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Washington Nationals Series Preview: Nine-game road trip finishes against New York Mets

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The Nationals have been bad in August, but the Mets might have been worse. The two teams meet in Queens this weekend...

MLB: Game Two-Washington Nationals at New York Mets Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody would blame the Washington Nationals if they had a bit of extra sleep this morning.

After a 7 pm first pitch in last night’s game against the Miami Marlins, the Nationals got straight onto a flight back up north, likely arriving in New York in the early hours of the morning. Good job, MLB schedule.

While things are going badly for the Nats, the New York Mets might be having a worse month.

Heading into August, the Mets were leading the National League East by 4.0 games and bought at the deadline, acquiring Javier Báez and Trevor Williams at the eleventh hour.

Then, in the nicest possible way to describe it, the wheels fell off for the Mets. So far in August, they’ve gone 6-18, with half of those wins coming in a three-game sweep of the Nationals just over two weeks ago. Now, they sit at 61-66 and 7.5 games back in the NL East.

The Mets are also coming off a 13-game stretch against the NL West in which they went 2-11 and may have sealed their fate this season. If it sounds somewhat similar to what the Nationals did in mid-July, you’d be right.

That stretch for the Nationals helped lead them to sell at the deadline. The Mets’ slump in a similar run may be a reality check that’s come too late for them to do much about it.

Here’s what to expect from Citi Field during this three-game weekend series...

The schedule

  • Game One: Friday, August 27th, 7:10 pm EDT. TV: MASN, Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Two: Saturday, August 28th, 7:10 pm EDT. TV: MASN, Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Three: Sunday, August 29th, 1:10 pm EDT. TV: MASN, Radio: 106.7 The Fan

Pitching matchups

  • Game One: Paolo Espino (3-4, 4.28 ERA) vs Rich Hill (6-5, 4.13 ERA)
  • Game Two: Sean Nolin (0-2, 9.00 ERA) vs Marcus Stroman (9-12, 2.84 ERA)
  • Game Three: Erick Fedde (6-8, 4.91 ERA) vs Tylor Megill (1-3, 4.07 ERA)

Who’s hot?

Andrés Machado: As the dog days of August draw to a close, opportunity continues to be the name of the game for a lot of the Nationals’ players in the remaining five and a bit weeks of the 2021 season.

Machado, who was signed as a minor league free agent back in February had been up and down between Triple-A and the majors for most of this season but has now seemingly solidified his spot on the major league roster and has become a factor late in games too.

In his last 16 appearances for the Nationals, Machado is sporting an excellent 1.08 ERA with 14 strikeouts and four walks in 16.2 innings of work.

After de facto closer, Kyle Finnegan, the Nats have struggled to find consistent and reliable relievers to bridge the gap to the ninth inning with some of their young relief prospects. That’s opened the door for Machado who continues to impress of late out of the bullpen.

Aaron Loup: It’s probably a bad sign for these teams when the “Who’s hot?” section of these series previews is home to two relievers ahead of this series, but Loup is someone who probably doesn't get the credit that he deserves this season.

In 50 relief outings, the left-hander has a pristine 1.04 ERA and 1.90 FIP with 47 strikeouts in 43.1 innings. Perhaps the most stunning stat though is that Loup has yet to allow a home run this season, even in an age of baseball where the long ball is crucial to so many teams.

Pretty good, right? So, I hear you ask, why is Loup in this section when he’s been that good all season? Well, the left-hander is also yet to allow a run in his last 23 appearances dating back to July 5th. He has a case to have been the best reliever in baseball in that span.

We’ll set the over/under on times that Loup faces Juan Soto at 1.5 in this series, place your fake bets. That ought to be a fun matchup if it happens in a big spot this weekend.

Who’s not?

Sean Nolin: It’s fair to say that the Nationals are struggling for starting pitching right now. They traded Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross are on the shelf and out for the rest of the season, and Patrick Corbin looks like a shell of his 2019 self.

Filling in one of those gaps is left-hander Nolin, who had just been veteran minor league depth at Triple-A before his call-up.

Unfortunately, Nolin hasn’t done much to look like anything more than that so far with the Nationals. In his two starts with the big league club, he’s allowed seven runs in seven innings with seven strikeouts and three walks, while allowing a home run in each game.

The most noteworthy starting pitching prospects who are in Triple-A now are Cade Cavalli and Seth Romero. Both were only just promoted to Triple-A though, so are unlikely to see the major leagues this year as the organization likely wants to see them finish the year in Rochester, otherwise, they would’ve just skipped Triple-A and been promoted to the majors.

That means, barring injury, Nolin is likely to see out the season with the Nationals and eat the innings required, even if his performances are going to be underwhelming.

Jeff McNeil: One of the bigger reasons the Mets have struggled offensively is the steep regression of McNeil who had been one of the mainstays in their lineup the last few years.

On the season, McNeil continues to disappoint with a .244 batting average and .674 OPS. And since these two teams last met earlier in August, it’s been even worse for the infielder who has slashed just .125/.176/.188 in 13 games, striking out 11 times and walking just twice.

With the solid performances from the likes of Jonathan Villar and J.D. Davis, McNeil looks set to lose out on some playing time with both Francisco Lindor and Javier Báez both back off the IL.

From the opposing dugout

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One more thing to watch

After playing a bit-part role to start his tenure in the majors with the Nationals, Lane Thomas then started all three games over the weekend in Milwaukee, including the latter two in center field over Victor Robles.

Nationals skipper, Dave Martinez, told reporters that the extra starts for Thomas came as a result of Robles “feeling under the weather” for a few days, not because of a demotion.

What did Thomas do with his extended opportunity against the Brewers? He only went 7-for-11 with a triple, a pair of doubles, and three walks, continuing his hot start in a Nats uniform.

Thomas once again got a pair of starts in center field during the team’s first two games in Miami this week before Robles returned to the lineup and center field in the series finale.

With Thomas’s performances though, do the Nationals suddenly have a center field position battle on their hands?

“Not exactly, we’ll see” Martinez said before Wednesday’s game. “I based a lot of it on matchups, I think Lane matches up against [Edward Cabrera] today, and I want to play him and give him an opportunity to play... He’s earned the opportunity to play and he’s playing well.

“Eventually I got to get Victor back in there, I want Victor to play. He’s a big part of our future, so he’ll get back in there, but he was real sick, couldn’t do anything for a few days, yesterday he felt better, so we’ll let him go out there, run around again early, see how he feels and then try to plop him in there if we need him today.”

With Robles continuing to sport an underwhelming .206/.312/.300 slash line and 69 wRC+ on the season, it’s a fair question to ask whether Thomas, who has a .417/.533/.583 slash line and 201 wRC+ with the Nationals, should earn more starts in center field.

Robles has long been thought of as the future in center field, but with how they’re handling Thomas lately, it’s possible they might finally be losing patience with the 24-year-old Dominican.