The Nationals’ opening month of the season is surprisingly packed with top competition, that is, if you subtract the six more game against the Miami Marlins and New York Mets. The Nationals dispatched the Marlins in the most convincing fashion of the series on Thursday, a 6-1 thumping in which every facet of the team had an impact. But now, finally, this Nationals overflowing with expectations will get an early test of their talent and potential against a team that nearly matched them in wins last season and could contend again this season, the Cincinnati Reds for a three-game series in Ohio.
“We look at every game as a big game,” said Manager Davey Johnson, downplaying the significance of the series. “That’s the way we look at it. Everybody likes to hit in that ballpark. So it should be fun.”
The Reds are a popular pick to repeat as division champions and even reach the NLCS. They return a team nearly intact from a 97-win campaign. The lineup is balanced and potent, even with the loss of Ryan Ludwick for a few months, because of the bandbox ballpark and presence of Joey Votto, who should be a top MVP candidate every season he is healthy. They also boast Jay Bruce (34 home runs last season), Brandon Phillips (18 home runs), Todd Frazier (.829 OPS as a rookie) and new leadoff hitter Shin-Soo Coo (career .382 OBP).
Their durable starting rotation of Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos, Homer Bailey, Bronson Arroyo and Mike Leake made every start last season, and returns for an encore. Aroldis Chapman is one of the most dominant pitchers, let alone closers, in baseball, posting an unreal 15.3 SO/9 ratio last season. Adjusted to the ballparks, the Reds’ pitching staff, not the Nationals, posted the best ERA (127 ERA+) in the majors last season.