The Reds (13-9) begin a long and challenging road trip tonight with the first of four games against the Washington Nationals (10-11). This is the final regular season series between the two teams, who played each other at GABP three weeks ago (preview).
You remember the breathless pre-season hype. Experts, including the Worldwide Leader’s power rankings, preordained the Nationals as the best team in baseball. The lofty acclaim made sense. Washington had notably improved a team that won a major-league-best 98 games in 2012. The Nats opened their 2013 season with an impressive thumping of the hapless Miami Maaarlins. The only question for pundits appeared to be whether Washington would win 120 games or merely 110 on their way to bringing the World Series championship to the nation’s capital.
But funny things happened on the way to the Nationals’ coronation.
The Cincinnati Reds beat the Washington Nationals two out of three, including The Obliteration featuring six home runs. The Atlanta Braves marched through Nationals Park like Sherman in Georgia. And this week, Bryce and his pals failed to exorcise their 2012 playoff demons as the struggling Nats were swept at home by the St. Louis Cardinals.
If you bracket off their six games against Miami, the Nationals’ record would be an Expo-like 5-10. Their record against playoff-caliber teams is 1-8. Stephen Strasburg owns a record of 1-4. And Washington has lost six games in a row at home, outscored 27-9. They have fallen below .500 for the first time since 2011.
On Opening Day, the Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore wrote of the local club “launching baseball’s next dynasty.” Yesterday, the paper of Woodward and Bernstein lamented: “The giddy joy of last season and a winter of sky-high World Series aspirations seemed so distant.”
Isn’t there a proverb about pride and the fall?
Through the first four weeks of the season, the Reds (.259/.348/.409) have outhit the Nationals (.235/.299/.402). While the Reds lead the league in runs scored, Washington has fallen to the bottom half of the NL in that category. They managed only 4 runs in the three games against the WLB.
Here is the Nats’ usual batting order, but manager Davey Johnson yesterday suggested he’d be changing things up to “try to light a fire.”
The Nationals lineup has been affected by injury since the series three weeks ago. Starting third baseman Ryan Zimmerman has landed on the disabled list with a case of Encarnacion Throwing Disease. He’s been replaced by the Nationals’ next super-phenom, über-prospect, all hail, Anthony Rendon.
Also on the DL is one of their co-catchers, Wilson Ramos. You may remember the home runs he hit off Mike Leake and J.J. Hoover on April 6, the latter a game-winner in extra innings. He has a strained left hamstring and scheduled to rejoin the Nats just after the Reds series.
OMG! Bryce Harper has certainly lived up to the hype. His bat has carried Washington the past couple weeks. Jason Werth and Ian Desmond have made valuable contributions to their offense. But Adam LaRoche and Danny Espinosa are nowhere near the Mendoza Line.
WASHINGTON’S STARTING PITCHING
In 2012, the Nationals had the top pitching in the NL as measured by staff ERA and FIP. But in 2013, a declining strikeout rate (K/9) and rising home run rate (HR/9) has resulted in a league 9th-rated ERA and 12th-rated FIP. The Reds staff is top five in both categories.
Three weeks ago, the can’t-take-your-eyes-off-it match-up was Johnny Cueto vs. Stephen Strasburg. This time around, the Reds miss Strasburg and a strained oblique has once again sidelined the Reds’ ace. Here are the probable starters for the series:
- Thu. 7:05 – Bronson Arroyo (R) vs. Gio Gonzalez (L)
- Fri. 7:05 – Homer Bailey (R) vs. Jordan Zimmermann (R)
- Sat. 1:10 – Mike Leake (R) vs. Dan Haren (R)
- Sun. 1:35 – Tony Cingrani (L) vs. Ross Detwiler (R)
The Reds face lefty Gio Gonzalez tonight. Gonzalez, who didn’t pitch in the first series against the Reds, has had an up-and-down start to 2013. But he was kryptonite in two games against the Reds last year, striking out 16 in 12 innings and giving up just two earned runs.
The Reds were also fortunate to miss Jordan Zimmermann in early April. He also had two dominant starts against the Reds in 2012, giving up only 8 hits and 3 walks in 14 innings, while notching two wins. He’s off to a solid start in 2013.
Our early-April box of chocolates metaphor about Dan Haren stressed that Washington wasn’t sure what it would get from their free agent signing. Early returns have been unpalatably bitter. Not only did the Reds light Haren up in The Obliteration, but in his first four starts, including one against the Marlins, he hasn’t made it past five innings.
Ross Detwiler pitched six strong against the Reds on April 6, giving up just one unearned run. He was in line for the win before a spectacular crash by the Nationals bullpen.
Speaking of which…
The elite trio of Rafael Soriano, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard was supposed to be a formidable strength of the team. Instead, they have proven to be pretty hittable, particularly Storen and Soriano. Each pitched just once in the first series, with both Storen and Soriano surrendering runs.
Zack Duke remains the sole lefty in the Nationals bullpen and he’s been dreadful in 2013. Manager Davey Johnson uses him more as a long reliever than as a situational LOOGY. If he pitches against the Reds, that’s probably a good sign. He’s not one of those fiercely tough lefty match-up for Choo, Votto and Bruce. Duke gave up six hits in less than three innings of work in the first series.
Sure, it’s fun to point out Washington’s recent difficulties. But the Reds will more than have their hands full against a talent-laden and angry team. The Nationals aren’t the bottom-feeding Marlins, Cubs or even Phillies. This is a dangerous series.
To guard against overconfidence possibly inspired by the recent homestand, recall the Reds’ last road trip — the one where the game situations dictated that Aroldis Chapman would throw a total of five pitches. The one where the Reds limped home with a 1-5 record.
Here’s to hoping for better game situations this weekend.