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Daisuke Matsuzaka’s ineffectiveness has conveniently turned into a weak shoulder and stint on the disabled list, opening up a rotation spot for John Smoltz, the 20-year Brave who the Sox signed up in the off-season despite knowing he needed rehabilitation for his shoulder. Smoltz has looked very good in his minor league stints recently and will debut for the team pretty much on the Red Sox timetable.
The Nationals are the majors’ worst team at 20-47 (.299) and that is after they just took two of three from the Yankees in the Bronx and two of three at home from the Blue Jays, including a four-game win streak.
Brad Penny opens the series against Nationals ace John Lannan (4-5, 3.38 ERA, 1.34 WHIP), who has been a useful pitcher for a few years now, however, few outside of DC realize that. Jon Lester looks to bounce back from the hard luck in the rain shortened game last time out against inconsistent Craig Stammen (1-2, 4.76, 1.26). The rookie recently threw 6.1 shutout innings against the Yankees, but that was his best outing. He does not walk or strike out many, and has allowed only two longballs in his 34 innings, but he seems prone to allowing more runs than his splits would indicate. In the finale, Smoltz will debut against Jordan Zimmermann (2-3, 5.03, 1.36), who is the fire-baller on the staff with a 9.05 K/9, but also eight home runs allowed in 62.2 innings.
A team as bad as the Nationals has many problems and they start with pitching (well, perhaps they really begin with their scouting, drafting, and signing problems). The staff is NL worst in quality starts, ERA, bullpen ERA (second worst in the majors on all counts), and 25th in starter ERA. They sport the worst WHIP, rank second in walks allowed and third worst in strikeouts and K/9.
Perhaps their biggest problem is the lack of any viable closer evidence in their ML worst save percentage at 39% (11/28). Joel Hanrahan was the first to hold the job, but the duties fell to a committee after manager Manny Acta had seen enough. The committee consisted of promising Joe Beimel, who missed the prime opportunity with injury, Julian Tavarez, and Kip Wells. When the committee proved to not be a viable solution, they turned to Mike MacDougal, former Royals closer, who has not saved more than one game in a season since 2005′s 21. Perhaps the most amazing fact in these stats is that they play in a pitcher’s park!
Offensively, the Nats are a conundrum. They are very average in terms of the major measurements (runs, home runs, on base percentage, etc), but interestingly are near the top in both walks and strikeouts, so they are a free swinging disciplined club! They have no better example than Christian Guzman, who is their leading hitter at .333, but who has struck out 32 times to only six walks.
Ryan Zimmerman is their best overall hitter at .293 with 18 home runs, 43 batted in, and 44 runs. Nick Johnson, rumored to be a possible Red Sox pickup, is off to a good start at .321 with five homers, 33 driven in, and 32 scored, however, the injury question will continue to linger. And, off-season signee Adam Dunn has 18 home runs with 49 batted in to go with his .267 average and 74 strikeouts. If he can hold his average where it is, he will set a new career high (previous best is .266, career is .248) and his K-rate will put him just shy of his career high of 195 (a record at the time). The Nationals are also a team that the Red Sox battery might actually be able to prevent from stealing bases since they are the worst in the majors at 59%.
If the Red Sox made the Marlins look like a minor league team, the Nationals should pose no problems, despite illusions that they may have turned a corner given last week’s performances. A patient team like the Red Sox should be able to put plenty of guys on base, and with no break in the Red Sox lineup, except the pitcher who will be batting, there will be plenty of converted RBI opportunities.