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Series Preview: Washington Nationals @ Milwaukee Brewers

A trendy preseason pick to win the NL pennant is struggling to stay at .500 this year

Atlanta Braves v Washington Nationals Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

You’d be hard-pressed to find a team more disappointing this season than the Washington Nationals.

In the two seasons before this year, Dusty Baker won 95 and 97 games as manager of the Nationals. The easily cruised to the playoffs both years, and both years, they lost heart-breaking 5 game series in the NLDS, first to the Dodgers and then to the Cubs. The Nationals fired Baker because he “couldn’t get over the hump,” hired someone who had never managed before in Dave Martinez, and ended up needing a win on the last day of the first half just to go into the All-Star break at .500.

The pitching outside of Max Scherzer has been a massive disappointment, the offense has been middling at best, and Bryce Harper is not making the best case for the $300 million contract it’s been assumed for years he’d get as a free agent after this year. Despite being voted into the All-Star Game, Harper is hitting just .218/.366/.475. He’s still hit 24 home runs and like Ryan Braun this year, a lot of the low batting average is because of an extremely unlucky .232 BABIP. But Harper has also been a mess defensively, leading to him being just a 1.4 WAR player at this point in the season -- a far cry from the 9.3 WAR season he had when he was named MVP in 2015.

Anthony Rendon is still one of the best-hitting third basemen around, putting up a line of .287/.351/.527 this year, and 19-year-old rookie sensation Juan Soto is helping some Washington fans feel better about possibly losing Harper after this year with a .311/.422/.546 line and 10 home runs in 53 games.

Probable Pitchers

Monday - 7:10 p.m. CDT
Gio Gonzalez vs. Jhoulys Chacin

Tuesday - 7:10 p.m. CDT
Jeremy Hellickson vs. Junior Guerra

Wednesday - 1:10 p.m. CDT
Tanner Roark vs. Freddy Peralta

In a stroke of luck, the Brewers won’t have to face Max Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg in this go-around, and instead get the back end of the Washington rotation.

They’ll start by seeing a fourth straight left-hander to start the second half. After a red-hot first two months of the season, Gonzalez has come crashing back down to earth in the past two months. Taking a 2.10 ERA into the month of June, that mark now sits at 3.72 after giving up 27 runs in his past 8 starts, covering just 37.1 innings. A big problem during that stretch has been control -- he’s given 20 walks in those 37 innings and has also given up 45 hits, meaning he’s had to deal with a lot of traffic on the bases while opponents tagged him for an .891 OPS. There has been some sense he’s been starting to turn it around, though, or at least getting more fortunate. He’s coming off back-to-back starts of allowing just 2 runs while scattering 14 hits over those 11 innings.

Hellickson has turned out to be a pretty nice find for the Nationals this season. One of the many fringe-y veterans that had trouble finding work this past winter, he eventually signed a minor league deal with the Nationals in March and has ended up being one of the best-performing pitchers with a 3.29 ERA in 13 starts. Never one to strike a ton of guys out (he only has 49 in 63 innings this year), he’s managed to make it work by keeping guys off the bases -- he’s cut his WHIP from 1.262 last year to 1.048 this year -- and keeping the ball on the ground, increasing his GB% by almost 12%.

Roark has long been the junkballer in a rotation full of high-powered strikeout arms, but has run into some trouble this year. In 20 games (19 of them starts), he’s given up 15 home runs and is allowing his highest rate of hits since 2015. His BABIP is sitting at .306, which is higher than his career average of .282, but that’s also a number that’s been rising for 5 straight years. There’s a chance the league has just figured him out. In his past three starts, opponents have banged out a total of 28 hits against him, with the Boston Red Sox converting 10 of those hits into 9 runs.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs