Todd Dybas

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Joe Maddon's protest prompts Sean Doolittle to call his act 'tired'

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Joe Maddon's protest prompts Sean Doolittle to call his act 'tired'

WASHINGTON -- Sean Doolittle stood at his locker in the clubhouse still roiled by what occurred in the ninth inning Saturday. 

His clean inning for his eighth save was not on his mind. Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon was.

The Cubs appeared to enact a pre-planned grouse when they say Doolittle next. Chicago quality assurance coach Chris Denorfia was talking to the umpires as Doolittle warmed up in the 5-2 game. Following Doolittle's first pitch, Maddon popped out of the dugout to begin his banter, and eventual protest, of Doolittle's delivery.

At question was Doolittle's toe tap. With no runners on base, he raises his front leg, drops and holds it for a count, then grazes the dirt with is cleat before he fully comes to the plate. Doolittle started this almost a year ago during a late May series in Miami. No one had complained since -- until Maddon emerged from the Cubs' dugout.

If the umpires deem the move illegal, the outcome is a ball called with the bases empty or a balk called with runners on base. Saturday, home plate umpire Sam Holbrook told Doolittle he was doing nothing wrong. Which turned the postgame discussion around the event to Maddon's intentions. 

A starting point would be one of Maddon's relievers, Carl Edwards Jr., tried to add a similar move in spring training. But Edwards was putting his full foot on the ground and was told the move was illegal. 
Doolittle was more inclined to believe Maddon's primary motivation was to rattle him at the start of the save opportunity, and he calmly, but clearly, took digs at Maddon for the process. 

"After the first time Joe came out, the home plate umpire was like you're fine, just keep it moving," Doolittle said. "Don't start, stop and start again. Just keep it moving. I was like, that's what I do all the time anyway, so...in that moment, he's not trying to do anything other than rattle me and it was kind of tired. I don't know. Sometimes he has to remind people how smart he is and how much he pays attention to the game and stuff like that. He put his stamp on it for sure. 

"I actually have to thank him. After they came out the second, the [Kyle] Schwarber at-bat, I threw two fastballs and a slider and a fastball to [Kris] Bryant and those were probably the best ones I've thrown in a while. I don't do the tap when there's somebody on base so I can keep my pickoff move available if I need it. I've had a lot of traffic recently, so I've had practice doing it, so it wasn't like a huge adjustment to me. I don't know. In a way, I kind of need to thank him."
Doolittle wasn't finished. He was later asked if he thought Maddon was trying to get him to change his mechanics.

"Well, yeah, that's part of the mind game that he was trying to play and I get that," Doolittle said. "I guess I should take it as a compliment that he felt like he had to do that in order to try to throw me off my game in that situation. They're trying to get you to over-think it and change something in the middle of a save opportunity to give them a chance where you start making mistakes or are over-thinking it. 

"But once the home plate umpire tells me, he said, you're fine, just keep it moving, it's just a tap, at this point, I've been doing it for over a year. We're a month-and-a-half into the season, so I know their guy had to make an adjustment; I thought it was a thinly veiled attempt to kind of throw me off."

Members of the Nationals staff were also irked. Among their concerns was the chance for Doolittle to injure himself if he suddenly changed his delivery.
Maddon was adamant the situation was created by Edwards not being allowed to alter his delivery.

“It’s really simple," Maddon said. "That’s exactly what Carl (Edwards) was told he can’t do. And I was told it was an illegal pitch and he can’t do it. I went to Sam (Holbrook), and I told him that. And he said, ‘in our judgment.’ I said, ‘there’s no judgment. If he taps the ground, it’s an illegal pitch, period.’ There’s nothing to judge. You can judge whether he did or not. It’s obvious that he did. If you can’t tell that, then there’s something absolutely wrong. So that was my argument.

"I said if you guys don’t clean it up, I’m going to protest the game.  So we protested the game. For me, I don’t know how many he actually did make that were illegal pitches. I don’t know how they’re going to rule with this. It’s their rule. It’s not mine. I didn’t ask for it in the first place. They took it away from Carl. They took it away from (Cory) Gearrin. They’ve taken it away from a couple guys and they seem to be somewhat aware, but not aware of what had happened."

Wherever the truth resides, Saturday night became another installment in the oddities when Chicago and Washington play. The Cubs walked Bryce Harper 13 times in 19 plate appearances in 2016. The 2017 five-game National League Division Series which ended in Nationals Park included Stephen Strasburg's mystery illness and PR gaffe about who would pitch Game 4 in Chicago. Add Saturday night to the strangeness and buckle up for Sunday's series finale.

