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Double play on 3-0 pitch kills Nationals' rally

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Double play on 3-0 pitch kills Nationals' rally

There is perhaps no bigger gamble in baseball than swinging at a 3-0 pitch. It’s the ultimate high-risk, high-reward play, at times producing game-changing hits at crucial moments while at other times stopping potential rallies dead in their tracks.

The Nationals, as a team, like to take that risk. They preach an aggressive approach at the plate, typically giving their hitters the green light to swing away on 3-0 counts, and they’ve enjoyed their share of success when doing it.

Entering Wednesday, Nationals hitters were 7-for-14 with two homers and a double when putting a 3-0 pitch into play. Only the Astros (8-for-16) have attempted it more times and/or produced more hits this season.

“We do it all the time,” manager Matt Williams said. “We do it with Jayson [Werth]. We do the same with Bryce [Harper]. We do it with just about everybody in our lineup. Pick a pitch and get one to hit.”

So when the situation arose at a critical juncture during Wednesday night’s 6-5 loss to the Padres — runners on the corners, one out, the Nationals trailing by a run — Williams didn’t think twice about giving Yunel Escobar the green light with a 3-0 count against left-hander Marc Rzepczynski.

And when Escobar got a pitch he liked — a sinker below the waist but over the heart of the plate — he took a hack, hoping to elevate the ball, drive it to the outfield somewhere and at worst drive in the tying run. Except he wound up pounding it into the ground, sending a chopper toward the left side of the infield, setting in motion a 5-4-3 double play turned by the Padres that brought every ounce of momentum the Nationals had been building throughout a furious rally to a screeching halt.

“I just thought it was the right situation,” Escobar said, via interpreter Octavio Martinez. “I felt I got a good pitch and was unable to do what I was trying to do.”

RELATED: Furious rally falls short as Nationals lose to Padres 6-5

The double play came at the worst possible time for the Nationals, who had rallied from five runs down to get within a sacrifice fly of tying the game. Werth and Anthony Rendon had just drawn back-to-back walks, with Harper adding a 2-run single to center off Rzepczynski to bring Escobar to the plate. Ryan Zimmerman, who had launched a grand slam Tuesday night and driven in runs in each of his previous two at-bats Wednesday, stood in the on-deck circle.

“It’s a good situation for him,” Williams said. “He’s hitting [fifth] in our lineup. [It’s a good time] to pick a pitch and get it airborne. He just happened to get on top of that one.”

Escobar nearly beat the throw to first, but his headfirst slide — always a controversial move in that situation — left him about six inches short of the base when San Diego’s Yonder Alonso caught the ball.

“Definitely you want to try to get Zim up in that situation in the seventh, but it just didn’t roll that way,” Harper said. “Yuni’s been great for us all year. Just happens that way sometimes.”

It seems to happening that way a lot for the Nationals these days. Though they’ve played markedly better baseball over the last week, winning 5 of 8 and still sporting a chance to win three consecutive series Thursday night, they simply can’t keep up pace with the white-hot Mets. With a 9-4 victory in Philadelphia on Wednesday, New York won its sixth straight and extended its lead in the NL East to 6 1/2 games.

While the Mets demolish lesser competition — they’re 13-0 this month against the Marlins, Rockies and Phillies — the Nationals are left with zero margin for error. That made Wednesday’s loss all the tougher to swallow, because there were any number of missed opportunities that could have altered the outcome of this game.

Escobar was charged with a costly error in the top of the third when he mishandled a potential double-play grounder, then threw wildly to first. “Obviously I had trouble taking it out [of my glove], and there’s certain things I can’t control,” he said. “I wish I made the play, but that’s how baseball goes.”

Gio Gonzalez could’ve bailed out his third baseman but followed the error by allowing a 2-run double to Matt Kemp and then a 2-run homer to Justin Upton. Upton later homered again, this time off Doug Fister, an insurance run that proved huge by night’s end.

The Padres also scored a run in the top of the fourth when Zimmerman made an over-the-shoulder catch of a foul ball well down the first-base line and Austin Hedges tagged up from third to score. Perhaps Zimmerman, knowing he had no realistic shot at throwing out Hedges, could have purposely let the popup fall to the ground in foul territory. But in that moment, it didn’t happen.

Such is life for the Nationals right now. Every little mistake or missed opportunity looms large.

And none loomed larger Wednesday night than a double play on a 3-0 pitch at a critical moment.

“I can remember back to Jayson hitting a 3-0 grand slam last year,” Williams said. “I can remember a lot of success in those situations. So you have to take that with you when it doesn’t happen for you. But we can’t change the way we play. We must try to take advantage of those opportunities. You can look at it a million ways. I’m not gonna put the handcuffs on him 2-0, and I’m certainly not gonna do it 3-1. It’s an opportunity for him to pick a pitch to drive to get airborne. It didn’t happen tonight. We’re not gonna change the way we play. We do it all the time. And 3-0 swings are a big part of our game. We’ve had a lot of success doing it. It didn’t happen tonight.”

