The Mets travel to Washington to take on the division-leading Nationals for three games beginning this evening. The Nats sit at 51-36 and have maintained a steady lead on the NL East for the majority of this season. This is all thanks to some excellent starting pitching, a strong bullpen, and an offense that's gotten big seasons out of Ian Desmond and Adam LaRoche in the absence of stars Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, and Michael Morse. With Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper legitimately contributing in the majors at such young ages, Davey Johnson's club looks to be set up for a long run of future (and present) success. In order to further preview this three game set with Washington, I sent a few questions to Patrick Reddington, manager of SB Nation's Nationals blog Federal Baseball, and he was gracious enough to answer them for us.
Amazin' Avenue: The Nats have spent a great deal of time in first place in the NL East this year. Do you believe they can hang onto that spot down the stretch?
Federal Baseball: As an Expos fan my whole life, I've learned to never take anything for granted. I anticipated the Nationals being competitive this year, but didn't see them jumping out ahead of the field like they have so far this season. But the Braves are right there, the Mets and Marlins have stayed close, and I'm still not ready to completely write the Phillies off though it's getting closer and closer to that time if they don't turn it around. The Nationals have done what they've done so far in spite of injuries to Jayson Werth, Michael Morse, Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos, Drew Storen and others. The Nats have still never had their anticipated starting lineup together on the field this year and won't since Ramos is done for the season, but Werth's on schedule to return by August, Storen's already making rehab starts, and if the pitching staff stays healthy and continues to do what they've done so far this season, I don't see any reason why they can't stay at or near the top of the division and compete for their first post season appearance since returning to the nation's capital.
AA: If the team decides to go through with its plan of shutting down Stephen Strasburg after 160 or so innings, who do you think replaces him in the rotation and do you think the team can handle losing him?
FB: I've seen no sign that the Nationals will do anything other than what they've said they will all season (and since last year, actually). In an interview from Miami this weekend, Nats' GM Mike Rizzo once again reiterated that they're going to monitor Strasburg closely and shut him down when they think he's had enough in his first full-year back form Tommy John. Since it's been the plan from the start of the year, you also have to assume they've prepared for that eventuality. John Lannan or Chien-MIng Wang could fill in toward the end of the year and if Strasburg's shut down, they'd go into the postseason with Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and Ross Detwiler. Strasburg said recently that the team would have to rip the ball from his hand to keep him from pitching if the Nats made it to the postseason for the first time, but the team seems determined to stick to their plan. It will be interesting to see how the fans and Strasburg react if they do shut him down in the stretch run. Those following closely know it's in the pitcher's best interest in terms of his future, but it might be a hard sell for a fanbase that's waited a long time for a competitive team.
AA: Do you see the Nationals looking to make a deal to improve a spot on the roster through trade and if so, what area do you think they'll decide to look to improve?
FB: In spite of the fact that they're still looking like they're going to shut Strasburg down, I'm not sure they're going to go for a rental pitcher for the stretch run. I think the Nationals are more likely to try to fortify their bench with a big bat. But the area I think they might actually try to address first is the catching. As mentioned, Wilson Ramos, who was expected to play the bulk of the time behind the plate this season is done for the year, and capably as Jesus Flores has filled in he and the backups they've used have had issues defensively, throwing runners out and producing offensively. I could see the Nationals acquiring a veteran catcher to help them down the stretch. I don't really see too many other places they could add an impact player. They could, of course, go for pitching if there's a good deal out there, but they gave away three of their top pitching prospects to get Gio Gonzalez, so I'm not sure if they have the depth necessary trade for another high-end arm. I think they're more likely to find a bat or a backstop that can strengthen the roster.
AA: Ian Desmond is in the midst of a breakout season thanks to a lot of added power, though his K and BB rates seem to have stayed the same. From what you've seen, what's changed for him this year?
FB: I think Davey Johnson has a lot to do with Ian Desmond's turnaround this year. The Nats' manager has supported Desmond since taking over on the bench and he's stuck with his shortstop in spite of the fact that there was a lot of chatter about making a move after Desmond struggled at the plate in 2011. After years of chasing sliders out of the zone, Desmond's finally seemed to learn to lay off the pitch and he's got the power he was missing last season back and then some. He's already blown past his previous career-high in HR's (17), he's cut down on the errors in the field and he's playing with the sort of confidence you always heard he'd displayed off the field in the clubhouse. The one big number that stands out when you look at Desmond is his ISO (Isolated Power) which has jumped from .124 in 2010 and .104 in 2011 to .224 this season, he's not chasing as much and he's making contact and crushing pitches when he gets what he's looking for. Even while dealing with an oblique issue this last month-plus, he's kept it up at the plate. He may have just finally matured into the player the Nats swore he was all these years.
AA: Looking at this coming series, which players have been playing well of late for the Nats and who's been struggling?
FB: Jesus Flores has really been struggling at the plate. He's 3 for 24 in his last seven games, and he's beginning to show signs of frustration with his offensive issues. Danny Espinosa, who's struggled all season from the left side of the plate has begun to show signs of turning it around. But the big difference in the last few weeks has been Ryan Zimmerman, who got a cortisone shot in his shoulder and suddenly turned it on once the inflammation that had been limiting him offensively all season subsided. Since having the shot on June 24th, Zimmerman's 25 for 72 (.347/.397/.694) with seven doubles and six home runs in 17 games. It's been a whole new Zim since he had the shot, and since he was going through a brutal offensive stretch before the shot, it's made a huge difference for the offense in the last few weeks.
Big thanks once again to Patrick Reddington of Federal Baseball for discussing the Nats with us. Here are the pitching matchups for these three games:
July 17th, 7:05 PM: Jon Niese against Ross Detwiler
July 18th, 7:05 PM: Chris Young against Jordan Zimmermann
July 19th, 12:35 PM: R.A. Dickey against Gio Gonzalez