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Washington Nationals Series Preview: One last divisional series against the Miami Marlins

Unlike previous years, the Nationals don’t finish the season with lots of divisional series. The play their final one this week against the Marlins in Miami...

Washington Nationals v Miami Marlins Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

With MLB’s postseason race heating up, the NFL getting back into full swing, and the Washington Nationals seemingly just going through some of the motions the last few weeks, you’d be forgiven for not necessarily giving them your full attention right now.

In the series with the Colorado Rockies this weekend, it was very Jekyll and Hyde in a lot of ways. The pitching struggled in the first game, the offense went missing in the second game, but they salvaged something behind a Paolo Espino gem and Juan Soto bomb.

There are still flashes to get excited about with this team though, especially when Soto is essentially must-see TV at this point and lots of young guys are getting more opportunities.

Next up for the Nationals is a trip back down to Florida to take on the Miami Marlins, their final divisional series of the 2021 season, as they start a 10-game road trip.

While the team won’t want to talk about it as they focus on winning, or going 1-0 every day as their skipper says, this could be a key series in terms of draft positioning.

Currently, the Nationals have the fifth draft slot at 61-88, while the Marlins are two games ahead of them in the sixth spot at 63-86. Realistically neither team is getting any higher than fifth, though both could potentially drop a spot or two if results go a certain way.

That could make this series pivotal for where they pick in the draft.

Yes, it’s true that it doesn’t matter as much as the other major sports in America where top picks can usually step right into the teams that drafted them, as opposed to MLB where even the best prospects need to develop in the minor leagues, leaving a lot of variation in how those players pan out down the road. But even so, the higher pick, the better, right?

Not that it should be on the minds of the players, managerial team, or front office until after the season at least. If they win, then that’s fine too and doesn’t affect things too much.

Here’s the lowdown from loanDepot park ahead of the midweek three-game series...

The schedule

  • Game One: Monday, September 20th, 6:40 pm EDT. TV: MASN 2, Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Two: Tuesday, September 21st, 6:40 pm EDT. TV: MASN 2, Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Three: Wednesday, September 22nd, 6:40 pm EDT. TV: MASN 2, Radio: 106.7 The Fan

Pitching matchups

  • Game One: Erick Fedde (7-9, 5.16 ERA) vs Jesús Luzardo (5-8, 6.80 ERA)
  • Game Two: Josh Rogers (1-0, 2.60 ERA) vs Trevor Rogers (7-7, 2.71 ERA)
  • Game Three: Josiah Gray (0-2, 6.24 ERA) vs Elieser Hernandez (1-1, 3.59 ERA)

Who’s hot?

Josh Bell: If it feels like there have been similar names in this spot for the Nationals over the past few series, well, you’d probably be right. That’s kind of what happens when the team’s pitching continually lets them down, even if the offense keeps chugging along.

Bell was listed here ahead of the five-game series with the Mets at the start of the month and as September has rolled on, he's continued to swing a hot bat.

So far this month, Bell is slashing .300/.455/.567 with four doubles, four home runs, and 11 RBIs. And while Juan Soto gets all the attention for the walks he’s racking up, Bell isn’t all that far behind, walking 17 times to Soto’s 19, while going down on strikes only eight times.

Bell has had a lot of opportunities at the plate with teams bypassing pitching to Soto since the trade deadline. So far, he’s definitely capitalized and looked a lot like the hitter the Nationals thought they were getting when they traded for Bell last offseason.

Dylan Floro: In general, the Marlins are having similar problems to the Nationals right now in the bullpen. After trading their closer at the trade deadline, they’ve struggled to piece together some of the later innings with lots of unproven arms.

Funnily enough, closer is one spot where they’ve done well since the deadline, as Floro has stepped up in a big way to replace Yimi García, who was traded to the Houston Astros.

In total since the García trade, Floro has converted 10 of 12 save opportunities, and after the two saves he has blown, his team rallied to win anyway. Entering Sunday, he had converted all five save opportunities in September to the tune of a 1.50 ERA in six innings of work.

