Archives for posts with tag: Davey Martinez

ORIGINALLY POSTED July 1, 2019.

The Nationals begin…what shall we call it?  Spring Training 2.0? Summer Training? Minicamp?  Whatever we wind up calling it, they’ll be minus Ryan Zimmerman and Joe Ross with each opting out of the 60-game summer sprint.  Zimmerman’s mother has MS and his wife just gave birth;  Ross is less than three years removed from Tommy John Surgery.  Sean Doolittle may very well join them on the sidelines, as his wife has a chronic lung condition.  And the fact that it took players and owners this long to get a deal in place was less than ideal.  Just like Dalton in “Roadhouse” famously said, “Nobody wins a fight”, nobody wins a sports labor tussle.

Thank goodness we have 2019 to look back on.  And thank goodness the Nationals wrapped up an 18-8 month to move over the .500 mark to stay with a victory on June 30.  Here is the “Nats Notebook” from that week.

As always, 2020 thoughts to things written in 2019 are in boldface italics.

“Max’s Mad Month”

The team that entered June nine games under .500 (and Memorial Day 12 games under) finds themselves with a winning record at the start of July–no small feat. The Nats’ 18-8 mark turns the All Star Break conversations from “who should they trade for prospects?” to “can this ridiculous run continue?” and cools off the seat of Manager Davey Martinez considerably.  One major factor in the Nats resurgence was the return to form of three-time Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer: the 1-4 start with an ERA of 4.08 on May 1 was merely a mirage.  The Scherzer we saw in June went 6-0 with an ERA of 1.00 while notching 68 strikeouts to five walks.  He’s notched three straight wins while sporting a black eye from his broken nose to go with the naturally blue and brown ones.  And once again we have to remind ourselves that perhaps the best pitcher of this generation calls Washington, DC his home.  His next start at home is Saturday.  Guess which game I’ll be focusing on below?

Sadly Max would be bothered by injury the rest of the way; the fact he was able to get back in gear after missing most of two months was incredible, just like his ability to pitch Game Seven of the World Series two days removed from needing to crawl out of bed.

 

Dissecting the Division- Atlanta (50-35) owns a five and a half game lead over second place Philadelphia (44-40) while the Nats (42-41) are seven and a half off of the Braves’ pace. But the story this week is the Melting Mets (38-47) have lost 14 of 20 and their bullpen makes the Nats’ issues minuscule. Was that back to back to back to back blown saves against Philly?  Did Manager Mickey Calloway compare himself to Billy Martin when it came to conduct?  And for the record, I don’t believe Martin hit a member of the press–it was a marshmallow salesman.  To top things off, while honoring the 1969 Miracle Mets the franchise saluted those on that team who had passed away–and tipped their caps to a pair of men who are still living.  Remember the “Natinals”?  The team that shot sausage sandwich showers on fans during misguided promotions?  Nook “What was he thinking?” Logan?  These Mets are those Nats.  Enjoy.

The five Billy Martin regimes with the Yankees remain the stuff of legend:  as fate would have it the star-crossed skipper’s first tenure was 471 games while his second, third, fourth, and fifth stints equaled 470 games.

 

Harper’s Weekly- the former face of the franchise hit 7-of-26 to bring his batting average back to .250. His 15 homers and 59 RBI put Bryce on a pace for 29 & 114.  His strikeouts are down (relatively) as his 101 K’s translate to 195 for the season. And after feasting on the Mets, the Phils aren’t taking water anymore.  For the moment…

How reliant were the Phils on Harper last year?  Bryce batted .282 with 27 homers and 89 RBI while scoring 66 runs in Philly’s 78 wins, .235 with 8 HR and 25 RBI while scoring 32 runs in the team’s 79 losses.

 

O’s Woes- well, they did take two of three from Cleveland.  The first series victory since late April puts the Birds at 24-60 (they lost Monday’s series opener to Tampa Bay).  That their pitching has been a problem is a massive understatement (the 5.74 ERA is the worst in the majors), and the grasping at straws portion of the season includes paying cash to Cleveland for Indians minor leaguer Asher Wojciechowski (8-2 in 15 starts at AAA Columbus) as well as starting rookie Thomas Eshelman (who wears #83, a number that doesn’t inspire longevity) Monday against the Rays.  The Orioles need to go .500 (39-39) in order to avoid another 100-loss season.  They’re currently playing under .300 ball.

It’s amazing how quickly things cratered for a team that made the playoffs three times in five years from 2012-16;  proof that no matter how young you might be or no matter how good your stars are the bitter end is often just that.

 

Last Week’s Heroes- Max Scherzer didn’t just have a great month: he wrapped up a dominant June with two more spectacular starts, going 2-0 while striking out 24 without issuing a walk.  He also went 2-for-3 at the plate and scored twice.  Did we mention he was voted NL Player of the Week?  Patrick Corbin pitched well in his start while Fernando Rodney, Tony Sipp and Jonny Venters tossed scoreless outings of relief.  Anthony Rendon (along with Scherzer the Nats’ other All Star representative) hit .320 with five RBI and six runs scored.  Matt Adams drove in six while Juan Soto notched eight walks and drive in four.

Back issues would limit Max the rest of the way; he’d go 3-2 with a 4.14 ERA in 50 innings over nine regular season starts. It’ll be interesting to see how he pitches this year after the start and stop in Spring Training.

 

Last Week’s Humbled- Brian Dozier hit .174.  With Ryan Zimmerman coming off of the Injured List, one can see Howie Kendrick’s starts getting moved to the middle of the infield.  Already feeling the crunch is Michael A. Taylor, who finds himself in AA Harrisburg and hasn’t been the same since Dusty Baker was fired.  Relievers Tanner Rainey and Javy Guerra both posted ERA’s over 20.

Taylor would eventually get back to the bigs and score a key run in the team’s Wild Card win over Milwaukee.

 

Game to Watch- not only is Max Scherzer pitching for the final time before the All Star break, but Saturday’s game will have the Nats wearing powder blue Expos uniforms to honor the 50th anniversary of the start of the franchise.  This will be nice.

I’m a sucker for the Expos’ unis.  I actually wish they had just kept those colors and fonts when they moved to DC instead of the Angels hand-me-downs.  Just flip the “M and e” on the cap upside down–or go with a BLOCK W.

 

Game to Miss- Sunday Patrick Corbin pitches against the Royals, while the Women’s World Cup holds its final. From Team USA’s 13-0 trouncing of Thailand to the nailbiting win over host nation France, this has been one incredible month for the US.  Can they deliver a win over England and a trip to another Final?  One thinks yes.

The US Women’s National Team did not disappoint, while over the course of 2019 neither did Corbin.  He’d go 7-2 after the All Star break while winning Game Seven of the World Series in relief.

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The Washington Nationals were originally going to hand out World Series rings Sunday, May 24 in a virtual ceremony.  While that is no longer the case, the date chosen was rather fitting as that’s when the surge up the standings began for a 19-31 team that would finish 93-69 before continuing its magical march through October.  And although the team was confident they’d turn things around eventually, it’s more than reasonable for those covering the team or rooting them on from the cheap seats (and not-so-cheap suites) at Nats Park to have given up on the hometown team.

