Series 40 Preview: Cubs vs. Nationals

Harper

Bryce Harper has been the focal point of the Nationals offense all season long. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

After last year’s comfortable romp to the postseason, the Nationals were pegged by nearly everyone with a BWAA card and a laptop to repeat in 2013. Then came injuries to outfielders Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth, the complete implosion of second baseman Danny Espinosa’s game (leading to an extended trip to the minors), and injuries to two rotation regulars. That rash of bad fortune exposed a somewhat shallow organization that should consider itself fortunate to still be distantly in contention for a Wild Card spot. And we mean distant. The Nats’ overall lack of consistent play has left them with just a 2.0 percent chance of making the postseason (according to Coolstandings.com), as they sit 15.5 games behind the NL East-leading Braves and 9.5 games back from one of the two Wild Card spots.

HITTING: 3.79 Runs Scored/Game (13th in NL)
The Nats couldn’t get Harper and Werth back from the DL fast enough. With the slugging duo out, the only National having a great season at the plate was shortstop Ian Desmond, who is proving his 25 homers in 2012 were no fluke. But Adam LaRoche has predictably reverted back to his usual form after a big year in 2012. To make matters worse, center fielder Denard Span and catcher Kurt Suzuki were supposed to provide veteran stability, but both have been among the worst regulars at their positions. Span was dropped from the leadoff slot for a few weeks, and Suzuki has cleared out of the lineup to make way for a healthy Wilson Ramos. In the Nationals’ desperation to add offense, they sacrificed some up-the-middle defense with a quick-fire conversion of third-base prospect Anthony Rendon to the keystone. Though he added offensive punch, he’ll need to improve his footwork, especially on the double play. The Nationals also added former Cubs outfielder David DeJesus to the mix on Monday. The 33-year-old signed with the North Siders as a free agent prior to the 2012 season.

PITCHING: 3.97 Runs Allowed/Game (6th in NL)
The Nationals have had their share of problems in the rotation, but they still have some tremendous weapons. Jordan Zimmermann—Monday’s starter—and Gio Gonzalez are both at the top of their game, and Stephen Strasburg remains one of the most dominant pitchers in the league. He’s scheduled to throw on Thursday. Even Tuesday’s starter, Dan Haren, has turned it around of late, earning four wins in his last five starts. Closer Rafael Soriano has been competent at nailing down saves, but a declining strikeout rate doesn’t inspire confidence. With top set-up man Tyler Clippard and former closer Drew Storen sharing the late-game chores, skipper Davey Johnson does have options if serious trouble crops up. But the rest of the ’pen hasn’t earned Johnson’s confidence, as the Nats have churned through 10 other relievers searching for the right combination.

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