Late July in the DC Metro area used to mean for most the start of Redskins Training Camp.  While things still get underway this week in Richmond (better than Ashburn but not as awesome as Carlisle), more than a few eyes will be focused on baseball’s non-waiver trading deadline.  What do the Nats need?  Do they have the organizational depth to get what they’re looking for?  And would they even consider putting all of their minor league chips into the middle of the 2015 table?

Needs begin with the relief corps.  The Nats rank 13th in MLB in bullpen ERA– and their relievers allow the 10th highest batting average in the bigs.  The bridge that was so solid last year (Tyler Clippard) is by the Bay…saving 17 games with a 2.79 ERA for last-place Oakland.  Would the bring him back and what sort of ransom would the A’s demand for the ex-Nat?  Cincinnati’s already traded starter Johnny Cueto… could Aroldis Chapman (20 saves in 21 chances with an ERA of 1.73) be far behind?  Craig Kimbrel (29 saves for sub-500 San Diego) is another option…as is the potentially combustible (on the field and in the clubhouse) Jonathan Papelbon.  If they bring the former Phillie down I-95, does that move smack of the Rafael Soriano signing?

Needs continue with a struggling lineup.  We get it– four of the top five projected hitters in the batting order were on the disabled list as late as last week.  While the return of Anthony Rendon solidifies the infield–Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Denard Span are on the road to South Capitol Street.  But the team ranks 25th in runs for July and is hitting 27th in the Majors.  They’ve struck out the 6th most times in the bigs this month.  Who’s to say that the fantastic four won’t be 100% when they return?  And who’s to say one of them won’t go down to injury again?  Oakland’s Ben Zobrist has played 30 games in the outfield and 34 at 2nd base.  The switch-hitter is on pace to hit .268 with 15 HR and 80 RBI over 162 games…and could be moved around the lineup and in the field depending on who can’t come back fully to contribute.

SB Nation ranked the Nats farm system 16th at the beginning of the year.  They do have alluring pieces while also boasting a few considered to be “untouchable”:  one thinks GM Mike Rizzo would need the world (or at least a moon or two) to part with pitcher Lucas Giolito and shortstop Trea Turner.  AJ Cole and Wilmer Difo?  Probably acquirable.  Drew Ward?  Another potential chip.  Would Joe Ross be in the mix as well?

Potential Playoff Matchup– Pittsburgh owns the second best record in the NL…and they showed why over the weekend.  The Pirates bats produced 26 runs while taking 3 of 4 games at PNC Park against the Nats.  They got to Max Scherzer Friday…and did just enough to showcase the Nationals deficiencies over the four game series.  Can the Bucs catch St. Louis?  Just as important, can they hold off the Chicago Cubs for the #1 Wildcard spot?

Dissecting the Division– the New York Mets moved within 2 games of the first-place Nats thanks to their 3-2 win in ten innings over the Los Angeles Dodgers– a game that saw the end of Zach Greinke’s scoreless innings streak at 45 and 2/3 frames.  The second place team that just won’t go away has a home series with sub-500 San Diego before hosting the Nationals this upcoming weekend.  Third place Atlanta (six and a half games back, 4-6 over last 10 games) continues to drift downstream.  Fourth place Miami has the worst record in the National League (3-7) since the All Star Break and last place Philadelphia owns the worst run differential (-139) in the Majors.  Eagles training camp begins when?

The Mild, Mild West– so they don’t hate each other like the Giants and Dodgers.  The AL West is just as close– 1 game– as their NL counterpart.  They’re somewhat used to being overlooked:  the division leading Angels, despite having Albert Pujols and Mike Trout on their roster, remain the other team in LA.  Despite having the more recent World Series title (2002 as opposed to 1988), they’ve had more names than World Series appearances (LA, California, Anaheim and the current “Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim” that smacks of the American Dodgeball Association of America).  One game back is Houston– who until just a few years ago not only played in the National League Central but was also racking up 100-loss seasons with numbing regularity (and a 100-loss campaign is most certainly numbing).  Texas?  The former Washington Senators are ruing their near misses in the Fall Classic from earlier this decade as they rebuild and Seattle is still recovering from never getting to the World Series despite having Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson and Ken Griffey Jr. on their roster 20 years ago.  The division outhouse is currently occupied by Oakland–somewhat fitting as the A’s home stadium regularly has sewage issues.  Maybe one day they’ll know the way to San Jose…

