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Series Preview 8/13-16: Nationals vs. Cardinals

Coming off a 7-2 trip, the Birds return to Busch for a home stand that will impact the Wild Card race.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Kansas City Royals Peter G. Aiken

After a sweep of the Royals in Kansas City, the 63-55 Cardinals are back in St. Louis to begin a stretch of seven games with two teams at Busch Stadium that will have a critical impact on the National League postseason picture. First team up: the Nationals, for a four-game series that will start on Monday evening.

The Cardinals enter play on Monday 5 12 games back of the 68-49 Cubs and 2 12 behind the 67-54 Brewers. The Cubs and Brewers will meet for two games this week at Wrigley Field. The Phillies and Brewers currently hold the two Wild Card spots, while the Cardinals, Rockies, and Dodgers sit fewer than three games out.

In the series opener on Monday, Miles Mikolas will take the mound against Tommy Milone at 7:10 PM Central time. Mikolas has a 3.07 ERA over his last seven starts and enters his Monday assignment with a 2.01 ERA in 11 starts at Busch Stadium in 2018. The Nationals will likely go left-handed-heavy in their batting order, as lefties are batting .284 off Mikolas, who has held right-handed batters to a .184 average.

The 31-year-old Milone, who was drafted by the Nationals in 2008 and debuted with them in 2011, is back with his native club after spending time with the Athletics, Twins, Brewers, and Mets. Milone had pitched exclusively at Triple-A this season before Washington promoted him back on July 26, to pitch in place of Stephen Strasburg. Milone has a 1.17 WHIP and 19 strikeouts in three starts for the Nationals.

Tuesday’s ballgame will feature John Gant and Gio Gonzalez at 7:15 PM. In his last start, Gant, who took on the Pirates, turned in six innings of one-run ball; it was his first quality start in over a month and his third of the season. Bryce Harper has two walks in his career facing Gant, and Trea Turner has a a home run off the former Braves hurler.

Gonzalez has had a very solid season on the mound for the Nationals. Often overshadowed (and with logical reasons) by teammates Max Scherzer and Strasburg, Gonzalez is having one of his best seasons in terms of ground ball and fly ball rates. Gonzalez’s 49.2 percent rate of ground balls is up nearly four percent from last season, while his 29.6 fly ball percentage is down almost six points. Batters are hitting just .249 with five home runs in 67 23 innings against Gonzalez when he is on the road.

Wednesday’s 7:15 contest is set to have Austin Gomber and Jeremy Hellickson on the mound. Gomber has filled in very nicely in the St. Louis rotation - one that doesn’t include, yet does not seem to be missing - Michael Wacha and Carlos Martinez. Gomber worked five scoreless innings in his last start in Kansas City and enters the series with a 3.45 ERA in 20 games (three starts) in his rookie campaign.

Hellickson worked 5 23 hitless innings in his last start, back on 8/10 against the Cubs at Wrigley. The Nationals opted to remove Hellickson due to command issues, as he walked four batters in the game. Hellickson’s command has not been a season-long issue - or at least not as pressing as they have been in seasons prior. Hellickson’s BB/9 rate sits at 1.82 in 84 innings in 2018, down from 2.58 last year. Home runs are also harder to come by off Hellickson, who has surrendered only 10 long balls. For comparison, Hellickson gave up 35 homers in 164 innings in 2017.

The series finale on Thursday will start an hour earlier, at 6:15 PM, and showcase Jack Flaherty and Tanner Roark. Flaherty fanned nine batters and turned in seven frames of two-run ball on Saturday in Kansas City. Flaherty has struck out at least seven batters in each of his last five starts and enters the series with an 11.06 K/9 rate, the ninth-highest in the Majors. Chris Sale of the Red Sox leads this particular party with 13.50.

Roark has been giving the Nationals quality length recently. He has worked at least seven innings in his last four starts and has a 1.21 ERA with 27 strikeouts in the span. Roark has faced the Cardinals in his career. Yadier Molina has four runs batted in facing Roark, and Marcell Ozuna is batting .286 (10-for-35) facing the 31-year-old, who will look to keep Matt Carpenter to his 1-for-6 ways.