Series preview and Q&A: Cardinals host Nationals June 13-15

Stan Liu-USA TODAY Sports

The NL-East leading Nationals visit Busch for three games. Here's a look at the series including some insight from Patrick Reddington, lead editor of the Nationals' SBN site, Federal Baseball


The Schedule
Mise-en-scene

The Nationals are red hot, coming to Busch having won eight of their last ten games in a stretch that has seen them take over first place in the tough NL East. Like the Cardinals, the Nationals have been outstanding at preventing runs (their 3.48 team RA/G is tied with Atlanta, just ahead of the Cardinals and just behind the Giants for the league lead), but unlike St Louis, Washington is above average at scoring them. This series will be challenging for the Cardinals, as their twin pitching stalwarts, Adam Wainwright and Michael Wacha, are not scheduled, while the two star pitchers leading the Nationals are slated for tonight and tomorrow. Jordan Zimmermann is coming off of a 2 hit 12 K shut-out, and Stephen Strasburg is pitching as well as he has at any point in his career.

With much more on the Nationals, here's Patrick Reddington of www.federalbaseball.com.

The Q&A
What are the early returns on Matt Williams?

The phrase that comes to mind for me when talking about Williams early in his first year as a manager is "relentlessly positive." In spite of the injuries and drama he's dealt with in the first two months-plus on the Nats' bench, Williams has remained positive. There was one interesting incident early this season, against the Cards in D.C., in which he benched Bryce Harper for failing to run out a grounder to the mound.

What most of the national coverage of the incident failed to mention was that WIlliams reportedly spoke to the team a few days beforehand and told them that the next time someone failed to run out a grounder they would be benched. Williams made the tough decision and took Harper out of the game. What choice did he have? As a first-year manager, how could he not follow through? You didn't hear any negative reaction from Harper's teammates, in spite of the fact that his spot came up in an important at bat late in the game. As much as Williams took a beating in the press, and though his public comments on the incident could have been handled better, I think it was important for him to follow through on his threat regardless of the fact that it was Harper.

I liked that he brought Mark Weidemaier along with him from Arizona to handle the Nationals' defensive alignments, shifts, etc. His bullpen management so far has been a bit of an issue. I'm not thrilled with the way they're using Ross Detwiler. But he's getting results. Even after all the injuries the Nationals have dealt with this season, they've come together in the last few weeks and after a ton of errors early, the defense has improved and the starters have been dominant as they've made a run. As a big Davey Johnson fan, it's taken a while, but I'm warming to Williams.

The Nationals are 32-29 (editor's note: now 35-30), surely a little disappointing given the once again sky-high pre-season expectations. Yet the team has withstood injuries to several key pieces and still sits in something close to a three-way tie for the division lead. How would you characterize the season up to this point, and what are your expectations for the rest of the year?

I'm impressed with what they've been able to do in spite of the injuries to Wilson Ramos, Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, Gio Gonzalez and more. Luckily for the Nationals, the Braves didn't build up a big lead when the Nationals scuffled in the first two months, especially in an 11-15 May. The run they've gone on recently coincided with them getting big pieces like Ramos and Zimmerman back, but they've also received ridiculous starting pitching over the last few weeks even with Gonzalez sidelined. The Nats' starters have been dominant. The bullpen has been one of the best in the majors. And the offense is starting to click. Losing Ramos again, to a hamstring injury this time, is tough. Acquiring Jose Lobaton this winter was a good move with Ramos missing a lot of time, but Lobaton's not the offensive weapon Ramos is, so there's a drop-off. I think the Nats will sink or swim on the starting pitching though. It's hard to imagine the Nationals' starters sustaining what they're doing right now, but if they can stay healthy, the Nats' starters can match up with any team in baseball. Expectations? I expect them to be at or near the top of the division all season.

Even before his trip to the DL, Gio Gonzalez had the worst ERA of his career excepting his rookie season, but his peripherals were not far off his norms. Do you expect him to return to form once healthy, or are there serious concerns?

Gio Gonzalez left a start against the Angels in late April with shoulder tightness that originally had everyone following the Nats concerned. He returned for two relatively good outings against the Astros and Phillies, but in back-to-back starts before he landed on the DL with inflammation in his left shoulder, he really struggled with his command. He was throwing way too many pitches and the location wasn't there on his fastball or breaking ball. It was clear that something was not right before it was confirmed by the MRI on his shoulder. His ERA was really bumped up by those last two outings, in which he got knocked around and left the mound early.

In his first rehab start he struggled with his command again though he reported no issues with the shoulder. This is the first time in his career he's landed on the DL. He's going to make another rehab start tonight actually (Thursday), and if his command is there, he should return after that, but shoulder issues with a pitcher are always reason for serious concern. I think he's a huge part of the Nats' rotation though, and having a hard-throwing lefty between Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann at the top of the rotation is important. Blake Treinen's impressed in his fill-in starts with Gonzalez out, but I don't think there's anything in the organization right now that could give them what a healthy Gio can, so his return is going to be a big storyline to follow going forward.