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Nationals place Justin Miller on IL, call up Tanner Rainey

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Nationals place Justin Miller on IL, call up Tanner Rainey

WASHINGTON -- More injuries, more moves.

Right-handed reliever Justin Miller was placed on the 10-day injured list Saturday because of a rotator cuff strain. Taking his place in the maligned Washington bullpen is Tanner Rainey, who arrived Saturday from Fresno.

Rainey arrived in the offseason as the other side of the Tanner Roark trade, which is playing out as a mistake. Roark has a 129 ERA-plus this season. Jeremy Hellickson and Anibal Sanchez are at 74 and 87, respectively. The trade was largely a cost-cutting move. Roark makes $10 million this season. Hellickson and Sanchez makes $9.3 million in base salary combined.

Rainey throws hard. He also has command issues.

Rainey threw 18 innings for Triple-A Fresno this year. He walked 12 and struck out 32. Rainey’s ERA was 4.00. He pitched seven major-league innings in 2018 for Cincinnati, allowed four home runs, walked 12 and earned a 24.43 ERA for the effort.

Why is Rainey here? The Nationals have limited options in the minor leagues. They designated Jimmy Cordero for assignment already this year. They did the same with Austin Adams before trading him. Austen Williams remains on the injured list. Kyle McGowin, now the long man in the bullpen because Erick Fedde has entered the rotation, was already up. Only Austin Voth, a starter in Triple-A, and James Bourque, a reliever for Double-A Harrisburg, are on the 40-man roster but not in the majors or on the injured list.

Victor Robles was not in the starting lineup Saturday a day after being hit by a pitch on the left wrist. He’s sore and was available to pinch-run. The Nationals are labeling him day-to-day.

Michael A. Taylor took Robles’ spot in the outfield. Adam Eaton returned to the lineup following a day off. Trea Turner remained atop the lineup Saturday despite Eaton’s return.

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This is not a drill: Nationals bullpen implodes yet again in loss to Cubs

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This is not a drill: Nationals bullpen implodes yet again in loss to Cubs

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Nationals lost to the Chicago Cubs, 14-4, Friday to drop their record to 18-26. Here are five observations from the game…

1. Here it is again, another night lost to the worst bullpen in the major leagues, a bunch who is the organization’s most downtrodden in a decade-plus.

Washington’s bullpen allowed 11 more runs Friday night. It’s death grip on last place in team ERA remained intact. Strengthened, even. Justin Miller allowed runs. Kyle Barraclough allowed runs. Dan Jennings allowed runs. They recorded just five outs.

The trio gave up home runs -- two on three pitches for Barraclough. They hit batters. They walked them. They allowed singles. Everything but retire them with any efficiency, drilling their teammates into the ground once again after a one-run game grew to a 10-4 hot mess in the span of two innings.

For kicks, Kris Bryant hit his third home run of the night (this one off Matt Grace after victimizing Miller and Barraclough previously) in the ninth inning to bloat the lead to 12-4. Wilson Contreras backed him with a two-run homer of his own later in the inning. That was also off Grace, who has allowed as many homers (5) this year in 20 innings as he did last year in 59 ⅔ innings.

Otherwise, finger pointing for the night’s ills would have been focused on the runners Washington’s offense left on base. Seven through the middle three innings, including a runners-on-second-and-third-with-none-out and a bases-loaded situation with two outs in back-to-back innings. No one scored. Eleven left on overall. Not that it mattered in the end.

Other notable things happened in the evening: Trea Turner played for the first time since April 2. In keeping with another season-long trend, two players were hurt. Victor Robles and Justin Miller both left the game because of injuries. Robles has a wrist contusion. Miller has a rotator cuff strain. He is probably going on the injured list Saturday.

Washington cut a 3-0 lead to 3-2. It cut a 5-2 lead to 5-4. Then, the bullpen put its foot down, making sure the game was thoroughly out of reach and everyone felt like they were watching a rerun of a program they forgot they didn’t like in the first place.

“Right now, they got to regroup,” manager Davey Martinez said of the bullpen. “This is the bullpen we have. Like I said, yesterday, they were really good. Today, they weren’t. They got to regroup. The issue is -- when you fall behind on good hitters, you’re going to get hit. Yesterday, they didn’t. Today, 2-0, 2-1, 3-2, 3-2, 3-2 and you give those guys a chance. They’ve got to get ahead in the count and you’ve got to make your pitches.”