MORE NATIONALS: Ramos catches Gonzalez for 1st time in months

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It's Day 1 of spring training and Bryce Harper is already done taking questions regarding his future

It's Day 1 of spring training and Bryce Harper is already done taking questions regarding his future

So if you have not heard, Bryce Harper is going to be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the 2018 season.

All off-season talking heads, baseball aficionados, radio hosts, etc. were speculating on where the outfielder’s destination will be next year.

And we are still a year away from it actually happening.

RELATED: VEGAS SETS OVER/UNDERS FOR 2018 MLB SEASON

Reporting to spring training on Monday, Harper did not waste any time telling the media how his press conferences were going to play out this season.

“If guys do [ask], or talk anything about that, I will be walking right out the door.”

Entering his seventh season with the Washington Nationals, the 25-year-old is coming off the second-best season, statistically, of his career. The 2015 NL MVP has hit .285 in his career, with 150 home runs and 421 RBIs. Unquestionably he is the face of the Nationals’ organization, if not, the best player in the team’s history.

If he does end the season without a contract extension, he will join Rafael Palmeiro, Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, and Barry Bonds as the top sought out free agents in MLB history.

One thing is for certain in terms of Harper’s free agency; Harper has given no inclination on where his landing spot will be.  The top three cities are of course his favorite childhood team, the New York Yankees; joining with one of his closest friends with the Chicago Cubs; or just staying with Washington.

Wherever he does land, it does appear that it will be the largest contract given to a free agent ever.

As for now we just wait and direct any of your calls to his agent Scott Boras.

READ ALSO: NATIONALS FULL SPRING TRAINING SCHEDULE

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Nationals Spring Training Schedule 2018

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USA Today Sports Images

Nationals Spring Training Schedule 2018

Now that pitchers and catchers have reported, the next step in our long journey to Opening Day is the spring training games themselves. Not every game is televised, so get ready to follow along with your favorite beat writer's Twitter account for all your updates.

Even without getting to watch the games, it'll still be exciting to once again check box scores in the morning to see if Bryce Harper homered again, or if Max Scherzer is perfect through 4 innings (spoiler: both of these will happen).

This year's spring training will be especially interesting, considering how many big-name players will be signing contracts in the next few weeks. The Nats are always willing to make a big splash, and even beyond the available free agents, have been linked to impact players like J.T. Realmuto in trade rumors.

Typically, the excitement of adding a new piece to the roster has to be reignited after a long winter off, but this season, those additions will be happening while camp is already underway.

It's going to be a hectic few weeks as teams prepare for their seasons, so bookmark this page to check on the Nationals spring training schedule over the next few weeks as the team finally takes the field in 2018.

Nationals 2018 Spring Training Schedule

Friday, Feb. 23 - Nationals at Astros, 1:05 pm (MLBN)
Saturday, Feb. 24 - Nationals at Marlins, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Feb. 25 - Braves at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MASN)
Monday, Feb. 26 - Nationals at Braves, 1:05 pm
Tuesday, Feb. 27 - Marlins at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Wednesday, Feb. 28 - Nationals at Marlins, 1:05 pm
Thursday, Mar. 1 (SS) - Nationals at Braves, 1:05 pm
Friday, Mar. 2 (SS) - Nationals at Mets, 1:10 pm
Saturday, Mar. 3 - Nationals at Astros, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 4 (SS) - Tigers at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 4 (SS) - Nationals at Mets, 1:10 pm
Monday, Mar. 5 - Nationals at Cardinals, 1:05 pm
Tuesday, Mar. 6 (SS) - Astros at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MASN)
Wednesday, Mar. 7 - Nationals at Cardinals, 1:05 pm
Thursday, Mar. 8 - Mets at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Saturday, Mar. 10 - Nationals at Astros, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 11 - Cardinals at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MASN)
Monday, Mar. 12 - Nationals at Tigers, 1:05 pm (MLBN)
Tuesday, Mar. 13 (SS) - Mets at Nationals, 7:05 pm (MLBN) (MASN)
Thursday, Mar. 15 - Astros at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Friday, Mar. 16 (SS) - Cardinals at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MASN)
Saturday, Mar. 17 - Mets at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 18 - Nationals at Cardinals, 1:05 pm
Monday, Mar. 19 - Nationals at Marlins, 1:05 pm
Tuesday, Mar. 20 - Marlins at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Wednesday, Mar. 21 - Astros at Nationals, 1:05 pm (ESPN2) (MASN)
Thursday, Mar. 22 - Nationals at Mets, 6:10 pm
Friday, Mar. 23 (SS) - Astros at Nationals, 6:05 pm (MASN)
Friday, Mar. 23 - Nationals at Marlins, 7:05 pm
Saturday, Mar. 24 - Marlins at Nationals, 1:05 pm
Sunday, Mar. 25 - Cardinals at Nationals, 1:05 pm (MLBN)
Tuesday, Mar. 27 (at Nationals Park) - Twins at Nationals, 4:05 pm