Archives for posts with tag: Patrick Corbin

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.

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

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.

=====

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.

=====

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.

=====

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.

=====

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.

=====

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.

=====

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.

=====

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.

=====

 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.

 

 

 

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM-

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.

 

 

 

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.

Well, that was one heck of a weekend at Wrigley.  The Nationals move four games in front of the Chicago Cubs thanks to their sweep, and the hottest team in baseball remains on track to extend its year beyond September.  But despite the 26-15 mark since the All Star Break, there are clouds off in the distance once one reaches Labor Day. As in after September 1, the Nats will play just three games against clubs with losing records.  And the bullpen still springs leaks at inopportune times.  Brace yourselves for the ride ahead, while basking in what has turned out to be one awesome August (16-6 mark is the best in the NL).

Dissecting the Division- somehow the Nats haven’t been able to make a dent in Atlanta’s NL East lead.   Before falling to Colorado in a make-up game Monday the Braves had won eight straight.  With seven games remaining against the leaders over the final month of the season, it’s not over yet.  Philadelphia’s five games behind the Nats and 11 behind the Braves.  The New York Mets?  A half game behind the Phillies thanks to their latest three game losing streak. Miami at 47-82 has an elimination number of one.

The Wild, Wild Card- the Nats lead the Chicago Cubs by four games, and after the Cubs there are five teams within five games of the final playoff spot in the NL.  Be ready next week for a schedule breakdown.

Harper’s Weekly- Congratulations to the former National as he enjoys his paternity leave.  All the best to Bryce’s roster addition, and even though he’s a foe for the time being in Nats Nation, one wishes the best for the Harpers.

Last Week’s Heroes- Anthony Rendon took NL Player of the Week honors after hitting .483 with 2 homers and 7 RBI, upping his total to 29 and 104-or on pace to hit 37 with 132.  Someone should sign him.  Howie Kendrick hit .500 while Asdrubal Cabrera notched 11 RBI and Juan Soto scored 13 runs.  Anibal Sanchez tossed 8.1 innings of one-hit ball while Patrick Corbin threw 8 scoreless innings.

Last Week’s Humbled- what would a Nationals week be without a bullpen blowout?  Fernando Rodney blew a save Sunday against the Cubs, Wander Suero posted an ERA of 10.13 and Matt Grace’s ERA was 13.50.  Brian Dozier hit 1-for-14 while Kurt Suzuki batted 3-for-17.

Game to Watch- Wednesday Max Scherzer pitches against Asher Wojciechowski.  Let’s see how Max fares in his second start since coming off of the Injured List.

Game to Miss– Saturday Joe Ross pitches against last-place Miami. College Football officially kicks off its season (pay no attention to last week’s misguided matchup between Miami and Florida) this week and Saturday will feel like one is returning home to see an old friend. The Marlins will understand.

MLB’s Trading Deadline saw the Nationals make multiple moves-each for a bullpen bandage (as opposed to previous bandaids or napkins like Javy Guerra and Dan Jennings).  Dan Hudson, Roenis Elias and Hunter Strickland (yes, that guy) come to DC to patch up the worst bullpen in the big leagues.  And while the Nats still need to get solid starting pitching plus continue to produce on offense to make the middle relievers worthwhile pickups, it’s a step in the right direction even in the middle of a week where the team dropped four of six to now lose three straight series.

Digesting the Division- Atlanta (66-47) went 4-3 last week with a huge road series win at the Nationals.  While the Braves aren’t running away with the NL East (they’re 12-10 since the All Star break), they aren’t imploding either (6-4 against division foes since the hiatus).  Philadelphia’s 3-3 week moves Bryce Harper’s Bunch into a second-place tie with the Nats, just in time to visit fellow Wildcard contenders Arizona and San Francisco.  The New York Mets (55-56) had the best week in the division at 5-1, and their trade for Marcus Stroman keeps them in the conversation for some time.  Miami’s irrelevance was underscored at the deadline as Derek Jeter spent all of 2018 getting rid of their servicable players.  Dark days, indeed.