I’ve been covering the Nationals’ home games on a regular basis the last six seasons, anchoring afternoon sportscasts from the ballpark before providing updates during the game that evening.  I’ve dealt with Game Five losses and late summer meltdowns, witnessed hot bats become frigid in October and see untimely injuries become costly in the NLDS.  But I never had to deal with a team ten games under .500 in DC-and that’s exactly what I had last May.  Due to injuries in the lineup and ineffectiveness in the bullpen, the team that had won four division titles in seven years was on pace to lose 100 games after getting swept in a four game series by the New York Mets on May 23.

Since 2015 I’ve written a weekly “Nats Notebook” for prestonsperspective.wordpess that explores the highs and lows, the big picture and minutiae.  These are excerpts from last year’s “Nats Notebook” on the way to Memorial Day.  They provide a bit of a road map as well as highlight who was doing well and who wasn’t on a week by week basis.  Enjoy with retroactive comments in italics.  Because sometimes hindsight isn’t always 20-20; sometimes it turns out to be 93-69.

 

April 2nd–Too Early for a Freakout?

The calendar reads “2019”…but for many the first weekend of this season felt like last year’s 82-80 journey to nowhere.  From stranding runners to bad base running to questionable bullpen use to wasting a solid Max Scherzer start, the season opener had it all. Saturday’s loss doubled down on all of that with a subpar Stephen Strasburg start followed by a bad bullpen outing.  Thank goodness Trea Turner hit a walkoff home run in Sunday’s win, otherwise we’d have a winless last place team facing first place Philadelphia.  Along with a familiar face.  Please tell me it’s only April…

Last Week’s Heroes- Max Scherzer strikes out 12 while allowing two hits over 7.2 innings and Sean Doolittle K’s a pair while tossing 1.2 scoreless in Sunday’s sweep-averting win.  Trea Turner bats .385 with two homers while Victor Robles hits .455.

Last Week’s Humbled- Robles also had an error in Saturday’s loss and his base running blunder helped keep the Nats off of the board in the season opener.  But at least he’s hitting- Brian Dozier began the year 0-for-10 while Juan Soto has seven strikeouts in his 12 at bats.  Trevor Rosenthal has allowed five runs while not recording an out over two appearances.

Rosenthal would live in the land of infinity before finally recording an out in his fifth appearance April 10.  This was the same time that Orioles slugger Chris Davis was oh-for-the-season.  I maintain that if they faced each other during this stretch, the universe would have imploded.

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April 8– “One Bad Bullpen”

Beware the Bad Bullpen. Shaky setup men and closers in crisis are the perfect way to undo five-plus solid innings of work from your rotation.  Eight games into the season, the Nats bullpen ranks last in the majors with an ERA of 10.80.  While last week one was reminded of the 2018 season’s sloppy base running and bad defense, this week one recalls how bad the bullpen was during the first half of the 2017 season.  And this is April- with multiple off-days early in the season.  Can this bullpen get itself together before it’s too late?

Last Week’s Heroes- Anthony Rendon hit .474 with 4 homers and 7 RBI, while Ryan Zimmerman drove in 5 runs.  Stephen Strasburg tossed 6.2 scoreless innings to start their series against the Mets, Sean Doolittle threw 2.2 scoreless frames over three outings and Max Scherzer tallied 16 strikeouts over 11.1 innings.  Max also gave himself a lead for the first time all year by driving in a run Saturday.

Last Week’s Humbled- Trevor Rosenthal remains in the land of infinity, allowing 2 more earned runs while walking 3 more over two games.  Joe Ross in his 2019 debut allowed a 3-run homer while getting one out Sunday.  For those doing the math, that equates to an earned run average of 81.00.  Tony Sipp’s ERA for the week was a robust 27.00, while Matt Grace and Wander Suero also have double-digit ERA’s.  At the plate, Victor Robles and Brian Dozier are both hitting .133 to start the season.  While neither is expected to carry this team offensively, the loss of Trea Turner to a broken finger for the next 4-8 weeks makes every out sting a little more.

Bryce Harper’s return to Nationals Park was less than ideal for the team he left, as the former face of the franchise went 5-for-10 with 3 RBI in his first series back.  Throw in losing offensive sparkplug Trea Turner, and early April was not awesome in DC.

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April 15– “Whirlwind World”

What a week it was.  From Virginia winning a first-ever men’s college basketball National Championship (Kippy & Buffy are celebrating with a bottle of 2009 Chateau Lynch-Bages) to the Capitals taking a 2-0 first round playoff series lead over Carolina to Tiger Woods winning the Masters to Game of Thrones’ final season premiering, there’s been a lot to experience.  Amidst all of that the Nationals went 3-3 to remain .500 on the season.  One series win that could have gone the other way followed by the exact opposite.  But who’s watching?

Last Week’s Heroes- Howie Kendrick in his return to the roster hit 7-of-11 with 2 homers and 4 RBI.  They missed the Swiss army knife a ton last year.  Anthony Rendon hit .360 while driving in 8 runs.  Adam Eaton scored a team-high 7 runs.  Patrick Corbin struck out 11 over seven innings in his only outing while Kyle Barraclough (1.2 scoreless innings) and Sean Doolittle (3.2 scoreless) kept the lid on things.  Trevor Rosenthal after living in the land of infinity notched his first out of the season.

Last Week’s Humbled- Ryan Zimmerman hit .167 while Wilmer Difo batted .143.  Stephen Strasburg was touched up for 6 earned runs over 4 innings of work.  Tony Sipp allowed 2 runs in one inning.

Amazing how sports works out. The Cavaliers trailed in every game during their NCAA title run and needed crazy rallies to get to overtime in the Regional Finals and Championship Game.  And that doesn’t include the three free throws with 0.6 seconds left against Auburn in the National Semifinals.  But just as the Cavs go up, the Caps come down as they’d lose four of five to end their title defense on a cold April night.

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April 22– “Sunburned”

So much for getting fat on the last place Miami Marlins.  The Nats visited the one team in the NL East that could be accused of not really trying in 2019 and lost two of three.  And now once again the team finds itself at .500; they were 3-3, 4-4, 5-5, 6-6, 7-7, 8-8, 9-9 and now the club many thought would fight for the NL East is 10-10.  Granted, not having Trea Turner is a major blow to the offense and the bullpen is only beginning to put together outs consistently.  But the longer this team stays in second gear, the longer one feels they’re going to be second-tier. 

Last Week’s Heroes- Adam Eaton hit .364 while Matt Adams batted .333 with two homers and six RBI.  Ryan Zimmerman homered twice in Sunday’s win over Miami.  Patrick Corbin struck out nine over seven innings in his only start while Stephen Strasburg K’d 11 while tossing eight scoreless innings in Sunday’s win at the Marlins. Relievers Kyle Barraclough pitched three scoreless outings while Tony Sipp tossed two scoreless frames over three appearances.