Last Week’s Heroes– Ian Desmond has had a 2015 to forget.  The April errors gave way to May strikeouts…followed by a June swoon.  Making his current tear of .478 with 4 HR and 7 RBI plus 8 runs scored the kind of sequence that raises the eyebrow.  Is this an isolated incident or the beginning of a breakout?  Gio Gonzalez is also on a roll, going 2-0 with a 2.45 ERA while posting a 9-3 K/BB ratio over 11.1 innings pitched.  On a staff with Scherzer and Zimmermann, we don’t expect the world from the plucky lefthander.  But the fact he’s posting the best month on the staff (3-0, 1.88 ERA) this month is nice when the likes of Scherzer and Doug Fister are a combined 1-6.

Last Week’s Humbled– Matt den Dekker is currently filling the void in leftfield…and last week he hit .158 (3-19).  Let the record show he’s not exactly filling in for Jayson Werth– den Dekker is filling in for fill-in Michael A. Taylor as he fills in for the injured Denard Span.  And den Dekker is also not filling in for the “true” Werth– even though he was beginning to heat up the Nats projected leftfielder was hitting .208 when he went on the DL.  Max Scherzer after winning consecutive NL Pitcher of the Month awards was decidedly less than awesome in July– he’s 1-3 with an era of 4.23 this month.  While one has no doubt Scherzer will bounce back, allowing 5 earned runs over 5 innings in a showdown against the playoff contending Pirates was not the most encouraging sign for a team that’s pointing towards October.

Game to Watch– with apologies to fourth place Miami, all eyes are on the weekend series with the Mets.  The Nationals are 6-4 against NY this year– but two of those losses came against Friday’s starter Matt Harvey.  He did have a somewhat rough outing in DC last week– and gets another showdown with Gio Gonzalez (2-0 with a 1.38 ERA against the Mets this year). Will Jayson Werth be back in the lineup by then?

Game to Miss– Wednesday Doug Fister (3-6, 4.50 ERA) starts against the Marlins Tom Koehler (8-6, 3.16).  It’s not a bad matchup– it’s just the least compelling (Zimmermann pitches Tuesday while Scherzer’s on the hill Thursday.  Perfect evening to take a walk on the Custis Trail near I-66.

 

Talk about coming back with a bang.  The Nationals returned from the All Star break by facing the Los Angeles Dodgers in a duel of division leaders, and in a potential playoff preview (the two teams would face off in the NLDS if the regular season ended today) to boot.  But it was the visitors who hung two stellar starts on the Nats…as Clayton Kershaw (14 strikeouts over 8 scoreless innings) and Zach Greinke (11K’s over 8 shutout frames) mowed down the home team in the DC heat with a little heat of their own.  Not the way one wants to come off the midseason hiatus.  Especially with the second place New York Mets and wildcard leader Pittsburgh on the horizon.  The trip to Miami can’t come soon enough…

She Wears Short Skirts– Max Scherzer wasn’t pitching on the mound Friday, but he may be onto something when he jokingly tweeted that the ballpark amazingly had electrical issues in the first event following Taylor Swift’s concert.  I mean– what is the track record of this songstress?  “You Belong With Me” is the blueprint for passive-aggressively stealing another girl’s boyfriend.  And Swift’s reliance of singing about ex-boyfriends is akin to “Three’s Company” episodes being about misunderstandings– we get it.  Does this make Scherzer a hater?

Getting the Blues from Dodger Pitching– now that was a one-two punch.  Back to back uppercuts.  The one-two combo that many expected when the Nationals inked Max Scherzer.  Sadly Stephen Strasburg has yet to find the form that led the NL in strikeouts last year, but Jordan Zimmermann has posted a 1.92 ERA over his last five starts.  Will we see Scherzer and Zimmermann against Kershaw and Greinke during the August 10-12 series out west?

Digssecting the Division– the New York Mets after their 18-inning victory over St. Louis move within 2 games of the Nats.  The pesky fly that just won’t go away comes to DC this week for a three game series.  They couldn’t actually leave the district with the division lead, could they?  Many didn’t expect the Mets to be in the mix this late in the season.  Atlanta shifts from contender to pretender after losing 7 of their last 10…while Miami and Philadelphia look forward to the upcoming NFL season.  Knowing the recent fun the Dolphins and Eagles have provided, perhaps they shouldn’t.

