Cincinnati and Washington each won their respective divisions last season and both came up short in their playoff series. This season, the Reds and Nationals are once again the projected frontrunners in their divisions and expected to contend for the National League pennant, making this weekend’s series in Cincinnati a must-watch affair, even if it is opening week.
Series Preview: Washington Nationals (3-0) at Cincinnati Reds (2-1)
Washington took care of business in its opening series against projected NL East cellar-dweller Miami, sweeping the Marlins down in Miami. Bryce Harper, last season’s NL Rookie of the Year who’s just 20 years old, set the tone early by homering in each of his first two at-bats of the season and he’s batting a robust .500 (6-for-12) in his first three games. On the mound, the Nationals’ pitching staff allowed just one run to the Marlins in the entire series. Starters Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmerman combined for 19 innings, 12 hits allowed, one run (solo home run by Justin Ruggiano vs. Zimmerman on Thursday), four walks and nine strikeouts against the Marlins.
Cincinnati faced a little tougher opponent in its opening series, hosting the Los Angeles Angels in the first interleague matchup of the season. The Reds fell to the Angels 3-1 in 13 innings on Opening Day, as both teams struggled to produce any sort of offense (combined 9-87, only three extra-base hits). Cincinnati bounced back to win on Wednesday thanks to a walk-off hit in the bottom of the ninth by Joey Votto and used three home runs to take the rubber game on Thursday afternoon.
Friday, April 5 – Dan Haren (12-13, 4.33 ERA in 2012 with LAA) vs. Homer Bailey (13-10, 3.68)
Haren will make his first start for Washington after spending his last two-plus seasons with the Los Angeles Angels. Haren, 32, was bothered by a back injury for the duration of his 2012 campaign, which partly explains his mediocre (12-13, 4.33 ERA) numbers. He needs to get off to a good start since his spring training performance (6.39 ERA, seven HR allowed in 25 1/3 innings) was shaky to say the least.
Bailey will take the mound for the first time this season, looking to build off his strong finish to his 2012 campaign. Bailey went 3-1 with a 1.85 ERA in his final seven starts of the regular season and also threw seven innings of one-hit ball (10 SO, 1 BB) against the Giants in Game 3 of the NLDS. A strong start at home against Washington could be huge for Bailey’s confidence moving forward, as he was just 4-8 with a 5.16 ERA in 17 starts last season at Great American Ballpark.
Saturday, April 6 – Ross Detwiler (10-8, 3.40 in ’12) vs. Mike Leake (8-9, 4.58)
Detwiler was a pleasant surprise and productive starter for Washington last season. The 27-year-old lefty doesn’t strike out a ton (105 in 164 1/3 innings), but he does a good job of limiting the damage done when batters make contact (149 hits, 15 of them home runs). As a southpaw, he could be key in keeping the Reds’ three left-handed hitters – Joey Votto, Jay Bruce and Shin-Soo Choo – in check. Detwiler held left-handed batters to a .170 average and .259 slugging percentage (four doubles, three home runs among 25 hits) last season.
When Cincinnati announced late in spring training that Aroldis Chapman would move back to the bullpen as the Reds’ closer that opened up a spot for Leake as the No. 5 starter. Leake was inconsistent in 2012, as he gave up more hits (201) than innings pitched (179) and surrendered 26 home runs. Leake also has struggled when facing Washington, a team that tagged him for 11 earned runs and 12 hits in two starts (10.61 ERA in 9 1/3 innings) last season.
Sunday, April 7 – Stephen Strasburg (1-0, 0.00 ERA in 2013) vs. Johnny Cueto (0-0, 1.29)
After throwing just 80 pitches in his first start against Miami, Strasburg should have plenty in the tank for the Reds. The 24-year-old’s only previous start against the Reds was back on July 21, 2010. In just the ninth start of his major-league career, Strasburg beat the Reds, as he gave up three runs on seven hits over 5 2/3 innings with a walk and seven strikeouts. Only five current Reds have faced Strasburg, including Votto, who is 1-for-3 with a strikeout.
Cueto gave up just one run on three hits in seven innings (2 BB, 9 SO) against the Angels on Opening Day. Unfortunately, the Reds managed just one run in 16 innings, which is why he had to settle for a no-decision. Cueto won’t get a break going from the Angels to the Nationals, but at least he’s facing them at home. He is 30-17 in 68 career starts at Great American Ballpark with a respectable 3.47 ERA. He also has fared well against Washington, going 2-1 in three career starts with only five earned runs allowed in 21 innings (2.14 ERA).
Washington Hitter to Watch – Adam LaRoche, 1B
LaRoche was huge for the Nationals’ offense last season, leading the team in home runs (33) and RBIs (100) while batting .271. It was a big bounce back season after hitting just .172 in 2011 with only three home runs in 43 games because of a shoulder injury. The veteran is a solid glove at first and the team is hoping he will be able to replicate his success at the plate for a second straight season.
LaRoche’s 2013 campaign, however, has gotten off to a slow start. It began in spring training when he hit just .200, albeit with four home runs, over 55 at-bats, and it has continued into the start of the season. LaRoche went hitless in 10 at-bats against the Marlins, walking once and striking out twice. Although LaRoche is not the only National struggling to start things (Danny Espinosa is also hitless), his lack of success at the plate is one of the reasons why the Nationals scored a total of 11 runs against the Marlins.
Now the scene shifts to Great American Ballpark where LaRoche has produced a .280 average in 36 career games, including seven home runs and eight doubles in 132 at-bats. He’s 2-for-4 with three RBIs in his career against Saturday’s probable starter, Mike Leake, although he hasn’t fared near as well against Johnny Cueto (2-for-13, 6 SO), who will close things out on Sunday.
Cincinnati Hitter to Watch – Chris Heisey, OF
The Reds suffered a big blow on Opening Day when outfielder Ryan Ludwick sustained a shoulder injury sliding into third base. Ludwick, who was batting cleanup for Dusty Baker, tore cartilage in his right shoulder and is expected to miss up to three months after undergoing surgery on Wednesday.
Ludwick’s absence immediately shakes up the Reds’ lineup, as Baker has moved second baseman Brandon Phillips from the No. 2 spot to cleanup behind Joey Votto. Ludwick was second only to Jay Bruce in both home runs (26) and RBIs (80) last season, so his bat will be missed. Heisey should get most of the playing time while Ludwick is out, and it’s up to him to produce both at the plate and in the field, as he will take over center with Shin-Soo Choo moving over to left field.
Heisey has some pop in his bat, as he hit 18 home runs in 279 at-bats in 2011, but he managed just seven in 347 at-bats last season. After starting the season 0-for-3, Heisey has collected a hit in each of the past two games, including a key two-run home run in the bottom of the fifth on Thursday that put the Reds ahead of the Angels for good.
*Probable starters, subject to change.