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50-50 split: Nationals go from ‘dark’ first 50 games to NL’s hottest team the next 50

50-50 split: Nationals go from ‘dark’ first 50 games to NL’s hottest team the next 50

WASHINGTON -- Let’s turn to this microcosm for tidiness and to reflect the pivot: May 23, Davey Martinez explained his ejection in New York by saying the home plate umpire didn’t ask for help on a check-swing for strike three. Bruce Dreckman made the call, Martinez barked, stormed onto the field, channeled Lou Piniella, then was promptly tossed. 

Wednesday, Martinez was asked about the electronic strike zone experiment in the Atlantic League. “I don’t mind umpires,” Martinez said, pushing aside the notion of technology calling balls and strikes.

This is the kind of shine brought by a 36-15 burn through the season’s second set of 51 games; a journey back from infirm to relevant, two seasons transpiring in 101 games. Everything goes from nuclear winter to Smurfs and rainbows. Even manager-umpire relations.

Back in New York, during the nadir of the team’s malaise, Martinez was less jovial. His tight office was filled with tension and creeping walls. Following a particularly wrenching loss May 22 when Sean Doolittle had one of the worst outings of his career, Martinez put forth a defense against mounting doubt.

“I tell them all the time, this thing is going to turn around. It's gonna turnaround,” Martinez said. “We have to believe that it will. Got to will it. It's time we just believe we're good enough to play here -- because we are. And we got to make it happen. We've got to make things happen. And stay strong. Stay strong and stay together. Pull for your teammates and this thing will turnaround.”

He was ejected the next night. They lost again after his departure to arrive at 19-31. Asked why he thought this stumbling group could pivot to reach 90 wins by winning 71 of the remaining 112 -- a .634 clip -- Martinez pushed back again.

“Why couldn't it be? I've seen other teams do it,” Martinez said. “We're not out of it, that's for sure. I can tell you that right now. We're close. We compete. We're in every game. Now we have to finish games.

“Things are going to change and I know that. We got to just keep pounding away.”

Hop into Wednesday. The Nationals swept a doubleheader for the fourth consecutive time, dating back to 2018. Doolittle pitched in both games -- the first time in his career he’s done so. Fernando Rodney pitched in both games. They were tight, Colorado had a hard time scoring, and Washington had just enough in 3-2 and 2-0 wins. 

The fresh standings would feel more stunning if this push had not been a two-month trek. Washington was 19-31, 10 games out of first and living with a -40 run differential after the sweep in New York. Following Wednesday’s back-to-back wins -- and another Braves loss -- the Nationals are four games out of the division lead, three back in the loss column and plus-50 in run differential. 

“We’re playing so much looser,” Doolittle said Thursday morning once an arduous day was done. “We’re playing such a better team brand of baseball. Guys are having fun. We hit rock bottom in that series in New York. That was dark. That was bad. I think it was so bad that guys were like, ‘Hey, let’s just go out and see what happens.’ 

“We took those two games from Atlanta [shortly after] and we kind of reminded ourselves of how good we can be. We won a blowout game there and we won a one-run ballgame there. Being able to win a couple different ways against a really good team. The starting pitching’s been there the whole year. Even when we were 19-31 we were in a lot of those games because the starting pitching was good. Offensively, we started to get runs across late. Bullpen settled down. It’s a lot of fun coming to the ballpark every day expecting to win.”

Math and common sense hated the idea of a Nationals’ resurgence. Such turnarounds are rare, and the on-field slop was prevalent. The 36-15 launch has raised their playoff odds to almost even or beyond. And they have paid hard to get there.

Trea Turner has played in every game possible since returning from the injured list May 17. Daily appearances are not uncommon for Turner, who played all 162 games last season. There’s also not an actual replacement on the bench most nights. Wednesday, there was. Utility infielder Adrian Sanchez was the 26th man for the day’s doubleheader. Turner started both games a night after becoming one of 26 players in major league history to hit for the cycle more than once.

No time off for Anthony Rendon, either. He returned from the injured list May 7. He’s played each game since, including doubleheaders June 19 and Wednesday. Rendon said his tight left hamstring and quad received the needed rest his respite during the All-Star break was designed to deliver. Martinez repeatedly says he asks Rendon if he wants a day off. Apparently, the answer is no. 

The starting pitching owns the best WAR in the major leagues. It went through a grind Wednesday. Erick Fedde lasted just four innings, in part because he was pinch-hit for early, in his latest effort to claim the No. 5 spot. “Every time I got out there I'm looking at it as an audition,” Fedde said. Patrick Corbin’s first two innings nearly doomed the rest of his night. He could not locate his pitches, his pitch count soared and he merely tried to survive. Corbin did so for six innings after righting himself from the second inning on. 

“Our pitching staff is something no one wants to mess with,” catcher Yan Gomes said.

The rotation has been a menace to the opposition all season. But, bad baserunning, bad fielding, selfish plate appearances, chaotic relief all undermined work from the high-end, high-cost starting staff. In June and July, eye rolls were replaced with impressive plays. Basics stopped being a challenge to achieve. Everything the Nationals did wrong those first two full months, they did right in June and July (so far). 

“We really feel like that first half of the year is so far behind us, we’re not even thinking about that,” Gomes said. “We’re playing each game as they are. If we’re shaking hands at the end of the game, we all did our jobs. 