Wild Wildcard Race-  three and a half games separate seven teams competing for two playoff spots.  While St. Louis and Milwaukee are also involved in the NL Central race with the Chicago Cubs, it’s Wildcard or bust for Arizona and San Francisco (barring a collapse of epic proportions by the Los Angeles Dodgers).  While right now it’s the Cardinals followed by the Nats and Phillies, expect weekly and even daily changes to the pecking order over the final 50 games of the season.

O’s Woes- the Birds are 38-73 after a 3-3 week that has them now on pace to win 55 games; while a sub-100 loss campaign remains a possibility they’d have to finish 25-26 to get there.  This week’s bright spot in the Charm City is Trey Mancini, who’s already reached a career high with 26 home runs and is on pace to pass his career mark of 78 RBI while counting down the days to when he’ll eventually sign years from now as a free agent with Atlanta.

Harper’s Weekly- Bryce batted .111 as his average drops to .248.  He’s still on pace to hit 28 homers and 107 RBI while the free-swinger remains on track to strike out 190 times.  He also has seven weeks to prepare for a potential showdown with Hunter Strickland, who hit Harper in the hip on Memorial Day 2017 in retaliation for two homers hit in the 2014 playoffs.  What are the odds they face one another once in the four-game September series?

Last Week’s Heroes- Anthony Rendon hit .304 with a pair of homers and 9 RBI (SIGN HIM IMMEDIATELY) while Howie Kendrick went 5-for-10 at the plate and Juan Soto belted 3 home runs.  Joe Ross (!?!) one week after getting roasted by the Los Angeles Dodgers at home tossed 5.1 scoreless innings at Arizona (an infield single ruining the no-hit bid), while Tony Sipp, Daniel Hudson and Roenis Elias were all sharp out of the bullpen.

Last Week’s Humbled– after being named July’s NL pitcher of the month, Stephen Strasburg hiccuped by allowing nine earned runs over 4.2 innings against the Diamondbacks. Patrick Corbin had a less than ideal start in the rubber game Sunday. Anibal Sanchez allowed four runs over five innings against Atlanta.  And Roenis Elias suffered a strained hamstring running out a grounder.  At the plate, Yan Gomes batted .091 while Victor Robles hit .063.

Game to Watch- Friday the Nats face the New York Mets with Stephen Strasburg attempting to regain his July groove (5-0, 44 strikeouts and an ERA of 1.14) against the Mets deadline-week pickup Marcus Stroman (6-11 but with a 3.07 ERA this year).  Will the Nationals still be in the Wildcard lead?

Game to Miss- Wednesday the team wraps up its series with San Francisco, who starts “Shaun Anderson”. Not to be confused with former Navy scoring machine “Sean Anderson” or current WTOP PM Drive Anchor “Shawn Anderson”.  I’m not ready to have multiple worlds collide…even on a weekday afternoon.

The Nationals are almost two thirds of the way through the regular season, and in two days they’ll learn two important things:  how they stacked against divsion-leading Atlanta and how they’ve addressed their issues at the trading deadline.  Yes this is now  no longer the “non-waiver trading deadline” as in previous summers, but the actual hard-line trading deadline.  Unless you’ve been on vacation since mid-March, you probably realize what the Nats’ needs are this late-July (as has been the case most midseasons during this recent run of contention):  the bullpen.  The relief corps has given little relief (a big league-worst 6.04 ERA is 2.63 runs higher than the starters’, the biggest gap in the majors) and for every Sean Doolittle (6-2 with 23 saves and a 2.72 ERA) there’s a Matt Grace (5.93 ERA over 45 appearances) and Kyle Barraclough (6.66 over 33 outings), with experiments like Trevor Rosenthal (don’t get me started) blowing up in their face.  Who will they bring in and at what cost are two key questions this week- because one of the byproducts of contending for the better part of this decade has been that the Nats have been buyers more often than sellers at the expense of the farm system.

 

Digesting the Division-  NL East-leading Atlanta went 2-3 to slip to 62-44 as their lead over the Nationals shrinks to five and a half games.  The Braves have also lost 7 of their last 11.  The Nats (56-49) lead Philadelphia (55-50) by a game;  the Phillies’ 3-2 week saw them almost get swept by the Braves at home.  The New York Mets (50-55) are coming off of a 5-1 week and seemingly look like buyers (Marcus Stroman?).  Even Miami (40-63 after a 4-2 week) is regressing to the mean.