Division to Watch– the Dodgers are the team to beat in the NL West…and second place San Francisco is the perfect foil.  There’s enough dislike between the longtime rivals to fuel any fire…and the combination of the Dodgers cruising to division last year only to see the Giants get hot in the postseason and take the World Series only turns things up a tiny bit.  The Giants have also taken 9 of 12 games against LA this year…with Madison Bumgarner not only getting the better of Clayton Kershaw twice but also homering off the reigning Cy Young winner.  It’s a shame they play only seven times between now and the end of the regular season.  Who cares if the rest of the West quintet is seriously off-key?

Last Week’s Hero– Yunel Escobar had the best OPS (1.154) of the regulars over the weekend…and the fact that he stepped into the leadoff position underscores his value.  Just like one wonders where the outfield would be minus Michael A. Taylor’s ability to patrol left and center this year, last winter’s pickup of Escobar has helped salvage what could have been a very rough season for the infield.

Last Week’s Humbled– Doug Fister won 16 games last season.  Unfortunately, he’s had one rough 2015.  Saturday Fister coughed up 4 runs over 5 innings…and he’s 0-2 with a 4.67 ERA over his last three starts.  In his last six outings, Fister’s allowed 4 or more runs four times.

Game to Watch– with the caveat that every Max Scherzer start is an automatic watch, I’m intrigued by Tuesday’s tilt with the New York Mets.  ESPN.COM has Joe Ross pitching for the Nationals against Jacob de Grom (9-6, 2.14 ERA).  Ross’s improvement over his first three major league starts last month sets the bar high for this week…can the kid continue to deliver?

Game to Miss–  Thursday the Nats begin a four game series in Pittsburgh… and the least appealing pitching matchup has Doug Fister (3-5, 4.30 ERA) against Francisco Liriano (5-6, 2.98 ERA).  Perfect time to check out the bridges that span the three rivers…

Golf’s British Open (or The Open Championship as the fine folks across the pond will tell you) tees off this week with Jordan Spieth having a chance to do what nobody has accomplished in over 60 years– win the first three Majors of the calendar year.  The window of opportunity is a little wider as the defending champ Rory McIlroy is out for this week’s tournament with an injured ankle suffered while playing soccer.  No, soccer haters–it wasn’t while faking an injury.

Spieth is the sixth man to attempt the “Hogan Slam”…named so because Ben Hogan is the only golfer to complete that triple play.  How did the other four fare?

2002– Tiger Woods.  Fresh off winning his 7th Major in 11 tries, Tiger was poised to land one step closer to the “true grand slam” as opposed to the “Tiger Slam” from 2000-01.  Woods was in contention after following up a first round 70 with a second round 68…but imploded in a rain-swept Saturday by carding an 81.  Despite a Sunday 65…Woods finished tied for 28th and wouldn’t win another major for almost three years.

1972– Jack Nicklaus.  Not only had Jack won two straight majors, but he also held the other three titles at the time.  But let the record show he did not win three straight majors; through a strange quirk that saw the PGA reschedule their 1971 championship from August to February. Nicklaus finished second by one stroke to defending champ Lee Trevino despite firing a final round 66.  It wasn’t as close at Jack’s “Duel in the Sun” with Tom Watson five years later, but this was perhaps his second most frustrating runner-up finish in that major (and he has plenty to choose from–a record seven).

1960– Arnold Palmer.  This was the year that this tournament became the third leg of golf’s majors as Palmer made competing in the Open a priority;  previously most American pros shied away from competing in the Open Championship as the cost of travel was prohibitive to whatever they would wind up earning overseas.  Palmer finished one shot behind Kel Nagle (the only major Nagle would win in his career) after carding a final round 68.  Arnie would be back–with his army–and win the next two British Opens.  The ripple effect was in the future:  while Americans (Ben Hogan and Sam Snead) had won the tournament just twice from 1934-60, Americans would win the British 16 of the next 23 years.

1953– Ben Hogan.  The course at Carnoustie played rather unforgiving as only six finished under par.  Hogan got better as the week progressed–shooting 73-71-70-68.  Hogan’s run is more impressive when one realizes that he was just four years removed from a near-fatal car crash where he suffered a double-fracture of the pelvis plus fractures to his collarbone and left ankle.  In those days the final two rounds of the British Open were played on Friday– so Hogan walked 36 holes that day en route to victory.  Glenn Ford plays him in the movie.

