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Washington Nationals Series Preview: Another two-game series with the Tampa Bay Rays

The Nationals wrap up their pre-All-Star Game home slate with six games against last year’s World Series participants, starting with two against the Rays...

MLB: New York Mets at Washington Nationals Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Nationals began their much-talked-about 14 games in 14 days against teams above .500 on Monday with an 8-4 win over the New York Mets that looks a lot more comfortable than it actually felt, especially in the later innings.

For a team that’s really starting to feel a bit like the 2019 group, they almost blew this game in early 2019 fashion as the bullpen was only just about able to cobble itself together to get the ball to Brad Hand with a one-run lead.

Thankfully Ryan Zimmerman let everyone breathe a sigh of relief with a three-run bomb to all but secure a big victory over the Mets and move the Nats to just three games out of first.

Next up for the Nationals is another two-game series against the Tampa Bay Rays.

Yes, it’s only been two weeks since the last one, but such is the way with inter-league play these days.

The Rays have stumbled a bit since the last time these two teams met as injuries have really hit them hard in the past fortnight. In that span, they’ve gone 8-8 but that included being swept in a four-game series by the Seattle Mariners.

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

The schedule

  • Game One: Tuesday, June 29th, 7:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN 2, Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Two: Wednesday, June 30th, 4:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN 2 and MLB Network (out-of-market only), Radio: 106.7 The Fan

Pitching matchups

  • Game One: Joe Ross (4-7, 4.12 ERA) vs Rich Hill (6-2, 3.52 ERA)
  • Game Two: Jon Lester (1-3, 4.99 ERA) vs Michael Wacha (1-2, 4.66 ERA)

Who’s hot?

Brad Hand: There was a stretch a while ago where Hand looked significantly off the pace at the back-end of the bullpen when he blew a pair of saves and lost another game in May.

Maybe that stretch has clouded the view of Nationals fans a little when he comes into games as there are still nerves, especially when he pitches more than an inning. However, the team’s left-handed closer has been as good as they come in the past month.

Since May 22nd, Hand has a stellar 0.98 ERA in 17 appearances while converting all 12 of his save opportunities, including a huge five-out save on Monday against the Mets.

Hand might not quite have the same stuff he did in San Diego and Cleveland when he was one of the best closers in the majors, but he’s still a reliable option to shut the door in games, something the Nationals haven’t always had in recent seasons.

Collin McHugh: For a team that relies on their relief corps as much as the Rays do, they often find significant contributions from plenty of unsuspecting sources, including the likes of McHugh.

The former Houston Astros starter and reliever has remerged with the Rays after opting out of the 2020 season and been in dominant form out of the bullpen for his new team.

On the season, McHugh holds a 2.05 ERA and excellent 1.49 FIP. But perhaps coming back off the back of his opt-out, there might’ve been some initial rust, as he’s been even better of late, only allowing one run since the start of May with 39 strikeouts in 25.1 innings in that time.

McHugh delivered three scoreless innings allowing just one hit against the Nationals the last time these two teams met and will likely be called upon again this time around.

Who’s not?

Justin Miller: Though Miller had some on-and-off success with the Nationals in 2018 and 2019, his stint with the team in 2021 has been absolutely brutal so far.

In five appearances since his contract was selected on June 15th, Miller has surrendered five earned runs and three home runs, including three runs on two long balls in a third of an inning against the Mets on Monday, forcing the Nats to use Hand for a five-out save.

In a bullpen that’s still short two of its best arms right now in Daniel Hudson and Kyle Finnegan, the Nationals can’t afford to carry any passengers. Miller might be on an exceptionally short leash in the bullpen moving forward based on his performance so far.

Yandy Díaz: Coming into the previous series with the Nationals, Díaz was one of the Rays’ hottest hitters. Since then though, he’s hit a bit of a rough patch.

In his last 12 games, Díaz is slashing .149/.245/.234 with a pair of extra-base hits, six walks, and 15 strikeouts. Notably, his average exit velocity in that time is only 85.7mph when prior to this stretch he had an average exit velocity of 90.0mph on the season.

Díaz has bounced between first and third base for the Rays, but if he continues to struggle at the plate, he could get squeezed out of playing time with the Rays carrying a lot of talented infielders right now, including a certain top prospect we might mention shortly...

From the opposing dugout

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One more thing to watch

With some notable top prospects in recent years coming up and instantly producing, it’s hard to forget that these are often the exception to the rule, not the norm.

Wander Franco, the consensus top prospect in baseball, finally got the call to the big leagues on June 22nd.

However, he hasn’t exactly gotten off to a hot start on the stat sheet in his first few games in the majors.

After a memorable 2-for-4 debut with a double and home run last Tuesday, Franco has just one hit in his last 18 at-bats, though he has still collected four walks in that time.

Rays manager Kevin Cash isn’t concerned with the underwhelming results yet though and is more interested in the quality of his at-bats, even if they aren’t resulting in hits falling.

“Nothing that we’re concerned about,’’ Cash said of Franco’s performance, per Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times. “(Friday) he just misses a ball off a lefty and flies out to left. He flew out to left (Saturday) again. He smoked a ball that the right fielder made a nice play on.

“He keeps hitting balls hard like that, they’re going to find holes. But no concern whatsoever. Thrilled that we have him.’’

Though he made his debut at third base, the rest of Franco’s starts since his call-up have come in his natural home at shortstop after Taylor Walls landed on the Injured List on Wednesday, so expect to see Franco at short for these two games in D.C. this week.

It’s only a short series, but Franco looks set to be yet another exciting young player in this league and the Nationals will now get a close look at him at Nationals Park.