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Washington Nationals Series Preview: Quick two-game set against improved Toronto Blue Jays

Two teams heading in opposite directions meet in D.C. as the Nationals play host to the Blue Jays in a two-game series...

Atlanta Braves v Washington Nationals Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images

A weekend series with the Atlanta Braves provided more of the same for the Washington Nationals as they were swept for the second series in a row and for the third time in four series.

If you believe manager Dave Martinez, the boys are indeed battling, as the 12 losses across those last four series, six were decided by one run and only three were decided by more than three runs. They were at least in most of the games in this stretch.

That’s more than can be said about a similar rebuilding team in the Chicago Cubs who have frequently been blown out with only two losses by one run in the same time span.

The Nationals’ next opponent though is moving in the other direction in the Toronto Blue Jays.

One of the big buyers at the deadline, acquiring José Berríos among others, the Blue Jays sense that there is an opportunity for them to take advantage of with their young hitting core for both this year, but more importantly, next year.

Since the trade deadline, Toronto is 12-6 and now sit just 4.0 games out of an American League Wild Card spot, making this a series they really want to sweep to keep up their momentum.

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

The schedule

  • Game One: Tuesday, August 17th, 7:05 pm EDT. TV: YouTube, Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Two: Wednesday, August 18th, 4:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN and MLB Network (out-of-market only), Radio: 106.7 The Fan

Pitching matchups

  • Game One: Erick Fedde (4-8, 5.12 ERA) vs Alek Manoah (5-1, 2.59 ERA)
  • Game Two: Josiah Gray (0-1, 4.13 ERA) vs José Berríos (8-6, 3.52 ERA)

Who’s hot?

Juan Soto: It’s been a little while since we had a good old gush about our favorite player.

In the month of August, Soto is slashing .313/.531/.469 with one home run and a 162 wRC+.

Can you tell that teams don’t want to pitch to Soto right now? Look at that Barry Bonds-like .531 on-base percentage this month that’s propped up by a ridiculous 32.7% walk rate.

To put it in perspective, if Soto were to continue to walk at a 32.7% clip for the rest of August, that would be the highest walk rate in a month for a player with at least 90 plate appearances since Bonds himself did it four times in his final MVP season in 2004.

Even though his opportunities have been a bit limited lately because of how cautiously teams are pitching to him, Soto will probably feel like he could be doing a bit better to reduce his 24.5% strikeout rate this month and hit for a bit more power.

Regardless, Soto still commands respect from the opposition, and Toronto will be no different.

Teoscar Hernández: When you win American League Player of the Week, you can bet that the other team will have you circled multiple times on the lineup card the next week.

Even on a team with AL MVP candidate Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and the resurgent George Springer, Hernández has been the brightest light, going a remarkable 14-for-28 with three home runs and two doubles last week, leading to a dominant wRC+ of 282 in that span.

Hernández has also been a small-sample Nats killer in his time in the big leagues too. In seven games between 2018 and 2020, Hernández is slashing .400/.500/1.040 against Washington with five home runs.

Mercifully, the outfielder didn’t play against the Nationals earlier this season when the two teams met in Dunedin. The Nats don’t have the same luxury of avoiding this time though.

Who’s not?

Erick Fedde: After a seemingly strong start to the season for the Nationals, a little out of nowhere, it feels like the right-hander’s ERA has ballooned all the way up to the 5.12 figure it currently sits at.

At one point in mid-June, it sat at a solid 3.33 after he tossed seven shutout innings against the New York Mets and looked like a stable part of a rotation that continued to be in flux.

After his next start against the Philadelphia Phillies though, he wound up on the Injured List with an oblique injury and hasn’t looked the same since with a 7.00 ERA and an ugly-looking .320/.373/.503 slash line against him in eight starts since returning from the IL.

There might be small signs of a turnaround though, as Fedde’s peripherals in his three August starts do look a little better. In three starts this month, the right-hander has struck out 15 batters in 14.2 innings while walking just three and the only home runs he’s allowed have been to Rafael “Babe” Ortega, who was a one-man wrecking crew against the Nats.

Fedde is set to start the first game of the series and will be in for a tough test against a strong Blue Jays’ lineup that even some of the better pitchers in the league fail to contain.

Bo Bichette: Bichette has long been thought of as one of the key players in the new-look Blue Jays lineup and wasn’t rated too far behind Guerrero Jr. when both were prospects.

While Bichette has largely lived up to that billing in the major leagues, he might be going through one of his worst stretches at the highest level, slashing just .204/.231/.286 in the month of August with only a pair of extra-base hits and a lowly 36 wRC+.

The young shortstop should bounce back at some point, usually when a player gets put in the “Who’s Not” section of these series previews, but Bichette appears to be pressing a bit too much right now and might be one of the few weak links in a fearsome lineup.

From the opposing dugout

Check out some of the top Blue Jays storylines from our friends at Bluebird Banter...

One more thing to watch

When the Nationals traded away a certain left-handed reliever at the trade deadline, there were more than a few people who thought the Blue Jays were dealt a bad hand.

Brad Hand, the reliever in question in case the awful pun hadn’t given that away, was a polarizing player among Nats fans. For most of the year, he performed admirably. However, with more than a few late-game implosions, seeing him enter games often brought an eye roll or two.

While there were plenty of emotional goodbyes at the end of July for the Nationals, it’s safe to say that Hand was not a player who will be remembered too fondly by the fans.

Since joining up with the Blue Jays, Hand has had a similarly hit-and-miss go of things.

Though he has a relatively solid 3.38 ERA in 5.1 innings to this point, he’s also been the pitcher on the mound when the game-winning run was scored in three of his seven appearances.

The most recent game-winning run was on Friday night as he walked Jarred Kelenic on four pitches with the bases loaded, gifting the Seattle Mariners a walk-off walk.

“He’ll be alright,” Blue Jays manager, Charlie Montoyo, told reporters after that appearance.

“He’s pitched close games, he was just wild in that at-bat. He’ll be alright, believe me, and you’ll see him tomorrow if we need him, or the next day.”

As Hand entered the game for the Blue Jays that night, the player the Nationals acquired in return for the reliever, Riley Adams, was being hit by a pitch in the ninth inning of the heavily-delayed series opener against the Braves at Nationals Park.

While the young catcher hasn’t put together a notable batting line for the Nats to this point, slashing just .211/.318/.368 in 22 plate appearances, he has had a pretty memorable ninth-inning lead change of his own when he hit a go-ahead two-run home run 10 days ago.

If the Blue Jays hold a late lead in either of these two games, it’s entirely possible Hand could be used in a high-leverage spot, which ought to give the Nationals confidence if they face him. After all, they had a front-row seat to some of the struggles he had late in games...