Opposite dugout: Nationals looking to deliver in another season with high expectations

washington-logo-small.pngManager: Matt Williams (2nd season)

Record: 46-38

Last 10 games: 5-5

Who to watch: LF Bryce Harper (.343/.417/.709 with 25 HR, 60 RBIs, 6.1 WAR), 3B Yunel Escobar (.315/.365/.405 with 27 RBIs), 2B Danny Espinosa (.258/.338/.435 with 9 HR, 25 RBIs), C Wilson Ramos (.258 with 8 HR, 38 RBIs), RHP Jordan Zimmermann (7-5, 3.04 ERA), LHP Matt Thornton (2.18 ERA, 1.02 WHIP), RHP Drew Storen (25 saves, 1.97 ERA, 0.97 WHIP)

Season series vs. Orioles: First meeting (1-3 in 2014)

Pitching probables:

July 10: LHP Gio Gonzalez vs. RHP Chris Tillman, 7:05 p.m., MASN
July 11: RHP Jordan Zimmermann vs. RHP Miguel Gonzalez, 7:15 p.m., FOX
July 12: RHP Doug Fister vs. LHP Wei-Yin Chen, 1:35 p.m., MASN

Inside the Nationals:

If you didn't hear all the hype that surrounded the Nationals before this season started, you must have been living under a rock. After their second early postseason exit in the last the three years with a bust in the "World Series or bust" 2013 season, general manager Mike Rizzo made the biggest move of this past offseason. The Nats signed free agent right-hander Max Scherzer for a record $210 million, adding to a pitching staff that was already considered one of the best in baseball.

Add Scherzer's signing with a team that was already a title contender to a "Where's my ring?" comment by phenom Bryce Harper and the Nationals were crowned champions. But here's the thing: World Series aren't won in January and February. So the Nats still have a ways to go for that ring. But they have played good ball for most of the season on their way to the top of the National League East, and have looked so good at some points that it seemed like no team in baseball could touch them with a 10-foot pole. On the other hand, at times they have also looked like another overhyped team heading for a bust of a season. The Nats have enjoyed six and eight-game winning streaks, while also suffering streaks of losing six in a row and another six out of seven.

Nationals fans might wish for a little more consistency, but in a weak division like the NL East and with the talent the Nats have, it might not matter at the end of the season as long as they don't completely tank. The two players the Nats have been able to rely on are Scherzer and left fielder Harper. Scherzer has been dominant this season, which includes a stretch of pitching 34 1/3 innings over four consecutive starts with 42 strikeouts, only one walk, a 1.05 ERA and a no-hitter. But the O's will mostly likely miss Scherzer this series thanks to a rainout of the Nats' game against the Reds on Wednesday, which pushed their rotation back a day and could keep the righty out until after the All-Star break. Harper, however, will play at Camden Yards, and the All-Star is already the leading candidate for NL MVP. Harper is fourth in the majors with a .343 batting average and leads the majors with a .471 on-base percentage and .709 slugging percentage. His 25 home runs are tied for third in baseball and his 60 RBIs are tied for fifth. His WAR of 6.1 also leads the majors.

When it's not the Harper show, the Nationals are getting good contributions from guys who are making themselves everyday players in the place of injured Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon and recently Denard Span. Third baseman Yunel Escobar is slashing .315/.365/.405 and has driven in 27 runs this season. Escobar actually has a long history against the Orioles with a .286 career batting average, and his six homers and 34 RBIs are his second-most against a single team thanks to his five years with the Rays and Blue Jays. He is also a .299 career hitter at Camden Yards thanks to that time in the AL East. Danny Espinosa is the Nats utility man who usually plays second base, but has found himself playing first and third base, shortstop and even the outfield once. A switch-hitter, Espinosa is slashing .258/.338/.435 on the season while also knocking nine home runs with 25 RBIs. He's batting .243 as a lefty facing a right-handed pitcher and .304 as a righty facing southpaws. Catcher Wilson Ramos is also hitting .258 and surprisingly finds himself second on the team to Harper with 38 RBIs.

Left-hander Gio Gonzalez will start the Battle of the Beltways opener for Washington. Gonzalez has had some tough luck recently with two of his last three scheduled starts postponed by rain. He was able to go seven innings while giving up five hits, one run, no walks and striking out five in a win over the defending champion Giants on July 3. Gonzalez is a couple of years removed from his first season with Washington when he was an All-Star and 21-game winner, but he's still been a crucial part of this daunting rotation as the only lefty. Throwing a fastball, curveball and changeup, Gonzalez is 6-4 with a 4.16 ERA this season. He is 1-4 with a 3.80 ERA in seven starts against the Orioles and 1-2 with a 3.12 ERA in four starts at Baltimore.

Righty Jordan Zimmermann has pitched well so far in the last season of his contract with the Nats. After his no-hitter on the final day of the regular season last year, Zimmermann has looked to keep showing off his worth as he hits free agency after this season. The right-hander was often overlooked on this pitching staff by the likes of Stephen Strasburg and Scherzer, but has since made a name for himself and will be one of the biggest signings in the offseason. He is 7-5 with a 3.04 ERA this season, and is coming off back-to-back impressive outings. He pitched a combined 14 2/3 innings, giving up nine hits, one run, one walk and striking out 14 in wins over the Braves and Giants. Zimmermann is 1-3 in five starts against the O's with a 4.13 ERA, and has never won at Camden Yards in three starts with an ERA of 5.12.

Doug Fister will start the last game before the All-Star break for Washington. Fister is only 3-4 with a 4.08 ERA, but went through a stint on the disabled list with forearm tightness in May. The 6-foot-8 righty is an intimidating figure on the mound with a fastball, curveball, changeup and cut fastball in his arsenal. He is the only Nats starter this weekend with some success against the Birds over his career. Fister is 4-2 in seven starts against the Orioles even with a 4.85 ERA. His ERA is 4.38 at Camden Yards even though he is 2-1 in Baltimore.

The Battle of the Beltways is a rivalry series that since its inception in 2006 (the Orioles and Nationals didn't play in 2005 when the Nats moved to D.C.) was more for the fans in the DMV area to enjoy. But as the teams have now consistently contended for the playoffs, this series has meant more to the teams as well as the fans with the idea of a Beltway Series in late October looming in their minds. Since 2006, the Orioles lead the series 29-21 and have either split or won each series against the Nationals since 2008. They are 16-9 versus the Nats at Camden Yards, and the O's latest sweep over Washington in Baltimore was in June 2010, while the latest Nationals sweep at Camden Yards was in June 2007.

How big is the series against the Nationals for Or...
Tonight's game and random notes
 

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