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Bay Area battle awaits Nats

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Bay Area battle awaits Nats

PHOENIX -- A 10-game road trip is a challenge for any club, owners of the best record in baseball or not. And when the final leg of that trip comes against the toughest opponent of the stretch, the challenge becomes all the more daunting.

So the Nationals, fresh off a four-game sweep in Houston and then a two-out-of-three series victory in Arizona, now prepare for one of their tougher tasks this season: a three-game set in San Francisco against the NL West-leading Giants.

It's a task the Nats realize they need to take head-on as they prepare for the stretch run and the first pennant race by a D.C. ballclub in 67 years.

"To go and play teams like this, it's the kind of teams we're going to have to beat to get to where we need to go," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "It's going to be a tough, three-game series, but we look forward to it."

The Nationals have already established their ability to topple the Giants, having swept a three-game series in the District last month. This, however, is a much different opponent at AT&T Park than it is away from the Bay.

San Francisco owns a 34-24 record at home, the seventh-best mark in the majors. More importantly, the cool Northern California air and spacious outfield gaps make this one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in baseball.

Just look at the staggering difference in the Giants' home vs. road splits. At home, their pitching staff has produced a sparkling 2.76 ERA; on the road, that number skyrockets to 4.45.

At the same time, the Giants' lineup becomes far less imposing at AT&T than it is away from the friendly confines. They've hit a grand total of only 19 home runs in 58 home games this season.

So with the likes of Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Ryan Vogelsong, Madison Bumgarner and Tim Lincecum scheduled to pitch over the next three days, slugfests don't appear too plausible.

"They've got some very good pitching. We've got some really good pitching," Zimmerman said. "So I doubt they're going to be high-scoring games. Hopefully we'll score a lot of runs. I don't know if they will."

San Francisco may be among National Leaguers' favorite road cities each season, but the locals aren't exactly a welcoming bunch. Despite the laid-back reputation of California sports fans, Giants backers are no pushovers. And AT&T Park remains a hostile environment for visiting clubs.

"It's definitely a rowdy place," said catcher Kurt Suzuki, who played his share of interleague games in San Francisco while with the rival Athletics. "The Giants do play well at home. When I was in Oakland, we played them this past year. It gets rowdy out there, and the team plays well."

The Nationals might want to get used to the idea of playing important games in unwelcome settings. These are the type of road games they can expect to be playing in September and beyond.

In fact, they very well could find themselves back in San Francisco at some point in October, making this week's series a valuable learning experience for those players who have yet to participate in a pennant race.

"I think it's valuable anytime we can go on the road and get into atmospheres like the one in San Francisco," Zimmerman said. "We've all played in it before, so it's not a huge deal or a thing we need to be exposed to, because if you've been in the big leagues, you've played in front of crowds. But on the road in kind of a hostile environment is always good for any of us to experience and get ready for."

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Stock Watch: Scherzer nearing the 20 win mark

Stock Watch: Scherzer nearing the 20 win mark

Each week this season, we’ll take the temperature of the Nationals roster to see which player's stock is rising or falling.  

Record: 4-2

Team slash: .269/.339/.426

Team ERA: 5.17

Runs per game: 6.2

 

STOCK UP 

Max Scherzer, SP: 2-0, 12.2 IP, 18 K

Another start, another win for Scherzer, who continues to make his case for the NL Cy Young Award. In fact, the Nats have won the last nine starts he’s made, while he’s posted a 2.87 ERA and 69-15 strikeout-to-walk ratio over that span. In Sunday’s season finale, the 31-year-old right hander will get a shot to earn his 20th win, a feat that would put the finishing touch on a stellar second season in D.C.

Reynaldo Lopez, RP:  1-0, 5.1 IP, 6 K, 0 ER

Given the circumstances, Saturday’s outing by Lopez might have been the finest of his rookie season. Coming in relief of Joe Ross in the third inning, the 24-year-old flamethrower tossed 5 1/3 shutout innings against the Pirates on the night that clinched the NL East title for the Nats. The performance was so impressive that Dusty Baker said after he’d consider adding Lopez to the playoff roster as a long man.

STOCK DOWN

Yusmeiro Petit, RP: 2 GP, 0-1, 2.0 IP, 5 ER

The Nats have a little over a week to configure their 25-man playoff roster, and the hardest part of the process might be putting together the bullpen. As mentioned earlier, Baker is considering adding Lopez as a potential long man. If that’s the case, would it come at Petit’s expense?

Lucas Giolito, RP:  1 GP, 2.0 IP, 4 ER   

The Nats starting rotation — especially when healthy — was obviously one of the driving forces of the team’s NL East title. That said, one of the more disappointing developments of 2016 was Giolito not emerging like the club hoped he would this year. Whether it was in a starting role or out of the bullpen, the 22-year-old prospect never quite showed the elite fastball he was said to have in the minors. Instead, he's throwing his heater in the low 90s, not fooling anyone in The Show. Of course, there's plenty of time for Giolito to progress and become the top-line starter the Nats expect him to be someday. But for now, there seems to be a larger-than-expected gap between what he is and what he could be. 

[MORE: DODGERS SET ROTATION FOR PLAYOFF SERIES AGAINST NATIONALS]

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Mets' prospect Tim Tebow hits home run on his first professional pitch

Mets' prospect Tim Tebow hits home run on his first professional pitch

Tim Tebow started his professional career Tuesday with the New York Mets instructional league team with a game against the Cardinals in Port St. Lucie, Florida.

He had about the best start you can think of, hitting the first pitch he saw over the left center field fence.

Tebow decided to take a swing at the major leagues after his pro football career flamed out.

The Denver Broncos picked him in the first round of the 2010 NFL Draft, and he played in 23 games for them, one of them a dramatic win over the Steelers in the first round of the 2011 playoffs.

He couldn't find his rhythm the next season and was traded to the Jets in March 2012. He was released the next year, then eventually spent short stints with the Jets and Patriots.

He tried his hand at broadcasting, taking a job at ESPN as a college football analyst in 2013 before taking one last shot at the NFL. He signed with the Eagles in 2015 but was released after their fourth preseason game.

There was a bit of controversy surrounding Tebow's move to baseball, a sport he hadn't played full-time since 2005. People questioned whether the former Heisman Trophy winner actually had what it takes, or if he was only getting a shot because he's Tim Tebow and the Mets wanted publicity. 

So far, so good.

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