Opposite dugout: Nats keeping playoff hopes alive behind Bryce Harper's MVP-type season

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

Record: 78-71

Last 10 games: 7-3

Who to watch: RF Bryce Harper (.343/.470/.674 with 41 HR, 95 RBIs, 10.2 WAR), 3B Yunel Escobar (.324/.383/.429 with 53 RBIs), 2B Anthony Rendon (.278/.360/.380), SS Ian Desmond (18 HR, 60 RBIs), RHP Max Scherzer (12-11, 2.90 ERA), LHP Gio Gonzalez (11-7, 3.83 ERA)

Season series vs. Orioles: 2-1

Pitching probables:

Sept. 21: RHP Ubaldo Jimenez vs. LHP Gio Gonzalez, 7:05 p.m., MASN2
Sept. 22: RHP Chris Tillman vs. RHP Tanner Roark, 7:05 p.m., MASN2
Sept. 23: RHP Tyler Wilson vs. RHP Max Scherzer, 7:05 p.m., MASN2

Inside the Nationals:

At the beginning of this season, this upcoming interleague series between the Nationals and Orioles may have seemed like it would be an important one as both teams prepared for postseason play. But in the second to last week of the regular season, both DMV teams are on their last breaths and may find themselves on the outside looking in come October. As the O's are poised to make a run at the second American League wild card spot, the Nats were in a similar position two weeks ago to make a run at the Mets and National League East lead.

After a four-game sweep of the Braves at home, the Nationals were ready to welcome the Mets to D.C. for a three-game series, down by four games. Winning the series would be big. Sweeping the Mets would be huge, cutting their lead to just one game. But getting swept could be devastating, and that's exactly what happened to push the Nats back by seven games. As preseason World Series favorites, the Nationals might look back at this disappointing 2015 campaign and point to that series as their turning point as they are now six games back from New York.

But one positive Washington can take out of this season is the growth young slugger Bryce Harper showed. Since the Nationals are likely to miss the playoffs, there has been some talk that Harper won't win the NL Most Valuable Player award because he's not playing for a contender. But looking at the numbers, Harper is the clear frontrunner for the honor, and barring a total collapse and a surge by someone else over the last 12 games, the young phenom should become the first MVP in Nationals history. He leads the majors with a .343/.470/.674 slash line, 1.143 OPS, 116 runs and 10.2 WAR. He is second with 115 walks and third (first in the NL) with 41 home runs.

The Nationals have had to deal with injuries all season, so Harper hasn't had the stout lineup around him for much of the season like most expected in the spring. Newcomer Yunel Escobar has played mostly third base despite being a natural shortstop and entered this season expecting to play second. Escobar is fourth in the NL with a .324 batting average and has been on base in each of his last 21 games. Rookie Michael A. Taylor has shown some power while playing center field for the injured Denard Span. Taylor has knocked 14 homers with 62 RBIs. Shortstop Ian Desmond has struggled in what is expected to be his last season in D.C., batting just .231 with 18 longballs and 60 RBIs.

Left-hander Gio Gonzalez will start the series opener at Nats Park, bringing his 11-7 record and 3.83 ERA against Ubaldo Jimenez. Gonzalez, the only left-hander in this Nats rotation, has been solid in September, going 2-0 with a 1.47 ERA over three starts so far this month. Back in July in Baltimore, he threw six innings, giving up six hits, one run, three walks and striking out five with a no-decision in a 3-2 O's win. Gonzalez is 1-4 with a 3.51 ERA in five career starts against the Orioles and 6-9 with a 4.72 ERA in 29 interleague starts in his career.

Tanner Roark gets the ball for Game 2 of this Battle of the Beltways. Roark has been going back and forth between the starting rotation and bullpen for the Nats. After rookie Joe Ross closed in on an innings limit filling in for Doug Fister in the starting rotation, Roark replaced Ross, who then went to the bullpen. Roark is 4-6 with a 4.73 ERA in 37 appearances this season with nine starts. He is 3-3 with a 5.66 ERA in the nine starts nad 1-3 with a 3.74 ERA in 28 outings from the bullpen. Roark pitched the ninth inning in Gonzalez's start against the Orioles on July 10, striking out Jimmy Paredes and J.J. hardy, but surrendering a walk-off home run to Jonathan Schoop. Roark is 0-2 with a 7.71 ERA over two outings against Baltimore, including one start.

Max Scherzer will start the series finale, looking to improve his 12-11 record and his NL ninth-best 2.90 ERA. An early Cy Young favorite after throwing a nearly perfect no-hitter, Scherzer has struggled in the second half of the season: He entered the All-Star break at 10-7 with a 2.11 ERA, but is 2-4 with a 4.32 ERA in his 12 starts since. Scherzer pitched a solid 8 2/3 innings in Baltimore on July 12, allowing just two runs on four hits with no walks and seven strikeouts while getting the win. The two runs came off solo home runs by Adam Jones, the second of which knocked Scherzer out of the game with two outs in the ninth inning. Scherzer is 4-1 with a 3.59 in seven career starts against the Orioles.

Since the Nationals came to D.C., the Orioles have only lost the season series once in 2007, having one five of the nine and the last three in a row. Losing two out of three at Camden Yards in July puts the Birds in danger of breaking that streak against the Beltway rivals. With both teams desperately clinging to playoff hopes, this series in our nation's capital can be a significant dagger in the hearts of the losing team's season.

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