The Yankees have done their fare share of celebrating recently. They hope to continue the trend against the NL East leading Washingtion Nationals beginning tonight in the nation's capital. (Image: Paul Abell-US PRESSWIRE)

Yankees visit Nationals in clash of East leaders

The New York Yankees are in Washington D.C. this morning getting ready for yet another test against an NL East team with playoff aspirations.

The Washington Nationals have been atop or within two games of the top spot in the NL East since Opening Day. They have been in at least a tie for the division lead since April 11th. The Nats are enjoying a 4.5 games lead over the New York Mets in the NL East. This team is for real.

The Yankees have taken a much different path to their current position. They’ve struggled mightily at times and just within the last few weeks have begun to establish their presence in the AL East. They have a very slim lead over the Baltimore Orioles (1/2 game) who will not go away.

Each team enters the weekend series riding a six-game winning streak, backed by their starting rotations. Most of the similarities end there between the teams.

The Nationals have built their team through the draft and trades over the last few seasons. Due to several poor seasons, the Nats found themselves with many top draft picks, most notably starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who the Yankees will actually miss in this series, and 19-year old Bryce Harper (.303, 7 HR, 19 RBI), who has impressed since his call-up on April 28th.

The Nationals rotation is arguably the best in the game and is the main reason they find themselves in first-place. Tonight’s starter Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Edwin Jackson and of course Strasburg have all flashed signs of brilliance this season. It’s a good thing too, because their offense is a stark contrast from the pitching. The Nationals have hit a combined .244 (23rd in MLB) and rank 19th in team OPS (.719) this season.

The Yankees on the other hand have had spells where the offense has carried them and other stretches where their pitching has carried them. Until recently it was one or the other. Of late, the team’s victories are more balanced efforts, something that will have to continue if the Bombers are going to be successful against the Nats.

In the series opener tonight, Phil Hughes looks to continue his reversal of fortunes while Gonzalez opens things up for the Nationals. Hughes (6-5, 4.76 ERA) has won five of his last seven starts, allowing three or fewer earned runs in six of them. Hughes has faced the Nationals as a reliever notching only two innings against them in his career.

The Yankees on the other hand are familiar with Gonzalez (8-2, 2.35 ERA) from his days with the Oakland A’s. Gonzalez has had very little success against New York. In five starts, he is 1-4 with a 7.27 ERA. The good news for Gonzalez is that a majority of the players who did the damage are no longer with the Yankees. Mark Teixeira is 5-for-14 with a home run against Gonzalez and the remainder of the current roster has marginal numbers against him. Derek Jeter, Curtis Granderson and Robinson Cano all have batting averages below .200 against Gonzalez, with Cano hitless in nine at-bats.

In the middle game of the series the Yankees have 40-year-old Andy Pettitte on the mound against the 26-year-old Zimmermann. Pettitte was iffy for this start due to bruising on his pitching hand after he tried to snare a ground ball in his last start. Pettitte has been fantastic for the Yankees and could be looked at as the rotation’s savior. The Yankees are 18-10 since his return from retirement. Pettitte (3-2, 2.81) has looked more like Zimmermann’s age than his own. He’s striking out 8.6 batters per nine innings thus far. Pettitte is 3-1 with a 4.29 ERA against the Nats in his career, but again there are few players he’s faced on the team.

Zimmermann is 3-5 despite a 2.91 ERA for the season. He’s thrown at least six innings in each of his twelve starts. Zimmermann has never faced the Yankees and has only faced three men on the roster.

In the series finale, the Yankees will turn to Ivan Nova, who like Hughes, seems to be hitting his stride. Nova (8-2, 4.64 ERA) has won his last four starts and allowed only one earned run in his previous two outings. Nova has no experience of any kind versus the Nationals.

The Nats will counter Nova with Jackson who is on a bit of a roll himself. Jackson (3-3, 3.02 ERA) has five straight quality starts and two wins in row. Of the three starters the Yanks face this weekend, Jackson is the most familiar to them. In 16 games (12 starts), Jackson is 2-6 with a 5.35 ERA. He has had trouble against Alex Rodriguez in the past (9-for-24, 3 HR and 9 RBI) and controls Cano (6-for-28).

For a series in the middle of June, it doesn’t get much better than this. Two teams, in first place in their respective divisions playing their best collective baseball of the season. The series winner can lay claim to the Beast of the East status and could be a preview of October baseball.

Check out the Yanks go Yard Podcast Preview of the series here.

Tags: Alex Rodriguez Andy Pettitte Baltimore Orioles Curtis Granderson Derek Jeter Gio Gonzalez Hiroki Kuroda Ivan Nova Jordan Zimmermann Mark Teixeira New York Yankees Nick Swisher Phil Hughes Rafael Soriano Robinson Cano Stephen Strasburg Washington Nationals Yankees

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