What's going on with the Nationals?
The Mets catch the Nationals as they are coming back from a west coast trip that saw them get swept by the Athletics before taking two out of three from the woeful Diamondbacks. While the Nats got off to a nice 3-0 start against the Mets to open the 2014 season, since then the team has sputtered around .500 to end up with a 21-19 mark through 40 games.
Washington trails the Braves by just two games in the loss column, but that small margin is hardly acceptable for a team with aspirations of a division championship. Even though the Nationals' lineup is loaded with talent, that side of the game is holding them back from being a dominant team.
It doesn't help that Bryce Harper is still on the mend with a torn thumb ligament or that Ryan Zimmerman is recovering from a broken bone in the same area. Still, the Nats could be getting better production out of Ian Desmond, who has been slow out of the gate after playing like an All-Star for two full seasons. The 28-year-old shortstop is hitting just .226/.275/.368 thanks to a few more swings out of the zone and a lot fewer line drives.
Similarly, Washington isn't getting what it needs out of Denard Span. The center fielder continues to play defense at a high level, but he's not walking as much or being as selective at the plate as when he played in Minnesota.
The Nationals' offensive woes could fix themselves once they get healthy (Adam LaRoche also recently went on the disabled list with a strained quad), but for now they need players like Span and Desmond to step up in order to support a predictably great pitching staff.
Who are these guys?
Anthony Rendon has gone from intriguing young player to cornerstone offensive weapon in almost no time at all. Called up to take the place of a struggling Danny Espinosa at second base last season, Rendon did a nice job hitting line drives and taking walks to move the lineup along. This year, he has announced his presence with authority by hitting .282/.312/.479 with five home runs while playing third base in place of the injured Zimmerman. Rendon hit just seven home runs in 98 games last year and maxed out at six during his minor league career, so we could be seeing a whole new side of the young slugger. Interestingly, the surge in power has coincided with a drop in walks. Rendon was well over a 10-percent walk guy in the minors, but now that figure is down to 4.6 percent. It will be interesting to see if he starts taking more pitches once opposing hurlers learn to respect his power.
The man that Rendon replaced last season, Espinosa, once had Desmond-like potential with the ability to hit for 20 home runs and steal 20 bases in a season. He has always been prone to strikeouts, but in 2011 and 2012 Espinosa took enough walks and hit for enough power to make up for his whiffs. Last season, though, his walk rate shrunk to 2.4 percent, his isolated power dropped to .114, and he went from a guy who totaled 6.5 fWAR in two seasons to a guy who was playing below replacement level. After a long stint in the minors following the call-up of Rendon in 2013, Espinosa is back in the majors because of Zimmerman's injury. His strike out and walk rates are still out of whack, but he's hit for enough power (six homers in 131 plate appearances) to make himself useful.
Who's on the mound?
Friday: Jon Niese vs. Tanner Roark
Roark has acquitted himself quite well so far in what looks like his first full major league season. He's certainly had his struggles, like two weeks ago in Philadelphia when he gave up seven runs in four innings, but three out of Roark's past four starts have been gems. During his final two outings of April, he didn't allow a run to the Angels and Padres. Against San Diego, he even went the distance with eight strikeouts and just one walk in a complete game shutout. Roark works in the low 90s with his fastball and his game is mostly based on control. The Mets saw him in their third game of the season and managed just two runs in six innings against the righty. Hopefully a better result is in store for the rematch, but Roark appears to be growing stronger as the season grows older.
Niese, on the other hand, hasn't really had to grow stronger, because he's gone the whole season without allowing more than three runs in a start. A sixth consecutive quality start appeared to be going to waste last Sunday versus the Phillies, but the Mets rallied back to win the game. Niese's 2-2 record is now only a slightly poor indication of how well he's pitched in 2014.
Saturday: Bartolo Colon vs. Gio Gonzalez
Like Roark, Gonzalez has had a couple of poor outings spoil what has otherwise been a fine campaign for him. Unlike, Roark, Gonzalez wasn't merely "fine" the last time he played against the Mets. He was dominant, allowing just four hitters to reach base in six innings while striking out six. Gonzalez has always walked just a few too many opponents for him to be considered among the game's elite hurlers, but he still has more than enough stuff to be a valuable contributor and suck the life out of an opposing team every now and then. The left-handed Gonzalez has surprisingly always been a little tougher against right-handed hitters, so Terry Collins should feel free to keep players like Curtis Granderson and Lucas Duda in the lineup against him.
Colon blew up in his last start, somehow squeezing seven runs and 11 hits into five-and-two-thirds innings of a Yankee Stadium slugfest that resulted in a 9-7 Mets win. In all three of the poor starts this season that have heavily contributed to the veteran's 5.84 ERA, Colon was either pitching in a hitter's park or facing a loaded Angels lineup while nursing a bad back. Yes, it's apologist talk, but it's also hard to deny that Colon has been a very good pitcher on his five "good" days. His strikeout-to-walk ratio continues to be excellent, and his xFIP is a little lower than where it was in his two seasons in Oakland. Colon should feel right at home in Nationals Park on Saturday.
Sunday: Zack Wheeler vs. Jordan Zimmermann
I was kind of hoping that Wheeler would be matched up with Gonzalez because the Mets' young starter is another guy who struggles with his control but has the velocity and stuff to make up for it. After a steady start to the season, Wheeler has been inconsistent and inefficient during his most recent three starts. With 11 walks in his last two outings, you have to at least wonder a little bit if the Mets wouldn't be better off betting their future on Niese and Dillon Gee. With players like Rafael Montero and Noah Syndergaard on the horizon, no one's rotation spot in safe, and that includes Wheeler's.
There's not much to say about Zimmermann that I haven't written in this space before. He's continued to be a reliable, efficient starter, but it is strange that he's only pitched through the seventh once in 2014, considering his low pitch counts. His ERA is a little infalted this season (3.59) because of a .370 BABIP against him, but otherwise Zimmermann is looking fine with a career-high strikeout rate that has him punching out nearly one batter per inning. The Mets are trained to be patient at the plate, but if they don't match Zimmermann's aggressiveness in the strike zone, they could find themselves in a lot of 0-2 counts.
What about some GIFs?
During the season-opening series with the Nationals, the BABIP Fairy paid Wright a visit with this pop-up single.
Bryce Harper has a heck of an arm, but he still couldn't throw this beach ball through a stiff Opening Day breeze.
Finally, here's a bunch of presidents running while wearing Hawaiian shirts.