Opposite dugout: Injuries, stagnant offense have Nationals fighting extra hard

Manager: Dave Martinez (1st season)
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Record: 38-32

Last 10 games: 3-7

Who to watch: RF Bryce Harper (19 HR, 43 RBIs); SS Trea Turner (.256 with 25 RBIs, 20 SB); LF Juan Soto (.325 average with 6 HR, 14 RBIs); CF Michael A. Taylor (53 hits, 21 SB); LHP Gio Gonzalez (6-3, 3.01 ERA); RHP Max Scherzer (10-3, 2.06 ERA); RHP Sean Doolittle (1.47 ERA, 18 saves)

Season series vs. Orioles: 3-0

Pitching probables:

June 19: RHP David Hess (2-3) vs. Jefry Rodriguez (0-0), 7:05 p.m., MASN2
June 20: RHP Andrew Cashner (2-8) vs. LHP Gio Gonzalez (6-3), 7:05 p.m., MASN2
June 21: RHP Kevin Gausman (3-6) vs. RHP Max Scherzer (10-3), 7:05 p.m., MASN2

Inside the Nationals:

For the 2018 Nationals, this may be it. A championship window that was opened in 2009 with the selection of first overall pick Stephen Strasburg, opened further by the selection of phenom Bryce Harper the year after, and flung open even further by free agent acquisitions of top names like Max Scherzer, Gio Gonzalez and Adam Eaton may very well be closing at the end of this season. In just four months - unless anything major breaks - players including Harper, Gonzalez, Daniel Murphy and Matt Wieters will be free agents, putting an end to one of the most talented collections of baseball players in several years. Both Nationals fans and the entire baseball community know the story that’s plagued the franchise in recent years: regular season dominance followed by postseason disappointment. This year, however, the Nationals haven’t had an easy time staying competitive, particularly in a fierce National League East. Washington has been slowed by a rash of injuries, as well as lackluster results at the plate and late in games on the mound. Still, the Nationals have a good shot at capturing their fifth division title in seven years, and prepare to welcome the Orioles in the latest installment of the Battle of the Beltways.

Entering Monday, the Nationals’ offense ranked just 22nd in the majors with a .235 team batting average. That’s due in large part to two major factors: several notable injuries and a few underperforming regulars. Both Wieters and first baseman Ryan Zimmerman are on the disabled list nursing hamstring and back injuries, respectively, and Eaton just returned from a stint on the 60-day DL. Harper, of course, gets most of the attention for the Nationals, and rightfully so. He leads the team in home runs (19) and RBIs (43), and is a consistent threat at the plate, even with a surprisingly pedestrian .221 batting average. For good surprises in terms of batting average, look no further than 19-year-old Juan Soto. Soto made his major league debut a month ago, and has been on a tear from the start. Through 22 games, the rookie is batting .325 with six home runs, 14 RBIs and 27 hits. While keeping one eye on Soto, keep the other on Michael A. Taylor. The center fielder is a blur along the base paths. On Sunday against the Blue Jays, Taylor swiped four bags and became the major league leader in steals with 21.

Rookie Jefry Rodriguez will make just his second career appearance, and first career start, for the Nationals tonight. Rodriguez made his major league debut just 16 days ago in a game against Atlanta. Washington starter Jeremy Hellickson left early with an injury, and Rodriguez filled in nicely. In 4 2/3 innings, he held the Braves scoreless and struck out three batters while allowing four hits. On Wednesday, Gonzalez will look to fix what’s been a rocky month of June for the southpaw. In three starts this month, Gonzalez is 0-1 with a 6.61 ERA, and has given up nine earned runs over his last 9 1/3 innings. A matchup against the Orioles might be just what the veteran needs, though. In his only other start against Baltimore this season, Gonzalez blanked the Birds over 7 2/3 innings on May 28, coincidentally his most recent win of 2018. Scherzer, who starts Thursday, is looking to get back on the winning track after dropping back-to-back starts for the first time since August 2015. It’s tough to blame Scherzer for those losses, however. In those two starts, the three-time Cy Young Award winner pitched 13 innings, allowing four runs while tallying 19 strikeouts. Even with the losses, Scherzer still leads the National League with 10 wins, and is 6-2 with a 2.87 career ERA against the Orioles.

Along with the Nationals’ streaky lineup, a troublesome spot has been the bullpen. However, that may not be the case much longer. Last night, the Nationals announced they acquired reliever Kelvin Herrera from Kansas City in exchange for three prospects. Herrera is a two-time American League All-Star and entered Monday as the AL’s leader in bullpen ERA at 1.05. His addition solidifies the Nationals bullpen and could be the key piece the team needs to get over the postseason hump. Along with Herrera, closer Sean Doolittle has been in a groove lately, converting his last eight save opportunities (not including yesterday’s completion of a suspended game). Reliever Ryan Madson ran into some trouble in Sunday’s loss against the Blue Jays, serving up a pair of home runs in the eighth inning, and now has a 4.56 ERA on the season. He’s joined by relievers Sammy SolĂ­s and Shawn Kelley.

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