After hurting his back sometime after the Pirates’ game against the Diamondbacks on August 1st, Neil Walker finally returns to the starting lineup tonight in the cleanup spot as the Pirates take on the Nationals in an important series for the overall National League playoff picture. Walker’s return isn’t the only news, either; Jordy Mercer left yesterday afternoon’s game early with an injury, and he’s still out today. That means that Josh Harrison will be starting at shortstop and Pedro Alvarez will be back at third base for the first time since August 2nd. I repeat: the Pirates’ infield tonight, around the horn, is Alvarez, Harrison, Walker, and Davis. This should be interesting.
This Nationals’ series is the first in a three-week set that will see the Pirates play no one but NL playoff contenders: they play (in order) the Nats, Braves, Brewers, Cardinals, Reds, and Cardinals between now and September 3rd. The Braves recent streak of poor play has given the Nats a bit of a cushion in the NL East, but at 66-53, they’re 3 games ahead of the Pirates, which could be important since it looks like the NL East and NL Central winners will be playing each other in the NLDS now that the Dodgers are separating from the pack some.
Anyway, this game is chock-full of storylines, from the playoff race, to Walker’s return, to Alvarez’s return to third base, to Harrison at short, to Charlie Morton’s start. Morton has been awful lately; he’s got a 5.25 ERA in his last six starts and a .763 OPS against with only 23 strikeouts and 12 walks in 36 innings. Bluntly, the Pirates certainly need him to be better than this if they’re going to win the National League Central and they probably need him to be better if they’re going to win a wild card. Tanner Roark starts for the Nationals. He’s been excellent this year; I thought this FanGraphs piece by Dave Cameron about him was really interesting.
First pitch of the most important stretch of the season is at 7:05. Time to hold your breath …