Last Week’s Humbled- Max Scherzer had a rare rough outing, coughing up six runs over 5.1 innings at Miami. Austen Williams allowed two homers in two outings and has an ERA of 162.  Yes, it’s a very small sample size but…ouch.  Juan Soto did walk five times last week but hit .200 primarily batting third and fourth.

There’s a Seinfeld episode where “everything evens out” for Jerry, and that’s what the early season felt like for the Nats.  Meanwhile the rogues gallery of relievers gave nobody long-term confidence in the bullpen that would eventually rank 29th in the majors.

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April 29– “The Future is Wow”

On the week that the NFL took center stage with its Draft Party Celebration Extravaganza, it was only fitting that the Nats looked to their youngest players in Sunday’s rally from six runs down to beat San Diego in extra innings.  The 7-6 win in ten innings may have been won by Matt Adams’ walk-off homer, but Carter Kieboom, Juan Soto and Victor Robles helped force extras with home runs of their own.  It’s the first time in Major League history that a trio of teammates under the age of 22 homered in the same game.  And while there are plenty of issues facing this team at this time, one can at least look to the next generation making their mark now.

Last Week’s Heroes- Carter Kieboom provided an instant spark, homering in his first career game Friday night before going yard Sunday.  Juan Soto hit .308 and led the team with 8 RBI while Matt Adams batted .333 and had the sweep-averting homer against the Padres.  Erick Fedde tossed four scoreless innings after getting called up from the minors while Max Scherzer struck out 10 to move past the 2,500 plateau.

Last Week’s Humbled- Trevor Rosenthal had one rough outing against Colorado:  he threw three wild pitches and hit a batter while allowing three runs.  Jeremy Hellickson allowed 10 earned runs over eight innings, while Wander Suero went 0-2 with an ERA of 16.88.  Adam Eaton hit .217 while Victor Robles batted .214 with one walk and eight strikeouts.  Not what you dream about atop the batting order.

I had a chance to interview both Carter Kieboom and Erick Fedde this past February at Spring Training.  Fedde was fighting for the fifth spot in the rotation and while his extra year of options was originally going to keep him in the minors an expanded roster this summer may play into his favor. Conversely, Kieboom’s lack of regular reps the last two months could seriously stunt was going to be his growth into the starting role at third base.

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May 6– “Still Trying to Take Off”

Add Juan Soto to the growing Nats’ Injured List.  And Matt Adams.  And–potentially Michael A. Taylor.  And–for a few hours–the flight from Philadelphia to Milwaukee–the team’s charter plane.  Not to mention their pitching coach:  sayonara Doug Lilliquist, welcome Paul Menhart.  The Nats aren’t just minus their opening day #2 through #5 hitters, but they’re also without their best bat off the bench (who had been forced into a starting role) and potentially their best defensive outfielder (we await the moment when Taylor is put on the IL).  Not helpful in the early season when one has yet to find itself.  The team that had issues getting away from .500 (nine times in April) is now taking serious water (losses in 11 of their last 16 games).  And their gauntlet of playoff teams from last year continues with trips to Milwaukee and the Los Angeles Dodgers.

About that Delay- during a season where the team was expected to contend yet is five games under .500 in early May, it’s only fitting that the team flight had trouble taking off as well Sunday.  The Nats boarded their team charter at 6:30 p.m. but mechanical issues kept them on the tarmac for eight hours. They finally deplaned at 3 a.m. (wondering when the peanuts ran out) and went back to their hotel before flying later in the morning.  On a trip where there are no off-days, this was beyond not ideal.  Fire up the espresso machine in the visitor’s clubhouse.

Last Week’s Heroes- Kurt Suzuki hit .462 with three homers and five RBI while Howie Kendrick hit .348. Sean Doolittle notched a pair saves while tossing 2.1 scoreless innings and Kyle Barraclough threw three scoreless frames over three appearances.  Stephen Strasburg reached the 1,500 strikeout milestone by whiffing nine over 6.2 innings in a sweep-averting victory against St. Louis.

Last Week’s Humbled- Joe Ross allowed seven earned runs over 0.2 innings (94.50 ERA for those without calculators) while Matt Grace posted a 10.38 ERA.  Carter Kieboom suddenly looked like a rookie while hitting 2-for-23 while Michael A. Taylor went 0-12 with five strikeouts before injuring his wrist.

The flight delay was going to be one of those things that becomes symbolic of a lost season.  The change of a pitching coach seemed to make sense, as a staff that boasted quite a bit of talent ended April with the fourth-highest ERA in the NL.

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May 13– “Wandering Out West”

The Nats’ ten-game road trip is now in their rear-view mirror.  The 3-7 finish was less than ideal but not as disastrous as it could have been.  From getting swept in Milwaukee to getting shut out twice in Los Angeles.  From a comedy of errors in the field against the Brewers to a silent outing by the bats in almost getting no-hit by the Dodgers.  This team returns to DC a little healthier (Anthony Rendon and Juan Soto are both back) but far from full-strength.  And just as far from successful:  they’ve not won consecutive games since April 18 and have had just a pair of two-game winning streaks.  Things won’t get any easier as they face fellow NL East contender New York and the NL East-leading Cubs.  Can things get turned around by Memorial Day?

Last Week’s Heroes- Patrick Corbin ended the team’s four game losing streak by tossing seven scoreless innings while Max Scherzer struck out 17 over two starts, winning for the first time in over a month.  Newcomer Gerardo Parra hit a grand slam in Saturday night’s win while ending a no-hit bid by the Dodgers’ Hyun-Jin Ryu Sunday afternoon. Howie Kendrick’s homer helped the Nats snap the slide, and he led the team with seven RBI last week.

Last Week’s Humbled- Anthony Rendon came off the injured list and hit .136 with seven strikeouts.  He’s not alone-as none of the regulars hit over .250 last week. The catching combination of Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki went 1-for-25 with 10 strikeouts.  Jeremy Hellickson allowed six runs over four innings of work while Kyle Barraclough and Matt Grace each posted a 13.50 ERA.  That of course pales in comparison to Dan Jennings’ 40.50 blemish.

Hello Gerardo Parra!  He was hitting .198 for the Giants when the Nats picked him up, and what an acquisition for the Nats.  Even with the “Baby Shark” earworm.

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May 20– “Maylaise” 

Another week, another slate of games where the Nationals were alternately inspiring and frustrating.  The team that started slow (12-16 on April 30) is now 7-11 in May, has lost nine of 15 series (with two splits in the mix) and has dropped 13 of 15 series openers. After winning their first series in almost a month, the Nats went out and turned a 5-4 game in the eighth inning against the Cubs into a 14-6 nightmare.  With Miami’s sweep over the weekend of the Mets, the Nats are now the only team in the majors without a three game-winning streak.  And there’s no possible way this team will be over .500 on Memorial Day.  Could there be a crisis of confidence in DC?