1941– Craig Wood.  Never had a chance to try for the triple play because World War II had cancelled the Open Championship from 1940-45.  Wood did earn one spot in history:  as the first man to lose all four majors in extra holes (he lost the 1935 Masters to Gene Sarazen, the 1939 US Open to Byron Nelson, the 1933 British Open to Denny Schute and the 1934 PGA Championship to Paul Runyan).

Even minus McIlroy, the field is far from a walkover.  Slicing and dicing through the notables:

Jordan Spieth (9/2 odds)– Pros: he’s won both majors played this year…that takes a lot of skill and a little luck.  Spieth is just beginning to find his ceiling, and is young enough not to realize how ridiculously huge this tournament is for him.  Cons: he’s won both majors played this year…and may have used up all the luck when Dustin Johnson 3-putted the final hole of the US Open.  The rest of the field is too good to hold off…and this is a 23-year old kid at ST. ANDREWS (knees shaking).

Dustin Johnson (12/1)– Pros:  he came this close to winning last month’s US Open…and revenge is a dish best served cold on a Scottish shore.  The 31-year old is just hitting his peak, with one victory and seven top 10 finishes already this year–and he enters this weekend rested.  Cons:  Johnson hasn’t played since that fateful 3-put last month…that’s a long time between starts to effectively golf.  This also means his last competitive hole was that 3-putt.  You’re not telling me he might be a little pre-occupied?  Especially when he plays with Spieth for the first two days?  Rust, anxiety and regret make one horrendous cocktail on the course.

Rickie Fowler (16/1)– Pros:  he’s on a roll, having just won the Scottish Open last weekend.  Fowler finished tied for second last year (one of four top 5 Majors finishes in 2014);…and he brings a certain style that makes the tour a little more interesting. Cons:  the hair.  And clothing.  Do you think the golf gods are going to let him win at St. Andrews?  Fowler also missed the cut at the US Open (a course that played like a British Open course).  Plus, isn’t the Scottish Open like the Masters Par 3 as far as jinxability? (I can say that, I’m 25% Scottish).

Justin Rose (18/1)– Pros:  he’s proven he can win on the Major Championship level (US Open-2013).  Rose has played well in Majors this year (tied for 2nd at the Masters) and has contended at the British Open before (tied for 4th).  He’s also won this year (Zürich Classic).  Cons:  that 4th place finish?  1998!  That’s not just Rose’s most recent top 10 finish, but he’s missed the cut more than he’s made it at the Open Championship this decade.  To top it off:  unlike previous years, Rose won’t have the Quicken Loans/AT&T/Tiger National to prepare him for Open.  Congressional gets you ready for Majors, or at least really bad traffic on River Road.

Henrik Stenson (20/1)– Pros:  he finished 2nd last year and has played well in Majors as of late (4 top fives in the last two years).  Stenson tied for 3rd the last time the Open was played at St. Andrews.  And with it being a decade since the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series, Sweden needs a little excitement.  Cons: the European hasn’t actually won in Europe since 2006 (Dubai Desert Classic is European Tour but technically in Asia).  Stenson hasn’t played that well this year, either (19th in the Masters, 27th at the US Open).  You think its rough being a Swedish golf fan?  Wales’ hopes rest on Jamie Donaldson.  Let’s just say that Sweden and Wales will likely remain tied in Open Championship winners after this weekend.

Guys we hope are hanging around Sunday morning…because it will elevate breakfast somewhat:

Tiger Woods (20/1)– He’s won at St. Andrews twice, but hasn’t had a top 5 Majors finish in two years.  Tiger’s coming off his best tournament compared to par (7-under at the Greenbrier) and if anyone can turn it on after wandering in the wilderness, it’s the guy with 14 Majors. But he also missed the cut at the US Open (on a course similar to Open Championship tracks).  The putter remains a problem.  And the new generation of challengers is just too good…and not afraid enough.

Bubba Watson (33/1)– Bubba is like a country breakfast.  Plays big.  Plenty of excess.  Bacon, ham or sausage?  Bubba enjoys all three with extra home fries and syrup just because.  Sad to say the Open Tournament is a little more refined than the Masters Watson has won twice, despite what they tell you at Augusta National.  For the record, the fact that a continental breakfast is actually smaller than a country breakfast is major false advertising.

Phil Mickelson (33/1)– Lefty won the Open in 2013…so it doesn’t burn a hole in his golf heart like his quest for the US Open does.  St. Andrews and the lovable dad don’t get along too well either– Mickelson finished 48th five years ago and 60th in 2005.