The Wild Wildcard- while technically there’s a three-way tie for two spots, either St. Louis or the Chicago Cubs (or Milwaukee who’s a game off the pace) would grab the NL Central-meaning there are five teams within three games fighting for two spots.  San Francisco (54-52) brings up the rear but just like the Nats has stormed back from being 12 games under .500 to contend.  The Giants were sellers one month ago at 35-47, but after a 19-5 run now might not have bullpen pieces (Mark Melancon) available for rental.

O’s Woes- don’t look now, but the Birds are 8-8 since the All Star Game and at 35-70 are on pace to finish seven full games better than last year’s disaster.  Hats off to outfielder Stevie Wilkerson, who became the first position player in MLB history to save a game last week.  Bats off as well–as the rookie is hitting .223 this year with 11 walks and 72 strikeouts.

Harper’s Weekly- Bryce batted 3-for-19 with 11 strikeouts as his average drops to .254.  The former face of the franchise is on pace to hit 28 homers with 112 RBI.  While he’s likely going to set a career high for doubles (Harper’s got 30 already–eight shy of the 38 he had during the MVP year of 2015) Bryce is also on track to strike out 195 times.

Last Week’s Heroes- Stephen Strasburg went 2-0 while striking out 17 over 13 innings while driving in a run to help his cause Sunday.  For the record, the Sledgehammer has more RBI (6) this month than earned runs allowed (4).  Sean Doolittle saved a pair of games while Patrick Corbin tossed six scoreless innings in his lone outing.  Gerardo Parra hit .667 with 5 RBI and continues to get the DC area exposed to the “Baby Shark” song. Anthony Rendon hit .320 with 9 RBI while Trea Turner batted .367 and scored 6 runs.

Last Week’s Humbled- Howie Kendrick hit 3-for-17 while Juan Soto hit .192 for the week.  The Nats bullpen remains an occasional disaster with Kyle Barraclough (ERA of 27.00) and Tony Sipp (20.25) coughing up leads and Joe Ross (11.57) making shaky spot appearances. Max Scherzer’s back is still not right and he may miss his scheduled start this week against Atlanta.

Game to Watch- Monday the Nats battle the Braves as Patrick Corbin (8-5, 3.25 ERA) faces Dallas Keuchel (3-3, 3.50 ERA after his midseason signing).  With Max Scherzer a question mark and Strasburg not starting in this series, the opener looms even larger.

Game to Miss- Tuesday if Scherzer can’t go, it will likely be another “opener” or “staff” game.  The 21st century has seen a lot of great advances in sports. This is not one of them.

Now that the All Star Game is in the Nats’ rear-view mirror, the road gets a little rougher. Yes, they took two of three from fading Philadelphia and battle the woeful Orioles this week, but ten of the team’s final fourteen games this month come against division-leading Atlanta or the Los Angeles Dodgers (who just happen to own the best record in he bigs).  Even the other four games are against a Colorado team that was tied for the second Wildcard as recently as July 1.  Not the best time to lose Max Scherzer to the Injured List with back tightness:  the team dropped his missed start in Philadelphia and Max remains a question mark for their upcoming series with the Braves.  After recovering from a frigid (19-31) start by playing out of their minds (30-12), the Nats will likely learn if they should be buyers or sellers at the Trading Deadline–right at the Trading Deadline.

Dissecting the Division- Atlanta remains in front at 58-37 by picking up where they left off, sweeping San Diego.  Monday’s win over Milwaukee puts the Braves seven and a half games ahead of the Nationals, who are currently 3-2 against leaders so far this year.  Philadelphia is 48-46 after their 16-2 loss to the Los Angeles Dodgers, and even though they avoided getting swept by the Nats remain somewhat adrift.  The New York Mets (42-51) are biding time before the late-July sell-off while Miami (34-57) is already making calls.

Harper’s Weekly- Bryce batted 2 for 11 with 3 strikeouts against the Nats.  He’s on pace to hit 28 HR with 108 RBI while striking out 188 times. And he whiffed three more times Monday night.

O’s Woes- the Birds drop to 28-65 after losing two of three to Tampa Bay.  At this rate their tragic number in the AL East is 39…and they need to finish 35-34 to avoid a second straight 100-loss season. The rebuild continues with the trade of Andrew Cashner (9-3, 3.83 ERA) to Boston for a pair of prospects.

