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Nats improving weaknesses; thoughts on Papelbon's blown save

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Nats improving weaknesses; thoughts on Papelbon's blown save

The Nationals lost to the Phillies on Sunday afternoon in 10 innings, but that came after they secured the series win with victories on Friday and Saturday. The Nats remain atop the majors at 9-2 as they head to Miami to take on Jose Fernandez and the Marlins.

Here are some observations from the weekend...

Rotation is leading the way: The Nationals surprised some of us (including me) by not upgrading their rotation this offseason, given they let Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister go in free agency. Their departures left the Nats with questions in their rotation and in the depth behind it really for the first time in a few years. So far, though, the Nats' rotation has been excellent. After Sunday, Nats starters now hold a 0.85 ERA in 42 1/3 innings over their last six games. Their pitching staff as a whole, in fact, has been very good. The Nats lead the majors in team ERA (2.06) and starters ERA (1.87). That second one, in particular, is a scary number. Interestingly enough, the Nats' starting rotation is getting it done in different ways than before. In 2015, they ranked third in MLB in strikeouts. Right now they are 15th in baseball with only 60 strikeouts through 11 starts. To be fair, though, it helps to play the Braves and Phillies, two teams that currently rank in the bottom third of baseball in runs per game.

It's early, but...: The Nationals have only played 11 games, but there are a few statistical categories they are already showing improvement in from last season. Strikeouts on offense, for one, are way down. The Nationals had the third-most strikeouts of any team in 2015 with 1,344 total Ks. They currently have the eighth-fewest strikeouts in baseball. Of course, it doesn't hurt having Bryce Harper - who ranks 9th in baseball with a 8.3 K % - on the team. Wilson Ramos (40th) and Anthony Rendon (49th) also place in the top 50 currently among qualified batters in strikeout percentage. Another category they look better in is defensive errors. The Nats are tied with the Red Sox for the fewest errors in baseball, having only committed three so far. Last season they had the 16th-most errors in MLB, which ranked them as average. Right now they are way above average.

Papelbon's first blown save: Jonathan Papelbon blew his first save of the 2016 season on Sunday after going a perfect 5-for-5 to begin the year. Blown saves happen, even to the best closers. And after just one there is no reason to worry about Papelbon, who has 354 career saves and only blew two in 26 chances in 2015. One thing, though, did stand out to me about the debate on social media after the Nats' loss. Some were saying that as long as Papelbon holds the success rate he has had since he joined the Nats, they will be fine. That is not correct. Papelbon has now blown three saves in 15 chances since he was traded to the Nats last July. That is not a good percentage. For some context, the top 10 closers in save opportunities last year all had 40 or more. If Papelbon were to get 40 save opportunities (he will likely get more than that) he would blow eight saves at that rate. That would have led the majors each of the last two years. And, for a comparison, Rafael Soriano lost his job as Nats closer in 2014 when he blew seven. Even if Papelbon blows a save once every six chances, as he has so far in just this season alone, his job could come into question at some point. That rate would give him six blown saves by the time he reached 30 saves overall. In case you were wondering, Papelbon's career-high is eight, set back in 2010. He has blown six saves or more in a season three times in his career.

[RELATED: Bryce Harper homered into the bullpen bathroom in Philly]

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Can Gio Gonzalez lift Nats out of losing streak in series opener vs. Giants?

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USA TODAY Sports

Can Gio Gonzalez lift Nats out of losing streak in series opener vs. Giants?

SAN FRANCISCO — San Francisco Giants right-hander Chris Stratton will seek to duplicate two impressive efforts when he takes the mound for the opener of a three-game series against the Washington Nationals on Monday night at 10:15 p.m. ET.

The series is the first in San Francisco since Giants reliever Hunter Strickland plunked Nationals star Bryce Harper with a pitch last May, triggering a brawl at the mound that resulted in the ejection of both players.

The Giants got the worst of the altercation, with slugging backup Michael Morse suffering a career-ending concussion in a collision with teammate Jeff Samardzija near the mound.

Stratton wasn't with the Giants at the time, but he contributed one of the best-pitched games of his young career when the clubs met again in Washington in August.

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Making just his third career start, the 27-year-old shut out the Nationals on five hits over 6 2/3 innings in a 4-2 win. He struck out 10.

It's the only time he has faced Washington.

Stratton (1-1, 2.22) has won just four times since, and came close to a fifth when he limited Arizona to one run in seven innings in his last start on Wednesday. He did not, however, get a decision in the 4-3 win, during which he recorded eight strikeouts.

The Giants will be opening a 10-game homestand following a 10-game trip on which they went just 4-6. Statton started two of the four wins.

