MLB Regular Season

Matchup: Washington Nationals at Pittsburgh Pirates

Date/Time: July 23, 7:05 p.m. ET

Pitching Matchup: Doug Fister (3-5, 4.30) vs. Francisco Liriano (5-6, 2.98)

MLB Betting Odds From BetDSI Sportsbook

Moneyline: Pittsburgh -160

Total: 7

If you’re like me, you did a double take when you saw this opening line. The Washington Nationals and Pittsburgh Pirates are two of the National League’s top teams, but the Pirates are a clear-cut favorite for Thursday night’s matchup between Doug Fister and Francisco Liriano. The Nationals rallied for a huge 4-3 comeback victory on Wednesday night to win their series against the New York Mets and pick up a game in the standings.

Even though the line didn’t make much sense at first, a deeper look into the current makeup of the Nationals lineup may shed some light. Yunel Escobar left hurt on Wednesday afternoon after Noah Syndergaard threw a not safe for work two-seamer deep into the kitchen of Escobar that caused him to send his bat flying, nearly taking his bottom hand with it. Bryce Harper also grabbed his wrist in some discomfort. The Nationals cannot afford to have any more injury problems. Denard Span, Ryan Zimmerman, Anthony Rendon, and Jayson Werth are all missing from the lineup already.

That puts a little bit of pressure on Doug Fister. The unfortunately-named sinkerballer has been limited to 12 starts this season and has not pitched particularly well in those outings. He has a 4.30 ERA with a 4.47 FIP and a 4.64 xFIP. Fister, who was an extreme ground ball guy with the Tigers, has only induced ground balls on 41.3 percent of balls in play this season. His strikeout rate has dropped in each of the last four seasons and his command has been below average.

Fister, who allowed just 14 home runs over 208.2 innings two seasons ago, has allowed 26 in 233 innings with the Nationals since he was acquired prior to the 2014 season. That includes eight dongs in 69 innings this season. Perhaps the bigger issue for Fister is that the long ball problem has been exacerbated by a terrible Nationals defense. With a lot of balls in play, opposing batters are hitting .291 off of Fister this season. That is easily the highest number of his career and is 32 points above his career mark. That’s even with two-and-a-half seasons of the Tigers’ awful defense from 2011-13.

Francisco Liriano will take the ball for the first time in the second half on Thursday. Some neck discomfort caused him to be skipped coming out of the All-Star Break and his presence is sorely needed in the Pirates rotation. Even though the record doesn’t show it, Liriano has thrown the ball extremely well this season with a 2.98 ERA, 3.09 FIP, and a 2.85 xFIP. He is one of the best stories in baseball since rectifying his career with the Pirates in 2013. Prior to joining the Pirates, Liriano posted ERAs of 5.09 or higher in three of four seasons from 2009-12.

Without Werth, Zimmerman, and Escobar, the Nationals are missing three of their best right-handed bats. Not that handedness really matters against Liriano, who has held lefties to a .189/.270/.267 slash and righties to a .192/.263/.298 slash on the season. It will be interesting to see how Liriano handles the layoff because his erratic nature comes from having unclean mechanics and a slider that is devastating, but tough to control.

MLB Prediction: Washington Nationals

This line is a few cents too high, so the Nationals are the value side, though this is a case of betting on a number and not a team. Liriano has been dominant in most of his starts this season and Fister has reverse splits with a .354/.397/.528 slash against versus right-handed batters. Perhaps the high line is justified, but the Pirates are coming off of a hard-fought series full of high-leverage situations against the Royals and the Nationals picked up the kind of win on Wednesday that generates some momentum.