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Washington Nationals Series Preview: Seven-game home stand begins against Pittsburgh Pirates

After a winning road trip in Baltimore and Texas, the Nationals head back home to take on the Pirates...

MLB: Miami Marlins at Washington Nationals Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

As the end of June approaches, the Washington Nationals return home after a winning road trip for the first time this season after splitting a two-game set with the Baltimore Orioles before taking two of three against the Texas Rangers over the weekend.

The Nationals looked strong in Arlington thanks to some impressive starting pitching performances from Paolo Espino, Josiah Gray, and Jackson Tetreault.

The three starters combined to throw 18.1 innings allowing just four earned runs on 14 hits and four walks while striking out 16. For a team that’s so rarely gotten decent length and performance out of their starting pitching this season, the series in Texas offered some hope.

Next, the Nats head back home where the Pittsburgh Pirates will be waiting for them.

After a middling start to the season that included a series win over the Nationals, the Pirates have fallen back to 29-43. That’s still good enough for third in the National League Central though thanks to the Chicago Cubs and Cincinnati Reds having poor seasons.

The Pirates do have an exciting young core though, with more and more call-ups coming up by the week, and as the Nats saw earlier this season, they won’t be a pushover at Nationals Park.

Here’s the lowdown from Half Street ahead of the three-game midweek set...

The schedule

  • Game One: Monday, June 27th, 7:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN, Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Two: Tuesday, June 28th, 7:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN, Radio: 106.7 The Fan
  • Game Three: Wednesday, June 29th, 1:05 pm EDT. TV: MASN, Radio: 106.7 The Fan

Probable Pitchers

  • Game One: Erick Fedde (5-5, 4.46 ERA) vs Bryse Wilson (0-4, 8.29 ERA)
  • Game Two: Patrick Corbin (3-10, 6.60 ERA) vs José Quintana (1-4, 3.60 ERA)
  • Game Three: Paolo Espino (0-1, 2.21 ERA) vs Mitch Keller (2-5, 4.77 ERA)

Who’s hot?

Paolo Espino: Just as he did last season, after starting off as a long reliever in the Nationals’ bullpen, Espino is back in the rotation and is impressing in his first few starts of the year.

In three starts since moving to the rotation, the veteran right-hander sports a 2.57 ERA, allowing just four earned runs in 14 innings, striking out 10 while walking five batters. The furthest he’s gone into a game so far is just 5.1 innings but that’s to be expected until he’s fully stretched out.

Espino is set to start the series finale against the Pirates this week and appears to have cemented his rotation spot for the immediate future until his performance level drops.

Bligh Madris: If you knew of Bligh Madris before this season, then give yourself a pat on the back. The 2017 9th-round pick of the Pirates had a fairly non-descript minor league career before this season but burst onto the scene with a .905 OPS in Triple-A to start 2022, earning him the call to the big leagues on June 20th.

In his first six games as a major leaguer, Madris is 9-for-24 with a home run and four doubles to his name, driving in six runs in the process. The only concern with that start is the absence of any walks while striking out five times.

Called up at the same time as the Pirates’ top prospect, Oneil Cruz, Madris doesn’t come with anywhere near the same hype but is off to a nice start to his big league career.

Who’s not?

Maikel Franco: Maikel Franco is back to doing Maikel Franco things. Catching fire for a few games before extending slumps at the plate, while being a liability in the field and not getting on base a ton.

In his last 12 games, Franco is slashing just .163/.196/.233 with only one extra-base hit, a home run against the Philadelphia Phillies last Sunday, striking out nine times and walking just two. His .429 OPS in that stretch is only above Ehire Adiranza among Nationals players.

Franco was always viewed as a placeholder for the Nationals, with no real viable young options in the upper minors that the team considers a part of their long-term future

Ke’Bryan Hayes: Often, Hayes is listed in the Who’s Hot section of these series previews. He’s one of the few shining lights on a nondescript Pirates roster, and an underrated star in MLB.

However, Hayes is currently slumping harder than he has coming into the series against the Nationals. In his last 11 games, Hayes is slashing .178/.196/.356 with a home run, a pair of triples, and a double. In that span, he’s walked once and struck out 13 times.

Even while he’s slumping at the dish, Hayes continues to provide elite defense at the hot corner. That said, the Pirates will be hoping he can turn his fortunes around soon.

From the opposing dugout

Check out some of the top Pirates storylines from our friends at Bucs Dugout...

One more thing to watch

During a rebuild, one thing that Nationals fans will be looking for is the younger players who emerge with the team now that they can hang their hat on for when the team returns to contention.

Some are obvious, such as Juan Soto, Keibert Ruiz, and Josiah Gray. Others are still emerging and the jury is still out, including Luis García, Riley Adams, and Mason Thompson.

Then there are some that are a bit older but have a chance to make their case to be a part of the long-term future for the Nationals. Lane Thomas, a 26-year-old, falls into that bracket.

Since coming to Washington in the Jon Lester trade at last year’s trade deadline, Thomas has slashed .251/.331/.447 with 15 home runs, 60 runs scored, and 56 RBIs, while striking out at a 23.8% clip and walking at a 10.7% rate.

Thomas has been a fairly streaky player for the Nationals, at times playing the role of a spark atop the batting order, and others looking completely lost at the plate.

GM Mike Rizzo talked on his weekly radio spot about how the team views Thomas and it may come as something of a surprise to some that they absolutely see him as a core piece...

“We always thought he was a tooled-up player,” Rizzo told 106.7 the FAN in D.C.’s Sports Junkies. “I think stuck behind some of those great St. Louis Cardinals’ teams that he was kind of forgotten over there, and our scouts did a good job of identifying Lane as a guy that kind of fits our profile.

“He’s always been able to wear out left-handed pitching, so we know he can do that, he’s making good adjustments against right-handed pitchers, he does have pop, he’s got speed, he’s got defensive ability in both center field and left field, and he’s a well-rounded, versatile player for us that’s sound fundamentally and is definitely part of the core group of guys that will move forward and be our next championship-caliber club.”

Given how far away from contention the team looks this season, the Nationals are not going to be short of time to figure out whether Thomas truly will be a part of the Nationals’ next contending team. If he lives up to the hopes that Rizzo and the rest of the front office have, then he’s off to a pretty good start on that front.

Series Preview Trivia

Last series’ trivia question: Which five players currently on the Nationals’ active roster have either had a plate appearance or pitched to a batter in the MLB regular season at Globe Life Field?

Answer: Nelson Cruz, Maikel Franco, César Hernández, Erasmo Ramirez, Steve Cishek

Here’s our trivia question for this series with the Pirates, as we look back on a player who played for both the Nationals and Pirates during his long big league career.

Before coming to the nation’s capital, Adam LaRoche made a name for himself in Pittsburgh with the Pirates. In the trade that sent him from Pittsburgh to the Atlanta Braves, can you name the future Nationals player that went the other way to the Pirates?