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Nats still feel no love in Philly

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Nats still feel no love in Philly

PHILADELPHIA -- For all the agony they have suffered in this town, the lopsided losses and the taunting fans and especially the division titles clinched against them, the Nationals arrived in Philadelphia on Tuesday knowing they could leave town Thursday having celebrated on enemy turf.

First things first, though. They needed to win their series opener against the Phillies, which proved perhaps a more daunting task than hoped.

A two-inning meltdown by Ross Detwiler left the Nationals in a deep early hole. Then, despite knocking out ace Cole Hamels after five innings, they couldn't touch a parade of relievers that trotted out of the Philadelphia bullpen.

Combine this 6-3 loss with the Braves' simultaneous walk-off, 4-3 victory over the Marlins and suddenly the Nationals' path to the NL East crown looks a bit bumpier. Their lead is down to four games with eight to play. Their magic number remains five. And they can no longer clinch here in Philly. The celebration can't take place until Friday night in St. Louis at the absolute earliest.

"You take a lot of pride getting a win down the stretch like this," Detwiler said. "That's what we all play for. It could have been a big step. We could have celebrated on their field, like they have on our field, and I didn't let that happen."

The notion of the Nationals dancing in the middle of the diamond at Citizens Bank Park -- just as the Phillies did at Nationals Park upon clinching the 2010 NL East title and just as they did right here with the Nats in attendance in 2007 and 2008 -- maybe was too perfect. The poetic symmetry might have been too much to expect.

But if they couldn't wrap this thing up in front of their own fans on South Capitol Street, the Nationals would have loved to do it in South Philly. Just one problem: The local ballclub may not reach the postseason for the first time since 2006, but it's still a mighty tough club to beat.

Indeed, the Phillies remain a major thorn in the Nationals' side. Washington owns a 33-21 record against everyone else in the division but is now 5-8 against the five-time reigning champs.

"They've got a lot of quality players over there," manager Davey Johnson said. "Great pitching staff. Good team."

They also possess several potent bats, especially with Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Carlos Ruiz all healthy at the same time at last. But opposing pitchers know they can be beat, provided they aren't simply handed free bases.

That's what left Detwiler kicking himself at the end of this night. He could've been most upset about the two home runs he surrendered: one to rookie Darin Ruf, an old college adversary in the Missouri Valley Conference, and one to Ruiz, who tattooed a third-inning fastball into the left-field stands for a three-run homer that blew the game wide open.

The home runs, though, were less of a concern to Detwiler than the three walks he issued over a four-batter span in the second and third innings. The first was a four-pitch walk to Hamels; the second two opened the next frame and set the stage for Ruiz's homer.

"When I don't even have a fastball, that's what happened," he said. "I was kinda out there throwing the ball the other batter's box. It wasn't even close. You can't even expect a swing and miss at that point."

Unable to get ahead in the count with his fastball, Detwiler couldn't then turn to his offspeed pitches to finish off hitters, frustrating his manager.

"He's got a great fastball, but he's also got a good changeup and good curveball," Johnson said. "He's got to learn to pitch with them instead of just trying to overthrow. And that's what he was doing, just trying to overthrow. What'd he walk, five guys or something? You've got to learn. That's that learning process."

Detwiler did manage to right his ship and retired the last nine batters he faced following the Ruiz homer. At that point, the Nationals trailed 5-1, though they still liked their chances after knocking out Hamels (who threw a whopping 99 pitches in only five innings) and forcing Phillies manager Charlie Manuel to go to his suspect bullpen early.

The Nationals, though, couldn't touch that relief corps. They went 1-for-13 against Josh Lindblom, Justin DeFratus, Antonio Bastardo, Phillipe Aumont and Jonathan Papelbon and never seriously threatened to mount a comeback.

"You definitely want to get to the bullpen, especially in those middle innings," catcher Kurt Suzuki said. "But sometimes you can't do it."

As this was all playing out, the Nationals might not have been able to help but notice the out-of-town scoreboard along the right-field wall. The Braves were three outs from a 3-2 loss to the Marlins, then suddenly came back to life and won in dramatic fashion on Freddie Freeman's game-winning homer off Mike Dunn.

