For most of this season, the Washington Nationals have not had to look back. No one was near enough to see, let alone worry about. But the Miami Marlins are climbing into view. The Marlins are still 12 games behind in the National League East, but with 13 wins in their last 16 games, sparked by Giancarlo Stanton’s historic home run tear, they are charging. So as the Marlins head to Nationals Park for three games this week, the Nationals should feel some small measure of urgency, something they have not felt much this season.
Below, find a few things to think about as the two best teams in the National League East collide in a series that could end the division race once and for all — or perhaps add some drama to it.
STANTON’S HOME RUN TEAR
Giancarlo Stanton homered in the Marlins win over the Padres on Sunday and, in so doing, hit his 17th home run in the month of August. The record for home runs in that month is 18, and Stanton has plenty of time to get there. He hit three of those home runs in four games the Nationals played at Nationals Park earlier this month.
That home run Stanton hit Sunday was his 50th of the season, making him the first player in the majors to hit 50 since Chris Davis did it in 2013. Davis, however, ended the season with 50 homers. Stanton is on pace for 63. He has hit 28 homers in his last 45 games.
Stanton is the 28th player in major league history with 50 homers; four of those 50 have come against the Nationals this season. It is a testament to his furious home run pace that he has hit more homers against six other teams than he has against the Nationals. Stanton is hitting .304 with an .801 OPS against the Nationals this season.
For most of the last week, Max Scherzer has seemed on the verge of returning from the disabled list, only to have his start pushed back a couple days here or a day there because his sore neck was not quite ready. But after Scherzer threw a successful bullpen Friday and reported without trouble after throwing Saturday, Dusty Baker said Scherzer was scheduled to pitch Monday night’s series opener against the Marlins.
The Nationals released their pitching probables for that series Sunday, and in keeping with their typical (if inexplicable) commitment to the clandestine, listed Monday’s starter as TBA. All signs point to Scherzer, though if for some reason he cannot go, the Nationals might have to get creative. Their two most obvious fill-ins — A.J. Cole and Erick Fedde — both pitched this weekend, so neither would be available to start Monday.
When Scherzer returns, he will resume his quest for a second straight National League Cy Young Award, a quest on which he had made great progress before the neck injury sent him to the disabled list for the first time in his Nationals tenure. Scherzer is currently leading the National League in strikeouts and strikeouts-per-nine innings and all starters with a .171 batting average against.
MIDDLE OF THE ORDER DRAGGING
For much of the last week, Ryan Zimmerman and Daniel Murphy have looked tired. They’ve played through the trouble, but neither has hit particularly well lately. Zimmerman is 2 for his last 24. Murphy, normally slump-proof, is 2 for his last 14.
Since Bryce Harper went down with his knee injury, much of the production load has fallen on Murphy and Zimmerman, who have not exactly carried that load. Anthony Rendon, meanwhile, has four multi-hit games in his last seven games played. He started both games of Sunday’s doubleheader, though he did rest Friday evening.
In other words, the heart of the Nationals order his hurting, exhausted and slowing fast. Harper does not seem near a return, but perhaps the familiar Marlins pitching staff will inspire a revival. Jayson Werth might be nearing a return from the disabled list, and another veteran bat near the top of the order might help. In the meantime, they will probably have to keep piecing together runs each night until Murphy and Zimmerman find their way again — and hope they do not lose anyone else to injury in the process.
Mon.: RHP Jose Urena vs. TBA
Tues.: RHP Vance Worley vs. RHP Edwin Jackson
Weds.: LHP Adam Conley vs. RHP Stephen Strasburg
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