Last Week’s Heroes- Gerardo Parra continues to be the hero the Nats need, hitting .500 with a homer and 3 RBI.  Anthony Rendon is also hitting his stride, batting .435 while scoring eight runs and driving in seven.  Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin each won their starts while allowing one earned run over eight innings.

Last Week’s Humbled- one rough week for Jeremy Hellickson, who goes 0-2 with an ERA of 9.00. Relievers Dan Jennings, Justin Miller, Kyle Barraclough and Matt Grace all post double-digit ERA’s-with Grace’s 15.43 the big number of the week.  Catcher Yon Gomes (now .206 on the season) continues to struggle with an 0-11 week.

I want to say I never said “malaise”, but “crisis of confidence”.  Fans of former President Carter will back me up.

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 27– “A Tale of Two Series” 

It was the worst of times–and the best of times last week. Well, actually–not the best because it’s tough to celebrate wins over the NL East’s AAA team.  But you get what I mean. And just remember the Nats lost two of three to Miami last month.  Nothing like three wins to put some wind back in the team’s sails and give one hope as they cross the first marker of the Major League Marathon (July 4th & 31st plus Labor Day are the other three of note-it’s not like Golf’s Majors where there’s a fixed set- some include the All Star Break as well).  The bullpen remains beyond as bad as anyone feared it might be (the team allowed 49 runs in the eighth inning over the first 50 games of the season) and its ERA has spiked to a mind-boggling and save-blowing 7.25.  As the Nats wind down May they find themselves closer to last place (4.5 games ahead of Miami) than first (nine behind Philadelphia). They entered their eight game stretch against the sub-500 Mets and Marlins with conventional wisdom being the Nats could/would/might win five or six to jump back into the race.  Entering the series finale with the Marlins they need a win just to break even.  Thank goodness the schedule continues to stay semi-soft in June.

Last Week’s Heroes- Juan Soto hit 13-26 with 2 homers and 8 RBI, while Juan Gomes batted .400 with 5 RBI.  Anthony Rendon remains red-hot, scoring a team-high 8 runs while driving in 5 more.  As it’s Rendon’s walk year, the longer this team remains sub-.500 the louder the whispers of trading Tony Two Bags will get.  Patrick Corbin tossed a complete game Saturday (just what the beleaguered bullpen needed) and Max Scherzer tossed six shutout innings earlier in the week.  Matt Grace pitched two scoreless innings over three games. Somebody check his temperature.

Last Week’s Humbled- rookie James Bourque made his major league debut Sunday, allowing 4 earned runs over two-thirds of an inning. He’ll have no issues fitting in here.  The usually sharp Sean Doolittle coughed up a three-run double and a three-run homer to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.  Just to show it’s not just a bullpen thing, Kyle McGowin allowed five runs over four innings in his start Friday.  Trea Turner hit .212 with six strikeouts while leading off and Victor Robles batted .200.

I remember losing power in my building the day the Nationals lost their matinee to the Mets.  That felt appropriate as the Nats had just gotten swept by their NL East foes, coughing up leads in three of the four games.  And even though they bounced back with three straight wins over the Marlins, they’d find a way to blow a late lead on Memorial Day.

 

 

 

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The Nationals boast one of the best rotations in baseball, and that’s thanks in large part to the four horsemen (profiled on these pages entering last year’s World Series).  But there’s no turning the clock back to 1975 when four-man rotations were the rule, meaning somehow this team is going to need 30 or so starts from somebody.   It’s a thankless job, because while it’s difficult to make the playoffs without a reliable fifth starter most teams trim their rotations to four in the playoffs due to the off-days.  And by definition the fifth starter isn’t necessarily going to be awesome;  otherwise they’d be the fourth starter.

Teams go about finding number five in one of two ways nowadays: they sign a veteran (sometimes off of the scrap heap) like the Nats did with Jeremy Hellickson in 2018 or go with prospects who might be a little green like last summer when Erick Fedde (12 starts), Joe Ross (nine starts), and Austin Voth (eight starts) split the role.  That’s the trio that will be under Manager Davey Martinez’ microscope over the next month. “Joe-two years removed from surgery, he’s completely healthy-he looks really good. Fedde, I watched throw today- threw the ball really well and Voth also threw the ball well,” Martinez said. “When we break camp one of them is going to be the fifth starter.”

Joe Ross has been in this role before. The 26-year old made 23 starts for the Nats in 2016 and was the beneficiary of ridiculous run support (the team averaged 9.15 runs in his 13 startes) the following season before suffering a torn elbow ligament.  After Tommy John Surgery, Ross returned to make three appearances in 2018.  He then split time with the Nats and AAA Fresno in 2019,  and made three appearances in the postseason (0-1 with a 7.45 ERA over 9.2 innings).

Austin Voth went 3-3 with a 3.30 ERA over eight starts (four in September) and nine appearances before shoulder tendinitis helped keep him off of the World Series Roster (he was active for the NLDS and NLCS but didn’t make an appearance).  The University of Washington product and former fifth round pick is healthy and ready for the audition.  “Honestly it’s just going to come down who pitches the best in Spring Training,” Voth said. “I know there’s a lot of other things that go into that, but for me I’m just focusing on what I can do put myself good position to make the ballclub.”

Erick Fedde made 12 starts and 21 major league appearances in 2019, posting an ERA of 4.50 which was a slight improvement over his 2018 (5.54 over 11 starts).  The former first round pick does have one more year of options; in a rule that smacks of Faber University’s “Double Secret Probation” if a player uses up all three years of options before his fifth professional year, he gets a fourth year of options.  What is Davey looking for from Fedde? “Consistency. Strike one. Finishing hitters. He had hitters last year 0-2, took him three or four pitches to finish hitter,” Martinez said. “Look at Max and Stras, and they try to finish hitters on four pitches all the time. I’d like to see him do that.” The fact that Fedde has another potential year of minor league flexibility while Voth and Ross do not could color the competition in March.  But the 27-year old is focused on what he can control. “I just finished up my first live BP,” Fedde said Thursday. “It’s good to see some hitters in there. You really find out what your stuff looks like when you see some swings. That’s a really good starting spot. Things are feeling great- I’m excited and ready to compete for a spot.”

The competition began last weekend with the first of 31 games before they leave Florida.  “I want them to go out there and just keep building of what they did last year,” Martinez said. “They’ve all showed that they can pitch in the big leagues; just go out there and pitch with confidence, relax and just do your thing.”

 

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While the Washington Nationals were propelled by starting pitching that posted the third best ERA in the majors plus a lineup that ranked second in batting average and runs scored, many close to the team felt that that the clubhouse chemistry was a key factor in going from 19-31 in May to a championship parade in November. “When one guy doesn’t do the job the next guy picks him up,” Martinez said before the World Series.  “You watch them go down the line, they pat each other on the back- ‘hey, we got you don’t worry’.” Chemistry in the clubhouse is a tricky thing; if anybody could create it everybody would have it. It’s not a Chia Pet, for heaven’s sake.  How have things gotten so good for the Nats?