Ryan Zimmerman has been playing in left-field with Anthony Rendon at 3rd and Danny Espinosa at 2nd. What will happen when Bryce Harper returns?

Matt Williams, as he did again after Wednesday's win in San Francisco, has continued to insist that once Bryce Harper is back, he'll return to left with Zimmerman going back to third and Rendon shifting back over to second where he started the season. My big issue in all of this is moving Rendon away from third.

After watching Zimmerman struggle with his throwing in the last few seasons, I think Rendon has been something of a revelation over there since he moved over from second. He was, of course, drafted as a third baseman out of Rice and then shifted to second when Espinosa struggled last season. Nats' GM Mike Rizzo said they saw Rendon as a Gold Glove-caliber defender at third when they took him in the 1st Round in 2011, but Espinosa's offensive issues last season led to Rendon moving to second when he came up.

Rendon has been great at third base. Zimmerman seems to be adjusting well to left. Bryce Harper told The Washington Post recently that he actually preferred playing center.

But it really comes down to a choice between Denard Span and Espinosa. A month ago, with Span's offense an issue, it might have made sense to go with a Zimmerman, Harper and Werth outfield, but Span's picked things up since then and as good as Espinosa is defensively and as much as I like the Nats' infield defense better with Espinosa at second and Rendon at third, it's looking like Williams is planning on moving Zim back to the infield once Harper returns.

Looking at the team leaderboard, two players stand out to me as surprises. Adam LaRoche has been superb (156 wRC+ so far), and Tanner Roark has been good (2.91 ERA, 3.51 FIP). What's gotten into them, and do you think they'll continue to produce at this level?

LaRoche, when healthy, has been solid since he came to the nation's capital. Unfortunately, it's been a year-off-year-on thing. He was injured and his first season ended early after surgery in 2011, then he was a big part of the Nationals' run in 2012 when he returned to the lineup at full strength.

Last season, he dealt with issues with the medication he takes for ADD and he was forced to undergo surgery after the season for an elbow issue, so I'm not sure if he was ever healthy at all last season. This season, he's taken it to another level thus far. I don't think anyone anticipated the sort of offensive production he's provided thus far. It is also a contract year, though I know that never factors into these things. There's a $15M mutual option for 2015, but I'm guessing he's going to look for more than a one-year deal since at 34, it will likely be his last opportunity to get one.

Tanner Roark? I'm not convinced he didn't have some sort of John Travolta-in-Phenomenon-esque experience at some point in the last 2-3 years. Yes, I just made a George Malley reference. I'm not sure how else you explain it.

Roark was stalled at Triple-A, when he says he, "just got over it mentally," and told himself that he knew he had the stuff to make it work. He's just taken off since then. He was impressive at Triple-A last season, but has just been unreal since he debuted in the majors. Davey Johnson said last season it was all about his command and ability to locate his pitches wherever he throws them that has allowed him to have the success he has thus far. I keep on waiting for the league to figure him out and start hitting him, but it hasn't happened yet, and he's just one of those guys that's obviously worked hard to get to where he is so he's easy to like and it's fun to watch what he's been able to do.

Stephen Strasburg trails only Adam Wainwright in the NL by fWAR and according to FIP and xFIP is pitching the best he has since his blazing rookie season. Is he ready to finally reach his full promise as a generational talent, or will he remain merely very good?

I don't think you can discount how much the amount of time Strasburg missed after Tommy John affected his development.

He was a late bloomer in college and he shot up through the minors quickly, so he's gone through a lot of his development at the major league level.

Having watched all of his starts in the majors and having seen the adjustments he's made since his debut and how he's changed as a pitcher, I think he's every bit as good as projected when the Nationals drafted him.

He's also doing what he's doing now with the league's highest BABIP among qualified major league starters.

I think some of the expectations that came with him being hyped and followed more closely than any prospect to that point might have been unrealistic. He's clearly a once-in-a-generation talent. How that plays out in terms of him putting up stats that match that sort of label depends on so many other factors it's hard to judge if he's lived up to the hype. 

As strong as some of the other Nats' starters have been, I'd prefer to have him on the mound over just about any pitcher out there if you had to win one game.


What is the one thing most key to the Nationals' chances at claiming the division this season?

I think it's all about the Nationals' pitching. The offense will produce if they stay healthy. If they can keep their starters on the mound and get the sort of production they have from them in the last month, I think that's what sets the Nationals apart.

They have a rotation that has the ability to dominate opposing teams and if they're healthy and they can get into the postseason, I'd put the Nats' top four (Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gonzalez and Doug Fister) up against any rotation in baseball.

Many thanks to Patrick for his time. I, for one, am excited and terrified to see Stephen Strasburg fully developed and fully healthy.
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