The NL East will be a battle to the very end, as the Mets, Phillies, Nationals, and Braves are all fighting for the division title. But which divisional matchups should Nationals fans be looking forward to the most?
Last week, I went over a few matchups the Nationals have against the AL East, that fans should be looking forward to. This time, I will be going over matchups against NL East rivals to mark on your calendars. Now, understandably, any time the Nats play the Mets, Phillies, or Braves should be mutch watch baseball. But these three series are the ones to stay tuned for.
Atlanta @ Washington, September 10-13
Last season, the Braves won the division for the second straight year and seemed to have the Nationals number. They revamped an inconsistent bullpen by re-signing Darren O’Day and Chris Martin, while also signing Will Smith to a multi-year deal. The Braves did lose Josh Donaldson, but they were able to replace his bat with Marcell Ozuna. The biggest loss for the Braves has been the announcement that reliable veteran, Nick Markakis, is opting out of the season due to the Coronavirus (completely understandable). To make matters worse, long time Brave, Freddie Freeman, and three others all tested positive for the virus. It is unclear if they will opt out of the upcoming season or not.
Despite this recent string of terrible news, the Braves are still loaded. The offense is led by rising superstar Ronald Acuna Jr., while the starting rotation is headed by burgeoning ace, Mike Soroka. Add in an elite bullpen and tons of depth in the lineup, and the Braves are once again favorites to win the competitive NL East. Last year, the Braves won the season series against Washington 11-8. Both teams lost their stud third baseman in free agency, Anthony Rendon for the Nats, and Josh Donaldson for the Braves. However, the Braves did a better job of replacing Donaldson’s bat.
The two division rivals face off 10 times this year, but their last matchup is in the middle of September. The Nats will be in the midst of a brutal end to the season and cannot afford to fall behind. Atlanta will be aiming for a third straight NL East title and recently signed Yasiel Puig in order to bolster their team’s lineup.
The deciding factor will be Marcell Ozuna. Ozuna was brought in on a one year deal to replace Donaldson. In 2017, he broke out with the Marlins, hitting .312, with 37 homers, 124 RBIs, and an OPS of .924. Unfortunately, after being traded to the Cardinals, Ozuna was never able to build on that success. Over the last two years with the Cardinals, he hit .264, with 52 homers, 177 RBIs, and an OPS of .777. Atlanta will need Ozuna to follow in Donaldson’s steps and bounce back. If he doesn’t, than the offense won’t be as potent.
Philadelphia @ Washington, September 21-23
Heading into the 2019 season, the Phillies were supposed to be the team to beat in the NL East. After all, they signed/traded for Bryce Harper, Andrew McCutchen, Jean Segura, David Robertson, and J.T. Realmuto. All of that talent led to an 81-81 finish. Following the disappointing 2019 season, manager Gabe Kapler was let go and he was replaced by Joe Giraldi. In order to bolster their pitching staff, the Phillies poached Zack Wheeler from the Mets. They also signed Didi Gregorius to a one year deal to play short.
With the 2020 season delayed, the Phillies offense has had plenty of time to recover from injuries and should be close to full strength. With Giraldi at the helm, the Phillies should finally live up to their potential.
The Phillies’ biggest weakness is their rotation and newcomer Zack Wheeler will need to finally break out. In five seasons with the Mets, he went 44-38, with a 3.77 ERA, and 726 strikeouts. With New York, Wheeler was the team’s fourth starter but, will need to step up and be the Co-Ace to Aaron Nola. Wheeler just inked a five-year deal worth $118 million and Phillies are expecting him to help fix a rotation that finished 17th last year in ERA (4.64).
Last year the Nationals won the season series against the Phillies 14-5, thanks in large part to the laters porous pitching staff. In a very crowded NL and increasingly competitive NL East, every game counts. The Nats and Phillies play 10 times this year, but their three-game series in D.C. at the end of September is one to keep an eye on. That marks the last week of the season and baring collapse, both teams should be in the thick of the playoff race. Wheeler will be the key for the series. If he can live up to his contract and bolster the Phillies rotation, then the series will be a lot more even than last year.
New York Mets @ Washington, September 24-27
Despite missing the playoffs in 2019, the Mets had the Nats number as they won the season series 12-7. A big reason the Mets outplayed the Nats was due to Washington’s dumpster fire of a bullpen. The Nats relief corps finished 2019 with a 5.68 ERA, which was good for 29th in the league. Mike Rizzo made sure not to repeat past mistakes and focused on bolstering the bullpen. He re-signed closer Daniel Hudson and signed the Astro’s Will Harris.
The team’s two bullpens will be the deciding factors when they face off. More specifically, the X-Factor will be Mets closer, Edwin Diaz. New York is one of the few teams that has the pitching staff to combat the Nats, led by reigning NL Cy Young winner, Jacob deGrom. But their bullpen was unable to close out games and needs Diaz to bounce back.
Dias was the best reliever in 2018 after recording an MLB high 57 saves. Unfortunately, he fell apart in his first year with the Mets. In 58 innings last season, Diaz went 2-7, with a 5.59 ERA, and 99 strikeouts, while recording 26 saves in 33 opportunities. In 2018, Diaz only had four blown saves and posted a FIP of 1.61. Fast forward to last season and Diaz had seven blown saves and his FIP skyrocketed to a 4.51. There is no way the 26-year-old will be that awful again in 2020, but the Mets will need him to pitch closer to his averages. Come the end of the season, Diaz will be the D-Factor. His presence will make or break the series.