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Bryce Harper, slumping since the All-Star break, sat out last night's win.
So as the Nats head west following a four-game sweep of the Astros and prepare for a weekend series with the Diamondbacks in advance of a big, three-game showdown with the Giants, let's take a look where certain players on this roster currently stand.
ENCOURAGING: Jordan Zimmermann continues to develop not only into a front-line pitcher for the Nationals but into one of the best pitchers in the National League. With last night's demolition of Houston's lineup -- six scoreless innings, 11 strikeouts -- Zimmermann improved to 9-6 with a 2.35 ERA (second-best in the NL). Most impressively, he's getting better as the season progresses. Yes, there was a little hiccup last weekend against the Marlins. But even with that one included, Zimmermann is now 6-0 with a 1.47 ERA over his last nine starts. During that span, he's walked only eight batters while striking out 46.
DISCOURAGING: Bryce Harper's slump has become a significant development, and it's been dragging on for quite a while now. The 19-year-old is batting .176 with a paltry .541 OPS in 26 games since the All-Star break and has seen his season average plummet to .251. Let's forget about any Rookie of the Year talk for now and simply wait to see if Harper can get himself back on track. Davey Johnson gave the rookie last night's game off, and though he'll be back tonight in Arizona, it wouldn't be a shock if Harper takes a seat on the bench with a little more regularity moving forward. That's because...
ENCOURAGING: Roger Bernadina has been playing brilliant baseball now that his role has been reduced. The Nationals gave Bernadina plenty of opportunities to earn an everyday job over the last three seasons, but it looks like they've finally come to realize he can do more damage as a part-timer. Between his speed on the bases and in the field, not to mention a streaky bat at the plate, Bernadina is hitting .367 with a .435 on-base percentage over his last 23 games (14 of them starts). Some guys just seem to perform better when they come off the bench, and Bernadina certainly seems to fit that description.
DISCOURAGING: The Nationals have paid Chien-Ming Wang $7.2 million over the last three seasons. To do what? Well, the veteran right-hander has made 15 big-league stats in a curly W cap. He's made 17 rehab starts in the minor leagues. Wang was once again pitching at Class AA Harrisburg the last few weeks when his injured hip started acting up again. It probably was no coincidence Wang's 30-day rehab assignment was due to end this weekend, leaving the club with no choice but to put him back on the big-league roster ... unless he remained hurt. The Nats will string this thing out a few more weeks, at which point they can put Wang on the expanded September roster without costing someone else a job. But really, at this point, who has any confidence in the guy being able to pitch effectively against a big-league lineup in the middle of a pennant race? It's a shame how much time and energy and money they've invested in Wang over three seasons. But at some point, the Nationals just need to admit it ain't gonna happen with this guy.
ENCOURAGING: MLB released its postseason schedule yesterday, and for the first time in a really long time, baseball fans in Washington have reason to pay close attention. Here are the important dates to remember: The one-game wild-card "series" will both be played Friday, Oct. 5, two days after the regular season ends. The Division Series begin either Saturday, Oct. 6 or Sunday, Oct. 7. The League Championship Series begin either Saturday, Oct. 13 or Sunday, Oct. 14. And the World Series opens (in a National League city) on Wednesday, Oct. 24.
DISCOURAGING: Two aspects of this new postseason format are particularly troubling: 1) The teams with better records won't get to host Games 1 and 2 of the Division Series. They'll instead have to open on the road before returning home for Games 3, 4 and 5 (if necessary). Still, that seems to give an unfair advantage to the wild-card winners and the division champs with the third-best record in their league. (For what it's worth, this format will only exist in 2012. MLB has vowed to finagle the schedule in 2013 to allow for the traditional 2-2-1 format in the Division Series. 2) A potential Game 7 of the World Series (again, in a National League city) won't be played until Thursday, Nov. 1. Again, baseball says it wants to make sure the season doesn't extend into November in the future. But at least this year, we may very well get it.
ENCOURAGING: Thanks to their current six-game winning streak, the Nationals now own baseball's best record by a full three games. They're also on pace to finish 100-62.