Weekend Preview: New York Yankees at Washington Nationals
The last time New York and Washington faced off in 2009, the Nationals were a last-place team and Chien-Ming Wang was a Yankee.
This time around, things are a little different.
Three years have passed and both clubs are in first place, leading arguably the two toughest divisions in baseball. Each team is riding a season high six-game win streak, and while it is still early in the year, the case could be made that we are watching a potential World Series matchup.
Only the LA Dodgers (40-24) have a better record than Washington (38-23) and New York (37-25), but back-to-back series sweeps by both during interleague play leaves fans pointing to these two teams as the best in the bigs. After taking all three games in Boston, the Nationals wrapped up a short road trip with a sweep of the Blue Jays in Toronto. And following wins against the Mets at home, the Yankees took care of business in Atlanta behind some timely hitting and solid pitching.
Their resumes are quite analogous, but the Yankees and Nats are not. While Washington has achieved success behind baseball's best starting rotation, the Bronx Bombers have bashed their way into first behind a Major League leading 96 home runs.
One similarity could be found in relief pitching. Both bullpens rank in the top three of their respective leagues and have acted as a stabilizing force for two teams with inconsistent offensive production. An inability to hit with runners in scoring position has prevented New York from keeping up with the highest-scoring teams in baseball, and with two evenly-matched teams, it could be timely hitting that determines the winner of this three game series in Washington.
Game 1: Friday, June 15
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Phil Hughes (6-5, 4.76 ERA) vs. Gio Gonzalez (8-2, 2.35 ERA)
In the first of a three game set, the overall numbers would suggest that the Nationals have a clear advantage in the pitching matchup. After coming to Washington in an offseason trade with the Athletics, Gio Gonzalez has established himself as one of the game's best left-handed pitchers. Paired with Stephen Strasburg atop the rotation, the hard-throwing duo provides Washington with one of the best 1-2 punches in the game and two bona fide Cy Young candidates.
But if the last two weeks are any indication of how well the starters will perform, the head-to-head matchup may be closer than expected.
Phil Hughes is coming off two of his best outings of the year, including his first career complete game against the Tigers on June 3. In the last 15 innings, the righty from California has surrendered just three runs while striking out 14. He has had a problem with walks so far this season, but if Hughes can find a way to pound the strike zone against the young Nationals' hitters, he could have great success Friday night.
Truth be told, it is likely going to take another stellar outing from the Yankee starter if he is going to keep his team in the game against Gio Gonzalez. Since his first start of the year, Gio is yet to give up more than three earned runs in a single game. He is among the league-leaders in wins, ERA, and strikeouts, and he possesses one of the deadliest curve balls in the bigs.
But his most impressive stat of all may be the most telling in his matchup against the Bronx Bombers. Through 12 starts and nearly 73 innings pitched, Gonzalez has surrendered just one homerun. Facing a team that sometimes depends on the longball for offensive production, Gio's ability to keep the ball in the park might prove fatal for New York.
Conclusion: The overall numbers tell you that this game shouldn't even be close. While Gio Gonzalez has made a case for Cy Young contention through the first three months of the season, only injuries to other players have kept Phil Hughes' spot in the rotation safe. But fans in New York are optimistic that the pitcher they have seen the past two weeks is the same Phil Hughes that won 18 games in 2010. If and only if he can locate his fastball and throw strikes consistently, the Yankees may have a shot to steal one from one of the league's best.
Prediction: Hughes will continue his impressive turnaround with six solid innings, but it won't be enough against the Nationals' tough left-hander. Gio will overcome his career struggles against the Yankees, and Washington's bullpen will protect a two-run lead and hold on to take Game 1.
Game 2: Saturday, June 16
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Andy Pettitte (3-2, 2.81 ERA) vs. Jordan Zimmermann (3-5, 2.91 ERA)
Since his surprise return from retirement, Andy Pettitte has been nothing short of sensational. After taking the year off in 2011, the 39-year-old lefty has reinvented himself with a creative combination of off-speed pitches and has become the Yankees most consistent starter. Though he can no longer throw a mid-90s fastball like his opposition will Saturday afternoon, Pettitte's late-action cutter and overall experience could prove victorious against an inexperienced Nationals lineup.
