Aug. 22 MLB Preview — Washington Nationals (69-57) at Pittsburgh Pirates (52-74)

(Max Scherzer photo courtesy Brad Mills/USA TODAY Sports)

This is the full preview(s) as seen on the Winners and Whiners and Stat Salt websites. The confidence rating for all picks on a scale from 1 to 5 is in parentheses.

Note: The 5/5 does NOT represent the best overall pick of the day’s games when there are multiple games, simply the best pick(s) from each individual game.

When and Where: Thursday, Aug. 22, PNC Park, Pittsburgh, Pa., 7:05 p.m. EDT.

The Washington Nationals have done plenty of hitting over the past week, and now they hope to get the pitching to match as Max Scherzer is slated to make his return for the finale of their four-game series versus the Pittsburgh Pirates on Thursday night.

Martinez ready to keep Scherzer on pitch count

Scherzer (9-5, 2.41 ERA) has been sidelined since July 25 with a strained rhomboid muscle, an injury that may have been related to the inflamed bursa sac that sidelined him in early July. He threw a 65-pitch bullpen session Saturday and declared himself ready to be on schedule for this start.

“There’s no extra soreness other than what I anticipated,” he told ESPN. “To me, that’s right on par.”

Nationals manager Dave Martinez said earlier in the week he would keep Scherzer between 75 and 80 pitches, which will undoubtedly agitate the Cy Young Award candidate given his highly competitive nature. Scherzer’s lone start between his stints on the injured list came July 25, and it was cut short at five innings because of the rhomboid injury.

The right-hander gave up three runs in that game, nearly as many as he gave up combined during his seven-start winning streak from June 2-July 6 in which he conceded just five runs in 52 innings while striking out 79 and holding opponents to a .157 batting average.

Scherzer shook off an early funk against Pittsburgh earlier this year, giving up three runs in the first three innings before tossing five shutout frames. He did not get a decision in Washington’s 4-3 home loss April 14 and is 5-2 with a 2.81 ERA in 12 career starts versus the Pirates.

Scherzer, though, is 0-2 with a 6.28 ERA in four starts and five lifetime appearances in Pittsburgh, where he has not pitched since 2015. PNC Park is only one of two actively used ballparks where the righty has not won a game, with the other Coors Field.

Josh Bell is 3 for 6 with two doubles against Scherzer, and Melky Cabrera is 7 for 21 with a triple and a double.

Brault out to end six-start winless spell for Bucs

Steven Brault (3-2, 4.06 ERA) has not won since tossing six innings in an 11-0 rout of Miami on June 14, going 0-1 with a 3.52 ERA over his last six outings. The best of the bunch was not good enough to prevent a defeat last time out, however, as a seventh-inning solo homer by Kris Bryant was enough to consign the lefty to a 2-0 loss to the Chicago Cubs.

“Best performance he’s had in the major leagues,” manager Clint Hurdle told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “It was fun to watch him attack. His first-pitch strikes were really, really good. Two 3-ball counts. Left-handers 0 for 7. He was really getting after it.”

Brault is 0-1 with a 3.07 ERA in six starts at PNC Park this year, but the Pirates have not given him any backing offensively in the last three. He has no record and a 14.54 ERA in three appearances versus Washington that included a poor start in 2017 when he was reached for four runs in two innings.

Notable Trends

The Pirates are:

  • 2-9 in their last 11 home games vs. right-handed starters.
  • 3-14 in their last 17 home games.
  • 2-12 in their last 14 home games vs. above-.500 teams.

The Nationals are:

  • 8-2 in their last 10 games.
  • 22-7 in Scherzer’s last 29 road starts vs. sub-.500 teams.
  • 27-8 in their last 35 games vs. sub-.500 teams.

*****5-Star Picks*****

Nationals -1.5 runs (-140)

Unlike Scherzer’s ill-fated start following his first return from the injured list, the expectation is he will pitch within himself and be effective against a Pirates team that has been mailing it in more nights than not.

Pittsburgh has been in free fall since the All-Star break with just eight wins in 37 games, and its offense has dried up — the Pirates have been blanked twice in their last five games and held to one run in two others. Now add a Nationals offense that has been crushing the ball at a stratospheric level the last 11 games, averaging 8.6 runs while scoring seven or more runs on seven occasions.

Scherzer does not need to be overpowering in his return, he simply needs to pitch well, and that should be enough for the Nationals to close out this series with a win. There was some thought to trying the alternate line of -2.5 runs at -105 given Washington’s recent offensive surge, but with Scherzer coming off the IL as opposed to being in-form, the straight run line is the play.

Nationals 3-way ML first 5 innings (-145)

The money line is offering a noticeably better return than laying the half-run with Scherzer and the Nationals at -171, so that is the play. Washington is a torrid 10-1-4 at the five-inning mark in its last 15 games, and Scherzer had been 9-0-1 in his last 10 including when he hurt himself in last month’s outing.

In addition to the Pirates being 1-5-1 at the halfway point in their last seven home games they also have totaled one run in those contests.

****4-Star Pick****

Nationals OVER 5 runs (-110)

Brault has recorded back-to-back quality starts just once since joining the rotation, and it feels like too big an ask for him to make it two here given how well the Nationals are hitting offensively. Washington is hitting .317 with 25 homers and 59 extra-base hits — just above half its total of 117 hits — in the last 10 games.

Pirates starters have also yielded five or more runs in six of the team’s last 10 home games while posting a ghastly 8.14 ERA in that span and going 0-7.

***3-Star Picks***

OVER 8.5 runs (-110)

This is more about the Nationals offense continuing to pound the ball against Brault with the expectation Washington’s bullpen will give up a run or two in the three or more expected innings it will likely have after Scherzer hits his pitch count.

The over is 24-10-2 in Pittsburgh’s last 36 home games vs. right-handed starters and 3-0-1 in Brault’s last four starts versus NL East teams. The over is 5-2-1 in Brault’s last eight outings at home and 4-1 in the Pirates’ last five games versus starters with a sub-1.15 WHIP.

OVER 4.5 runs first 5 innings (-110)

Pittsburgh’s aforementioned struggles make this closer to a toss-up pick, but the five-inning over is 8-3-1 in Washington’s last 12 games. The Nationals have also put up six and 11 in two games in this series and have plated five runs in the first five innings in seven of their last 14 games.

Nationals -0.5 runs first 3 innings (-125)

This is a good value pick despite Scherzer making his first start in nearly a month and likely needing to scrape off some rust. The Nationals have not trailed at the three-inning mark in their last nine road games, leading in six, and led by two or more runs on five occasions.

Pittsburgh has led just once at the three-inning mark in its last 13 home games (1-7-5) and has been held scoreless in the first three innings in eight of its last nine at PNC Park.

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