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One run won't cut it for Nats

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One run won't cut it for Nats

BALTIMORE -- As consistent and as dominant as their pitching staff has been since Opening Day, the Nationals have known all along there will be days when they simply need to score a few more runs and take some of the pressure off those electric arms who take the mound in succession inning after inning, day after day.

That's why Ryan Zimmerman is attempting to play through a nagging shoulder injury, why the veteran third baseman received a pain-killing shot one hour before Sunday's game in what could become a recurring theme for the rest of the season.

Zimmerman knows the Nationals' lineup needs all the help it can get right now, and who better to provide that spark than a two-time Silver Slugger Award winner?

"We need to score more," he said. "That's not in question."

True, Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Orioles was a direct result of Sean Burnett serving up a two-run homer to Matt Wieters in the bottom of the eighth, the first time the left-hander had blown a lead this year.

But the Nationals can ask their typically lights-out bullpen to protect such slim leads only so many times over a full season without accepting the occasional slip-up.

"It's not the easiest thing in the world," Burnett said. "You'd like to have a little bit of leniency. But a 1-run lead, our job is to come in and nail it down. And unfortunately I didn't do that today."

Had Burnett's teammates given him a cushion of even two or maybe three runs instead of one, perhaps the result would have been different. But these days, the Nationals can't count on their lineup producing anything more than the bare minimum on a daily basis.

Over their last nine games, the Nationals have given up 29 runs, a more-than-respectable average of 3.2. But during that same span, they've scored only 23 runs, an paltry average of 2.6. (It's probably no surprise their record in those games was 3-6.)

They had opportunities to add to Sunday's output but went 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position against Baltimore starter Jake Arrieta, who entered with a 5.83 ERA and an AL-leading nine losses.

The lone run-producing hit by a player wearing red and blue in this game? Zimmerman's RBI single in the third, perhaps his most-impressive hit in weeks, given the fact he drove a 95 mph fastball over shortstop J.J. Hardy's head despite the persistent shoulder pain that has afflicted him most of this season.

The difference for Zimmerman? The pain-killing shot that included cortisone and lidocaine and gave the ailing third baseman "relief" for the first time in a long time.

"Obviously, I wasn't performing," he said. "But to go out there today and feel a little bit like I could do the things that I've always been able to do gave me a little bit more confidence and just makes you happier."

Zimmerman wound up with a pair of hits that raised his batting average to .223, a well-stuck fly ball to center field and several highlight-reel plays at third base. That performance -- barely 12 hours after he finally admitted the extent to which his shoulder injury was affecting his swing and suggested he may need to spend time on the disabled list -- left the Nationals feeling better about his long-term prognosis.

Team doctors examined Zimmerman's shoulder Sunday morning and came away with the same diagnosis from two months ago: A sprained AC joint. They found no damage to any tendons or ligaments, only a bone-on-bone situation that's causing the pain.

At some point, preferably in the offseason, Zimmerman could have surgery to clean up the area. Recovery time would be roughly 4-6 weeks. For now, he believes he can continue to play, with the aid of the occasional pain-killing shot.

"I can play through this," he said. "And that's what I plan to do for the rest of the year."

The Nationals can only hope the treatment now only allows Zimmerman to take the field each day but also allows him to rediscover the power stroke that made him such a dangerous hitter through the first six seasons of his big-league career. Even so, a healthy Zimmerman might not be enough to carry a lineup that has scored only 262 runs this season (fourth fewest in the majors).

Sunday's game saw the Nationals get a total of two hits from players not named Zimmerman or Bryce Harper (who singled in the first inning and then hustled to turn a routine base hit to center into a electrifying double in the sixth inning).

That second Harper hit, which drew oohs and aahs from the bipartisan crowd of 41,794 at Camden Yards, put the Nationals in golden position to add to their 1-0 lead. But Zimmerman struck out swinging at a 2-2 breaking ball low and outside. And after Adam LaRoche was intentionally walked, Michael Morse struck out swinging at another 2-2 breaking ball, then Ian Desmond popped out to end the inning.

"I still think we're not ... a lot of hitters are doing some over-aggressiveness," Johnson said. "We're trying to hit the ball out of the ballpark instead of making good swings. But we're getting there."