But Washington's starter hopes that won't be the case. Again.
Through the first three months, the numbers alone will show you that Jordan Zimmermann has fallen victim to a lack of run support. He has completed at least six innings in all 12 starts, while surrendering more than three earned runs just two times. His 1.09 WHIP and 2.91 ERA are both all-star caliber numbers, but a record of 3-5 on the season certainly doesn't help his case.
This will be Zimmermann's first time facing the potent Yankee lineup, and he better hope Washington's bats show up on Saturday or he could be headed for another loss.
Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Pettitte's return is the uncharacteristically high strikeout totals (40/9-K/BB) he has accumulated through his first six starts.The veteran has been forced to make adjustments with age, and he has done just that.
The incorporation of a nasty curve has served to complement the lefty's consistent cutter and devastating slider. Pettitte has used his experience to mix and match pitches effectively on both sides of the plate, and there is no reason to suggest we won't see another solid outing on Saturday.
Conclusion: The pitching matchup in game two appears to be fairly equal looking at the numbers. But given his experience, Andy Pettitte earns a slight edge over 26-year-old Jordan Zimmermann. A lefty-heavy Yankee lineup could prove tough for Washington who rarely sees a batting order as deep as New York's, and Zimmermann will have to continue to limit the baserunners if he wants a shot at picking his fourth win of the year.
Prediction: The Yankees will get to Zimmermann for a couple of homeruns the second and third time through the lineup while Andy Pettitte will cruise through seven solid innings. The Yankee bullpen will continue its dominance and wrap up Pettitte's 244th victory.
Game 3: Sunday, June 17
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Ivan Nova (8-2, 4.64 ERA ) vs. Edwin Jackson (3-3, 3.02 ERA)
Like Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova has shown promising signs of a turnaround in his last two outings. After struggling with command through the first two months of the season, Nova has surrendered just two walks and one run through 15 innings in the month of June. And he is going to have continue that sort of pace if he wants to keep up with his opposition, Edwin Jackson.
One of the more undervalued pitchers in the league, Jackson has put together an all-star caliber season thus far in 2012. After struggling to find consistency in the American League, Jackson has found his niche in Washington as the team's fourth starter. He ranks among NL leaders in ERA and WHIP but only has three wins to show for it.
But a pitcher's record can only tell you so much.
Like his teammate Jordan Zimmermann, Jackson might have some beef with his teammates in Washington. In fact, of all the starters in the National League, only three have experienced lower averaged run support than the 28-year-old right-hander. But with the Yankees in town, Jackson can't be worried about anything but himself.
He is 2-6 with a 5.35 ERA in his career against New York, and his ability to throw strikes will certainly be tested on Sunday. Against an experienced ball club, Jackson is going to be forced to trust his stuff and pound the strike zone if he wants to have success against one of baseball's deepest lineups.
Nova hopes things stay right where they are. Despite a high volume of walks through his first 10 starts, Nova has earned quite a respectable record of 8-2 thanks to a hard head and lots of run support. He has yet to lose on the road in 2012 (5-0), and he can earn his fifth consecutive win on Sunday if the trends continue.
Much like teammate Phil Hughes, Nova's success hinges on his ability to locate the fastball and get ahead in the count. If he can establish that pitch early, his ability to successfully pitch to contact will likely earn him his ninth victory of the young season.
Conclusion: On Sunday, we will see a matchup between two young right-handers whose success will be dependent upon their ability to throw strikes. While Edwin Jackson has showcased consistency all year long, Ivan Nova's recent dominance could put Jackson on the undeserving side of the decision yet again. With two pitchers primed to perform, it will almost certainly be timely hitting that determines not only this game, but the series.
Prediction: Both pitchers will struggle early on with control, surrendering numerous base runners. But Ivan Nova's ability to pitch to contact will prove beneficial, and he will escape trouble with pop ups and ground-ball double plays. The rubber match will be the highest-scoring affair of the weekend, but Nats fans will go home disappointed after losing game the third and final game.