Thus Atlanta officially clinched a playoff berth, while also trimming the Nationals' lead in the division to four games, the smallest margin they've owned since August 28.

"I think the worst thing you can do is look at the standings," Suzuki said. "A loss is a loss. Losses always hurt. You definitely want to win more games than you lose. But it's just one of those games. Put it behind you, look forward to tomorrow and give us a chance to win the series."

The Nationals still control their own destiny, with even some margin for error. If they go 4-4 the rest of the way, the Braves would need to go 8-0 to force a one-game tiebreaker to determine the NL East champ and the Wild Card.

An Atlanta loss or two wouldn't be frowned upon, either.

"All year long, we've won, they've won, we've won, they've won," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "For them to get one up on us today, it's no big deal. We've still got eight games to go, and I think we feel pretty good about ourselves."

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Inside Baseball: The Nationals' bullpen is currently bad and potentially great

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USA TODAY

Inside Baseball: The Nationals' bullpen is currently bad and potentially great

Welcome to Inside Baseball. Here, we're taking a quick peek at what's going on ... inside ... baseball. 

We're almost a month into the MLB season, and that sweet noise you hear is the sound of sample sizes starting to become reliable! So far, the Red Sox are very good except for the nights they're getting no-hit, Derek Jeter's Marlins and their .227 winning percentage "aren't accepting a losing culture," and Mike Trout is well on his way to another historically-great 3rd place finish in the MVP race. 

AT NATS PARK

As it stands today, the Nationals are sitting in 4th in the NL East. It's early, they haven't been healthy, etc. etc., whatever. It hasn't been great. Their pitching staff features the best rotation in baseball paired alongside one of the worst bullpens in baseball. No bullpen in baseball has a higher homerun/flyball percentage (18%) than the Nationals. Only two teams - the Rockies and the Royals - strand runners on base at a lower clip than the Nationals (64.0 LOB%). If you really want to get into the weeds, their Win Probabilty and Clutch numbers tell a grim story too. 

Don't smash that panic button yet, though (maybe just lightly rest your hand on it?). There are a few reasons to believe that maybe the bullpen isn't actually as bad as they've been the first month.  They're striking out hitters at an elite level so far - only the Brewers and the Yankees have better K/9 and K% numbers than the Nats.  If you take take a look back at which bullpens led the league in strikeout numbers over the last handful of years, you'll see a *lot* of playoff teams. In the three-true-outcome era, having a bullpen that gets swings-and-misses is inarguably valuable. The Nats have that. 

Taking a look at their individual numbers, it's clear there's an excellent backend hidden somewhere in the bullpen right now. Sammy Solis' ERA is almost four runs higher than his FIP (fielding-independent pitching), a clear sign that Solis has pitched well but been a victim of the Nats' shoddy defense. The same goes for Ryan Madson, whose ERA sits at almost seven despite an FIP under three. Assuming that bullpen roles become more established once the data catches up, the Nats' bullpen could look a lot better in a month or two. 

AROUND BASEBALL

What you should know: Manny Machado's half-season showcase is going swimmingly. He's slashing .360/.447/.708 with eight homers through the first month or so of games. He's posted a 208 wRC+, which is a fancy way of saying he's been 108 percent better than league average at the plate so far. He's been the most valuable hitter this season and the second-most valuable player overall. Meanwhile, the Orioles are 6-17 and already 12 games out of first place in the AL East. It hasn't even been a month yet. Is this the year the the MLB trade deadline is exciting?!

What you should watch: Angels @ Astros (4/24-4/25)

Shohei Ohtani is pitching on Tuesday night, so that's reason enough. But, if you need more, there's also Mike Trout, the defending World Series champs, and Justin Verlander pitching on Wednesday. It also happens to be a battle between the best two teams in the AL West, separated by half a game for first place. If there's such a thing as exciting April baseball, it looks like this. 

