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Where do Nats turn to solve what ails them?

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Where do Nats turn to solve what ails them?

This space could be devoted to a breakdown of Thursday night's 3-1 loss in San Francisco, with mentions of Stephen Strasburg's rocky first inning but impressive rebound after that, Yunel Escobar's game-opening homer followed by a complete lack of offense by the Nationals after that and yet another case of this bullpen's inability to keep the score of the game intact (whether ahead, tied or behind).

Alas, a comprehensive look at merely the latest in a string of frustrating losses by the Nats doesn't really seem like a productive use of time and space right now. This team's problem isn't what's happening on any given night. It's what has happened in the big picture over the last two weeks.

On July 31, the Nationals arrived at Citi Field holding a 3-game lead over a Mets club that appeared to be in disarray. They had just acquired Jonathan Papelbon in a trade that surprised most — and upset some — but ultimately seemed like a move that would help address the team's biggest area of need. They also had just activated Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth off the disabled list, giving the lineup a sorely needed boost.

So, what has happened since then? Pretty much everything negative you can imagine happening.

The Nationals' lineup hasn't been boosted at all by the return of those key players, Zimmerman's solid production notwithstanding. Papelbon has been a non-factor, appearing in all of four games, only two of them save situations. The bullpen as a whole has been scored upon in 11-of-14 games, posting a collective 5.50 ERA.

The Mets, on the hand, have completely reversed course. Buoyed by the acquisitions of Yoenis Cespedes, Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson, they've taken the sport's 30th-ranked offense (which was averaging 3.6 runs per game) and turned it into one of the game's most-productive groups (averaging 5.3 runs per game since July 31). And their already-fantastic pitching staff has become even better, going from a 3.29 staff ERA through July 30 to a 2.29 staff ERA since.

And so you end up with the following facts about these two division rivals: Since July 31, the Mets are 11-2, while the Nationals are 4-10. And thus what had been a 3-game lead for the Nats only two weeks ago now has morphed into a 4 1/2-game deficit faster than you can say Noah Syndergaard.

Which leads to the real pertinent question of the moment: How on earth do the Nationals flip the script again and put themselves back in position to take the NL East title before it completely slips out of their hands?

Manager Matt Williams alluded after Thursday night's game in San Francisco to some potential changes for Friday night's contest against the Giants. He most likely means some lineup juggling and perhaps the insertion of one or two bench guys. The odds of some truly dramatic shakeup seem unlikely at this point.

Williams only has so many reasonable alternatives at his disposal. Want to bench Werth, now 8-for-56 since coming off the DL and owner of a .185 batting average, .256 on-base percentage and .530 OPS for the season? OK, your backup left fielders are Clint Robinson and Tyler Moore.

Fine, prefer simply to move Werth down in the lineup where he can't kill as many rallies? Well, who are you going to move up to the No. 5 spot? Your choices are Ian Desmond, Wilson Ramos and Michael Taylor.

This is where the continued absence of Denard Span really devastates the Nationals. If Span is healthy, Taylor falls into the fourth outfielder role, available to take over for anybody else who is struggling. Instead, Taylor is forced to play every day as the only true center fielder on the roster.

It's been said before, but it needs to be said again: The Nationals are 35-24 this season when Span plays, a .593 winning percentage, or the equivalent of a 96-66 club. When Span doesn't play, they're now 23-32, a .418 winning percentage that equates to a 68-94 team. Kind of a significant difference there, huh?

But it can't be that simple, can it? Is a healthy Denard Span really the difference between a 96-win team and a 68-win team?

No, not really. But there's still no denying Span's importance to this lineup. Think about it this way: If he's playing, somebody is hitting fifth besides Werth. Maybe Zimmerman. Maybe Escobar. Maybe Rendon. Whatever the case, the lineup is lengthened considerably just with the addition of its regular leadoff hitter.

The Nationals, though, can't just sit around and wait for Span to return from his back injury. If he even does return.

No, this team has no choice but to try to win with what it has. There's no magic trade to be made, not in mid-August. There's no magic minor-league call-up that's going to take this team on his shoulders. (Sorry, even if Trea Turner is promoted from Class AAA Syracuse, he doesn't solve the real problem right now.)

This is the team Mike Rizzo built, the team Matt Williams has to manage. They could have chosen to do something more dramatic before July 31, but they chose to bank on their returning regulars carrying the load at the plate.

That hasn't happened. But it's going to have to happen if this team wants to right itself and fulfill its immense potential.

For better or worse, this is who the Nationals are. The question is which team they'll ultimately resemble: The one that led the division by 3 games on July 31, or the the one that has given it all back and more over the last two weeks?

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

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USA TODAY

Inside Baseball: The Nationals' bullpen is both 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 so far. He's slashing .360/.447/.708 with eight homers so far. He's posted a 208 wRC+ so far, 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).