Sergio Garcia (33/1)– Do you know…Sergio?  Incredibly underwhelming?  World of talent with no majors?  Heavyset thin guy?  One still wants to think of this guy as the teenager who went toe-to-toe with Tiger at the 1999 PGA Championship.  Sergio’s playoff loss to Padraig Harrington in 2007 is the closest he’s come to winning the British Open–or a Major at all.  But–he’s only 35.  One year older than Phil when he started winning Majors.  It’s not so far-fetched… is it?

Tom Watson (750/1)– It would be much longer odds if the 5-time winner didn’t finish second in 2009.  Watson dominated the British Open like none other in the modern era…winning 5 claret jugs over a 9-year span.  He beat Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino during their heydays while also keeping multiple-Major winners like Hale Irwin and Nick Price from padding their totals.  In 1984 Watson while not ready to challenge Nicklaus’ then-record 17 Majors was at least ready to pass the likes of Gary Player and Ben Hogan…and maybe Walter Hagen.  But runnerup finishes that year in the Masters and British Open was just the beginning of Watson not winning another Major after the age of 33…after being so dominant for such a spell.  Just to illustrate to the Tiger fans who can’t believe one can stop winning Majors at age 33–it can happen in this fickle game.  But for one last Thursday and Friday– Watson competes against the one course he did not win on during his heyday.  Here’s hoping he makes the cut…

Another week, another benchmark.  The All Star break finds the Nationals two games ahead of the pack in the NL East after the team took two of three against the Orioles (now there’s a team tumbling– with 10 losses in 13 games).  Seven of last year’s ten playoff teams were in postseason position during the All Star break of 2014…and this year the Nats can be comfortable knowing that they are the only team with a positive run differential in their division.  While two wins can’t completely erase going 0-2 against Cincinnati, it’s nice to enter the break off a winning series where your ace has returned to form.  But seriously, what is it with the Reds?  The Nats are 0-5 against the NL Central’s 4th place team.

Alan Alda Would Be Proud– four of the Nats projected eight starting position players this year are on the Disabled List, not including last year’s #1 pitcher Stephen Strasburg.  Ryan Zimmerman (on a pace for 100 RBI when he went down) has missed 31 games.  Jayson Werth (hitting .250 with 2 HR and 6 RBI in 12 May games after hitting .175 in April) began the season on the shelf, has missed 60 games overall and won’t return until early August.  Anthony Rendon didn’t play until June 4th and was just beginning to hit his stride (batting 8-15 over his last four games) when he went down three weeks later…meaning the guy who scored 111 runs last year has missed 69 games in 2015.  Denard Span also began the year on the DL–and back issues sent him back to sick bay last week…making him the most active of the bunch at 28 games missed.  Thus, the projected 1, 2, 3 and 5 hitters in the lineup have missed a combined 188 games…and we’ve only just passed the halfway mark.  But that’s not all:  Stephen Strasburg’s in his second stint on the shelf (5 starts missed) while the guy who led the team in victories last year (Doug Fister) has missed 5 or 6 starts (depending on your rotational math with off days in the mix).  Not to mention the absence of bullpen bulldog Craig Stammen (who led the team in relief innings pitched last year)…who’s been an afterthought since tax day.  The fact that this team is even in contention– let alone in first place– is an achievement for the bench, the manager and the organization.

Digesting the Division– the New York Mets begin this week two games behind the Nats…thanks to their sweep of Arizona.  The Mets regained their mojo against the NL West, taking 7 of 9 games over the last week and a half.  Atlanta’s now five games under .500 after losing five straight entering the midseason hiatus.  Can either team make a second half run?  The Mets pitching (3rd in MLB in ERA and quality starts) is betrayed by their bats (28th in runs scored, 29th in slugging and 30th in batting average–clearly they’re spending too much time working on their 26th ranked on base percentage)… while the Braves are lucky to be in the conversation (22nd in runs scored, 21st in ERA–so at least they’re somewhat consistent).  Miami and Philadelphia continue to provide punchlines.

