Opposite dugout: Top two teams in NL meet as Dodgers welcome Nats

DodgersLogo.jpgManager: Don Mattingly, fourth year
Record: 77-60
Last 10 games: 6-4
Who to watch: 1B Adrian Gonzalez (.279/.337/.465, 35 doubles, 19 HR, 91 RBIs); RF Yasiel Puig (.298/.384/.489, 33 doubles, 9 triples, 13 HR, 59 RBIs); OF Matt Kemp (.279/.345/.468, 31 doubles, 16 HR, 64 RBIs); LHP Clayton Kershaw (16-3, 1.73 ERA, 0.84 WHIP)
Season series vs. Nats: 1-2, 10 runs scored, 10 runs allowed

Pitching probables
Sept. 1: Roberto Hernandez vs. Gio Gonzalez, 8 p.m., MASN2 HD
Sept. 2: Clayton Kershaw vs. Doug Fister, 10 p.m., MASN2 HD
Sept. 3: TBA vs. Jordan Zimmermann, 3 p.m., MASN HD

Series breakdown
It’s no mistake that the teams with the top two starters’ ERAs in baseball are also the top two teams in the National League.

And now they meet, as the Dodgers welcome the Nationals to Los Angeles for a three-game series that could potentially be a playoff preview. The Dodgers hold first place in the NL West with a 2 1/2-game lead over the Giants and the Nats lead the NL East with a six-game advantage over the Braves as September begins.

The primary reason both teams are positioned so well is outstanding starting pitching. The Dodgers have the best rotation in the majors with a 3.12 starters’ ERA and a 1.15 starters’ WHIP, the top marks in both categories. The Nats rank second in the big leagues with a 3.21 rotation ERA.

Washington will get to see the best of that group, as left-handed ace Clayton Kershaw pitches against Doug Fister on Tuesday in an absolute gem of a pitching match-up. But neither Zack Greinke nor Hyun-jin Ryu will be pitching in the series.

In tonight’s series opener, right-hander Roberto Hernandez faces Gio Gonzalez in making his fifth start since Los Angeles acquired him from the Phillies. Hernandez is 2-1 with a 3.52 ERA in four starts with the Dodgers and 8-9 with a 3.81 ERA in 27 appearances (24 starts) overall.

Hernandez has allowed three earned runs or fewer in eight straight starts, going 5-1 with a 2.61 ERA during that time. The 33-year-old has done an incredible job against the Nationals in his career, which could be useful come October. He has gone 3-1 with a 1.19 ERA in four career starts against Washington, pitching especially well this year with the Phillies, allowing no earned runs in 15 1/3 innings over two starts, beating the Nats twice.

Then comes the must-see match-up between Kershaw and Fister. Kershaw has been the best pitcher in all of baseball this year, leading the majors with a 1.73 ERA, a 0.84 WHIP, six complete games and an .842 winning percentage at 16-3. He’s tied for No. 1 in the big leagues with 16 wins. He’s the only qualified pitcher in the majors to post an ERA under 2.00 and one of only two in the NL to post a WHIP under 1.00.

The 26-year-old is the favorite to win his third NL Cy Young Award in five seasons, having allowed more than one run in just seven of 22 starts this season. Kershaw has held teams to three or fewer in each of his last 18 starts, going 14-2 with a 1.29 ERA and a .176 opponents’ batting average during that time. He has pitched at least seven innings in 14 consecutive starts, a streak that would likely be longer had it not been preceded by a rain-shortened five-inning complete game.

Heard enough about Kershaw yet? How about one more tidbit. He’s 6-2 with a 2.79 ERA in 10 career appearances (nine starts) against the Nats, including 4-0 with a 1.17 ERA in his last four starts against them over the last three seasons.

So good luck with that one. The Nats do have perhaps the best possible answer for Kershaw, however, as Fister would rank third in the NL with a 2.55 ERA if he had enough innings to qualify.

In Wednesday afternoon’s series finale, the Dodgers haven’t yet announced who will pitch against Jordan Zimmermann. Former Nats right-hander Dan Haren was originally supposed to start, but has been pushed back to Friday.

Rookie right-hander Carlos Frias and veteran right-hander Kevin Correia are considered the top candidates to take Haren’s place. Frias has pitched to a 5.65 ERA in eight relief appearances with the Dodgers this season and hasn’t fared much better at Triple-A, going 8-4 with a 5.01 ERA in 16 games (15 starts). Correia is 2-2 with a 6.75 ERA in four games (three starts) since Los Angeles acquired him from the Twins. Overall, the 34-year-old is 7-15 with a 5.13 ERA in 27 appearances (26 starts).

As for the rest of the staff, the Dodgers are fourth in the NL with a 3.30 team ERA and ninth with a 3.69 bullpen ERA. The club has won six of its last nine games mostly because of pitching, as the team has held opponents to three runs or fewer in four straight games and in six of nine.

The Dodgers also seem to be waking up from a brief offensive slumber, winning 7-1 Sunday after scoring six runs over their previous three games combined.

While the starting pitching deserves most of the attention, Los Angeles also possesses one of the top lineups in the NL. The Dodgers rank fifth with 562 runs, second with a .260 average and fourth with a .721 OPS. They also are 13th with 99 homers, but that figure is deceptive since they’re third with 250 doubles and 36 triples, and have five players with at least 10 homers.

First baseman Adrian Gonzalez leads the club with 35 doubles and 19 homers while ranking second in the NL with 91 RBIs. He’s one of five Dodgers starters to post an OPS over .800.

Right fielder Yasiel Puig leads the team with an .873 OPS. He also has 33 doubles, nine triples, 13 homers, 59 RBIs and 72 runs scored. Outfielder Matt Kemp has 31 doubles, 16 homers, 64 RBIs and an .813 OPS.

Shortstop Hanley Ramirez has 28 doubles, 13 homers, 60 RBIs and an .806 OPS in just 106 games. Scott Van Slyke has 10 homers and 22 RBIs in a utility role.

Also, third baseman Juan Uribe was activated from the disabled list Sunday. He has 19 doubles, six homers and 37 RBIs in 82 games.

So the Dodgers have plenty of offensive firepower and the depth to boot. The Nats will have to contend with more than just the best rotation in baseball, but a team that also can hit the ball.

Both teams could be looking to make a statement against the other over the next three games with a playoff match-up looking like a very real possibility. But aside from that intangible, Los Angeles arguably needs wins more than Washington with the Giants on its heels. Either way, it should be a good series between the best two clubs the NL has to offer.

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