Last Week’s Heroes- Anthony Rendon looked well-rested after missing the All Star Game, batting 5-for-11 with 3 RBI. Juan Soto notched a team-high 3 runs with 3 RBI.  Stephen Strasburg set the tone for the series in Philadelphia by striking out 6 over 6 scoreless innings.  Patrick Corbin K’d 10 in his lone start.

Last Week’s Humbled- Matt Grace allowed a walkoff homer Sunday in Philadelphia.  It was the first earned run he’s allowed this month; the question now is that the start of a trend or simply a blip.

Game to Watch- the Nats face first place Atlanta this weekend, with Patrick Corbin starting Friday’s showdown. The Braves counter with Mike Soroka (10-1, 2.24 ERA).

Game to Miss- do we have to watch the Battle of the Beltways?  Austin Voth has averaged more pitches per inning in each of his outings while the Birds counter with Alex Wojciechowski and his 6.10 ERA.  Celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Moon Launch.

The Nats enter the All Star break as the hottest team in the Major Leagues, having won 28 of 39 to move into the Wildcard lead.  But are they that far removed from the team that started 19-31?  Despite taking four of six, the bullpen that was leaky over the first two months still had issues over the weekend.  And despite the cosmetic changes, the relievers’ ERA remains a big league-worst 6.06 while their 18 blown saves is tied for second-most in the majors (behind the flammable Mets).  While getting a healthy lineup (at one point the second through fifth hitters in order were on the Injured List) was a big factor in the team’s turnaround, it didn’t hurt that they’ve built momentum while facing a slew of sub-.500 teams.  When they come back from their midseason hiatus, they’ll face Philadelphia (one-half game back for the Wildcard lead), while division leading Atlanta and the Los Angeles Dodgers also loom later this month.  It’s a long way to October.  But the road looks much more pleasant than it did a month and a half ago.

Digesting the Division- Atlanta after a 4-2 week leads the NL East with a 54-37 mark as they’re well-represented at the All Star Break by Freddie Freeman, who’s batting .309 with 23 HR and 68 RBI, and Ronald Acuna.  The Nats are 47-42 and six games back while leading the Wildcard.  The #2 Wildcard team is Philadelphia at 46-43 after a 3-3 week; J.T. Realmuto heads to Cleveland on the strength of his 10 homers and 42 RBI.  The New York Mets may be 40-50 but they possess the Home Run Derby champ in rookie Pete Alonso, who also has 30 HR at the break.  The Marlins? At 33-55 they’re on track for another 100-loss campaign despite the solid pitching of All Star Sandy Alcantara.

Harper’s Weekly- a .292 week moves Bryce over the .250 mark, and he’s on pace to hit 29 HR with 112 RBI-although for the record he’s played more than 150 games just twice in his career.  He’s also cutting down on his strikeouts-the pace of 189 is no longer league-leading.

O’s Woes- finally an extended run of success.  The Birds won three straight games last week and have won five of nine to improve to 27-62 (.303-or on a 49-win pace).  John Means (7-4, 2.50 ERA) represents the Orioles at the Midsummer Classic.

Last Week’s Heroes- Max Scherzer struck out 11 over seven scoreless innings while going 1-2 at the plate with a stolen base.  Stephen Strasburg K’d 14 over 7.1 scoreless frames.  Patrick Corbin tossed 14 scoreless frames. Sean Doolittle notched two wins plus one save in relief.  Ryan Zimmerman hit .429 with a pair of RBI while Juan Soto hit .333 with four RBI and four runs scored.

Last Week’s Humbled- Yan Gomes hit 1-for-11 while Matt Adams batted 1-for-10 with five strikeouts. Jonny Venters and Fernando Rodney suffered hiccups out of the bullpen while Austin Voth allowed four runs over 4.1 innings in his third Major League start this year.

Games to Watch- Friday, Saturday and Sunday the Nats face the Phillies.  Max Scherzer is already ticketed to pitch the series finale, and one can easily see Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin starting the Friday and Saturday games in some order.  A potential Wildcard Game preview?  I’ll be locked in for all three.