(1090 The Fan) — In horse racing, you’d hear ‘and down the stretch they come!’ This is the beginning of what many like to call ‘the stretch drive’ in Major League Baseball. The 72-60 Seattle Mariners will play 30 games in the next 31 days. None more important than the other and with just one day off, which comes between home series versus Houston and Oakland September 11. What occurs in the next 31 days will determine whether or not the 2014 Mariners end the 13-year streak without a postseason appearance, and it all starts with a three-game set versus National League east division beast Washington.

The Nationals (75-57) limp into Seattle after being swept by the Phillies in Philadelphia. The Nats boast big names in Stephen Strasburg and Byrce Harper, but it’s their lesser-known assets carrying them in 2014.

Right-handers Jordan Zimmermann and Tanner Roarke have picked up any slack left by Gio Gonzalez and Strasburg while centerfielder Denard Span, catcher Wilson Ramos and third baseman Anthony Rendon have made up for the lack of production from Harper and Ian Desmond, who haven’t hit as they did a year ago.

Span is red hot, batting .339/.360/.459 in August and Jayson Werth has flipped the switch this month, too, carrying a .328/.430/.453 August triple-slash into this weekend series.

Despite some not=so-ideal offensive lines from some regulars, the Nationals have significant firepower — including newly-acquired infielder Asdrubal Cabrera and first baseman Adam LaRoche (.253/.376/.516, 6 HR in August).

Washington averages 4.26 runs per game but will have the advantage of the designated hitter this weekend. Unlike most NL clubs, the Nationals have the offensive depth to take advantage of road interleague games. Ryan Zimmerman, however,
is on the disabled list.

The good news for Seattle is that former M’s right-hander Doug Fister is not slated to pitch in the series. The bad news is, the Nationals have the horses to match up pitch-for-pitch with the M’s top three.

Pitching Matchups | Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan
Friday, 7:10 PM PDT: Felix Hernandez, RHP vs. Jordan Zimmermann, RHP
Hernandez has not been himself the past two outings but he received extra rest — two full days worth — and will be pitching at Safeco in front of a large crowd.

The Nationals’ current roster has not done much versus Hernandez as a whole, nor do they have a hitter with a strong track record against him. Washington is batting .244/.314/.386 versus right-handed pitching this season.

Hernandez vs. Nationals
Asdrubal Cabrera: 3-20, 2B, BB, 5 SO
Kevin Frandsen: 1-3
Scott Hairston: 1-4, SO
Adam LaRoche: 0-4, 3 SO
Jose Lobaton: 0-2
Nate McLouth: 2-10, 2 BB, SO
Denard Span: 2-22 (.091), 2B, 5 BB, 8 SO

Hernandez Splits:
LHB: .202/.246/.269, 2 HR
RHB: .189/.228/.309, 7 HR
Home: 1.96 ERA, 5 HR, .182 BAA
Road: 2.19 ERA, 4 HR, .210 BAA

Scouting Ryan Zimmermann
Grades reflect 20-80 scouting scale; 80 is outstanding, among league’s best, 50 is major-league average, 20 is poor, not in line with big-league standards.
Four-seam Fastball (93-96 mph): 65 Slider (86-88): 60
Curveball (78-80): 50
Changeup (86-87): 40
Control: 65
Command: 65

Zimmermann vs. Mariners
Robinson Cano: 1-2, BB, SO
Chris Denorfia: 2-8
Austin Jackson: 1-4, SO
Logan Morrison: 3-15, 2B, 2 HR, BB, 6 SO

Zimmermann Splits
LHB: .267/.293/.384, 7 HR
RHB: .247/.284/.353, 4 HR
Home: 2.80 ERA, 4 HR, .271 BAA
Away: 3.10 ERA, 7 HR, .240 BAA

Zimmermann is among the better pitchers in the National League and brings above average stuff and command to the hill each time he takes the ball. He’s also very consistent mechanically, allowing him to throw all of his pitches whenever he wants to regardless of the count.

His fastball has life up in the zone at 93-95 and occasionally he’ll dial it up to 96-97. He’ll live on the outer edges of the zone, both vertically and horizontally, setting up a plus slider and solid-average curveball. He’s used his four-seamer nearly 70 percent of the time, however, and that isn’t likely to change at fly-ball killer Safeco Field.

Saturday, 6:10 PM PDT: Chris Young, RHP vs. Stephen Strasburg, RHP
Young lasted just 3 2/3 innings in Boston, allowing three runs on seven hits and five walks. He faced 22 batters and more than half of them reached base. Is that good, you ask? No, it’s not. I checked.

Young has faced several of the current Nats’ hitters (see below) but none of those numbers mean anything. Young is the same pitcher style wise, but stuff wise he’s not. The veteran has simplified his attack, using his 85-87 mph fastball effectively all over the strike zone and polishing his slider as the season progressed.

Expect Young to throw more strikes this time out — he, too, is going on extra rest — and expect a significantly longer outing as a result.

