peterson (2-5, 5.60 ERA)
  • Game Three: Joe Ross (3-6, 4.19 ERA) vs TBD (0-0, -.-- ERA)
  • Game Four: Patrick Corbin (4-5, 5.60 ERA) vs Taijuan Walker (6-2, 2.12 ERA)

Who’s hot?

Kyle Schwarber: In the last week or so, Nationals skipper Dave Martinez has gotten a bit more creative with his lineup. Obviously, the main change has been giving Schwarber more consistent time at the very top of the batting order and the outfielder has thrived early on.

In his six games in the leadoff spot, Schwarber is slashing .333/.400/.905 with four home runs while walking three times and striking out six, giving him a 230 wRC+ in that time.

It’s not the first time Schwarber has led off in his career, doing so on 98 occasions with the Chicago Cubs under the stewardship of Joe Maddon. It’s fair to say the results were mixed though as he sported a .212/.306/.456 slash line and wRC+ of just 95 in that time.

For now, Schwarber has given the Nats a much-needed spark atop the order. Expect to see him continue there for the immediate future.

Taijuan Walker: Last time the Nationals played the Mets, we looked at how well Marcus Stroman had started the season in the rotation. This time, we look at another starting pitcher not named Jacob deGrom who is impressing in Walker.

The right-hander started the season solidly, though he wasn’t going deep into games at the time.

Walker has been locked in of late though. In his last seven starts, he holds a sparkling 1.54 ERA with 45 strikeouts and nine walks in 41 innings. He covered at least seven innings and allowed two runs or less in four of those seven starts, recording a win in each.

The Nationals will face Walker in the series finale on Sunday. In a series where Washington avoids deGrom and Stroman, this will be their toughest opposing starter of the weekend. It won’t be an easy matchup by any means in his current form.

Who’s not?

Ryan Zimmerman: It was bound to happen eventually, but it looks like Zimmerman’s bat might be regressing after a hot start at the plate this season.

In his last 41 plate appearances, Zimmerman is slashing just .175/.195/.475 with 13 strikeouts and only one walk. That said, of his seven hits in that stretch, six have gone for extra bases and three of them have left the ballpark, so he’s still slugging, just not as frequently.

It’s not an easy life as a pinch-hitter and infrequent starter, so Zimmerman was always likely to hit a bump in the road eventually. Regardless, don’t expect his role to change as Martinez still believes in his veteran first baseman and will continue to call on him off the bench often.

Trevor May: While Edwin Díaz has returned to lockdown form at the end of games, the bridge to get to him has been anything but steady of late, particularly for May.

In his last 13 appearances, the right-hander has surrendered runs in the seven of them, leading him to a 7.15 ERA while striking out 16 batters and walking four in that span. Most of the damage has come on the long ball, as he’s given up five home runs in those 13 outings.

May has rebounded somewhat of late with a pair of 1-2-3 innings against the Chicago Cubs in lower-leverage spots, but he’ll need more outings like those to regain his manager’s trust.

From the opposing dugout

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One more thing to watch

With Starlin Castro taking time away from the team to deal with a family matter, the Nationals decided to recall one of their top prospects in Luis García on Wednesday.

García has been on a tear at Triple-A lately. In his last 16 games for the Rochester Red Wings, the young infielder was slashing .318/.400/.530 with an unexpected power surge including four home runs and a pair of doubles on his line.

He has impressed the Nats’ brass a lot so far this year and seems to have leapfrogged fellow infield prospect, Carter Kieboom, in their estimations of late because of his performance.

“He’s doing well,” Martinez told reporters after García’s call-up. “He’s really swinging the bat well. He’s doing all the things that we asked him to do down there, so he gets an opportunity to come up here and help us win some games.”

Without a timeframe for the return of Castro, who was placed on the Restricted List this week, it looks as though García will start more often than not against right-handers for the Nationals in the interim.

“I want to give Luis, as long as he’s here, an opportunity to play as well, especially against right-handed pitching,” Martinez said when asked about how the team would line up in Castro’s absence.

Though the Mets are set to run out at least two left-handers in this series with the Nationals, fans should still expect to see a fair dose of García at second base and off the bench over the coming days and potentially weeks, until Castro is able to return to the team.