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Washington Nationals Series Preview: Can the Nats get a much-needed sweep against the Baltimore Orioles?

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The Nationals might be running out time if they want to buy at the deadline, and could potentially need a sweep of the beltway rival Orioles this weekend...

MLB: AUG 16 Nationals at Orioles Photo by Mark Goldman/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

The trade deadline is in a week’s time and it’s still not entirely clear how the Washington Nationals will handle things ahead of one of the most pivotal days on the baseball calendar.

After losing seven of ten against National League West foes in the San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants, the Nationals started a stretch where they needed to start picking up wins against the Miami Marlins this week.

After two resounding wins in the first two games, the Marlins were able to steal the series finale in extra innings, keeping the Nationals six games behind the New York Mets.

Now, the Nationals head just up the road to take on the Baltimore Orioles in what feels like a series Washington could really do with sweeping in order to at least make up some ground.

The O’s are in the midst of a rough 4-10 July where their 6.11 ERA as a pitching staff this month is the second-worst ERA in the majors. The catch? The worst team ERA in July is the Nationals at 6.24. So, uh, expect plenty of runs this weekend.

Here’s the lowdown from Camden Yards ahead of the three-game weekend set...

The schedule

  • Game One: Friday, July 23rd, 7:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN 2, Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Two: Saturday, July 24th, 6:35 pm EDT. TV: MASN 2, Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Three: Sunday, July 25th, 1:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN 2, Radio: 106.7 The Fan

Pitching matchups

  • Game One: Patrick Corbin (6-8, 5.66 ERA) vs Jorge López (2-12, 6.04 ERA)
  • Game Two: Max Scherzer (7-4, 2.83 ERA) vs Spenser Watkins (2-0, 1.65 ERA)
  • Game Three: Jon Lester (3-4, 4.99 ERA) vs TBD (0-0, -.-- ERA)

Who’s hot?

Tres Barrera: Next man up has been a frequent theme for the Nationals in the last few weeks given how the injuries have piled up for them. Arguably the player who has made the most of the opportunity is Barrera.

After a brief stint with the team at the start of the season due to the COVID outbreak, he was recalled when Alex Avila landed on the IL in early July. Then when Yan Gomes injured himself in San Francisco, Barrera hit his way into the starting catcher role over René Rivera.

In nine games since his recall, Barrera is slashing .345/.387/.586 with a 152 wRC+, one home run, six runs scored, and four RBIs, slugging the ball with authority at times in this stint.

The young backstop has also drawn positive reviews from the pitching staff who enjoy pitching to him despite his lack of experience at the big league level, raving about his game-calling behind the plate.

If Barrera keeps hitting close to the level he is now, the Nats may have no choice but to keep him on the active roster, even when both Avila and Gomes are healthy enough to return.

Spenser Watkins: Watkins, a former Detroit Tigers prospect, is probably a name not many around baseball will have heard of coming into the 2021 season. Since his recent call-up to the big league club in Baltimore though, he’s had a strong start to his major league career.

Following a 1-2-3 inning in his debut against the Los Angeles Angels, Watkins has made three starts, going at least 4.1 innings and only allowing one run in each of those starts, giving him a stellar 1.65 ERA so far this season.

In his last outing, he dominated a good Tampa Bay Rays team, tossing six innings of one-run ball while striking out seven, though he did walk a pair of batters.

The peripherals suggest that regression is coming as his FIP and xFIP up at 4.03 and 5.19 respectively. However, in the form he’s in now, the Nationals can’t take Watkins lightly this weekend.

Who’s not?

Sam Clay: While Daniel Hudson and Kyle Finnegan were on the Injured List, the Nationals relied on Clay to step up into a more prominent role in the bullpen. Unfortunately, he couldn’t quite deliver in the higher leverage spots.

In the month of July, the left-hander sports an ugly 9.95 ERA and has allowed at least one run in each of his last four appearances out of the bullpen, including two home runs in two of those outings, something he had done well to restrict earlier on this season.

Now with Hudson and Finnegan back in the fold in the bullpen, Clay will likely shift into a slightly lesser role again, perhaps a role he’s more comfortable in given his arsenal.

Ryan Mountcastle: One player Baltimore hoped would be a building block in the next competitive O’s team, Mountcastle entered the season as a potential dark horse for AL Rookie of the Year honors. However, it’s been an up-and-down 2021 for the infielder.

After swinging a hot bat in June, Mountcastle has come back down to earth a little in July, slashing a disappointing .178/.278/.289 in the month coming into this series at Camden Yards.

Mountcastle was able to hit the Nats well in the first series between these two teams in May when he went 3-for-7 with a home run and a double, so the Nationals should not overlook him.

From the opposing dugout

Check out some of the top Orioles storylines from our friends at Camden Chat...

One more thing to watch

If the Nationals are to prevail in this series and potentially take a sweep that will go a long way to getting them back into the division race, they’re going to need their offense to continue to crush the ball at the plate.

In July, the Nationals rank fourth in the majors in wRC+, according to FanGraphs, behind the Chicago White Sox, Los Angeles Dodgers, and the team they’re chasing in the NL East, the Mets.

They’ve even managed to get this offensive production without Kyle Schwarber who was the hottest hitter in the majors when he went down with an injury right at the start of the month.

“The guys are swinging the bat well,” manager Dave Martinez said on Wednesday. “We’ve had some really good at-bats as of late, with two strikes, which is always encouraging as well.

“These guys understand, I’ve always said, hitting sometimes comes and goes and sometimes it’s contagious. And when you get a few guys that are really hitting the ball well, it carries over, and right now you’re seeing that.

“All these guys are starting to swing the bat well, they’re coming together at a great moment, so hopefully, we continue to do that today.”

If the lineup can score early and often this series, it would take a lot of pressure off of a pitching staff that has been laboring of late and been one of the worst in the league in July.

Against an Orioles pitching staff that has been susceptible to giving up more than their fair share of runs this season, the Nationals should have a good chance to keep their roll at the plate going at Camden Yards this weekend.