Young Splits
LHB: .246/.320/.434, 11 HR
RHB: .194/.251/.351, 8 HR
Home: 2.35 ERA, 6 HR, .185 BAA
Road: 4.11 ERA, 13 HR, .265 BAA

Scouting Stephen Strasburg
Four-seam Fastball (94-98 mph): 70
Two-seam Fastball (84-98): 65
Curveball (79-82): 70
Changeup (84-86: 65
Control: 60
Command: 60

Strasburg vs. Mariners
Denorfia: 1-5, SO
Jackson: 0-4, 2 SO
Morrison: 4-16, 3 BB, 3 SO

Strasburg Splits
LHB: .243/.293/.394, 10 HR
RHB: .265/.304/.415, 11 HR
Home: 2.66 ERA, 10 HR, .236 BAA
Road: 4.77 ERA, 11 HR, .279 BAA

Strasburg’s stuff is absolutely filthy, led by big-time velocity into the upper-90s and a plus curveball that at times may be among the very best breaking balls in all of baseball. Strasburg will mix in a two-seamer and occasionally will cut his fastball at 87-90 mph.

His changeup is above-average and he’s throwing it more than ever before, including to right-handed batters. He will serve up the long ball — 21 this year after allowing 31 in 342 1/3 innings combined 2012-13 — but he pounds the zone with ace stuff and can be unhittable any given night.

Oddly, and perhaps just randomly, Strasburg has struggled away from home, but Safeco isn’t likely to be an obstacle as the former No. 1 pick is the classic power pitcher: lots of fly balls induced when he’s not generating strikeouts.

Sunday, 1:10 PM PDT: Hisashi Iwakuma, RHP vs. Tanner Roark, RHP
Iwakuma is looking to bounce back from his worst start of the year — 2 1/3 innings at Boston — and like Felix is going on extra rest.

The right-hander’s stuff is top drawer but if he doesn’t command his pitches he can be shelled, like versus the Red Sox. With the extra rest — and simply because he’s Iwakuma — the Nationals are likely to see the good Hisashi, which bodes well for Seattle.

Iwakuma has not faced the Nationals, with only Cabrera and Nate Schierholtz having faced him. Cabrera is 1-for-10, Schierholtz is 0-for-4.

Iwakuma Splits:
LHB: .263/.275/.375, 7 HR
RHB: .205/.234/.314, 7 HR
Home: 2.66 ERA, 9 HR, .228 BAA
Road: 3.06 ERA, 5 HR, .248 BAA

Scouting Tanner Roark
Four-seam Fastball (90-93 mph): 50
Two-seam Fastball (90-92): 45
Sinker (92-93): 45
Slider (82-85): 45
Curveball (73-75): 50
Changeup (83-85: 40
Control: 60
Command: 55

Roark Splits
LHB: .227/.290/.369, 9 HR
RHB: .236/.271/.316, 4 HR
Home: 2.36 ERA, 6 HR, .239 BAA
Road: 3.27 ERA, 7 HR, .224 BAA

Roark throws fastballs nearly two-third of the time combined, but his slider, curveball and changeup all are useful. The curveball has good depth and two-plane break and his changeup, while relatively straight, has good velocity differential and some sink when he has a good feel for it.

Roark is a pitcher, not a thrower, and actually reminds some of Zimmermann in that manner. His stuff isn’t as good, but he knows what he isn’t and his command allows him to expand the zone.

Sandmeyer Says | Steve Sandmeyer, 1090 The Fan
Good test for the Mariners this weekend against a legitimate World Series contender in the Washington Nationals. They can pitch, hit, prevent runs, and have depth. Felix has not been himself the last two starts, but some home cooking on a Friday night should help him considerably. I don’t foresee a ton of big scoring games this weekend. The Nationals throw three solid starters out there in Zimmerman, Strasburg and Roark – and have a bullpen nearly as solid as Seattle’s – so if things go according to schedule, expect some 4-3, 3-2 type finals in potentially all three games.

Don’t underestimate the value of Trent Jewett managing this team in place of Lloyd McClendon for a couple games (Lloyd is out of town at his daughter’s wedding). Before coming to Seattle, Jewett was on the Nationals’ staff (joined in 2011). He knows this weekend’s opponent inside and out –- which will be an advantage.

Washington is a national league team, but might as well play in the American League –- as they are plenty deep, will certainly take advantage of the DH this weekend, and have plenty of versatility within a given lineup. Sounds strange to say, but Washington is more of an American League team than Seattle is –- if that makes any sense.

Schedule Notebook | Jason A. Churchill, 1090 The Fan
The Detroit Tigers, tied with the Mariners for the No. 2 Wild Card spot and also are just 1.5 games back of Kansas City in the American League Central, are in Chicago for the weekend taking on the White Sox, including a doubleheader Saturday. Max Scherzer and Chris Sale get the ball Friday night but the Tigers have a significant advantage on the mound overall. Detroit then heads to Cleveland for four games and are on a streak of 17 games in 16 days.

The Royals continue their cupcake schedule with three at home versus Cleveland and then the Rangers come to town, magnifying the disappointment in the Mariners’ dropping two games versus Texas earlier this week. The Yankees and Tigers will each host the Royals for three starting next Friday, however. Stay tuned.

Those Yankees are hosting the Toronto Blue Jays this weekend then start a long homestand after an off-day Monday. It’s the Red Sox, Royals and Rays before New York heads out on the road to face the Orioles.

The Angels and Athletics continue their four-gamer this weekend with the Halos having taken Game 1. Los Angeles is off Monday then starts a 10-game trip to Houston, Minnesota and Texas with a makeup game in Cleveland on September 8.

Oakland hosts the Mariners for three Monday-Wednesday.

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