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Washington Nationals Series Preview: Crucial road trip continues against Philadelphia Phillies

After a series split against the Braves, the Nationals travel to face the Phillies in a key three-game set...

Washington Nationals v Philadelphia Phillies Photo by Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

All in all, a series split for the Washington Nationals against the Atlanta Braves wasn’t terrible.

The problem is that with the hole they find themselves in just over a third of the way through the 2021 season they can’t really settle for too many more “not terrible” series.

They need to start picking up more series wins, especially against teams in their division.

Luckily, they have another such series coming up this weekend against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Since taking two out of three against the Nationals in early May, things haven’t been going great for the Phillies.

They haven’t won any of their six series since and have gone a dismal 6-11 in that span.

Much like the Nationals, the Phillies have been struggling offensively of late. In the month of May, Philadelphia’s 89 wRC+ ranked just 23rd in the majors in that span, not far behind Washington, whose 95 wRC+ ranked 17th for the month.

Here’s the lowdown from Citizens Bank Park ahead of the three-game series...

The schedule

  • Game One: Friday, June 4th, 7:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN, Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Two: Saturday, June 5th, 4:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN, Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Three: Sunday, June 6th, 1:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN, Radio: 106.7 The Fan

Pitching matchups

  • Game One: Max Scherzer (4-4, 2.34 ERA) vs Zack Wheeler (4-2, 2.52 ERA)
  • Game Two: Joe Ross (2-5, 5.40 ERA) vs Zach Eflin (2-5, 4.10 ERA)
  • Game Three: TBD (0-0, -.-- ERA) vs Vince Velasquez (2-1, 4.08 ERA)

Who’s hot?

Paolo Espino: Pop quiz, aside from superstar emergency relief pitcher, Hernán Pérez, who has the lowest ERA among Nationals’ relievers this season? Yes, that would be Espino.

In nine appearances out of the bullpen, the journeyman right-hander has pitched to a 1.42 ERA and 1.95 FIP as an innings-eater, generally pitching with the team either behind or well ahead in a given game.

There’s at least some chance that Espino factors into the team’s plans for Sunday’s game, either as a spot starter or as someone to eat innings out of the bullpen.

It might not be overly sustainable for a soft-tossing pitcher who has a ground ball rate of just 30.3% and 17.1% strikeout rate, both of which are well below league-average. But for now, Espino is doing his job out of the bullpen and deserves a little bit of love for what he’s done.

Rhys Hoskins: With much of the Phillies’ offense in the wars lately, including both Bryce Harper and J.T. Realmuto spending time on the Injured List, it’s been over to Hoskins to carry the lineup in the meantime. He has certainly answered the bell.

Since May 14th, Hoskins is slashing a dominant .356/.458/.627 with four home runs and 14 RBIs while sporting a 193 wRC+ in that span. He also currently holds a 10-game hitting streak where he’s gone 12-for-35 coming into this three-game set with the Nationals.

For an offense that’s been largely disappointing of late, aside from that 17-run barrage against the Reds on Tuesday, the recent surge from Hoskins has been huge for the Phillies.

Who’s not?

Andrew Stevenson: With his performance in 2020 both starting the occasional game in the outfield and his impressive handling of a frequent pinch-hitting role, Stevenson looked like a solid fourth outfielder in the making who could handle all three outfield spots.

He started 2021 much the same way but has lately fallen into a bit of a cold streak at the plate as since May 15th Stevenson is slashing just .219/.286/.219

It’s not hard to find the root cause as in that time, Stevenson has a pretty lackluster 5.4% walk rate and an alarming 35.1% strikeout rate, while his average exit velocity is only 85.7mph. So, he’s not making a lot of contact and when he does, it’s pretty tame anyway.

With Kyle Schwarber potentially needing to sit out another game or two with a sore knee after he injured himself diving for a ball on Wednesday, Stevenson’s recent performance may mean he’s passed over for the starts in left field in the meantime.

Brandon Kintzler: I’m not picking on former Nationals, honestly. Kintzler has struggled mightily this season and been roughed up more than a few times recently for the Phillies.

On the year, Kintzler holds a 7.27 ERA and 6.13 FIP in 19 appearances, striking out 14 and walking two. However, his main issue is that he’s allowed five home runs, something he was very good at preventing when he was successful with the Nationals and the Minnesota Twins.

Kintzler has given up three of those home runs since the start of May and has a 9.35 ERA in that time to boot. Because of the struggles, he appears to have lost the trust of manager Joe Girardi for the time being as he hasn’t entered the game with a lead since May 11th.

From the opposing dugout

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One more thing to watch

While the main talking point, and rightly so, for the Nationals has been the consistently inconsistent offense, they also need their starters to step up and start pitching like they’re paid to.

As a group, Nationals starters are averaging just over five innings per start with a 4.45 ERA and 4.71 FIP. That combination of lack of length in starts and general ineffectiveness gives them 2.1 fWAR on the season, the sixth-lowest in the majors this season.

This was supposed to be one of the team’s strengths, instead, it’s holding them back.

“I sat down with Hickey and told him, ‘Hey, look some of these guys have got to pitch now,’ I mean, we got to let them out there,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez told reporters ahead of the series finale in Atlanta.

“We’ve done a good job of trying to maintain their pitch count during games, but now, we’re in June.”

“Like I always say, we’re in the National League, so there’s opportunity where we can score runs or if the game is close, you got to do something, and pinch-hitting is important.

“The other issue with that is we come out and we score first and score a bunch of runs so that the pitchers can go a little longer. There’s two sides. Do I want the pitchers to give me 105 pitches and go seven? Absolutely. But it all determines on how the game is going.”

This may not be something the Nationals need to worry about in the series opener with Max Scherzer on the mound, who continues to be vintage Max Scherzer this season.

However, for their other starters, they need them to start performing and going deeper into games both to ease the pressure on their struggling offense and also to prevent their bullpen from being overused.

Martinez has issued the rallying cry, now it’s time to see if the rotation can answer the call.