“We knew what we were doing. We talked about it in here. Nobody felt bad for us, whether we were going through injuries, things weren’t going our way, nobody felt bad for us. We knew if anything, people were more excited the favored team -- or whatever everybody was saying -- in our league was losing. It was just a matter of us coming together as a team and playing for each other. Selfless baseball goes a long way.”

Gomes swigged from a can of coconut water, eschewing the more common postgame beer as the calendar moved to Thursday. Wednesday was long. The players dressed by 10:30 a.m. for a 1:05 p.m. first pitch. The second game didn’t start until 8:46 p.m., a full 1:41 after it was supposed to, because of what feels like ceaseless rain always looming around Nationals Park. Martinez sat for his postgame press conference at the stroke of midnight. Everyone went home weary.

But not before Juan Soto and Victor Robles played quality defense in the first game and Matt Adams had two hits and two walks. Tony Sipp matched up for a big out in the nightcap. Gomes homered -- focusing on finishing his swing with two hands on the bat -- to provide padding in the second game. And Doolittle finished everything with his 30th pitch of the day across two games. All of this seemed beyond unlikely two months ago. Yet, here they are. Tired, pushing and close.

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Don't worry Nationals fans, Anthony Rendon was never going to be a Dodger

Don't worry Nationals fans, Anthony Rendon was never going to be a Dodger

While Nationals fans are understandably disappointed Anthony Rendon is no longer a member of the Nationals, they can rest easy knowing he didn't see himself signing the the NL rival Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Dodgers never made an offer to Rendon, per The Athletic, after "sensing that he didn’t want to play in Los Angeles." He instead signed with the Los Angeles Angels, inking a seven-year, $245 million deal to play for the California team that receives considerably less media attention than its in-state rival.

Now entrenched in the AL on the other side of the country, Rendon won't face the Nationals very often nor will his team's play have any effect on Washington's playoff chances from year to year. It was a best-case scenario for fans after it became likely he wouldn't be returning to Washington.

After being spurned by Rendon and losing out on top free-agent pitchers Gerrit Cole and Stephen Strasburg, the Dodgers are still looking to make their first big move of the offseason.

There's still plenty of time for them to make a move, but Los Angeles can expect little sympathy from Nationals fans that Rendon won't be suiting up in Dodger blue for the next seven years.

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Nationals trading for a third baseman is possible -- as long as it’s not Nolan Arenado

Nationals trading for a third baseman is possible -- as long as it’s not Nolan Arenado

Here’s the list of players on the Nationals’ active roster who could play third base: Wilmer Difo, Jake Noll, Adrián Sánchez, Howie Kendrick, Carter Kieboom. Career major-league starts at the position: Difo, 29; Noll, one; Sánchez, nine; Kendrick, 25; Kieboom, zero. 

Such is the state of third base for the defending World Series champions. Not good. 

Which makes Josh Donaldson’s agent smile and any semi-skilled third baseman with a pulse a possible target. Possible trades? Count the Nationals in. On most. Not on Nolan Arenado. That’s a non-starter because Washington is not going to send assets (prospects) for a contract it was unwilling to give Anthony Rendon in the first place. Zero chance. Zilch.

However, Kris Bryant is more intriguing depending on the years and ask -- as always with trades. Beyond him and Kyle Seager, is there another third baseman the Nationals could pursue in a trade? The question takes on weight because of the aforementioned toothless list of in-house candidates and shallow free-agent talent pool beyond Donaldson.

Any trade consideration needs to begin with an understanding of the parameters Washington is working from. Last season, Rendon’s one-year deal to avoid arbitration earned him $18.8 million. When Washington looks at the cost for its next third baseman, the number will be similar to last season’s cost for Rendon. A bump in the competitive balance tax threshold, plus savings at first base and catcher, provide the Nationals wiggle room for increases in spots. So, $18-25 million annually for a third baseman is in play.

Second, the Nationals’ farm system needs to be taken into account. Their 2018 first-round pick, Mason Denaburg, had shoulder problems last year. Mike Rizzo said at the Winter Meetings that Denaburg is healthy and progressing. But, the early shoulder irritation for a high school pitcher who also had problems his senior year with biceps tendinitis provides his stock pause. He’s a would-be trade chip. So is Kieboom.

But, what is Kieboom’s value? What damage did it receive during his rocky, and brief, appearance in the majors last season? Did his potent hitting in the Pacific Coast League after being sent back mitigate his big-league struggles? 

Beyond Kieboom, the farm system’s next tier is manned by Luis Garcia, 2019 first-round pick Jackson Rutledge, Wil Crowe and Tim Cate, among others. Only Garcia is part of MLB.com’s top-100 prospects list (which is more of a guide than an industry standard).

So, when Bryant or Seager -- or anyone not named Arenado -- are mentioned, know where the Nationals are coming from. If they are positioned to take on money, they don’t want to use assets to do it (this is the Donaldson Scenario). If they can save money, find a solid player and retain the few high-end assets, then a trade could be in play (this would be the Seager Scenario, if Seattle pays some of the contract). 

The Bryant Scenario is the most appealing and challenging. He’s the best player of the group. However, acquiring him would be high-cost and short-term. Bryant has two years remaining before he can become a free agent -- with an outside shot at becoming a free agent after next season because of a grievance he filed against the Cubs for service-time manipulation. Obtaining him would likely focus on multiple pitching prospects.

There is no Arenado Scenario. Just a reminder.

Piled together, Washington is in a tough spot. What it has is not enough. What it needs will be costly.

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