2. Max Scherzer snapped back at manager Davey Martinez as he approached in the top of the sixth inning with two outs and Miller ready to enter the game.

Well before Martinez reached the mound, and with Scherzer at 111 pitches, the manager began to receive Scherzer’s expletive-laden point of view on what was to happen next. Scherzer remained in. Albert Almora Jr. popped up the next pitch, inning over.

The night was not easy for Scherzer. He started it with a rare four-pitch walk to leadoff hitter -- for a day -- Kyle Schwarber. Bryant then singled. Both were outliers. Scherzer’s walks per nine innings this season is the second-lowest of his career. He’s also owned Bryant, who came into the game 1-for-11 in his career with eight strikeouts against the Nationals’ right-hander.

A grind commenced from there. Scherzer missed location with a slider to Javier Baez which turned into a double when it hit off Juan Soto’s glove in left field to score a run in the first. Another missed location -- and another pitch which was out of the strike zone -- became a homer for Almora in the second inning. That was a changeup which sailed inside.

Scherzer settled off after that: 1-2-3 in the third, three strikeouts in the fourth, a crucial double play in the fifth and finally dispatching Almora to make it through the sixth. Nine of Scherzer’s first 16 pitches were balls. Sixty-five of his next 96 were strikes.

“Just coming out early and just been getting beat early in the game and I’m not executing early in the game,” Scherzer said. “Was able to settle down and throw up some zeros and keep the game close. The four walks are what really sticks out in my mind. I’m completely accountable for those. When you walk four, it’s never going to be a fun night.”

Friday was the second time this season Scherzer did not make it out of the sixth inning. The 112 pitches tied for the second-most of his year. On a night closer Sean Doolittle was likely not available, every out from Scherzer was crucial. He picked up 18. The Cubs romped through the bullpen after that.

3. Chalk up another victim to one of baseball’s, and the Nationals’, ongoing issues this season: hit by pitches.

Robles was struck on the left forearm in the bottom of the third inning. He remained in to run, then play right field in the top of the fourth. When his turn came to hit again in the bottom of the fourth inning, Adam Eaton replaced him.

X-Rays on Robles’ wrist were negative. He will be re-assessed Saturday.

Turner, who was activated Friday after not playing for seven weeks, broke a finger when a pitch hit him during a bunt attempt. Anthony Rendon was hit in the elbow, putting him out of games for a week and eventually on the 10-day disabled list. Juan Soto has been hit on the wrist.

It’s a league-wide scourge. As the Wall Street Journal points out, more hitters were hit by pitches last season than any time since 1900. This season is on track to pass that number.

4. Wilmer Difo was sent to Triple-A Fresno on Friday when the Nationals activated Turner. Utility infielder Adrian Sanchez remained on the big-league bench.

Martinez said Difo was sent down because he wants him to play every day. If he remained in Washington, Difo would move back to sporadic spot starts off the bench or rare pinch-hitting duties.

Sanchez is comfortable in that role. Also, the Nationals were exasperated with Difo’s inability to think the game, whether that was missing signs or making ill-advised decisions on the fly in the field.

Asked if the decision to send Difo to the minors for the first time since 2017 was to help deliver messages the staff has been trying to get through to him, Martinez denied that purpose.

“This is not a punishment for whatever,” Martinez said. “I also want to praise Adrian Sanchez for what he’s doing coming off the bench. I think he fits the role perfectly and he’s worked hard. He’s coming off the bench and he’s putting good at-bats together. Here’s a guy that can play all four infield positions, can play corner outfield, if need be. Also, he’s been working on catching, too, so he could be a third catcher.”

5. The Nationals needed a new bullpen member after placing Anibal Sanchez on the 10-day injured list Friday because of a left hamstring strain which presumably pops Erick Fedde out of the bullpen and into the rotation.

They selected Kyle McGowin from Triple-A Fresno. It’s an interesting choice.

McGowin has worked mostly as a starter. He will be in the bullpen in Washington after making eight starts in Fresno this season. McGowin -- a sinker-baller -- had a 4.32 ERA for the Grizzlies.

The strange part was his last start. McGowin was ejected after the opposition asked for his glove to be checked by the umpires. They looked, found a substance in his glove and threw him out of the game. He has since been suspended by the Pacific Coast League. The league -- also strangely -- does not announce suspensions. McGowin declined to comment on his suspension. Martinez said he didn’t know much about it.

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