It wasn’t always this way. From players reportedly being shipped out for leaking to the press, dugout scuffles between Jonathan Papelbon and Bryce Harper, to the famed Mike Rizzo quote “If you’re not in, you’re in the way”, it’s taken a while for the phalanx to come together.  When you spend February through October together, the team has to be together.  “At the end of the day nobody understands what goes on in a clubhouse except the 25 guys and the coaching staff that are in here,” catcher Yan Gomes said. “There’s nothing like it and truly the biggest reason why we won last year is because of how much we enjoyed being around each other.” 

When things got bad last spring and it looked like the team was sinking, the players didn’t jump ship. Instead, they began to bail each other out. “We were all very open with each other,” Gomes said. “Whatever little things were going on we were able to cut them out right away-cut out distractions-and made sure that whatever happened it stayed in here and we were battling for each other in here.

Perhaps the fact that this was the oldest roster in baseball last season gave some clarity and focus to what was really important: trying to go 1-0 every day while not letting one loss bleed into the next day.  “Just the mix of veterans and young players and just the attitude,” Howie Kendrick said. “There’s no selfish guys here and everybody wants to win. There’s a chemistry here that we’ve had since I’ve been here.”

Baseball’s regular season is the longest (162 games) while the playoff field is the most exclusive in the major four sports (10 of 30, or 33%).  Fighting through the dog days of summer (and for those who live in the Washington area, August can get particularly houndish) is no easy task, and knowing that the clubhouse is a fountain of positive vibes makes the grind a little easier.  “It’s great when you get to the field every day and you’re just happy to be hear and don’t feel like you’re working,” Michael A. Taylor said. “And it helps on the field too having that camaraderie and just trusting one another.”

Unfortunately for any team in MLB, you can’t bring everyone back.  While we know the Nats will miss Anthony Rendon’s bat and glove as well as the contributions of Brian Dozier and Gerardo Parra (earworm alert-BABY SHARK), we can’t size up yet the intangible loss of those three as well as others on the 2019 team not coming back.  Sometimes the absence of one minor ingredient can change a whole recipe.  “When we finished Game Seven it was one of those things where we knew that everyone wasn’t going to be back,” Adam Eaton said. “Which kind of saddened all of us because you’re with those people for so long it’s part of your family.”  But with most of the parts coming back, the 2020 Nationals should earn another solid grade in Chemistry.  Will it be another A?  Ask me in October.

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A bad dessert can wipe out a great meal.  Last year the Nationals relief corps almost shut down the season before it began. The bullpen ERA of 5.66 was the worst in the majors and their 29 blown saves was the second-highest total in the big leagues.  Even in the team’s postseason run the team was aided by relief appearances from starters Stephen Strasburg (three scoreless innings in the Wildcard win), Max Scherzer (one scoreless frame in the NLDS Game Two victory), and Patrick Corbin (five appearances including three scoreless innings in Game Seven of the World Series).  So manager Davey Martinez has his work cut out for him in 2020.

He starts with a solid base:  Sean Doolittle saved 29 games in 2019 and was an All Star the previous season, Daniel Hudson went 3-0 with a 1.44 ERA and six saves after joining the Nats in a midseason trade, and Will Harris posted a 1.50 ERA in 60 innings over 68 games last year with Houston. “Those guys are going to be the constants in the back end of the bullpen, but with that being said you got (Tanner) Rainey who has pitched in the playoffs and the World Series for us,” Martinez said. “you got (Wander) Suero who did a good job and ate a lot of innings for us.” Suero led the team with 71.1 relief innings in 2019.  Harris is the new kid in town with the Nats becoming his fourth major league team.  The former Astro tries to put his finger on what makes a bullpen’s whole greater than the sum of its parts. “I think it’s having a lot of guys who can do a lot of different things has produced the best results,” Harris said. “Having guys that can pick one another up and do different things to help kind of dissect and navigate a lineup.”

Veteran Javy Guerra posted an ERA of 4.86 over 40 games last season for the Nationals while tossing two innings over three frames in the World Series.  “I think for the most part we collectively sat in that room and believed in each other,” Guerra said. “The numbers are the numbers…but we controlled everything in our room and knew what we had to do as a group.”  The 34-year old is back with the team on a Minor League contract with a Spring Training invitation and returns to a crowded clubhouse.  One offseason acquisition is Ryne Harper; what does the former Minnesota right-hander think is crucial to building a successful bullpen?  “You’re like brothers out there. You develop relationships-you get real close with one another and I think that’s important too,” Harper said. “You’re pulling for another guy, you’re helping another guy between outings.”

Two X-factors in 2020 are two midseason moves from 2019 that didn’t pan out as well as the Nats would have liked to due to injuries:  Hunter Strickland and Roenis Elias.  “Elias got hurt and Strickland was hurt before we got him,” Martinez said. “I’m looking forward to watching those two guys pitch to their capabilities.  Strickland was a closer at one point and from what I’ve seen he’s thrown the ball really well early in camp.”

One factor that may ease the 2020 bullpen’s growing pains:  starting pitching.  Last year’s rotation ranked second in the majors in ERA and quality starts.  With multiple off days (six before May 1) Martinez could shorten his rotation which would allow the number five starter (likely Joe Ross, Erick Fedde, or Austin Voth) to provide another option in the pen.  One thing’s for certain:  anyone watching the season opener at Citi Field will sit up and take notice when the Nats bullpen percolates for the first time in 2020.

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When the Capitals won their Stanley Cup in 2018, the summer of celebration was somewhat subdued after head coach Barry Trotz resigned 11 days after the team won Game Five in Las Vegas.  The Nationals enjoyed a longer winning winter, but 2020 officially began 41 days after they triumphed in Game Seven when Anthony Rendon inked a seven year contract worth $245 million with the Los Angeles Angels. “You’re talking about an MVP-caliber ballplayer,” manager Davey Martinez told the media last week. “He’s definitely going to be missed, his teammates are going to miss him.” How they cover up his absence on the field and in the lineup will go a long ways towards determining if the Nationals will be an NL East contender or pretender in 2020.  Because it’s a challenge to replace your best bat while also replacing your surest glove; doubly so when it’s the same guy.

Infielder Carter Kieboom gets the first crack at replacing Rendon in the field.  The prime prospect hit .303 with 16 homers and 79 RBI last season for AAA Fresno.  Nobody expects the 21-year old to hit 34 homers with 126 RBI as a rookie, but his bat should be major league ready.  The other side of the coin is that he hit .128 over 11 games during a brief audition last spring, although Kieboom did homer in his major league debut.  He’s also played just 10 of his 329 career minor league games at third.  But Kieboom will get plenty of run over the next six weeks; one key is confidence in himself. “I talked to him already and told him I want you to go out there and compete every day,” manager Davey Martinez told the media last week. “Just ‘be you’. This is a fairly new position for him. He’s been coming out every day and working diligently. His footwork is good.”  For a young fielder learning a new everyday position at the major league level, the opposite of good is perfect-meaning Kieboom needs to head out every day knowing he doesn’t need to make perfect plays in order to lock down the starting job.  What is his manager looking for?  “Two things- arm strength and footwork. And that’s something that we’re working on right now,” Martinez said. “Once we get his footwork and legs underneath him he can actually do it (make the throws).”

