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Orioles-Nationals series preview: The O’s try to do better at home

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When the Orioles were in Washington earlier this year, they lost all three games. Maybe they can do better at home.

Baltimore Orioles v Washington Nationals Photo by G Fiume/Getty Images

The last time the Orioles played the Nationals, the Orioles were only two games into what became a 20-game road losing streak. The O’s lost all three games played within our nation’s eventual 51st state.

The sweep came along at a convenient time for the underachieving Nats, as they were on the verge of slipping out of the picture, at that time already six games below .500. Playing the O’s didn’t single-handedly spark a turnaround of their season, but it did hold a collapse at bay while they regrouped. The Nats made a long climb to two games above .500 at the end of June and have since hit a rougher patch, falling to 45-50.

With the series starting a week before the 2021 trade deadline, its outcome may go a long way towards settling the Nats trade deadline behavior. If they pull off another sweep of the Orioles, they’re only two games below .500 in what’s been baseball’s weakest division to date; only the division-leading Mets are above .500 and they only have 50 wins.

The Nationals 2019 championship season saw them go from 19-31 after 50 games to a 93-69 record. They are cutting it a bit closer in 2021, as they are now 95 games into the season and still waiting to make their ascent; their ‘19 squad at this point was 51-44. They could talk themselves into making the 2017 Orioles choice of going for it even while below .500, and probably with better reason to believe they can make a push than the ‘17 O’s did. If the Orioles pull off an unlikely sweep, that could turn out the lights on the Nats.

Stakes are not so high for the Orioles. In a version of the 2021 season that worked out slightly better for the team, they might be showcasing a number of trade chips. Maikel Franco is expected to return from the injured list for the series, but he’s been bad. Anthony Santander has been hurt and bad and is now on the COVID injured list. Relievers like Paul Fry and Tanner Scott have wilted in pressure situations. Freddy Galvis remains on the injured list. Trades may still be made, but the returns probably won’t excite O’s fans.

For O’s fans, most series are really just about how it will impact their draft position. The league-worst Diamondbacks have now won four straight games, so the O’s are only 2.5 games back of the #1 pick. Is it worth even getting excited about the top draft pick after two straight under slot top pick years? Maybe not, but that’s all there is anyway. And when they had the #1 pick two years ago, they took Adley Rutschman. Arizona’s weekend series is against the struggling Cubs, who may be on the verge of their own sell-off.

Game 1: Friday, 7:05pm

Starters: Patrick Corbin (6-8, 5.66 ERA, 5.15 FIP in 98.2 IP), Jorge López (2-12, 6.04 ERA, 4.81 FIP in 89.1 IP)

If I ran the Nationals, I might not feel great about owing Corbin another $83.25 million after this season when he had a 4.66 ERA last year and is a full run higher than that in 2021. His season numbers for this year are tanked somewhat by a horrible April where he had a 10.47 ERA after four starts. Still, even after that, he’s put up a 4.70 ERA since the start of May, and that’s not very good either, especially for a guy mostly facing lower quality DH-less lineups.

The Orioles encountered Corbin earlier this season, touching him up for four runs in a 5.2 inning outing. They got eleven hits and did not homer in the game. The O’s lost thanks to Matt Harvey giving up six runs, five earned, in 4.2 innings. As a lefty, Corbin is on the strong side of the Orioles offense’s platoon split for the season. They’ve got a .752 OPS against lefties, with only a .665 OPS against righties.

By this point in the season, every Orioles fan is familiar with the López story. Though there have been a couple of outings where he’s beaten the fifth inning monster, he’s yet to consistently do it, and the result is that López has a 4.14 ERA in innings 1-4 and a 17.47 ERA in the fifth inning. He has pitched into the sixth inning in just four times. That’s a good way to end up as MLB’s leader in losses, with 12. The closest non-Oriole has nine losses. I had to specify non-Oriole because Harvey has ten.

Game 2: Saturday, 6:35pm

Starters: Max Scherzer (7-4, 2.83 ERA, 3.48 FIP in 105 IP), Spenser Watkins (2-0, 1.65 ERA, 4.02 FIP in 16.1 IP)

There are 86 pitchers in the Baseball Hall of Fame with statistics listed on Baseball Reference. Max Scherzer already has more Wins Above Replacement than more than half of those pitchers. He has struck out more batters than all but 14 of them, and has a better career win-loss percentage than all but 12 of them. Do you think that he would be a Hall of Famer if he called it quits at the end of this year, when his current contract runs out?

Scherzer will probably not be calling it quits. He’ll be turning 37 years old in another few days, and he’s pitching like he’s got more left in the tank. Scherzer is back to doing Scherzer things in 2021, with 142 strikeouts in his 105 innings and a WHIP of just 0.886. It’s tough to beat a starting pitcher who’s allowing baserunners at a rate of less than one per inning! The guy is a legend. He did not face the Orioles in the last O’s-Nats series.

The difference in pedigree between Scherzer and the O’s starter, Watkins, is stark. Scherzer was the #11 overall pick before he started on his MLB career. Watkins was picked in the 30th round. Scherzer only pitched in 30 minor league games before making his MLB debut. Watkins had more than four times as many minor league outings. When Scherzer was Watkins’s age, he was in his first Cy Young season, with two more to come.

You never really know what you’re going to get with some pitcher coming out of nowhere to have a few nice starts. Maybe he will end up like Chris Waters. Maybe he will end up like Miguel Gonzalez. More likely, Watkins will fall somewhere in between those. It’s not much fun as an Orioles fan to sit around like the Grim Reaper, waiting for some guy to start playing poorly. He’s surely not 1.65 ERA-level good, but maybe a serviceable starter is in there somewhere.

Game 3: Sunday, 1:05

Starters: Jon Lester (3-4, 4.99 ERA, 5.23 FIP in 70.1 IP), TBD for the Orioles

Despite Scherzer being Scherzer, the Nationals rotation has the fifth-worst ERA among all NL teams. Along with Corbin, mentioned above, a disappointing season from the veteran Lester is part of the reason why. The signs were there for the Nats to read. Lester was last an above-average pitcher in 2018. They guaranteed him $5 million anyway.

Just three of Lester’s 15 starts this year have fallen in the quality start category, with six innings pitched or more and three earned runs or fewer. That included his most recent start, when he shut out the Marlins for seven innings in the Nats 18-1 thumping of Miami.

When Lester faced the O’s earlier this year, they scored six runs against him in four innings, though the O’s still lost the game because Bruce Zimmermann, Adam Plutko, and Tanner Scott were all bad in the same game. The Nationals are 8-7 in Lester’s starts despite his poor ERA. Run support is nice if you can get it.

Whoever starts the game for the Orioles will, in all probability, be worse than Lester has been so far in 2021. Maybe not, though, if the O’s end up having John Means pitch this game on regular rest. He last pitched on July 20, and if he were to pitch this one on July 25, that would be four days of rest. I suspect if the O’s were going to have Means go on regular rest, they’d have announced that already. Maybe they want to give him the extra day as he comes back from his shoulder injury.

**

In the last series poll, 47% of voters correctly guessed that the Orioles would win one of three games against the Rays.

Poll

How many games will the Orioles win in this series against the Tigers?

This poll is closed

  • 2%
    4 (The Orioles sweep)
    (5 votes)
  • 22%
    3
    (44 votes)
  • 57%
    2
    (111 votes)
  • 14%
    1
    (27 votes)
  • 2%
    0 (The Orioles are swept)
    (5 votes)
192 votes total Vote Now