Nats vs. O’s preview: The tale of two diamonds

In this Oct. 9, 2019, file photo, Washington Nationals starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg throws to a Los Angeles Dodgers batter during the first inning in Game 5 of a baseball National League Division Series, in Los Angeles. Strasburg is set to make his return to the mound during a weekend series against the Baltimore Orioles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez, File)

Like snowflakes and fingerprints, no two natural diamonds are exactly alike. And even though it’s 90 feet between each base and every pitching mound’s rubber is 60 feet and 6 inches away from home plate, every ballpark is slightly different (even the cookie-cutter multipurpose stadiums of the 70s and 80s).

Although the Washington Nationals and the Baltimore Orioles each reside in last place of their respective divisions, the two franchises located 38.3 miles apart are in completely different worlds.

Perspective often governs perception. The Orioles’ 17-26 start was expected as the club was given a “0.0%” chance to make the playoffs by FanGraphs when the season began. The O’s deep spiral from what was a plucky contender (three playoff appearances from 2012-16 plus a trip to the 2014 ALCS) to woeful pretender (three consecutive last-place finishes) has the team in deep rebuild mindset. We’re talking 2023, or when Chris Davis’ seven-year contract finally comes off of the books.

While there are bright spots this year (John Means and his 1.70 ERA), this is a team that ranks 23rd in the majors in runs scored and is 25th in ERA.

Baltimore’s 10-1 loss to Tampa Bay Thursday was 2021 in a nutshell: three homers allowed (the team has coughed up an MLB-high 65 round-trippers) while Trey Mancini’s inspiring comeback continues with a home run that was one of two O’s hits on the day. But this team is building something. One hopes it’s a foundation that isn’t faulty. But at least their glass is half-full. Or a quarter-full.

The Nationals glass is half-empty as they’re still dealing with the glare of the 2019 World Series championship on some levels. Heaven forbid they start 19-31 (they’d need to go 2-8 to get there) like they did last summer.

This team is built to win a championship now, and if they don’t reach the postseason for the sixth time in ten years, 2021 will be a failure. The Nationals have the league’s oldest roster (average age 30.7 years old according to ESPN), and they haven’t missed the playoffs in consecutive seasons since 2010-11, or pre-Bryce Harper. Even though they’re still within shouting distance of the NL East lead, they’re having to shout louder by the week.

Can the Nats shake off the early struggles? The lineup that ranks fifth in hitting is 27th in runs scored and 337 strikeouts. The team that was supposed to be built on starting pitchers has had to deal with a rotation that’s partially missing (Stephen Strasburg and Jon Lester spending big chunks of the season on the injured list) and partially underwhelming (Joe Ross and his 7.00 May ERA).

On Thursday, in a game they needed to leave Wrigley Field with a series split, the Nationals got just 3.2 innings from Joe Ross while having one baserunner after the fifth inning. Their issues with runners in scoring position (.251 batting average ranks 26th) have been documented here early and often this spring, but if you can’t even put a runner on base, it’s tough to drive them home.

But there’s good news for Washington: Stephen Strasburg is slated to come off of the injured list and start the series opener Friday. The O’s counter with Jorge Lopez (6.35 ERA after allowing 4 runs over 2 innings in his last outing). Saturday and Sunday’s starters Jon Lester and Patrick Corbin may not be in peak form, but the O’s Bruce Zimmermann (4.79 ERA) and Matt Harvey (5.93) haven’t been scaring foes this season.

Brace yourself for plenty of orange and red on South Capitol Street. Get ready to hear the “OHs!” during the national anthem. And be prepared for a Monday morning where each team defines its weekend by different criteria.

Dave Preston

Dave has been in the D.C. area for 10 years and in addition to working at WTOP since 2002 has also been on the air at Westwood One/CBS Radio as well as Red Zebra Broadcasting (Redskins Network).

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