In Padres, Nationals face a surprising test

SAN FRANCISCO - In Sept. 2008, the San Diego Padres came to Nationals Park and swept the home team, essentially taking themselves out of the running for the biggest prize in the draft over the last 20 or so years - Stephen Strasburg, who grew up within the city limits, spent his childhood cheering for the Padres and went to San Diego State to play for Tony Gwynn, arguably the biggest star in the team’s history.

It was as costly of a sweep as a last-place team could have in September, and the Padres (picking third last spring) watched helplessly as the Nationals plucked Strasburg with the No. 1 pick.

The Nationals’ big prize won’t make his major league debut in his hometown this weekend, but if he did, he’d be facing a squad that’s reformed itself almost overnight. The Padres have the best record in the National League, having surged from 63- and 75-win seasons to the top of the NL West with the help of the parts they got for trading Jake Peavy to the White Sox last year. They lead the National League in runs, earned runs and shutouts, are second in ERA and third in walks, all with a group of starting pitchers who are 30 or younger. And in Petco Park - one of the toughest places for hitters in the game - they’ll give the Nationals’ struggling offense a nasty match-up.

Tonight, the Nationals get Clayton Richard, one of the prizes in the Peavy trade. The 26-year-old left-hander has a 1.86 strikeout-to-walk ratio, and has gone seven innings in each of his last three starts, allowing two runs or less in all of them.

There are some parallels between Richard and John Lannan, who will face the Padres tonight. Both were middle-round picks without overpowering stuff, using lanky frames and good sinkers to get ground balls, though Richard will strike out more batters than Lannan will. No one on the Nationals’ roster has more than three plate appearances against Richard, and it’s possible we’ll see a similar lineup to the one Washington fielded yesterday against left-hander Barry Zito. It’ll be interesting to see if Jim Riggleman puts Cristian Guzman in right field again or gives a game to right-hander Michael Morse, who has been seldom used since returning from the disabled list on May 16.

Lannan has been solid against most of the Padres’ hitters, though also over a small sample size. Will Venable was 3-for-7 against Lannan last year; his career 1.000 OPS this best of anyone on the San Diego roster against Lannan.

With Mat Latos and Jon Garland scheduled to follow Richard on Saturday and Sunday, the Nationals’ struggling offense will get pushed all weekend. A series win is possible, but they shouldn’t be unhappy with a 1-2 mark here. After this series, the Nationals’ easy portion of the schedule finally begins, with 24 of their 27 games after the Padres series coming against teams with losing records.

It’s just that they could have expected it to begin this weekend. Instead, they’ll face a hot team that couldn’t match up much better with them right now.