Division to Watch– Sunday night Pittsburgh’s Gregory Polanco belted a walk-off single to give the Pirates a 6-5 win over St. Louis for the second straight night.  The previous night Andrew McCutchen ripped a walk-off homer in the 14th to give the Bucs the W.  While Pittsburgh may have momentum, they still trail the Cardinals for the best record in the NL Central as well as all of baseball.  They’re two of the three teams currently playing over .600 ball (Kansas City being the other).  Two playoff teams from 2014 to watch out for this summer.  Meanwhile, the third place Chicago Cubs would also make the playoffs if they began today and they possess the freshest new face in Kris Bryant as well as a manager in Joe Maddon who’s known for getting the most out of his club.  Even the also-rans merit mention:  as previously dwelled upon, fourth place Cincinnati is 5-0 against the Nationals this year and last place Milwaukee boasts Bob Uecker as their announcer (he got locked in the team’s radio booth earlier this year and had to be rescued by ladder).

Last Week’s Heroes– Danny Espinosa led the team with 2 HR and 4 RBI while continuing to play the role of defensive Swiss Army Knife (he’s played 5 of the 8 positions in the field so far this year).  Max Scherzer bounced back from his worst start of the season to toss 8.2 solid innings against the Orioles while Drew Storen tallied saves at Camden Yards on consecutive days.  While much was expected from Scherzer and Storen this year, Espinosa’s risen above even the most inflated of 2015 hopes.  Despite playing 26 fewer games, he’s already surpassed his 2014 totals in runs scored, doubles, homers, runs batted in and walks.  While Bryce Harper is the team’s MVP, Espinosa and Yunel Escobar have been just as essential in their own way.

Last Week’s Humbled– San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy for not adding Drew Storen to the All Star team after Max Scherzer pitched Sunday.  Storen is currently tied for second in the NL in saves…and while Kershaw does lead the majors in strikeouts the Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher is 6-6 to start the season.  Storen boasts a sub-2 ERA and has been the backbone of a bullpen that is still finding itself.  In the All Star Game, pitchers only throw 1-2 innings anyways and with Zach Grienke already starting do the Dodgers want to burn another starter?  Maybe that’s the Giants skipper’s MO.

Game to Watch– starters are not announced yet, but if one gives Max Scherzer his normal rest he’s back on the hill Friday in DC against the Los Angeles Dodgers.  Do they bring Greinke or Kershaw (providing he pitches Tuesday) on two days rest?  Or do we get one of the staff Zeppos?  Regardless… it’s the Dodgers on a Friday night.

Game to Miss–  Sunday afternoon instead of being focused on the series finale with LA (and potentially either Greinke or Kershaw), I’ll be focused on golf’s British Open.  Spieth shooting for history and the “Hogan Slam” 62 years after Ben won back-to-back-to-back majors.  Is there a better place for a new generation’s Jordan to try to fly than St. Andrews?

The July 4th as well as 81-game benchmarks pass and the Nationals are in first place of the NL East.  Are we printing playoff tickets?  While there are those that will throw out the “63.8% of teams with a lead over 4 games on Independence Day…” postulate, it’s encouraging that this club bounced back from a rough series loss to Atlanta (IT WAS FOUL!  IT WAS FOUL!) to sweep the defending World Series champs.  And not just sweep but outscore the Giants 14-5.  Gems by Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann sandwiched Saturday’s hit parade that featured first inning fireworks from Michael Taylor (leadoff home run) and Bryce Harper (2-run HR with a patriotic bat).  Sadly like any picnic that features incredible hamburgers and fantastic hot dogs, there was seven layer dip that spoiled in the sun:  Stephen Strasburg heads back to the Disabled List with a strained oblique.  Rinse and repeat…

Dissecting the Division– the New York Mets begin this week 4 and a half games behind the Nats…and visit San Francisco before coming home for three games with Arizona.  Both teams are hovering around the .500 mark.  Atlanta’s 6 games off the pace– with the opportunity to make up ground.  The Braves final seven games before the All Star Break may be on the road…but they’re against last place teams Milwaukee and Colorado.  Miami and Philadelphia? Enjoy the sushi and cheesesteaks…

Division to Watch– just up I-95 the AL East is tighter than a Tom Jones jumpsuit.  Two games separate the top four teams (sorry, Boston) with the Orioles, Tampa Bay, New York Yankees and Toronto all showing possibilities and limitations on a nightly basis.  Can this rollercoaster race sustain itself over the dog days of summer?  It’s not unusual to have a race this close…

Last Week’s Hero– while Bryce Harper continues his monster season (1.137 OPS), Clint Robinson led the team with 2 HR and 4RBI.  His homer Friday night was the difference.  Robinson’s also walking (13-10 BB to K ratio over the last 30 games).  With at bats available in the absence of Jayson Werth and Ryan Zimmerman, he’s made the most of his opportunities in the outfield and at first base.

