Following a brief stay atop the NL East, the Washington Nationals have struggled at the plate while closing in on their longest losing streak of the season.
The Houston Astros, meanwhile, are expected to receive a boost with MLB hits leader Jose Altuve back in the lineup.Washington will try to avoid a fifth straight defeat Tuesday night when it faces eight-game winner Dallas Keuchel in the opener of a two-game series against the visiting Astros.Since taking a one-game division lead Wednesday, the Nationals (35-33) have totaled four runs and batted .168 with one extra-base hit while dropping their last four.Danny Espinosa finished with two of the team's eight hits in Sunday's 5-2 loss to St. Louis that completed a 5-5 road trip.Denard Span (0 for 18), Adam LaRoche (2 for 13), Ian Desmond (4 for 23), Ryan Zimmerman (5 for 39), Jayson Werth (2 for 14) and Anthony Rendon (3 for 19) are among those scuffling of late. Span was scratched Sunday due to a stiff back but is expected to return against the last-place Astros (32-39)."It's that time of the year where heavy legs start to set in a little bit," manager Matt Williams said. "We'll regroup and get ready to go. The off day will come at a good time."The Nationals, who have won five of six at home, have one of the best averages in baseball versus left-handers at .283. But they're likely to face a tough challenge against Keuchel (8-3, 2.38 ERA), who ranks among the MLB leaders in wins and ERA."It's a good test to see where we're at and see where (the Nationals) are because we're playing pretty well, too," Keuchel told the team's official website. "It will be key for me to come out and settle in early and get my thing going."Keuchel improved to 6-1 with a 1.33 ERA over his last seven starts by allowing one run and four hits over eight innings in Wednesday's 5-1 home win over Arizona.Keuchel, 6-0 with a 1.42 ERA on the road, looks to guide Houston to its ninth win in 11 games away from home. Even after Sunday's 4-3 home loss to Tampa Bay, the Astros have the best record in the majors since May 24 at 15-7.Altuve, who has 90 hits, was limited to one pinch-hit appearance against the Rays after getting hit on the right hand by a pitch Thursday.He has a .370 average and 13 stolen bases over his past 32 games and will try to continue that production against Tanner Roark (5-4, 2.92), who has allowed three runs or less in seven straight starts.The right-hander, who has never faced the Astros, is 1-1 with a 0.69 ERA in four career interleague outings.Roark won his second straight road start Wednesday when he surrendered two runs over six innings against major league-best San Francisco. However, he's dropped his last three home outings while receiving three runs of support.Houston's Jesus Guzman went 4 for 7 with a double in a pair of home losses to the Nationals from April 29-30. He's 9 for 20 with a homer and three doubles in his last five meetings, but 4 for 27 in his past 15 contests overall.Washington has won 10 of the last 11 matchups.
Washington Nationals batters have slugged .294 this season in at-bats to end on a pitch in the lower third of the strike zone or below, the fourth-worst rate in baseball. Dallas Keuchel has thrown the highest percentage of pitches in that zone among qualified pitchers (58.6 percent).