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Series Preview: Nationals at Pirates

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Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

In a parallel universe Andrew McCutchen is making his return to Pittsburgh as a visiting player this week. I wonder how the Pirates are doing in that universe. I have to imagine Lucas Giolito and/or Reynaldo Lopez are still toiling in triple-A. I don't know the Bucs would be doing any worse, though, if you put everything else that has happened to this team this calendar year back up to chance. Almost certainly the Nationals couldn't be doing much better. I'm probably breaking all kinds of scientific rules here. One thing I'm sure of, though: they have been and always will be The Berenstain Bears. People just don't pay that much attention to detail when they're little kids.

Anyhow, the Nationals are really, really good -- best in the National League, in fact, with a 7 1/2-game hold on first place in the East Division. They split a doubleheader with the Phillies on Sunday, and took two of three in the home series. The Pirates (16-22) salvaged two wins at the tail of their seven-game road trip, snapping a six-game skid overall.

Schedule

Tuesday, 7:05 p.m. - Stephen Strasburg (3-1, 3.28 ERA) vs. Chad Kuhl (1-3, 5.81)

Wednesday, 7:05 p.m. - TBA vs. Gerrit Cole (1-4, 3.06)

Thursday, 12:35 p.m. - Tanner Roark (3-1, 3.88) vs. Tyler Glasnow (1-3, 7.98)

Nationals

24-13 (23-14 Pythag, 6.05 RS/G, 4.62 RA/G)

Offense

Whatever held Bryce Harper back last year, it's not hurting him anymore. He's mashed 12 home runs and literally gotten on base half the time, posting a .384/.500/.752 line and a major league-leading 2.8 fWAR. Ryan Zimmerman came back from the dead, hitting a bunch more fly balls, and is tied for the National League lead in homers with 13. Trea Turner is the only regular not performing up to or above expectation -- Jayson Werth still has his batting eye and power as he ages; Matt Weiters found his bat somewhere along the way from Baltimore to Washington; Adam Lind isn't playing a lot over Zimmerman, but even he is contributing when he plays. Adam Eaton, the guy Washington got instead of McCutchen, was hitting .297/.393/.462 before he went down for the season with a torn ACL. His replacement, Michael Taylor, is even filling in capably (.267/.300/.427 in 80 plate appearances, with good defense and baserunning).

Injury note: Werth has been dealing with groin tightness and his status is uncertain for this week.

Pitching

The Pirates will miss two of the Nats' best starters, Max Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez, who both pitched Sunday. Strasburg, of course, is a fine pitcher himself; he and Roark are both striking out over 20 percent of batters. The starters are very much carrying this unit (3.6 fWAR as a group versus -0.5 for the relievers). The Nationals brought in no external replacement (and traded one internally) for free-agent closer Mark Melancon. Shawn Kelley, Koda Glover and Blake Treinen have had hands in the closer role, and internet cool kids went wild when 13th-year veteran Matt Albers got his first career save May 5.

Outlook

The Nationals are a really, really good team that could pound Buccos pitching all week. If the offense doesn't bring a some of the life it found the last couple days in Arizona, the Pirates could be in big trouble. The bullpen, though, is the Nationals' Achilles heel. Plus, it's baseball.