Nationals-Marlins Preview

The Associated Press

Jose Fernandez likely only has two more chances to further his case for NL Rookie of the Year.

The Washington Nationals surely wish one of them didn't have to be against them.

Arguably the majors' top pitcher over the past two months, Fernandez could get in the way of Washington's last-ditch run at a playoff spot Friday night while inching closer to his innings limit with the Miami Marlins.

The Nationals (71-68) head to Miami facing a big uphill climb if they're to catch Cincinnati for the NL's second wild-card spot, but there are no teams in front of them.

"We don't think we're out of it yet," said manager Davey Johnson, whose club has baseball's third-best record over the past four weeks at 17-8.

A three-game set against a Marlins team with a major league-worst 9-21 record since Aug. 3 seems to play in Johnson's favor, but winning the opener won't be easy.

Fernandez (10-6, 2.33 ERA) has a major league-low 1.58 ERA since the start of July, striking out 89 in 74 innings. He yielded six runs in six starts during August, winning NL rookie of the month for the second straight time as he held opponents to a .158 average - best in baseball.

However, the 21-year-old right-hander is at 158 2-3 innings, and the Marlins recently reiterated that his limit is 170.

"It was kind of the unknown at the beginning of the season, how he would do and how he would perform," manager Mike Redmond told the team's official website. "We were looking at ways to protect him, based on how many innings he had gone before. That's the number we came up with."

Redmond pushed Fernandez's scheduled start from Wednesday to this game so his final two outings would come at home, where he's 7-0 with a 1.29 ERA. The Marlins have won his last nine starts in Miami.

One of those victories was his only outing against the Nationals, going six innings as he surrendered one run and four hits - all singles - in a 2-1, 10-inning win July 13.

Dan Haren (8-12, 5.02) threw six scoreless innings that day and will oppose Fernandez again Friday. Haren had been pitching well of late, going 4-0 with a 2.03 ERA in his previous six starts, before getting ripped for seven runs and nine hits in 2 2-3 innings of Saturday's 11-3 loss to the Mets.

"It just wasn't my night," said Haren, 1-4 in seven career starts against the Marlins despite a 2.98 ERA.

Miami (52-86) remains the worst offensive team in baseball but is hitting .306 in four games this month while averaging 6.0 runs.

While Christian Yelich is hitting .438 with two homers in his past eight games, Adeiny Hechavarria has four multihit efforts in his last seven and hit a grand slam in Wednesday's 9-7 loss to the Cubs.

Washington's Denard Span enters with a 17-game hitting streak, the longest active streak in baseball. Batting .406 during that run, Span has hit safely in all but one of 10 games versus Miami this year - the one Fernandez started.

The Nationals lead the season series 9-3 as Ian Desmond has hit .396 and Bryce Harper .372 with three homers. Harper should return after sitting out Wednesday's 3-2 win in Philadelphia due to an ailing hip.

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