Washington starter Stephen Strasburg has played an important role in helping… (Harry E. Walker / MCT )
The Washington Nationals: a measuring stick?
They are for now, at least.
In the seven full seasons the Nationals have played since their move to Washington from Montreal, they have never reached the playoffs — or come close, for that matter. Their best showing in the National League East came last season when they finished third. Even then, they still lost more games than they won.
But bolstered by a young rotation led by fireballer Stephen Strasburg, they head into their opening game of a three-game series at Dodger Stadium on Friday with the best record in the league and figure to test the West-leading Dodgers.
Despite his team's 13-6 record, Dodgers Manager Don Mattingly hasn't been entirely pleased with the way his club has performed.
Mattingly has started expressing some concern over the lineup's dependency on Matt Kemp and Andre Ethier, who have combined for 14 of the team's 17 home runs. Kemp and Ethier have 52 of the Dodgers' 161 hits. They are hitting a combined .366. The rest of the team is hitting .229.
"We have to have production all along," Mattingly said.
Because Mattingly doesn't expect his team to score a ton of runs, he wants to make sure it doesn't waste the few chances it gets. For that reason, he called a pregame meeting Wednesday to address the team's sloppy baserunning.
"We're making too many mistakes," Mattingly said. "I don't think we're good enough to make mistakes."
The Dodgers are 6-3 in one-run games. But they dropped three of the four such games they played against the two opponents they've played thus far who are expected to be playoff contenders, the Atlanta Braves and the Milwaukee Brewers.
"You have to put into practice what we teach," said first base coach Davey Lopes, the team's baserunning instructor. "There's no reason they can't do that."
The bullpen has also failed to hold up against competitive opposition.
Closer Javy Guerra blew his first save of the season last week in Milwaukee.
He was the losing pitcher against the Braves on Tuesday, then blew another save on Wednesday.
Part of the problem could be usage, as Guerra and setup man Kenley Jansen have been to the bullpen what Kemp and Ethier have been to the lineup. Guerra has already pitched in 11 games. Jansen leads the team with 12 appearances.
Reinforcements are on the way.
Hard-throwing Nathan Eovaldi is expected to be called up from double-A Chattanooga on Friday. Todd Coffey, who was put on the disabled list because he wasn't pitching well, is eligible to be activated Sunday. Power sinkerballer Ronald Belisario, who is serving a 25-game suspension after testing positive for cocaine, can return May 4.
The Dodgers should expect to be in more close games in the coming days.
Like the Dodgers, the Nationals aren't a high-scoring team. Through Wednesday, they were averaging 3.8 runs per game compared with 4.2 for the Dodgers. Their cleanup hitter, Michael Morse, is out because of an injured side muscle and not expected back until midseason. Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman could also land on the disabled list soon because of a shoulder injury.
The Nationals' strength is their rotation, which had a combined earned-run average of 1.71 entering Thursday. Former Dodger Edwin Jackson is their oldest starter and he is only 28. Every other pitcher is 26 or younger.
The most celebrated pitcher in the group is 23-year-old Strasburg, the former No. 1 overall draft pick who returned from reconstructive elbow surgery last season. Strasburg, who is 2-0 with a 1.08 ERA in four starts, is scheduled to start Saturday.
The Dodgers are offering free tickets to their fans who were inconvenienced by Mother Nature on Wednesday night.
Ticket stubs from the Dodgers' rainy 4-2 loss to the Atlanta Braves can be redeemed for reserve-level tickets to a May 14 game against the Arizona Diamondbacks or a May 31 game against the Milwaukee Brewers.
Ticket stubs from April 13 can also be exchanged for May 14 or May 31 tickets.
Exchanges can be made at the advance ticket window at Dodger Stadium's parking lot P between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. from Monday through Saturday.