That was until he blew the save on Sunday, after I’d already written about him. Even despite that blown save that inflated his ERA a bit, it’s fair to say he’s been excellent for Miami.

While the Nationals are having closing troubles with Kyle Finnegan in the ninth inning, the Marlins have avoided that to this point with the impressive performance of Floro in that role.

Who’s not?

Riley Adams: It was probably to be expected when the Nationals recalled top prospect, Keibert Ruiz, a few weeks ago, but as Adams has dropped into the backup catcher and pinch-hitting duties, he’s cooled off at the plate.

In his last ten appearances, five of which were starts, Adams has a slash line of .100/.250/.250 with just two hits, though both hits did go for extra bases as a double and a triple.

Even with this mini-slump, Adams is hitting a strong .288/.413/.500 in his time with the Nationals, showing everything they could want in a bat-first backstop who can start occasionally and pinch-hit when required while Ruiz takes the starting reins.

Lewis Brinson: Back in August, we praised how well Brinson was doing for the Marlins after years of struggles in Miami. Well, lately, he’s fallen back to old ways a little bit.

In 52 September at-bats, Brinson is slashing a disappointing .151/.207/.226 with just two extra-base hits. The strikeouts have crept back into his game too, with 13 strikeouts in those 15 appearances while walking just three times.

His slump has lowered his overall slash line on the year to just .224/.267/.384 which is actually surprisingly similar to his slash line from last year when he hit .226/.268/.368, both only really a slight improvement on his career .197/.248/.322 line.

Brinson should still see out the season in center field for Miami, but it’s been reported for a while that the team is looking for a new center fielder, and could mean the former Milwaukee Brewer is out of chances to prove himself up to the task with the Marlins.

From the opposing dugout

Check out some of the top Marlins storylines from our friends at Fish Stripes...

One more thing to watch

With the much-documented struggles of the Nationals’ bullpen lately, the team recalled flamethrowing reliever, Tanner Rainey, ahead of Sunday’s series finale against the Rockies.

On the face of his major league stats from earlier this season, Rainey didn’t exactly have the look of someone who could improve the bullpen. Through 32 appearances, the right-hander sported a 7.62 ERA with 31 strikeouts and 21 walks in just 26 innings of work.

Notably, his 16.5% walk rate was the 11th worst in the league coming into Sunday. When Rainey’s command is off and he’s giving up free passes, he tends to struggle mightily.

His poor performance got him sent to Triple-A Rochester multiple times in August to try and straighten things out until he was promoted back to the big leagues this weekend.

Manager Dave Martinez brought Rainey into the seventh inning of Sunday’s game to protect a 3-0 lead. His fastball was back into the upper-90s, popping into Keibert Ruiz’s mitt, and all the power reliever did was strike out the side on 13 pitches.

He looked like a completely different reliever from the one Nationals fans last saw.

“Everything kind of feels like it’s synced back up,” Rainey explained. “I’ve got obviously better command. It’s kind of been that way for probably the last week or so.

“Once I started building back up in Rochester, kind of played with a few things as far as timing goes, and just tried to get everything synced back to what was normal for me.”

For those that didn’t follow his progress at Triple-A, after he was optioned on August 13th, he reported pain in his side. Once that died down, he returned and fired four scoreless outings for Rochester, including striking out the side in the final three of those appearances.

“He was pounding the strike zone,” Martinez said of how Rainey looked at Triple-A before his recall. “He worked diligently to get back, so that’s the onus on him.

“He wanted to come back, we talked about it, and I told him, ‘Hey, when you’re ready, you’re going to come back’ and he worked really hard to come back, and he looked great today, so like I told him, just go out there and try to finish strong and healthy going into the winter.”

It was only one appearance, but Rainey looked like the pitcher that absolutely dominated early on in the shortened 2020 season, particularly with the velocity and command on display.

Given the lack of other options, Rainey might immediately find himself as a factor in the late innings for the final two weeks of the season as he hopes to prove that he’s figured things out again on the mound with the offseason looming large.