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Nats swing and miss again

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Nats swing and miss again

PITTSBURGH -- Rarely in his 10-plus months on the job has Davey Johnson expressed the kind of frustration that came pouring out of the Nationals manager's office at PNC Park Wednesday night following a 4-2 loss to the Pirates.

"You've got to make contact," he said. "You can't drive a run in without making contact."

Generally upbeat and positive throughout his tenure with the Nationals, and always the first to give public and private votes of confidence to his players during good times and bad times, Johnson was as upset with his team's performance in this game as he's been on any previous occasion.

Can you blame the 69-year-old skipper after watching his lineup strike out 11 times -- all swings and misses, no called third strikes -- against a quintet of Pirates relievers pressed into service when starter Erik Bedard departed after throwing only eight pitches due to back spasms?

"Sometimes we expand and chase balls early in the count, and we just can't do that," Johnson said. "That's not being a good hitter. We had so many chances. I thought, two or three times, just a little bloop here and we'll win this ballgame. It's just not coming."

There was no singular corner of the clubhouse to place blame on for this one. Poor at-bats came from just about everyone in the lineup. But the final two innings perhaps best exemplified the problem.

Cut to the top of the eighth, with the Nationals trailing 3-2 but threatening after loading the bases with one out. Up stepped Danny Espinosa, the slumping second baseman who did come through the previous inning with a double to left, ultimately scoring on Chad Tracy's sacrifice fly.

This time, Espinosa swung and missed at a 3-2 fastball from right-hander Jason Grilli, stranded the bases loaded on his NL-leading 39th strikeout of the season.

Moments later, Rick Ankiel swung and missed at a 1-2 fastball at his eyelids, killing the potential rally in a pattern that has become all too familiar for the Nationals.

"I wouldn't necessarily say it's a pattern," hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. "I'd say at times it manifests itself. The pressure builds because I believe in a lineup that's best when each guy knows that the guy behind him can do the job. So then you can be patient and be a little more aggressive in your zones, not expanding. And if they want to walk you, pitch around you, whatever, the next guy picks up the load. And at times when that's happened, we just haven't taken advantage of the next guy picking up that load."

Similar events unfolded in the ninth, with closer Joel Hanrahan putting himself in a jam after hitting Steve Lombardozzi in the foot and then serving up a one-out double to Ian Desmond. That left the tying run in scoring position for two of the Nationals' best hitters (Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman) but neither was able to produce with the game on the line.

Harper, who did draw a fourth-inning walk to reach base for the ninth time in 10 big-league games, fell behind to Hanrahan 0-2 and then popped out to the shortstop. Zimmerman, who did double in the eighth, then whiffed at a 3-2 fastball for his third strikeout of the night.

"I worked the count," Zimmerman said. "I got a pitch I could hit. I just didn't hit it."

Though Johnson and Eckstein both preach an aggressive approach at the plate and encourage their hitters to swing with force, both acknowledge more players need to shorten their strokes in certain situations, especially with two strikes.

When it comes down to it, I think we have to get better with two strikes," Zimmerman said. "No matter who it is, we've got to shorten up a little bit maybe, especially in those situations with one out and runners in scoring position. I'm not saying anyone in particular. We've all been, unfortunately, guilty of it sometimes this year."

Johnson said he wasn't prepared to talk about any possible lineup changes -- "I'm getting over this one before I think about tomorrow" -- but it wouldn't be surprising if Espinosa is given Thursday's series finale off and Lombardozzi is given a chance to make only his second start of the season at second base.

If nothing else, Johnson could justify the swap as an attempt to get his team to put more balls in play. Espinosa is striking out in 31.7 percent of his plate appearances this season, the highest rate among all qualifying NL hitters. The two players on the Nationals' roster with the lowest strikeout rate: Harper (9.5 percent) and Lombardozzi (7.0 percent).

Of course, the Nationals' offensive woes aren't confined solely to strikeouts. They've now totaled five or fewer hits in an astounding 11 of 30 games this season.

"I don't know if guys are feeling too much pressure because we're having trouble generating runs but, boy," Johnson said. "Guys, the pitcher's in a jam. Just relax, and if he throws it over, hit it.

"But tonight was especially frustrating. No doubt about it."

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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.