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Heart of Nats' lineup isn't beating

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Heart of Nats' lineup isn't beating

It shouldn't be this way. The only sure things right now in the Nationals' lineup are the two rookies hitting at the top of Davey Johnson's order. The veterans who follow and boast actual track records of success at the big-league level? They're the ones making all the outs.

It's an unusual situation, to say the least, and on Sunday it cost the Nationals a very winnable game against the Braves. Despite the continued success of rookies Steve Lombardozzi and Bryce Harper, the rest of the lineup could do nothing against Tommy Hanson or two Atlanta relievers during a 3-2 loss that dropped the Nats into a first-place tie in the NL East with the Marlins.

"Pretty disheartening," Adam LaRoche said, "the fact we started it up 2-0 in the blink of an eye and couldn't get anything else out of it."

Indeed, many among the crowd of 38,046 had yet to settle into their seats when Lombardozzi and Harper made history by launching home runs on consecutive pitches in the bottom of the first, giving the Nationals an early advantage.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, they are the first rookies in the modern era (since 1900) to hit back-to-back homers to begin a major-league game.

Most everyone in the Nationals dugout was busy congratulating Lombardozzi on the first home run of his career -- after briefly giving him the silent treatment -- when Harper stepped to the plate and drilled Hanson's next pitch into the second deck down the right-field line for his fifth career home run.

"They were kind of messing with me when I walked in the dugout," said Lombardozzi, now hitting .309 with a .372 on-base percentage. "And then once they did get up and high-five me, everybody started yelling and then realized he just went yard. It was pretty cool."

With Gio Gonzalez on the mound in search of his team-leading eighth win, those two early bombs might normally have been enough. In five of 10 previous starts this season, the left-hander allowed fewer than two runs.

But Gonzalez looked out of sorts from the moment he took the mound, and he never found his groove. Unable to keep his fastball over the plate, he put at least one man on base in each of the first four innings and then fell apart in the fifth.

Gonzalez was slow to cover first base on a grounder to the right side. He issued two walks. He uncorked two wild pitches. And though he came within one strike of pitching his way out of the jam, he ultimately was burned by Jason Heyward's bases-loaded, soft single to left, which brought in the tying and go-ahead runs.

Thus, Johnson emerged from the dugout with a surprisingly early hook for the just-named NL Pitcher of the Month. Gonzalez had failed to complete the fifth inning only once before this season (in his April 7 debut in Chicago).

"If I would have attacked the strike zone, it would have been a different situation," Gonzalez said. "But apparently I was a little up and a little out of the zone. Good hitters, good eyes. They made me pay for it."

Even so, the Nationals' bullpen kept the deficit at one run the rest of the afternoon and gave the lineup ample opportunities to push across another run or two. Those runs never materialized, though, in large part because of the inability of the Nationals' most-accomplished hitters to produce in key situations.

Johnson's 3-through-6 hitters in this game (Ryan Zimmerman, LaRoche, Michael Morse and Ian Desmond) went a combined 0-for-16 with five strikeouts.

The club isn't all that concerned about LaRoche, who was among the league's most-productive hitters for six weeks until falling into his recent slide, or Morse, who will need some time to find his swing after missing the season's first two months.

The disturbing one among the group is Zimmerman, who has yet to find a level of consistency since returning from a shoulder injury one month ago. In 38 total games now, the 27-year-old third baseman is batting .233 with a paltry .333 slugging percentage.

To put that into context: The slap-hitting Lombardozzi boasts a slugging percentage 67 points higher than the club's 100 million No. 3 hitter, who insists the problem isn't his shoulder.

"I just stink right now," Zimmerman said. "It's frustrating. It's frustrating. Shoulder is fine. Everything is good. ... It's definitely not what I wanted to do to start this season but I can't do anything about it now. Just gotta keep working hard and continue to grind it out."

The stage was set for Zimmerman to snap out of his funk and deliver one of his biggest hits of the year when Lombardozzi and Harper each drew walks to open the bottom of the eighth. But after battling back from an 0-2 count against Braves left-hander Eric O'Flaherty, Zimmerman rapped a groundball to second, a tailor-made, 4-6-3 double play that killed the rally.