The silver lining to all this is that the Nationals, in spite of their offensive woes, will hold at least a 2 12-game lead in the NL East come Monday morning. They also just survived what could be the toughest stretch of their season -- 32 consecutive games against only NL East and AL East opponents -- with an 18-14 record.

They also know that while pitching wins championships, a little offense every now and then certainly helps.

"We want to score more runs," Zimmerman said. "I think this whole series kind of shows you how good both of these teams' pitching is. It's not easy to score runs, but we definitely need to do a better job of capitalizing on our opportunities."

Whether Zimmerman's new treatment plan can keep him in the lineup -- and, more importantly, whether he can produce again -- could go a long way toward answering this club's most-pressing question.

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Why Bryce Harper would be a bargain at $500 million

Why Bryce Harper would be a bargain at $500 million

$500 million.

That number is so hard to wrap your brain around, but it's a number a lot of professional baseball players may soon start seeing on their contracts.

One player who could be the first to see that amount within the next year is Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper.

Harper will become a free agent in 2018 and people are already projecting his market value at close to $500 million, if not more.

Miami Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton signed a contract back in 2014 for 13 years, $325 million, holding the league record.

For Fancy Stats writer Neil Greenberg, $500 million is a bargain for someone of Harper's caliber.

"Harper is every bit as good [as Stanton] but he's also young," Greenberg told the Sports Junkies Friday.

"I mean, we don't see a player that's as good as Harper, that's as young a Harper, hit the market almost ever I want to say. You look at how many years of his prime he has left and then even if you start to give him just the typical aging curb off of that prime, he's probably worth close to 570 million dollars starting from 2019 and going forward ten years. And that includes also the price of free agency going up and other factors."

Harper, who is only 25 years-old, brings more to a team than just talent. He's one of the most recognizable figures in baseball, bringing tremendous marketing opportunities to an organization. Greenberg dove deeper into how that will increase his market value.

"And that's just for the on-the-field product. You talk about all the marketing that's done around Bryce Harper [and] what he does for the game. In my opinion, and based on the numbers that I saw, he's a bargain at $500 million."

Don't we all wish someone would say $500 million is a bargain for us?

After crunching the numbers, the biggest takeaway for Greenberg is the return on investment the Nationals have gotten out of Harper.

"Like if you look at his wins above replacement throughout his career, he's given you 200 million dollars in value for 21 million dollars in cash and he's due what another 26 or 27 million this year. I mean he's already given you an amazing return on investment."

"So, if you're the Nationals having - benefited from that - you know you have a little bit of, I guess, wiggle room in terms of maybe you're paying a little bit for past performance 'cause, you know, when a player is on arbitration in their early years they don't really get paid that much."

The Nationals still have Harper for one more season and many feel they need to make him an offer sooner than later. Whenever and whoever he gets an offer from, it's going to be a nice pay day for him.

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Nats' Max Scherzer wins second straight NL Cy Young Award

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Nats' Max Scherzer wins second straight NL Cy Young Award

Max Scherzer of the Washington Nationals has coasted to his third Cy Young Award and second straight in the National League.

Scherzer breezed past Los Angeles Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw, drawing 27 of the 30 first-place votes in balloting by members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America.

The honor was announced Wednesday on MLB Network.

Scherzer earned the NL honor last year with Washington and the 2013 American League prize with Detroit. He became the 10th pitcher with at least three Cy Youngs.

RELATED: WIETERS WILL RETURN TO NATS IN 2018 

Scherzer was 16-6 with a 2.51 ERA and a league-leading 268 strikeouts for the NL East champion Nationals.

Kershaw has already won three NL Cy Youngs, and was the last pitcher to win back-to-back. He was 18-4 with a league-best 2.31 ERA and 202 strikeouts.

Corey Kluber of the Cleveland Indians easily won his second AL Cy Young Award earlier in the day. He got 28 of the 30 first-place votes, with Boston's Chris Sale second and Luis Severino of the New York Yankees third.

Kluber led the majors with a 2.25 ERA and his 18 wins tied for the most in baseball.