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Washington Nationals Series Preview: The Keibert Ruiz show starts against the Philadelphia Phillies

Nationals fans will get their first look at top prospect, Keibert Ruiz, in this week’s three-game series against the Phillies...

MLB: Philadelphia Phillies at Washington Nationals Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

Honestly, is anyone even going to remember the result of the Washington Nationals’ weekend series with the New York Mets given the discourse that has quickly followed in Queens?

For those who missed Sunday’s series finale, Javier Báez hit a home run off of Erick Fedde and as he crossed home plate, gave the crowd a thumbs down, explaining post-game that he booed the fans after they had been booing the team a lot during their recent downturn.

Later on Sunday night, the team released a statement condemning Báez’s actions, and then their owner, Steve Cohen, logged onto Twitter reminiscing about a simpler controversy.

The Mets may have won the series against the Nationals, but the Mets still found a way to lose.

Anyway, the Nationals now head home for an eight-game homestand that begins with the Philadelphia Phillies — and then ends against those infighting Mets over the holiday weekend.

The Phillies started August with an eight-game win streak that included a four-game sweep over the Nationals. Since then though, they’re just 7-11 and have slipped back in the National League East race, currently sitting 4.5 games back of the division-leading Atlanta Braves.

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

The schedule

  • Game One: Monday, August 30th, 7:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN, Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Two: Tuesday, August 31st, 7:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN, Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Three: Wednesday, September 1st, 7:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN, Radio: 106.7 The Fan

Pitching matchups

  • Game One: Josiah Gray (0-1, 3.75 ERA) vs Zack Wheeler (10-9, 2.90 ERA)
  • Game Two: Patrick Corbin (7-13, 6.09 ERA) vs Matt Moore (2-4, 6.12 ERA)
  • Game Three: Paolo Espino (4-4, 4.13 ERA) vs Aaron Nola (7-7, 4.27 ERA)

Who’s hot?

Alcides Escobar: The fact that Escobar is still on the Nationals’ active roster given the circumstances of his acquisition is a testament to how surprising he’s been since he arrived.

A last-minute trade to try and get a somewhat competent shortstop on the field with Trea Turner on the Injured List and their minor league depth at the position also decimated by injury, nobody saw Escobar as anything more than a temporary stand-in until Turner returned.

What they actually got was a versatile veteran who could fill in across the infield and still had a little life left in his bat. Over the last two weeks, Escobar continues to hit well, slashing .333/.373/.396 and even flashed some nice defense in the weekend series with the Mets.

While Escobar may not be in the team’s long-term plans, there’s at least a chance he’s played himself into their 2022 plans as a veteran who helps bring through the next generation and provides experience at an important position where the Nationals don’t really have any prospects close to the big leagues, so he wouldn’t be blocking anyone close.

Bryce Harper: With some injuries to other NL MVP candidates like Fernando Tatís Jr., Ronald Acuña Jr., and Jacob deGrom, it’s fair to wonder whether Harper has made himself one of the favorites for the award, which would be the second of his career.

On the season, the former National is slashing .301/.417/.586 with an NL-leading 163 wRC+ among qualifiers. The only player in the senior circuit with a higher fWAR than Harper’s 4.9 figure coming into this series is another former National, Trea Turner, who owns a 5.1 fWAR.

Harper has really cemented his MVP case in August though. With just two games left this month, he’s slashing a powerful .315/.442/.753 with nine home runs and an absurd 201 wRC+.

The outfielder will hope for another strong series against the team that drafted him, looking to build on his 1.049 OPS and 164 wRC+ against the Nationals since signing with the Phillies.

Who’s not?

Ryne Harper: Remember when Harper had a 0.54 ERA through his first 13 major league appearances this season? Well, his season has certainly taken a turn for the worse lately.

In his last 11 appearances, the right-hander sports a 5.40 ERA and 6.36 FIP, striking out nine and allowing six walks in 10 innings of work. Admittedly, he’s only allowed runs in three of those appearances, but the underlying statistics paint a picture of regression to the mean.

Harper is still a useful reliever to have in the bullpen and his curveball-heavy approach presents a different challenge for hitters than the upper-90s they’re used to seeing these days, but this recent run is making it clear the sub-1.00 ERA was unsustainable.

Andrew McCutchen: One of the more renowned Nats killers in the league, McCutchen has been in the “Who’s Hot?” section of these previews, but now, he’s mired in a deep slump.

After a stint on the IL due to left knee inflammation at the start of August, McCutchen returned 10 days later but hasn’t gotten back to his previous form, slashing just .137/.214/.216 since then with only two extra-base hits, 17 strikeouts, five walks, and a wRC+ of 20.

With other injuries forcing Rhys Hoskins to miss the rest of the season and J.T. Realmuto being ailed by shoulder soreness, the Phillies badly need McCutchen’s bat to heat up again.

From the opposing dugout

Check out some of the top Phillies storylines from our friends at The Good Phight...

One more thing to watch

Sometimes, we have to dig deep for an extra thing to watch out for ahead of a series. This time, it was nice and easy when the Nationals announced that they would be calling up their top-ranked prospect according to MLB Pipeline and Baseball America, Keibert Ruiz, on Monday.

Acquired in the Max Scherzer-Trea Turner trade with the Los Angeles Dodgers, Ruiz was the player the Nationals were most excited to acquire at the deadline because of his potential both with his glove behind the plate and his offensive prowess with the bat.

Ruiz had a slow start with the Nats’ Triple-A affiliate, but after 20 games, he raised his slash line to .308/.365/.577 with five home runs, more walks and than strikeouts, and a 144 wRC+.

The young catcher also had two home runs in two straight games last week and is clearly swinging a red hot bat as he prepares to make his debut for his new team tonight.

“He’s playing really well down there,” manager Dave Martinez said of the decision to call up Ruiz. “We wanted to get him here, get him settled.”

So what can Nationals fans look forward to with the latest exciting young player in the bigs?

“He’s just a young guy that he’s a very good athlete, understands the game,” Martinez explained. “I’ve watched some of the games that he’s called.

“He’s very into the game, he understands the catching portion of it, obviously he’s young, he’s going to get better, we want to get him better. He’s still got to develop. His at-bats were really good, really crisp.”

In his first start, Ruiz will catch the other centerpiece of the trade with the Dodgers, Josiah Gray. Martinez admitted that it was just a coincidence and that the plan was to call up Ruiz on Monday regardless, but it’s a nice added bonus for Nationals fans to see both of them.

Hopefully, there’s a bit more of a crowd in for this game and it should give the Nationals a glimpse of the future they hope will lead to another long-standing contender in due course.