 

Other possibilities-  while Kieboom is learning the ropes at third base as a 21-year old rookie, three Nats veterans who are options have had the bulk of their experience at the position deep in their careers. Asdrubal Cabrera did not play a game at third last season with the Nats, but he did make 90 starts in the hot corner while with Texas in 2019 and has made 142 of his 143 Major League starts at third base over the last three seasons.  Howie Kendrick made 10 of his 25 career starts at third in 2019, and Starlin Castro made all 42 of his starts at the position last year while with Miami. “I know Cabby’s played there, Howie could possibly play there and Starlin could move over and play there as well,” Martinez said. “We have a lot of guys who can do multiple things and I kind of like that.”

Just as important as finding the right fit in the field at third base is realizing who bats third this spring.  The Nats’ number three spot in the batting order led the majors with an on base percentage of .398 and a slugging percentage of .579; for those who refuse to play the percentages the club’s number three hitters led MLB with 127 runs scored and 143 runs driven in.  At first Juan Soto would appear to be the heir apparent after hitting 34 HR with 110 RBI, but the outfielder has hit just .145 over 83 at bats from the No. 3 spot in his career (barely over half of his .287 career average).  He also won’t have the protection of batting behind himself in the cleanup spot.  An option could be shortstop Trea Turner, who made 503 of his 521 at bats last season from the leadoff spot but provides power (21 homers per 162 games played in his career) while striking out more than most atop the lineup (133 K’s per 162 games).  Unlike getting Kieboom solid footing at third, Martinez could mix things up this spring before arriving at his regular No. 3 hitter.

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For a game that celebrates its tradition, baseball has evolved quite a bit this century.  “Moneyball”.  Pitchers batting eighth. “Launch Angles”. Extreme defensive shifts.  Just when you thought you’d seen everything, the “opener” gets trotted out to the mound.  I know we’re a long ways from four-man rotations and complete games being more than a random aberration, but pitching by committee shakes the core of the game’s basic duel between one pitcher facing one batter.  Houston and the New York Yankees even went with “openers” and essentially tossed staff games Saturday in Game Six of the ALCS. However, viewers of the upcoming World Series should prepare themselves for a blast from the past.

The Nationals’ path to and through the playoffs has been marked from the start; with a rotation that boasts a guy who once struck out 20 in a game, a former No. 1 overall draft pick, a high-priced free agent, and a veteran who threw a no-hitter in his 13th career start.  “You know I’ve said this all year. Our starting pitching was the key. They’ve kept us in every ball game this year and they’ve done it all playoffs,” Manager Davey Martinez said. ” It’s nice to go out there with a Max Scherzer, Strasburg, Sanchez, Corbin. These guys are a big reason why we’re here.”  Simply put:  starting pitching is the bedrock of this team.

The rotation’s 3.53 ERA ranked second best in the majors during the regular season, the same case as with its 1,010 strikeouts thrown and 938.2 innings pitched.  “They don’t give anything away and I think that’s what makes them really special. No matter the situation, no matter how many people are on, what the score is, they don’t give in,” shortstop Trea Turner said. “They continue to stick to their gameplan and use the preparation to make the best decisions and the best pitches they can.”

Four arms featuring four different approaches.  Just like the compass has four points, the Nationals rotation comes at you from four completely different directions-with four completely different personalities.

Do you want high heat?  Max Scherzer throws 48% fastballs (according to baseballsavant.mlb.com) and his preferred pitch averages 95 miles per hour.  His personality is rather easy for to describe. “Max IS Mad Max,” catcher Kurt Suzuki said.  The three-time Cy Young Award winner was steamrolling his way to a fourth Cy this summer when a back injury sidelined the right-hander for over a month.  What followed was the strangest rehab stints of recent memory:  two four-inning outings while continuing to ramp up, before finally tossing 100+ pitches in his final two September starts. “We’re at the point of the season where there’ no room for error. I cannot get hurt,” Scherzer said in August. “That’s why I’m going out there pitching under control. I’m not going to put my body in jeopardy.”  After allowing an two-run homer in the first inning of the Wild Card Game, Scherzer has resembled the pitcher who went 6-0 in June, winning his NLDS and NLCS starts.  He also tossed an inning of relief in Game two against the Dodgers.

First Intermission- while Scherzer, Strasburg, and Corbin have each taken turns coming out of the bullpen this month, they’ve shined as starters in the postseason with Sanchez.  The quartet has tossed 88 strikeouts over 61.2 innings as starters, posting an ERA of 2.04 over the ten-game run.  “When you try and figure baseball out, it kind of goes back to starting pitching. Always been the key,” first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “There’s been some teams that have been successful without it, but for us it’s always been the backbone of our team.”

Looking for something a little offspeed? Stephen Strasburg’s bread and butter is his curveball (31%) and change-up (21%).  “I think my change-up’s really evolved over the years,” Strasburg said. “When I first started my pro career it was a pitch I threw like once or twice a game. Over the years it’s turned into a weapon.” He’s not completely abandoning his fastball (28%), but the 30-year old altered his winter regime and that helped lead to setting career highs with 18 wins and 251 strikeouts in 2019.  “I obviously worked really hard last offseason;  I wasn’t really satisfied with how last season ended up,” Strasburg “I think it’s just part of the process…learning how to take care of your body better.”  How does Suzuki see Strasburg?  “Silent assassin for Stras for sure,” the catcher said.  Alliteration aside, Stras is 3-0 with a 1.64 ERA over three starts and a season-saving relief appearance.

Second Intermission- General Manager Mike Rizzo was the Director of Souting Operations with the Arizona Diamondbacks when they won the 2001 World Series behind the arms of Randy Johnson and Curt Schilling.  This year he’s built a rotation that not only produces on the field, but also pushes one another in the clubhouse.  “First of all you’ve got some talented, talented guys who are taking the mound for us. Yeah, they’re all competitors-they all want to one-up each other,” Rizzo said. “I think it’s healthy competition and when you get guys that are in that kind of rhythm and on that kind of roll it’s fun to watch.”

Wary of the slider and sinker combo?  Patrick Corbin (38% and 33%) is just what the doctor ordered.  One of the reasons he came to DC via Free Agency last winter was the chance to be a part of this staff. “When you have starting pitching that can go out there and pitch deep into ballgames and keep us close with the offense we do have with some veterans and young guys,” Corbin said. “It seemed like a good fit: a team that wanted to win and had the guys here to win.”  He had no issues fitting in, finishing strong with a 14-7 mark that included going 4-1 in September.  “Patty Ice–he’s cool, calm and collected,”  is how Suzuki describes Corbin.  The left-hander appreciates collecting input from the rest of the rotation. “Everyone’s been around for a little bit now and has seen pretty much everybody in the league.  When one guy’s out there pitching, the other guys are just communicating and talking with each other,” Corbin said. “I think what’s good is no one’s really selfish: we’re all rooting for each other and if anything can help it’ll be great for the team.”

