On The Horizon: Cubs vs. Nationals Series Preview

He's baaaaaaaack. - Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

The Cubs’ road trip continues as they spend the Fourth of July holiday weekend in the nation’s capital, finishing their season series against the Washington Nationals.

Well, when I said before the Red Sox series that I thought that there was a chance for something good to happen, I never expected it to be that good.  But I'll gladly take it.

The Cubs pulled off their first road series sweep of the season and their first since July 26-28, 2013, capping it off with a 16-9 pounding of the Boston Red Sox Wedensday night. With the sweep, the Cubs' record climbs to 37-46, three games clear of the National League basement with five teams beneath them. What a difference one series makes, huh?

The road trip continues with a short journey as the Cubs take on the Washington Nationals for the second time in a week. This "second time in a week" statement is becoming a popular refrain, it seems. Washington comes into the series with a record of 46-38, riding a five-game winning streak of their own after sweeping the Colorado Rockies. They are one-half game back in the National League East as the Atlanta Braves have gone on a seven-game tear to take the division lead. The Cubs were 2-1 at Nationals Park last year but are 6-8 there since 2010.

LIKELY PITCHING MATCHUPS:

Friday - Jason Hammel (7-5, 2.98 ERA, 1.013 WHIP) vs. Tanner Roark (7-5, 2.98 ERA, 1.154 WHIP)
Saturday -
Jeff Samardzija (2-7, 2.83 ERA, 1.204 WHIP) vs. Gio Gonzalez (5-4, 3.93 ERA, 1.267 WHIP)
Sunday - Jake Arrieta (5-1, 1.81 ERA, 1.005 WHIP) vs. Jordan Zimmermann (6-4, 2.95 ERA, 1.186 WHIP)

If not for the doubleheader in the last series, all three of these pitching matchups would most likely be encore performances; as it turns out, the only repeat performance is the first game between Hammel and Roark. Once again, the Cubs will not face Stephen Strasburg (7-6, 3.53 ERA, 1.246 WHIP), but the pitching matchups will still be tough even without him in the mix.

As was the case last time the two teams met, the Nationals' bullpen is not to be trifled with. Over the past two weeks five of their relievers have not allowed a run, including closer Rafael Soriano (1.06 ERA, 0.853 WHIP), who has given up one hit and one walk in his last six appearances. The last time he gave up a run was June 10 at San Francisco. The Cubs scored five runs off of the Nationals' bullpen in the last series, two against Craig Stammen and three against Jerry Blevins, so maybe there's some hope. That's a mighty big maybe.

THE OFFENSE:

The Nationals offense features three starters whose OPS is currently at or above .750:

The only change to this list since the last time the teams met is the inclusion of Harper, who returned from the disabled list on June 30. He was 3-for-12 with a double and an RBI in the Nationals' series against Colorado. Catcher Wilson Ramos has been doing well since returning from his strained hamstring, going 6-for-18 with a home run and two RBI since returning from the disabled list. LaRoche and Rendon have posted OPS figures of .946 and .928 respectively in the past two weeks with six home runs between them.

The .750-and-over club for the Cubs is once again a foursome as Justin Ruggiano joins the crowd after a 4-for-9 series at Boston, bringing his OPS to .775. Anthony Rizzo drops back under the .900 mark and holds at .894, with Starlin Castro rising slightly to .804 and Luis Valbuena falling back to .794. Also worthy of note is the performance of Darwin Barney who over the past two weeks has hit .282 with a .718 OPS, including his 4-for-5 night on Wednesday, bringing his OPS for the season all the way up to (gulp) .568. Baby steps. Silver linings. Other catch-phrases.

GAME PROJECTIONS:

Game 1: In their first matchup Hammel came out on the better end of the pitchers' duel, allowing two runs over 6⅓ innings. Roark allowed four runs in the game, which was the first time he had given up more than two runs since May 26. He's a tougher customer at home, though, with a 1.59 ERA and only two homers allowed in eight starts at Nationals Park. Hammel has been good on the road, but he'll need to duplicate his efforts -- and probably improve on them -- for the Cubs to have a chance at getting a win in the encore.

Game 2: Gonzalez blanked the Cubs in the previous series, allowing only two hits and two walks over seven scoreless innings. It was his second solid start in a row, and he has not allowed a run in his last 14 innings of work. Samardzija had a rough outing in the nightcap, giving up six runs, five earned, in the 7-2 loss. He has been up-and-down lately, with three good starts mixed in with three bad ones. I guess that means he's due for a good one again this time, right? Well, that's what I'm going to tell myself, anyway.

Game 3: I said it before, I'll say it again: Arrieta has absolutely been on fire. In his six starts in the month of June, he went 4-0 with a 0.92 ERA and 0.686 WHIP, striking out 48 in 39⅓ innings. Zimmermann was no slouch himself in June, posting a 1.43 ERA and 0.818 WHIP in his six starts last month. This is the time in just about every article where I make some snarky comment about betting the under and then watching another prediction go completely awry as the score of the game ends up 9-6 or something like that. As long as Arrieta wins, that's fine.

RUSS' PREDICTION: Unfortunately, it's back to the standard 1-2. The Nationals are tough customers at home (26-17) and even though the Cubs are sending out their three best pitchers in the series, I just can't see two wins coming out of it. Then again, I didn't see a sweep coming at Boston, so who knows?

The preview (and game stream) for the first game in this series, a morning affair, which would usually run at this time, will post in one hour, at 9 a.m. CT.

NEXT STOP: The road trip concludes in Cincinnati as the Cubs play five games against the Reds, including a doubleheader on July 8 to make up for the rainout on April 28. Will Dallas Beeler get the call one more time? Or will it be Tsuyoshi Wada? Stay tuned.

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