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Washington Nationals Series Preview: Road trip finishes against daunting Tampa Bay Rays

The Nationals need to start picking up some wins, so it’s not exactly a great time to be playing the AL-leading Rays...

MLB: Washington Nationals at Philadelphia Phillies Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Remember how this was supposed to be a crucial road trip for the Washington Nationals with seven divisional games against the Atlanta Braves and Philadelphia Phillies? Well, it hasn’t really gone to plan.

After the team split the four-game series in Georgia, the Nats lost the three-game series to the Phillies with two abject performances on Saturday and Sunday. In the first loss, they just couldn’t get the big hit, then in the finale, it was a calamity on the mound and in the field.

What’s the perfect remedy for a team in dire need of stringing some wins together? Well, whatever it is, it would be to not play the American League-leading Tampa Bay Rays.

Since the start of May, the Rays are 25-9, the best record in baseball by three games in that span. So, yeah, it’s not going to get any easier for the Nationals in this series.

Here’s the lowdown from The Trop ahead of the short two-game series...

The schedule

  • Game One: Tuesday, June 8th, 7:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN, Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Two: Wednesday, June 9th, 7:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN, Radio: 106.7 The Fan

Pitching matchups

  • Game One: Jon Lester (0-2, 4.37 ERA) vs Tyler Glasnow (4-2, 2.69 ERA)
  • Game Two: Patrick Corbin (3-5, 6.28 ERA) vs Shane McClanahan (2-1, 4.11 ERA)

Who’s hot?

Juan Soto: Watch out MLB, Juan Soto looks like he’s back.

It was two series ago we had Soto listed under our “Who’s not?” section of our series previews. Since then, the 22-year-old appears to have found his swing again and is doing damage.

In his last seven games, Soto is 8-for-23 with a .348/.516/.826 slash line, three home runs, and a ridiculous 246 wRC+.

Remember the 2° launch angle and 60.6 groundball percentage he had since returning from the IL? That’s improved significantly since Monday, with a 19° launch angle and 33.3% ground ball rate. He’s also had an absurd average exit velocity of 98.9mph in that time too.

If the Nats are going to get back on track, they need Soto to hit like the borderline MVP candidate that he was in 2020. If the last week is anything to go by, he has a chance to do just that.

Austin Meadows: In Tampa Bay, Meadows has blossomed into a potential AL MVP candidate after he was traded over from the Pittsburgh Pirates. While his 2021 season didn’t get off to the best of starts, he’s arguably been one of the best hitters in baseball lately.

Since May 12th, Meadows has a daunting .330/.410/.693 slash line with seven home runs and 31 RBIs. His quite frankly absurd 203 wRC+ in that span ranks fourth in the majors.

After beginning the year hitting first and second in the order, Meadows has been hitting third or cleanup more often lately and has clearly been thriving in his new spot in the order.

Who’s not?

Starlin Castro: It feels like a long time ago that Castro was actually performing to expectations for the Nationals. Unfortunately, his offensive nose dive has continued.

Castro hasn’t recorded an extra-base hit since his home run against the Chicago Cubs on May 18th and hasn’t had a multi-hit game since his 2-for-4 effort on May 20th, and since that game, he has a woeful .164/.230/.164 slash line and 26.2% strikeout percentage.

The infielder’s struggles are even more pronounced with the current performance of top prospects Carter Kieboom and Luis García at Triple-A, with the latter winning Triple-A East Player of the Week honors last week.

Castro’s job appears to be safe for now, but his seat might get a little warmer if he continues to struggles while García and Kieboom continue to perform in the minor leagues together.

Randy Arozarena: Arguably the most surprising story of last year’s postseason was the incredible run Arozarena put together, seemingly out of nowhere, to carry the Rays’ offense to an AL Pennant.

While it was unlikely he’d be able to keep up that pace this season, he’s been something of a disappointment in 2021 with a .252/.337/.392 slash line and wRC+ of 111, 11% above league-average.

He’s also cooled down a lot lately, slashing a lowly .156/.204/.178 with just one extra-base hit in his last 12 games, good for a wRC+ of only 13. The most alarming part of that stretch is the strikeouts have been piling up with a whopping 18 Ks in 49 plate appearances.

While the Rays are flying right now, they’re going to need Arozarena to at least get back to being more of a force at the plate again if they want to get back to the World Series this year.

From the opposing dugout

Check out some of the top Rays storylines from our friends at DRays Bay...

One more thing to watch

As MASN’s Mark Zuckerman noted in his piece on Monday, the Nationals’ bullpen, which was thought to be a key strength coming into the season, is starting to have some struggles lately.

Those issues were highlighted in the team’s “bullpen game” on Sunday where they surrendered 12 runs over nine innings with four different relievers surrendering multiple runs — even if the five runs charged to Kyle Finnegan were unearned runs after an error by Jordy Mercer.

“Today we hit the ball and our bullpen wasn’t as good,” manager Dave Martinez told reporters after Sunday’s series finale.

“Our bullpen has been really good some days where we just couldn’t score any runs.

“We got to put it all together, and hopefully get a day off tomorrow, our bullpen will freshen up we’ll come back Tuesday and play a really good team.”

Since the team began their series against the New York Yankees in early May, the Nats bullpen ranks 24th in the majors in wOBA, according to FanGraphs. It’s not horrible, but it’s far from where they expected this group to be coming into the season.

The main reason for the struggles has been the step back several key relievers have taken.

Will Harris, someone who was due to heavily factor into getting the ball to the closer in the ninth, struggled in his eight appearances to the tune of a 9.00 ERA before being diagnosed with thoracic outlet syndrome, likely ending his season before it really began.

After taking a leap forward in 2020, Tanner Rainey has taken two steps back with diminished velocity and lack of consistent command, making him a liability at times out of the bullpen.

And even when the Nationals have a lead in the ninth, it’s not always been plain sailing for Brad Hand. The left-hander has, on the whole, been fine this year, but his strikeouts have disappeared lately, leaving Nats fans with plenty of angst whenever he enters a game.

The Nationals are going to need more from their bullpen moving forward, especially on the frequent occasion that the offense can’t score enough runs to give the team a big enough lead.