Third Intermission- While the rotation is succeeding in 2019, they’re also helping lay the groundwork for the future.  Young pitchers like Erik Fedde have the chance to watch and learn from the four.  “Very very lucky to be a part of this. All four of them kind of go about in a different way,” Fedde said. “Anibal and Scherzer–you probably couldn’t have two more opposite guys and yet both still so effective. It’s good as a young guy just to be able to watch that and pick up small things from each of them and create my own personality.”

How about a seven-pitch buffet?  Anibal Sanchez empties the tank when it comes to variety:  while the majority of his pitches are fastballs (30% four-seam and 24% split-finger), the 35-year old also uses a sinker, curveball, change-up and slider.  The veteran also brings an infectious enthusiasm to the team. “Happy go lucky and nothing really fazes this guy,” Suzuki said. “He’s always happy, keeps the clubhouse loose and he has fun.”  After starting 0-6 with an ERA of 5.10, a stint on the Injured List set the veteran straight: he went 11-2 with an ERA of 3.42 after coming back in late-May.  He also set the tone in the NLCS by tossing 7.2 scoreless innings in the Game One shutout of St. Louis.

A catcher is part-planner, part-psychologist.  Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes signed with the Nationals this past offseason to help the quartet navigate their way through batting orders, slumps, bumps and bruises and long seasons.  They couldn’t ask for a more diverse–or more professional group.  “They’re all good and they have their own quirks about them,” Suzuki said. “They go about their business the right way–they’re pros and the bottom line is they know how to get the job done. That’s what sets them apart from a lot of guys.”

The Nationals’ four arms will have their work cut out for them in the World Series. Houston’s trio of Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole and Zack Greinke has 77 strikeouts over 62 playoff innings, posting a combined ERA of 3.04 against American League hitting (as in a DH instead of a pitcher).  But reliever Daniel Hudson is confident, as the mid-season pickup has had a front row seat  “Those guys have gone out just about every time since I’ve been here and pretty much do what they do,” Hudson said. “To be able to come in and jump in and watch it from here instead of somewhere else has been a pretty special experience.”  Four points of the compass, looking to point the Washington Nationals towards a first-ever World Championship.

 

 

 

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Autumn in Washington can come at you fast.  Didn’t we just have a week of 90-degree weather?  You blink and all of a sudden you’re looking for the lining in your coats you removed in April and breaking out the scarf and gloves.  Baseball’s playoffs are just as abrupt, as teams gearing up for a long postseason run all of a sudden are packing up their gear after a Game Five loss.

Ryan Zimmerman is deep into the autumn of his career, one that spans the entirety of the Washington Nationals’ stay in DC.  The teams initial first round pick in 2005 was a September call-up during the tail-end of the Nats’ inaugural season at RFK Stadium.  He shined the following season as an everyday player, finishing second in the NL Rookie of the Year race (to Hanley Ramirez, for those curious).  Zimmerman topped that off by hitting a walk-off home run in the first regular season game at Nationals Park the next March.

The problem was, there wasn’t a lot of talent around Zimmerman at the time. It was an era of bad baserunning and dismal defense, misspelled uniforms and exploding sausage sandwiches in the skies (true story).  But the team was building for something special, and Ryan Zimmerman was their cornerstone. “He hasn’t changed since I saw him at the University of Virginia. He’s a pro’s pro–and one of the great players that I’ve ever scouted,” General Manager Mike Rizzo said. “A guy that’s really given his all to the Washington Nationals.  Physically, mentally and in the community he’s been terrific.  He’s the face of the franchise for a reason.”

The “face of the franchise” carries with it a ton of weight on the field and in the clubhouse.  Production at the plate and making great plays in the field are tangible skills one can easily see;  being the leader Zimmerman has been for the bulk of his career is not. But his teammates know and appreciate what Zim has done and continues to do on a daily basis. “He’s just an ultimate professional. A guy that goes out and puts his all into it-even banged up whatever it might be,” Adam Eaton said. “Speaks highly of everybody. Somebody that you would follow into battle type of guy.  There’s a reason he’s been the face of the organization for as long as he has been.”

That means being the go-to quote in the clubhouse when it’s not apparent who’s had a big game; it also means being the guy who the young players look up to in the clubhouse as they try to navigate their way through the early stages of their careers.  Zimmerman has been that kind of teammate; reliever Sean Doolittle played with him in college. “When I was a freshman at Virginia and he was a junior, he was one of the top prospects in all of college baseball,” Doolittle said. “And I got to watch the way he handled that pressure in that the microscope and go about about his business every day and was an awesome mentor to me.”

Being “the guy” for so long means building friendships with teammates that may spend half a season or half a decade in DC.  And Zimmerman knows that while the 2019 Nationals are the team that finally won a playoff series, this World Series appearance also belongs to the Jayson Werths and Adam Laroches.  “It’s definitely a culmination of a lot of guys that have been here,” Zimmerman said.”We’ve had some chances and haven’t come through, but they say you learn from your failures.  All of those guys that were on those teams are part of this tonight even though they’re not here.”

Baseball can be cruelly ironic.  Just when the Nationals were beginning to be competitive, Zimmerman started dealing with a laundry list of injuries.  Shoulder issues eventually moved the Gold Glove-winner across the infield to first base.  Seasons have been hijacked due to an abdominal strain and an oblique injury.  This year Zimmerman played just 52 games (fewest since his September call-up in 2005) while dealing with plantar fasciitis in his right foot.  He finally returned on September first with the rest of the 40-man roster expansion.  After hitting .283 over 53 at bats in the season’s final month, Zimmerman was no guarantee to be a fixture in the lineup.  Matt Adams offered more power (20 homers) while Howie Kendrick was hitting a career-high .344.  Kendrick likely had to play first because second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera was coming off of a 21-RBI September.  The Kendrick-Cabrera combination at first and second base started the Wild Card Game.  “I played with him in 2014 here,” Cabrera said. “He was one of the best teammates, he’s a professional outside (of) and on the field. You want to do everything that is possible to do the best for the team and him.”

Autumn weather can defy explanation though;  it’s not as much of a straight line straight line between the seasons as it is an eventual progression from summer to winter.  And this October Zimmerman has turned back the hands of the clock, hitting .290 with a homer and five RBI over nine games.  His biggest hit was that broken-bat (more of a splintered or shattered bat) single in the Wild Card Game that set up Juan Soto’s go-ahead single in the eighth inning.  “What he’s doing now does not surprise me one bit.” Manager Davey Martinez said. “The biggest thing for him was his health. If you get a healthy Ryan Zimmerman, the product on the field speaks for itself.”