LaRoche followed with a flyout to the warning track in left, ending the inning altogether.

And when Atlanta closer Craig Kimbrel struck out the side in the ninth, a very winnable game was officially a 3-2 loss for a club that is facing some serious questions about the lack of production it's getting from its most experienced hitters.

"I don't think we need to sweat the middle of that lineup," LaRoche said. "I know it needs to happen now, but I think if we continue to stay patient, there's some pretty good hitters in there that are going to figure it out. But it would be nice to be doing it all at once and see what we could really do."

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Will Mike Rizzo continue to shape the Nationals? The Junkies believe he's too valuable to lose

Will Mike Rizzo continue to shape the Nationals? The Junkies believe he's too valuable to lose

Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy, Gio Gonzalez and Matt Wieters aren't the only important guys within the Nationals organization becoming free agents in 2019.

President of baseball operations and general manager Mike Rizzo is also becoming a free agent when his contract expires on October 31st.

In the final year of his five-year contract, the 57-year old is set to make $2.5 million.

RELATED: HOWIE KENDRICK RETURNING TO NATIONALS

Since joining the organization, Rizzo has turned the team into a legit World Series contender. They've won four division titles in the last six years under his guidance, but have been unable to get over the NL Division series hump. And even though that's a glaring red mark on his resume, Rizzo knows the success he's brought to the organization. 

When you look at what we accomplished,’’ Mike Rizzo said in a recent interview, “it’s really unsung and underappreciated. I’m so proud of what we’ve accomplished here. I like it here. I love the city. I love the team I put together. I like being a GM in the NL East. And I want to stay here. I just think I deserve to be treated like some of the best GMs in the game are, too.

Rizzo is talking about GM's like Cubs' Theo Epstein and Yankees' Brian Cashman, who've received big paydays over the last year.

I know we haven’t won the World Series, but I get tired of hearing how we can’t win the big one, or we can’t get out of the first round. We haven’t had that many chances.

Does Rizzo deserve an extension? The Sports Junkies think he does, but with GM's like the ones above cashing out, they can also see him wanting to test the open market.

"Why wouldn't they?", said Jason Bishop, noting his track record.

"There's a sense he wants to test the market," said Eric Bickel. That's the vibe I'm getting from him."

Rizzo is a weekly guest on the Junkies and has said that the organization will figure it out. However, the 2018 season may be the last time for a long time the Nats have a real shot at making a run before they lose some of their stars to other teams. If Rizzo does take that into consideration and decides to go elsewhere, the Junkies don't see him having any issues finding employment.

"If there was a time to roll, it would be after this season when you get your last run with this group," said Eric Bickel. And then If they don't pay you what you think you deserve, he'll be snatched up in 22 seconds."

RELATED: BEST OF NATS' RACING PRESIDENT TRYOUTS

If they do decide to sign him to an extension, will it be a long, drawn-out ordeal? The Junkies disagree on that one. 

"He is too valuable, Jason Bishop said. He's too valuable. You gotta ink him to a deal sometime during the season."

Luckily for D.C. sports fans, long, drawn-out extension talks aren't foreign to them.

To see their full discussion, click the media player above. 

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Nationals re-sign Howie Kendrick for two-years

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Nationals re-sign Howie Kendrick for two-years

WASHINGTON  -- The Nationals have agreed to a $7 million, two-year contract with outfielder Howie Kendrick, a deal subject to a successful physical.

Agent Pat Murphy confirmed the deal to The Associated Press on Monday. USA Today was first to report the deal.

Kendrick, 34, hit .293 with seven home runs and RBIs in 52 games with Washington after he was acquired from Philadelphia. The versatile right-handed hitter got just three plate appearances off the bench in the playoffs.

In 12 major league seasons with the Los Angeles Angels, Dodgers, Phillies and Nationals, Kendrick is a .291 hitter with a .755 OPS. He's now primarily an outfielder for Washington after playing left field, second base, first base and other positions throughout his career.