Photo by Mark Zuckerman / NATS INSIDER
Luis Atilano will look to get this road trip off to a good start.
This probably didn't look like all that important of a series six weeks ago. In fact, when we were here just one month ago, the prospect of watching 18 games between the Nats and Mets seemed pretty daunting. These two teams didn't look so good coming out of the gates.
Well, much has changed since then. The Mets went on a tear, winning nine-of-10 at one point. The Nats, of course, have consistently played solid baseball since the season's second week. And now these two division rivals (who most figured would battle for last place in the NL East) square off tied for second place. Both clubs sit at 17-14, two games behind the Phillies.
This three-game set is merely the first leg of a tough road trip for the Nationals. After this, they move on to Denver for four games against the Rockies, with Ubaldo Jimenez slated to pitch Friday night. (Of course, the Nats have their own ace, Livan Hernandez, on track to start that game as well, the second time these two right-handers will face each other in a span of weeks.) From Colorado, the Nats head to St. Louis for an abbreviated, two-game series with a Cardinals squad that currently own the NL's best record at 20-12.
So this could be a pivotal stretch of games for the Nationals. Should they post a winning record on this trip, say 5-4, they'd be sitting pretty coming back home to face the Mets and Orioles. Should they falter a bit, going 3-6, they'd still come home with a .500 record. But should they fall flat on their faces and win two or fewer games, the momentum of the season's first month-and-a-half could be totally wiped out.
The way these guys have played to date -- holding all losing streaks to two games or less -- you've got to think they can at least hold their own on this trip. The test begins tonight at Citi Field, with Luis Atilano on the mound against John Maine.
In the meantime, a couple of minor-league items to report...
-- Derek Norris, the organization's top catching prospect (and No. 2 overall prospect behind Stephen Strasburg) has been activated off the DL and has joined the roster at Class A Potomac. Norris was still feeling some effects from the wrist surgery he had last fall (for a broken hamate bone) so he remained in Viera getting that taken care of. Now that he's back healthy, this will be an important season for him. With Bryce Harper perhaps looming as this franchise's catcher of the future (assuming he's drafted No. 1 and signs) Norris could suddenly be running out of time to make his case. By the end of this season, he needs to have shown he can keep up his offensive pace at high-Class A and head into 2011 as the starting catcher at Class AA. He'll have a leg up on Harper at that point and perhaps could crack the big-league roster by Sept. 2011. But this requires Norris to 1) stay healthy, and 2) continue to produce the way he has the last two seasons at lower levels of the organization.
-- Matt Chico is heading to Syracuse, after a brief layover in Harrisburg. The left-hander, who tossed five strong innings Saturday against the Marlins, was to be sent back to Class AA. But a spot in the Syracuse rotation has suddenly opened up. (No, not the one occupied by Strasburg. Not yet, at least.) Collin Balester, once thought of as the top pitching prospect in this organization, has struggled mightily, so the Nats are going to covert him to a reliever. Balester will actually go to Viera first to ease his way into that new role, then conceivably he'd had back to Syracuse at some point to join the Chiefs' bullpen. Seems like a last-ditch attempt for Balester, who just hasn't been able to pitch with any consistency at the big-league level.
-- Jason Marquis, meanwhile, will make a rehab start for Potomac tomorrow night. Assuming that goes well, he'll likely make one more start in the minors before the Nats activate him off the DL.