Somehow from the ashes of a 19-31 season this team surged and then scraped its way into the playoffs.  Somehow from 3-0 deficits in the Wild Card Game and Game Five of the NLDS the Nationals found a way to be the team still standing when the final out was secured (a fly-out to centerfield in both cases, just like the NLCS).  And somehow Ryan Zimmerman gets to enjoy being a key part of one historic run.  “Now to share a clubhouse with him again it’s been really special,” Doolittle said. “I’m really happy for him as somebody who’s been here from the beginning of this version of Washington baseball.”

How long will Zimmerman’s extended autumn last?  The 35-year old is in the final year of the contract extension signed way back in February, 2012.  There’s a club option for 2020 worth $18 million (his salary the last two years), or the team can buy out the deal for $2 million.  To say it’s extremely likely the Nationals will take the buyout route would be a major understatement.  But to also say that the veteran wants to come back and play his final days in Washington, even at a reduced rate and playing time, is also a major understatement.  This has become home for the Virginia Beach native and his family, and the only major league home he’s known. “Playing in the big leagues for this long you consider yourself lucky,” Zimmerman said. “To be able to do it with one team and one organization. Being involved in the community and have friends that I’ve met that I’ll be friends with far longer than I’ll play baseball.  It’s a pretty cool situation.”  He has at least four more games before those decisions need to be made, but the face of the franchise hopes to be safe at home here in Washington for 2020.

The Nationals are headed to baseball’s final four for the first time since they were the Montreal Expos and needed a strike-shortened split-season to make the playoffs.  Their thrilling 7-3 tenth inning win at the Los Angeles Dodgers sends them straight to St. Louis for Friday’s Game One of the League Championship Series.  How did they get this far?  And can they make the next leap forward into the Fall Classic?

Hot Bats: Anthony Rendon is hitting .350 in the postseason, scoring a team-high six runs over six games while driving in five.  His solo homer in the eighth inning off of Clayton Kershaw got the rally in full gear.  Juan Soto has a pair of homers and six RBI, while delivering the go-ahead hit in the Wild Card Game.  And Howie Kendrick smacked the extra-inning grandslam that gave the Nats the lead and eventually the series against the Dodgers.

Cool on the Mound:  Stephen Strasburg is 2-0 with a 2.40 ERA in the playoffs, posting 21 strikeouts over 15 innings (including his relief turn in the Wild Card Game).  Max Scherzer has been a bulldog, striking out 16 over 13 frames (including a 14-pitch tour de force in the Game Two win).  Daniel Hudson has tossed 3.2 scoreless innings over four games, while earning two saves.  Sean Doolittle nailed down the 10th inning in LA.

Stats vs. St. Louis:  Howie Kendrick went 11-22 against the Cardinals this year, while Victor Robles led the Nats with three runs and four RBI.  The table-setters? Trea Turner & Adam Eaton combined to hit 9-44 (.204), while the meat of the order Anthony Rendon & Juan Soto batted 5-29 (.172) against St. Louis this season.  The second-best bat on the team this year belonged to Yan Gomes (.429), who’s currently hitting 1-6 in the playoffs but pending on Kurt Suzuki’s wrist and face may see more action than originally intended.

Conquering Cardinals:  St. Louis used a second half surge to take the NL Central, snagging the division lead for good on August 23.  They also took five of seven from the Nats:  two of three at home in September and three of four in DC during the Nationals’ injury-ravaged April (I want to say a hot dog vendor may have pitched relief).  They’re just as resilient in the postseason as the Nats, needing an extra-inning victory to force a Game Five before blowing Atlanta out.

Birds to Beware:  the numbers might be skewed a tiny bit because of the 13 runs put on the board against the Braves Wednesday.  Paul Goldschmidt and Marcel Ozuna are both hitting .429 in the playoffs, and Ozuna drove in a team-high seven runs against the Nats during the regular season.  Adam Wainwright went 2-0 with an ERA of 1.35, while Game One starter Mike Mikolas struck out eight while allowing three runs over 12 innings against the Nationals this year.

Anibal Sanchez starts Game One;  the right-hander struck out nine over five innings of one-run ball in Game Three of the NLDS.  He lost his lone regular season start to the Cardinals, but that was in April when he was off to an 0-6 start.  That was when this team was 12 games under .500;  they’re now four wins away from the franchise’s first-ever World Series appearance.

This is it.  Eight games over the next seven days to determine if the Nationals will host or be on the road for the Wild Card Game…or if they’ll be on the outside looking in.  A second straight 3-3 week would be a nightmare, if it weren’t for the Chicago Cubs’ epic collapse (1-6 with five straight one-run losses).  The magic number to make the postseason is four, but the Nats will play a Philadelphia team fighting for its playoff life and a Cleveland squad in the AL Wild Card mix. It won’t be easy-but nothing about the 2019 season has been easy.

Health Check- Manager Davey Martinez re-joined the team for their series in Miami after having a procedure last week.  He suffered chest pains during Sunday’s win over Atlanta, but is back with the team for the stretch run.

The Wild, Wild, Sprint- Milwaukee’s magic number to make the playoffs is three, and the Brewers battle sub-500 teams Cincinnati and Colorado this week.  The Chicago Cubs are also in the hunt, and have three games with Pittsburgh before three more with St. Louis (they were swept by the Cardinals last weekend).  The New York Mets also have a “tragic number” of four, and play four against Miami before meeting Atlanta (Braves likely resting up before the NLDS).  Philadelphia (tragic number of three) can play its way back into the conversation by taking four or five games in DC this week, while Arizona (tragic number of two) needs to basically run the table against St. Louis and San Diego.

O’s Woes- the nightmare is almost over as the Birds at 51-105 are done at Camden Yards for the year.  They did win a series for the first time this month.  On to 2020.

Harper’s Weekly- he’s heating up, hitting .350 with 2 HR and 6 RBI as the Phillies went 3-3 against contenders Atlanta and Cleveland.  His 34 doubles are four shy of his career high, and his 108 RBI represent a new career best.  Bryce also sets a new high with 170 strikeouts.

Last Week’s Heroes- Howie Kendrick hit .529 while Yan Gomes batted .364.  Patrick Corbin struck out 11 over 6 scoreless innings in his only outing.  Daniel Hudson, Tanner Rainey and Javy Guerra combined to throw 9.1 scoreless innings over 8 appearances.

Last Week’s Humbled- Fernando Rodney generated little respect and did not look marvelous, posting an ERA of 15.43.  Hunter Strickland and Sean Doolittle also delivered in the double digits.  Anthony Rendon hit .167 while Juan Soto batted .056.

Game to Watch- Tuesday evening Max Scherzer (0.75 ERA against Philly this year) pitches against Aaron Nola (12-5, 3.75 ERA) in game three of the team’s five games over four days against Philadelphia.  The bullpen could be blown up by this point, and a stellar Scherzer performance is needed.  But can he dial up the Max of June in what might be his final start of the season?

Game to Miss- Friday’s game has the Nats hosting Cleveland.  After the NL East brawl, lets just stay the intensity may be a little down for a foe from the AL Central.  Austin Voth also pitches.  Friday there’s also a Big Ten opener in College Park, as Maryland meets No. 12 Penn State.  A little Terpness will be on tap.