Last Week’s Humbled– Calvin Coolidge is the new racing President?  Okay, I know he was the Chief Executive when the Senators won the World Series…but seriously.  His second most famous quote (after “the business of America is business”) was “I do not choose to run”.  Worse than the 300-pound William Howard Taft huffing and puffing in the outfield we now have a man known for saying little and running less.  Plus the mascot looks more like Coolidge’s predecessor, Warren G. Harding.  Nothing like the Teapot Dome Scandal to ruin the middle of the 4th inning…

Game to Watch– Saturday in Baltimore Jordan Zimmermann pitches against Miguel Gonzalez.  Two 7-5 pitchers who are both coming off solid starts.  A chance for whichever team won Friday night to lock up the series…so their fans can taunt the other team’s faithful all day Sunday.  Crab cakes with extra Old Bay.  Bring it, hon…

Game to Miss– By default, one of the games with Cincinnati.  Monday‘s matchup between  Doug Fister and Anthony DeSclafani is less than compelling…and there’s an interesting reading at Politics and Prose.  Harvard Professor James Wood discusses his recent work, “The Nearest Thing to Life”, which “explores the beauty and the power of the art of reading”.  Here’s your chance to be well-rounded, kids…

The Nationals eight-game winning streak ended Sunday evening thanks to an 8-5 loss in the second half of a doubleheader.  It was a true doubleheader–two games for one ticket–even though the Nats lineup has had a split-squad feel to it as of late.  Friday’s lineup card included Tyler Moore, Matt den Dekker, Clint Robinson and the quick substitution of Dan Uggla for an injured Yunel Escobar (nothing like replacing the replacement).  Anthony Rendon’s return to the disabled list smacks of 2014 when Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman combined to play 161 games.  Just last week Harper missed 3 games while Denard Span (who began the year on the DL) missed a pair as well.  This when added to the month-plus remaining on Jayson Werth’s stay on the Disabled List, it’s amazing they were able to put together 25 runs over their 6 games last week.  A total that ties the team with Cincinnati for 20th in the Majors.  Thank goodness the Nats’ highly touted rotation threw zeroes on the board for almost a week.

Dissecting the Division– the Nats lead the NL East by two and a half games over the New York Mets–who have gotten hot again (4 straight wins) after giving up the division lead last weekend.  Atlanta ended its five game losing streak with a win Sunday–and stands six games back.  Miami and Philadelphia now that both teams have new managers are officially looking forward to 2016.  And you thought the Presidential election cycle was drawn out…

Last Week’s Hero— Stephen Strasburg came off the Disabled List with a bang– striking out 6 over 5 innings against Atlanta Tuesday before notching a season-high 9 K’s over 7 frames Sunday at Philadelphia (his longest outing since April 19th against the Phillies).  He looks a lot more like the pitcher that lead the NL in strikeouts last year than the guy who had trouble reaching the 5th inning earlier this season.  The key to the new Strasburg might not be his throwing mechanics or his approach to hitters but the fact he shaved his goatee.  Do not underestimate the power of facial hair (or lack thereof).

Last Week’s Humbled– HISTORY IS MADE on the Nats Notebook!  The first non-National wins the award, and with just cause:  Philadelphia‘s a massive mess of a franchise.  Not only do they own the worst record in the majors, their manager jumped ship (will they replace Ryne Sandberg with Ivan DeJesus for nostalgia’s sake?  Would they have to send Sandberg to Chicago with Larry Bowa to complete the circle?) before the weekend (he must have a sweet cookout planned).  The team despite rain in the forecast for Saturday tried to play the 3:05 game (last week’s “Game to Miss”)–and burned Nats starter Gio Gonzalez’s turn in the rotation.  The lefthander pitched one inning before the game was called–creating Sunday’s doubleheader and rotation scramble.  After all, the Phillies were mad that the Nats played “soft rock” during their batting practice in DC this year…if “Holding Back the Years” puts you in a mindset to miscalculate rainouts, you’re missing the point of the power of Simply Red.  I’ll keep…holding on…

Game to Watch– Saturday at 11:05 am Stephen Strasburg pitches against San Francisco’s Madison Bumgarner.  Fourth of July.  A morning gametime so you don’t have to skip the pool/bbq/cookout festivities.  Will Strasburg continue his post-DL resurgence?  Bumgarner comes to DC after striking out 8 over 7 and 2 thirds innings in a win over Colorado–and he’s also a beast with his bat:  since the start of 2014 he’s hitting .250 with 6 HR and 18 RBI over 50 games (19 and 58 projected over a 162 game season).  This should be a fun duel in the midday sun.

