What's going on with the Nationals?
A big theme for Washington all season long has been the team's failure to score enough runs to support its outstanding pitching staff. The Nats are seventh in the majors in ERA (3.68) and 27th in runs scored. The offensive futility continued to rear its ugly head after the All-Star break, as Washington lost its first six games of the second half to the Dodgers and Pirates while averaging just 2.2 runs per game.
Matters almost got worse for the Nationals on Sunday. In the fourth game of their series versus Pittsburgh, the Nats held a 7-3 lead heading into the ninth inning, but Rafael Soriano and Ian Krol combined to give up four runs in the frame. Fortunately for Washington, its best hitter Bryce Harper came to the rescue and hit a walk-off two-run home run in the bottom of the ninth to bring a giant sigh of relief to the nation's capital.
There is still much work to be done in Washington, though. The Nationals -- considered by many to be a shoe-in for the playoffs when the season started -- are eight games back in the NL East and 9.5 games back for the Wild Card. With Jayson Werth heating up, the team might be finally getting the offensive boost it needs, but there are still issues to sort out in the back of the rotation. With fifth starter Taylor Jordan approaching a team-mandated innings limit (doesn't that sound familiar?), the Nationals have to decide if they want to just let Jordan run out of innings or rest him and let Ross Ohlendorf (or someone else) take some starts.
Who are these guys?
Anthony Rendon is a rookie second/third baseman who has done an admirable job filling in at the keystone for the black hole that is Danny Espinosa. Drafted by the Nationals out of Rice as the sixth overall pick in the 2011 draft, Rendon has moved quickly through the minors, and while he doesn't have the power/speed combination that was Espinosa's calling card, he does at least make contact every so often. Rendon is batting .273/.323/.412 in the majors so far, and that's plenty when you consider what Washington was getting out of second base before he arrived.
Taylor Jordan actually started the season pitching for High-A Potomac, but now he's made five starts in the big leagues, and he hasn't been awful! How cool is that? Jordan doesn't have the stuff to be a big-time strikeout pitcher, but he has superb control. In the minor leagues this season, Jordan had 72 strikeouts and just 15 walks in 90.1 innings, and he's translated that into 14 strikeouts and four walks in 29.1 MLB innings. Obviously, the strikeout rate has dropped, but his 3.68 ERA goes to show you how it's not too tough to have success in the bigs if you just throw the ball over the plate.
Who's on the mound?
Friday, Game 1: Jordan Zimmermann vs. Jenrry Mejia
As awesome a pitcher as Zimmermann is, he was dreadful in his last start against the Dodgers. On Sunday, Zimmermann allowed seven runs in two innings in what was the shortest start of his MLB career. With just 20 walks in 134.1 innings this season, the Mets may be better off doing what the Dodgers did and abandoning their patient approach in favor of increased aggressiveness. Of course, that's really what Marlon Byrd and John Buck have been doing all season, so they just should keep swinging away in order to keep Zimmermann from getting ahead in counts. On June 4, Zimmermann beat the Mets with eight innings and zero earned runs allowed, but back on April 21, the Mets wore him out. They forced Zimmermann to throw 96 pitches in five innings during a 2-0 New York win.
Friday, Game 2: Ross Ohlendorf vs. Matt Harvey
As big a mismatch as Zimmermann vs. Mejia is, the Mets look to have the tables turned in the nightcap on Friday. Well, the tables won't be turned that much, because Ohlendorf has pitched rather well lately. In 26.2 innings of mostly relief this season, Ohlendorf has a 2.03 ERA and 0.94 WHIP. His last outing was in relief of Zimmermann during that awful game against the Dodgers, and Ohlendorf did a fine mop-up job with two runs allowed in six innings. Six relief innings! Needless to say, Ohlendorf is stretched out enough to start a game. In his only other start of the season, Ohlendorf allowed one run in six innings during a Nationals victory at Colorado in June.
Saturday: Dan Haren vs. Dillon Gee
Haren is not the posterboy for using strikeout-to-walk ratio to evaluate pitchers. Despite his 87 strikeouts and 18 walks in 98 innings pitched, Haren has a 5.79 ERA, and it's not hard to see why. His low walk rate has not helped Haren avoid a 1.41 WHIP, but the real killer is his 21 home runs allowed. It seems like Haren will never be a great pitcher again, but with his ability to strike batters out while walking just a few, you have to figure he'll be useful at some point again. Nevertheless, his last start was a microcosm of his season so far. Haren struck out six and walked one against Pittsburgh on Tuesday, but he allowed five runs on two home runs and had to leave after five innings. Back on June 5, the Mets needed just four innings to hit three home runs off of Haren in a 10-1 whooping.
Sunday: Taylor Jordan vs. Carlos Torres
Jordan made his MLB debut against the Mets last month and allowed one earned run in 4.1 innings. What I failed to mention above is Jordan's ridiculous 62-percent ground ball rate this season. They don't keep the stat for the minor leagues, so it's unclear just how unsustainable that is, but it will be interesting to see how long Jordan can keep that up. Meanwhile, Torres has been a delightful fill-in for the Mets, hasn't he? I just found out that his strand rate is 96 percent, though. I guess something had to give with an ERA below 1.00, but an xFIP of 3.22 isn't very pessimistic.
What about some GIFs?
Bryce Harper's walk-off home run against Pittsburgh on Sunday felt like a season-saving hit. It was celebrated as such.
Dillon Gee has allowed just two runs in 18.2 innings against the Nationals this season. Here he is striking out Washington hitters during New York's 10-1 victory on June 5.