Stratton wasn't the only Giants starter who pitched well on the trip. The club is coming off a series win against the Los Angeles Angels in which both Samardzija and Johnny Cueto took shutouts late into wins.

Strickland saved Sunday's 4-2 win for Cueto, and afterward was asked about his thoughts of seeing Harper again.

"Win a series," is all he would say.

RELATED: LATEST MLB POWER RANKINGS

In the Nationals, the Giants will be seeing a team coming off a high-profile series against the Los Angeles Dodgers, one that included a meeting on Sunday Night Baseball.

Washington lost two of three in the rematch of 2017 division winners, scoring a total of just eight runs on 21 hits in the three games, which ended with the Nationals stranding two in the top of the ninth of a 4-3 loss on Sunday.

Harper went 2-for-10 in the series, which the Nationals played without injured regulars Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rendon and Adam Eaton. They remain out.

Left-hander Gio Gonzalez (2-1, 2.49) will oppose Stratton.

The veteran has made 12 career starts against the Giants, going 5-4 with a 3.06 ERA.

He restored order to the Nationals-Giants series in San Francisco last season the day after the brawl, pitching 6 1/3 innings in a 6-3 win. It improved his record at AT&T Park to 2-3 with a 3.95 ERA in seven starts.

Gonzalez threw 97 pitches in beating the New York Mets 5-2 in his last start, allowing two runs and eight hits in 5 1/3 innings on Tuesday.

That pitch total wasn't even five times the number Giants first baseman Brandon Belt saw in one historic at-bat Sunday against the Angels' Jaime Barria in the first inning.

Belt fouled off 16 pitches and flied out on the 21st pitch of the at-bat, the most pitches in a Major League Baseball at-bat since 1988.

Afterward, Belt apologized.

"When I'm in the field, I hate it when a batter keeps fouling pitches off," he insisted. "I'm like, 'Dude, just put it in play. It's not that hard. Let's go.' So, I basically had to apologize to everybody after that."

RELATED: HOW NATS DROPPED FINAL GAME VS. DODGERS

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Bullpen falters as Dodgers rally from 3 runs down to top Nationals

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USA TODAY

Bullpen falters as Dodgers rally from 3 runs down to top Nationals

LOS ANGELES  -- Although Cody Bellinger's fierce line drive drove in the tying run, it hit the center field wall so quickly that the throw back to the infield beat him to second base.

No problem: Bellinger adroitly avoided the tag with a swim move he learned from watching Mike Trout on television, and the Dodgers kept charging toward the latest win in their comeback surge.

Bellinger followed Yasmani Grandal's two-run double with an RBI double in the sixth, and Corey Seager drove in Austin Barnes with the go-ahead run in the seventh inning of Los Angeles' sixth win in seven games, 4-3 over the Washington Nationals on Sunday night.

With smart plays by Bellinger, Barnes and almost everybody else, the Dodgers (10-10) got back to .500 after a rough start for the defending NL champions. They were largely dominated by Jeremy Hellickson until they erased a three-run deficit in the sixth with three big hits from their patchwork lineup.

"There were signs of that old ballclub when we were coming from behind," Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. "That was good to see."

Los Angeles went ahead shortly after Barnes was hit by a pitch from Trevor Gott (0-1). Barnes wisely advanced to third on Chris Taylor's single and scored on Seager's fly.

"You've got to make something happen in that situation," Barnes said of his dash to third. "We're trying to get runs on the board late in the game. It was worth a shot. Be aggressive and play our kind of baseball, and eventually it'll pay off for us."

Alex Wood pitched six innings of six-hit ball for the Dodgers, and Josh Fields (1-0) survived a rocky seventh inning.

Kenley Jansen pitched the ninth for his first save since April 10 and his third of the season -- but not without drama. The Dodgers' vaunted closer began the ninth by yielding two singles, but then struck out Andrew Stevenson and Trea Turner before ending it on Howie Kendrick's fly to the warning track.

Michael Taylor homered, doubled, singled and walked for the Nationals, who have lost seven of 11.

Hellickson retired 14 straight Dodgers before doubles by Chris Taylor and Grandal, with a walk by Seager sandwiched between them. Bellinger followed with his go-ahead line drive against Sammy Solis.

"The one that Taylor got was probably just a tad up," Hellickson said. "(The pitch to) Grandal was down. Probably the only at-bat I'd like to have back is that one to Seager."

Michael Taylor put his first homer of the season into the home bullpen beyond left field in the fourth. He then doubled, advanced on Wood's pickoff throw into center field and scored on Moises Sierra's mid-length fly in the sixth for a 3-0 lead.

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