Miami Marlins Series Preview: Washington Nationals

KANSAS CITY, MO - JULY 10: National League All-Star Stephen Strasburg #37 of the Washington Nationals pithces in the fourth inning during the 83rd MLB All-Star Game at Kauffman Stadium on July 10, 2012 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)

The readers of Fish Stripes have voted, and they all seem to have a strong interest in series preview interviews with the great folks who run the SB Nation baseball blogs. So starting in the second half, which begins tonight, we will have interviews with the managers of our opponent's SB Nation blogs to kick off series whenever possible.

It starts tonight with the Washington Nationals and Patrick Reddington of Federal Baseball. Patrick was nice enough to send me his answers despite me giving him very little notice, and for that, I thank him most graciously.

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1) The Washington Nationals have been led by their stellar pitching staff. Gio Gonzalez has been among the team's best. He has improved since moving to the National League. Can he keep it up in the second half?

I went back and looked (when the Nats signed him of course, and again today), since Gio's still kind of new to us in D.C. this year obviously, and he's been strong after the All-Star Break in each of the last two seasons, which are his only two full seasons in the majors. Though he gave up a run and a 1/2 more last year in the second-half, he was actually better in the second-half of the 2010 campaign statistically than he had been in a strong first half. But this is a bit of a new Gio too. The Nationals said the one thing they wanted him to cut down on this year was the walks, thinking that his league-leading walk total in 2011 was the only thing keeping him from being an elite starter and he's gone from a pitcher who's walked 4.32 BB/9 in his career to one who's walked just 42 (3.72 BB/9) in 101.2 IP. He's striking more batters out (10.45 K/9 to a 8.89 K/9 career average), has the NL's 12th-lowest ERA (2.92), the third-lowest FIP (2.52) and fourth-lowest xFIP (3.06). He's basically a second, left-handed ace behind Stephen Strasburg. The Nats acquired him in part because he's proven to be durable so far during his career, and I'm sure the hope is that the prospect of playing for a first postseason berth after four years in Oakland in which the A's finished as high as second but never made it to the playoffs is going to be a real motivating factor going forward, especially with Strasburg most likely unavailable late this year.

2) What is the latest on Stephen Strasburg's innings limit? If the Nationals are in contention or likely to make the playoffs, will Strasburg pitch further into the 2012 season and playoffs?

The latest on Strasburg came from Strasburg himself when he told MLB Network Radio hosts this week that the Nats would have to rip the ball out of his hands to keep him from competing if the Nationals managed to make it to the postseason and hypothetically the World Series this year for the first time since baseball returned to D.C. in 2005. It would also be the first postseason appearance by a team based in the nation's capital since 1933. So, clearly the Nats and their pitcher are both aware of what a rare situation they're in even fighting for a postseason berth, but the Nationals, and GM Mike Rizzo in particular, have been adamant all season that he's on a prescribed innings (pitch) limit. Though they've never said exactly what that number is, it's assumed to be around 160-170 innings worth of work, which will be up in the first week or two of September. Rizzo's also said explicitly there will be no "gimmicks", no skipping starts, or finagling to stretch him out just in case. I've said for a year now that it's going to be one difficult decision to sell to the fanbase and there's already a groundswell of incredulity at the idea that he won't be available for a postseason run. Rizzo's said he's ready to take the hit and the heat to do what's right for Strasburg. I don't doubt him, honestly.

3) The Nationals offense has faltered for the most part outside of a few contributors. Nevertheless, key hitters in the lineup struggled in the first half. Which Nationals batter is in line for the biggest bounceback in the second half?

I'd love to say Danny Espinosa, who finished the first half with a .232/.309/.374 line and picked it up a little late in the second half, but he has struggled so badly from the left side of the plate (.199/.269/.319) in the first half that I'm worried about how much improvement he'll show going forward. Davey Johnson says he's seen signs of Espinosa working it out from the left side, and he's been right before about other Nats' bats figuring things out (see: Desmond, Ian) so hopefully he's right, but I'm not sure. I'd say, as long as his shoulder issue is managed, Ryan Zimmerman is the National most likely to have the biggest bounceback second half. He was already in mid-bounceback going into the break. Following a cortisone shot to get the inflammation in his ailing shoulder down, Zim's put up a .333/.394/.683 line with six doubles and five home runs in 14 G and 66 PA's. On the year he's now got a .243/.308/.386 line with 16 doubles and eight home runs. I'm expecting strong second-half will have Zimmerman's numbers back more in line with his career norms than he is right now... if he can stay healthy.

4) Which NL East team is the most likely to threaten the Nationals' current division lead?

The Braves, especially if they add the sort of top-of-the-rotation arm or outfield bat they've been rumored to be looking for heading towards the deadline. I'm still not convinced the Marlins are as bad as they've been in the first half and they're still close to a .500 team, and have always given the Nationals a lot of trouble. I'm still kind of shocked the Mets are hanging around since I didn't necessarily think they'd be as competitive as they have been this year. All three have had serious injury news in the last few days though, with Andrelton Simmons out for the next four weeks or so with a fractured finger, Giancarlo Stanton out with the knee and Dillon Gee out six-to-eight weeks after his recent health scare. I think the Braves are the biggest threat though, especially with some pitching in reserve in their organization too. Can we officially count the Phillies out yet though? Bad as they've been? I'd like to think so... but... in other words, as a fan of the Expos and now the Nats, I'm never comfortable and won't be til the 2012 schedule ends with the Nats in first in the East or at least the Wild Card...

5) What will the Nationals be doing in October?

I think, and I wouldn't have said this a month ago, the Nationals will be in the postseason in October for the first time since baseball returned to D.C. in 2005. This is not a jinx, just an answer to a question. I have to qualify that in case FBb's jinx-averse readership gets this far. Thanks.

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I would like to thank Patrick once gain for being so expedient despite my tardiness. You can expect to see more of these preview interviews for each series going forward this season.

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