Player of the week: I know we already talked about him, but no one's been better than Manny Machado over the last seven days. He's hitting .500/.586/1.208 with five homers during that span. After being bit by historically bad luck during the first half of last season, Machado has been putting up monster numbers ever since:

Random baseball gif: 

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Nats give up monster HR, drop series-opener with Giants

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USA TODAY Sports

Nats give up monster HR, drop series-opener with Giants

SAN FRANCISCO  -- Mac Williamson hit a two-run homer in the sixth to lead the Giants past the Washington Nationals 4-2 on Monday night.

Chris Stratton (2-1) struck out five over 6 2/3 innings, allowing two runs and four hits.

Williamson, playing his first home game at AT&T Park this season after being called up during the recent road trip, connected with a deep drive to right-center off Shawn Kelley after he relieved starter Gio Gonzalez (2-2). Gonzalez walked Brandon Belt to end his day before Williamson crushed the first pitch he saw from Kelley.

The 464-foot shot by Williamson is the furthest homer by the Giants this year, topping his previous 434-foot homer Friday after he was promoted to face the Angels in Anaheim. Earlier Monday, Williamson drove in his team's initial run on a fielder's choice in the fourth.

Only three home runs have travelled further in 2018, according to MLB StatCast: Franchy Cordero (489), Avisail Garcia (481) and Marcell Ozuna (479)

San Francisco kicked off a 10-game homestand by winning back-to-back games for only the second time this season and first since April 4-7. The Giants were coming off their first series victory of the season against the Angels.

The Nationals' runs came on a pair of sacrifice flies, by Howie Kendrick in the third and pinch-hitter Andrew Stevenson in the seventh.

Gonzalez allowed three runs and four hits, struck out four and walked three in five innings.

In his only other start against Washington, Stratton threw 6 2/3 scoreless innings with 10 strikeouts last Aug. 13.

Hunter Strickland, who brawled with Bryce Harper during Washington's last visit to AT&T Park in late May 2017, finished for his fourth save in six chances. Harper didn't bat in the ninth.

NATS TRADE COLE

Washington traded right-hander A.J. Cole to the New York Yankees for cash. The 26-year-old Cole was 1-1 with a 13.06 ERA in four games for the Nationals and was designated for assignment last week.

BAKER REUNION

Ex-Nationals manager Dusty Baker, who guided Washington to back-to-back NL East titles before his firing after last season, visited the ballpark to see his former club.

Did he plan the visit in advance?

"Maybe," Baker said, grinning.

Nats pitcher Stephen Strasburg hustled out to give Baker a big hug behind the batting cage.

"What's up Dusty, how you doing?" Strasburg said.

Baker also visited with third base coach Bob Henley, the loan holdover from his coaching staff.

Baker is now working in an advisory role to Giants CEO Larry Baer while getting to watch son, Darren, play his freshman college season at California in Berkeley.

"I am good," Baker said. "How bad can it be between Cal, San Francisco and Sacramento?"

TRAINER'S ROOM

Nationals: OF Adam Eaton, on the disabled list retroactive to April 9 with a bone bruise in his left ankle, won't be rushed back until he is completely pain-free. "When you see him in the lineup he'll be ready," manager Dave Martinez said. "He's coming along. When we get him back this time we don't want any issues." ... OF Brian Goodwin remains in Florida with pain in his bruised left wrist.

Giants: LHP Will Smith is eagerly anticipating his return from Tommy John surgery that cost him all of last season, and he could come off the DL as soon as Tuesday. He pitched twice for Class-A San Jose and three times so far for Triple-A Sacramento. He is scheduled to throw consecutive days for Sacramento on Wednesday and Thursday then another short outing Sunday. "We're close. We're getting there," Smith said, noting it will be "awesome. I'm ready to go." ... RHP closer Mark Melancon (flexor strain in pitching elbow) is scheduled to play catch during Thursday's off day. There is no timetable for his return, manager Bruce Bochy said. ... LF Hunter Pence (sprained right thumb) did some hitting and is scheduled for early batting practice Tuesday.

UP NEXT

Giants lefty Ty Blach (1-3, 4.10 ERA) will face the Nationals for the first time in his career when he pitches the middle game of the series opposite right-hander Tanner Roark (1-1, 3.24).