The Washington Nationals did not lose ground to the Braves this week. Their win in the series finale Thursday ensured that. But at this point, with seven weeks to go in the regular season, not gaining ground amounts to losing it. Time is running out.
Because of that victory Thursday, they will head to Chicago 5 1/2 games back of the Phillies in the National League East, 4 1/2 games back of the second-place Braves. Neither team shows many signs of slowing, which means the Nationals will have to be near-perfect to close those gaps. The Cubs are not exactly the kind of team one wants to encounter when needing to make a run.
This weekend’s series at Wrigley Field will mark the first time Nationals manager Dave Martinez will return to the place from whence he came. Martinez served as Joe Maddon’s bench coach with the Cubs from 2014-2017, and was a key clubhouse presence in the Cubs’ run to the World Series title in 2016. He also played four seasons with the Cubs, who drafted him to the big leagues in the first place. Now, he returns to his old haunts, and does so with the jury still out about his rookie managerial season. His Nationals are hanging on for dear life as they take on the first place Cubs, but he continues to face questions about his readiness for a managerial job.
Martinez will likely face additional media obligations and off-field distractions in a frantic three-game series that includes two day games and the added scrutiny of Sunday Night Baseball. He will be tested anew this weekend.
KINTZLER’S A CUB
In a rather awkwardly quick reunion, the Nationals will face their former reliever Brandon Kintzler this weekend. They traded him to the Cubs on deadline day, in part because the front office suspected he was stirring rumors about a dysfunctional clubhouse, in part because of the money they could save from his salary for this year and next.
Kintzler had become a staple in the Nationals’ clubhouse by the time he was dealt, a vocal presence and veteran piece of what was once a deep bullpen. That bullpen has lost Sean Doolittle and Kelvin Herrera to injury, forcing Ryan Madson to close as Koda Glover leaps right back into late-inning duties. One could argue — and many likely will this weekend — that the Nationals could use Kintzler now.
Gio Gonzalez’s seven strong innings Thursday gave the Nationals yet another strong start in a two-week period that has included many of them. As this rotation has stabilized, so has the team, and while the combination has yet to yield a smaller deficit in the National League East, it certainly helps.
Three of the Nationals’ most reliable starters will pitch against the Cubs this weekend as Jeremy Hellickson, a revived Tanner Roark, and steady ace Max Scherzer will line up against Kyle Hendricks, Jon Lester and newly acquired Cole Hamels. The Nationals have had trouble establishing consistency against left-handed pitching this year. If Bryce Harper’s bruised shin continues to keep him out of the lineup, they will miss him, though their best attack against lefties probably includes Michael A. Taylor, who continues to find ways to chip in when given the chance.
Fri.: RHP Jeremy Hellickson vs. RHP Kyle Hendricks
Sat.: RHP Tanner Roark vs. LHP Jon Lester
Sun.: RHP Max Scherzer vs. LHP Cole Hamels
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