Game to Miss– so many intriguing matchups.  Every Max Scherzer start is must-see.  One can’t deny the excitement of Fister-Wisler II (“This time it’s Personal”) and the opportunity to enjoy seltzer and salsa at the same time.  I’m curious how Gio Gonzalez bounces back from essentially missing a start–even though Jake Peavy is a shell of what was once a shell of his former self (0-2 with a 9.39 ERA).  That leaves the reliable Jordan Zimmermann– and I’m not missing his duel with Shelby Miller and his 1.94 ERA Tuesday night.  That leaves Sunday’s matchup with San Francisco’s Ryan Vogelsong.  Looks like I’m hiking Teddy Roosevelt Island that day.

Let’s begin this week’s edition with proper deference to the masterpiece that was authored by Max Scherzer Saturday:  WOW.  A near-perfect game.  A complete game for the second time in less than a week (the bullpen is sending Scherzer thank-you notes).  In that heat, too (let the record show Scherzer switched shirts in between innings).  Seven year deals are always tricky things and for all we know Max will be a shell of his former self come 2020–but it’s nice to see a big pickup pay off this early into the deal.  Can’t wait for his next start…

Lost in the glare of the no-hitter and the heatbomb that exploded in DC over the weekend was a sweep of a pretty good Pittsburgh team (even after the brooming the Bucs own the second best record in the National League).  Not just a sweep, mind you–but a 19-3 smackdown.  And the team’s first series win since late May (at the Cubs right before getting swept by Cincinnati).  All of a sudden the preseason favorites find themselves atop the NL East;  Atlanta drops by the district this week fresh off their series sweep of the Mets.  Can the Nats create a cushion?

The Bat is More Powerful than the Hamstring– Thursday’s loss to Tampa Bay saw a collective gasp at Nats Park when Bryce Harper went down with a strained hamstring.  The team’s already missing their #3 and #5 hitters (Werth and Zimmerman) and has had to play without their projected leadoff and #2 hitters (Span and Rendon).  If Harper’s hamstring had been a serious injury…look out.  Instead the rightfielder’s back in the lineup and enjoyed another solid week (6 homers and 18 RBI).  He now ranks second in homers and RBI is tied for the Major League lead in walks.  Don’t worry about him potentially going to the Yankees in 2018 or whenever…enjoy the now.  Because it’s pretty incredible.

Last Week’s Hero– Max Scherzer went through the Pirates lineup like a blowtorch through butter…earning a chocolate syrup bath and NL Player of the Week honors.  He’s eaten up innings (ranking and now leads the majors with a 1.76 ERA.  Also contributing to a 5-2 week was Michael A. Taylor;  the outfielder hit .360 while scoring 9 runs and playing solid defense in center and left (his grab Saturday at the wall preserving the no-hitter as well as the shutout).  He actually walked 3 times last week–and that’s a start.

Last Week’s Humbled– Ian Desmond hit .182 while committing another error (giving him 15 for the season).  June has not been kind to the shortstop (.143, 1 walk and 25 strikeouts).

Game to Watch– A first ever THREE WAY TIE.  Tuesday against Atlanta Stephen Strasburg is slated to come off the disabled list.  I want to know if the time in sick bay helped the man who led the NL in strikeouts last year return to form.  Friday Max Scherzer pitches against Aaron Harang in Philly–Scherzer could be going up against Rudy Stein of the Bad News Bears and I’d watch.  But Thursday the pitching matchup is Doug Fister for the Nats against the Braves Matt Wisler.  A Fister-Wisler matchup has the Seinfeld “seltzer-salsa” comedic potential.

Game to Miss– Adams Morgan is an acquired taste for many in and around the beltway.  It’s a great place to go–until all of a sudden you realize you haven’t visited that neighborhood in years.  Saturday at 3:05 Gio Gonzalez starts against rookie Adam Morgan.  Gio pitched well Sunday against Pittsburgh (scattering 4 hits over 7 scoreless innings) but as of this moment he’s the guy in the rotation who moves the needle the least.  Plus–a 3:05 road game means bailing on the pool.  Not going to happen…as long as I have sunscreen.

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