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Washington Nationals Series Preview: Battle of the rebuilds against the Pittsburgh Pirates

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Two teams on different rebuild timelines square off next to the Allegheny River as the Pirates host the Nationals...

MLB: Washington Nationals at Pittsburgh Pirates Philip G. Pavely-USA TODAY Sports

Those Washington Nationals boys are still battling away.

Sure, that saying has become a bit of a meme because of how often manager Dave Martinez has used that phrase, but even with the depleted lineup, they continue to make life tough for whoever stands in their way on a given night.

The Atlanta Braves certainly felt that in the three-game series this week. Even though they came out with a series win, they knew they were in a dog fight, needing to overcome a late game-tying home run in the first win and extra innings in the finale to collect the two wins.

And for those Nationals fans who are still watching along, it was one of the more entertaining series since the trade deadline.

The drama between Juan Soto and Will Smith rumbled on all series and it concluded with a fascinating back-and-forth game on Thursday.

Next, the Nationals head north to take on the Pittsburgh Pirates in a three-game weekend series.

While the Pirates had some memorable playoff appearances in the early 2010s, it’s been a grind for them since then. Now, they’ve admitted defeat and are hoping for a deep cleanse rebuild with several 100-loss seasons likely in their aim to build up the farm system.

Given how the Nationals attacked the trade deadline with near-ready prospects, they’re hoping they can avoid what the Pirates are going through right now. As ever with these things though, it’s hard to know how some players will pan out at the highest level, so there’s always at least some degree of uncertainty that could send Washington down that path.

Anyway, here’s the lowdown from PNC Park ahead of the three-game set in Pittsburgh...

The schedule

  • Game One: Friday, September 10th, 6:35 pm EDT. TV: MASN 2, Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Two: Saturday, September 11th, 6:35 pm EDT. TV: MASN 2, Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Three: Sunday, September 12th, 1:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN 2, Radio: 106.7 The Fan

Pitching matchups

  • Game One: Josh Rogers (1-0, 4.08 ERA) vs Steven Brault (0-3, 5.61 ERA)
  • Game Two: Josiah Gray (0-2, 5.65 ERA) vs Wil Crowe (3-7, 5.94 ERA)
  • Game Three: Patrick Corbin (7-14, 6.14 ERA) vs Bryse Wilson (2-6, 5.15 ERA)

Who’s hot?

Lane Thomas: Locked into the full-time leadoff and center field job for the Nationals after Victor Robles was sent down to Triple-A, Thomas continues to do a lot of things right.

Since Robles was sent down on August 31st, Thomas has grasped the opportunity with both hands, slashing a strong .317/.396/.610 with three home runs, a triple, and a double in 48 plate appearances, giving him a 161 wRC+ in that span.

There have been a couple of notable miscues lately though, with a fielding error and baserunning error during the series in Atlanta — not to say that the man he’s replacing currently in Robles didn’t have more than his fair share of miscues.

Thomas has already made it clear he’s going to be part of the team’s immediate future, but if he can continue to finish strong in September, he could position himself in for a bigger role.

Yoshi Tsutsugo: As the Nationals have found out recently, when you’re a team focused more on the future than the rest of this year, you can take some more chances on waivers by claiming some of the players who are let go by contending teams.

That’s exactly what the Pirates did with Tsutsugo, who was a low-risk, high-reward flier.

The Japanese slugger signed with the Tampa Bay Rays ahead of the 2020 season, but failed to live up to high expectations and was designated for assignment earlier this year.

Tsutsugo was then traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers, but continued to disappoint and was DFA’d again.

The Pirates then picked him off after being released by LA. In a low-pressure environment, Tsutsugo has thrived to the tune of a powerful .286/.349/.768 slash line with seven home runs in just 63 plate appearances, good for an excellent 186 wRC+ in Pittsburgh.

Bryan Reynolds and Ke’Bryan Hayes get most of the attention offensively for the Pirates, but Tsutsugo is definitely the hottest hitter in a generally weak lineup right now.

Who’s not?

Josiah Gray: It was a promising start for Gray in his early days with the Nationals. In his last few outings though, there have been more than a few bumps in the road.

In his last three starts, Gray is sporting a 9.69 ERA with 13 strikeouts, seven walks, and four home runs in just 13 innings of work. That includes his latest outing against the New York Mets last weekend where he surrendered six runs and only lasted three innings.

Nobody was more disappointed with his recent performance than Gray, who was frank about his outing in his post-game presser, lamenting how he fell behind in counts frequently and missed location on way more pitches than he should be that left him on the back foot.

Perhaps a matchup with the lowest-scoring offense in the major is exactly what the right-hander needs to start getting back on track after some recent struggles.

Cole Tucker: Remember when we had Gregory Polanco in this section for the first series between these two teams and mentioned how he was supposed to be a big part of the team’s future before disappointing at the highest level? Tucker has gone down a similar path.

Tucker burst onto the scene in 2019 with the look of a potential shortstop of the future, but after a strong start, he cooled off significantly and finished the year with an OPS+ of just 63.

After a poor 2020, Tucker started the season in Triple-A in 2021. Now, he’s back up in the big leagues in a utility role following a couple of short major league stints mixed in for good measure.

Since his recall on August 28th, Tucker sports a slash line of .176/.300/.206 with just one extra-base hit, a wRC+ of 51, and an average exit velocity of just 86.9 mph in 11 games.

Tucker has played second base, shortstop, center field, and right field in that span, so he should still see the field a fair amount during this series as they hope he can finally get going.

From the opposing dugout

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One more thing to watch

It may be coming at the end of a lost season for both teams, but expect former Pirates’ first baseman, Josh Bell, to get a nice reception from those at PNC Park on Friday as he makes his return to Pittsburgh for the first time since the trade that sent him to D.C. this winter.

Bell made his major league debut with the Pirates in 2016, right as their brief competitive window closed following three straight postseason appearances via a Wild Card berth.

By the time he established himself at the big league level, he was one of very few players worth watching on the team. With that and his exceptional influence in the community, he became one of the faces of the team despite its lowly position in the standings.

Despite the lows in Pittsburgh, the first baseman still fondly remembers his time as a Pirate.

“Really can’t imagine being drafted by any other team,” Bell said during his introductory press conference this winter. “Just because now I’m a first baseman and they were the team that gave me the opportunity, moved me, and really allowed me to develop there.

“It wasn’t always pretty, but I was able to put the work in and I was able to be slotted into the lineup, so definitely thankful. It was tough the last couple of years, didn’t finish the way that we’d like to, but extremely grateful for the team that drafted me, and I’ll definitely root for them in the future.”

Another potential interesting wrinkle to come out of the trade is that one of the players that were traded to Pittsburgh for Bell, Wil Crowe, is set to start the second game of the series this weekend.

Assuming Bell starts that game, which he should against a right-hander, it will be the first time the two have faced off against each other after Crowe’s turn didn’t come up when the Pirates came to the nation’s capital in June — the same series where Bell went 3-for-6 with a home run.