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Another mediocre outing from Stephen Strasburg does in Nationals

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USA TODAY SPORTS

Another mediocre outing from Stephen Strasburg does in Nationals

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Nationals lost to the San Francisco Giants, 7-3, Tuesday night to fall to 7-8. Here are five observations from the game...

1. Not a great night for Stephen Strasburg. He allowed three home runs and four earned runs in six innings. That, by itself, is rough for the Nationals’ No. 2 starter. More troubling is those numbers against the lowly Giants, who came into the game last in the National League in home runs and OPS.

Two of Tuesday’s home runs came on leaking two-seam fastballs which ended up in the middle of the plate. Two of them were also on the first pitch.

“I didn't think they were too bad of pitches, especially early in the count,” Strasburg said. “I think it's more so of not falling into a pattern as much. You go off the scouting report as much as you can, but I think in certain situations guys will come off that, especially with the secondary stuff that I have. So I just have to be more aware of it out there in situations and not just consistently start the guy off with heater, heater, heater, especially as the game goes on. So something to learn from, but not too concerned about it.”

Strasburg’s ERA is 5.56. He’s had one plus-outing during the season. It came against the New York Mets on April 4. Recall that was a day game in New York when the Mets had to fly up the night before, prompting noted travel grumbler Noah Syndergaard to comment on the travel logistics. Syndergaard had a case then.

Outside of that afternoon, Strasburg has not pitched more than six innings or allowed fewer than four earned runs.

2. Want more bullpen fun? We have it.

Austen Williams made his season debut in the seventh inning Tuesday night. He walked Kevin Pillar on a 3-2 pitch. Pillar stole second. Gerardo Parra doubled down the left-field line. Pillar scored. Williams was removed after 11 pitches.

The decision was strange. Parra’s double was the result of him swinging at a pitch out of the strike zone which somehow stayed fair up the line. It was not hit hard or in a way that suggested a pitcher in trouble. Yet, bench coach Chip Hale, working in the place of ejected manager Davey Martinez, pulled Williams in favor of Matt Grace. Another run scored.

Trevor Rosenthal appeared in the eighth inning. His first pitch was a strike. His second hit Brandon Belt. The count went 3-0 to Brandon Crawford, before a strike and the anticipated ball four.

Rosenthal then struck out Evan Longoria on three pitches. Kevin Pillar hit a soft single to center to score a run. Gerardo Parra struck out in an eight-pitch at-bat. Yangervis Solarte flew out to shallow center. Rosenthal threw 27 pitches, 16 strikes. Progress.

“Yeah, I feel a lot more normal today as far as my emotions and my nerves,” Rosenthal said. “Everything feels back to what I remember. I’m happy the way I’m feeling. I think there’s good things to come.”

3. A rarity Tuesday night: Martinez was ejected following the bottom of the fifth inning.

The Nationals were irritated early in the game with the strike zone of home plate umpire Tony Randazzo. Brian Dozier and Anthony Rendon both struck out looking in the bottom of the fifth inning, leading to Randazzo drawing the ire of the strikeout victims and Martinez.

Martinez’s continued arguing of balls and strikes led to his ejection. His ejection led to animated on-field arguing before he departed up the clubhouse ramp. Hale took over for Martinez following his second career ejection.

“I was in the dugout,” Martinez said. “I said, 'Hey, let's go. You gotta be better than that.' I didn't cuss. I didn't say much other than let's go. And what really irritated me was him putting his hand up in my face pretty much. So I can tolerate a lot of things. Don't do that. I have a lot of respect for umpires — everybody knows that. I typically don't complain too much about them. But you know him walking towards our dugout when I'm in the dugout, I hope the league looks at that because like I said, I didn't say much to really get tossed. But he felt like I said enough.”

4. Among the questions at spring training was how Martinez would split playing time between new catchers Yan Gomes and Kurt Suzuki. Six weeks into the season, a clear picture has emerged.

Suzuki will be paired with Anibal Sanchez and Strasburg. Familiarity is the key there. Suzuki caught Sanchez last year in Atlanta during Sanchez’s resurgence. He previously caught Strasburg during his first stop in Washington from 2012-13.

Gomes will catch Max Scherzer, Patrick Corbin and Jeremy Hellickson -- for the most part.

“We’ve got two really good catchers,” Martinez said. “They could play any given day.”

5. Brian Dozier and Victor Robles returned to the lineup Tuesday. Dozier’s appearance meant Howie Kendrick was back to the bench (for most of the night) and Wilmer Difo remained at shortstop. The latter is going to continue until Trea Turner is healed from a broken finger (there remains no timetable).

Difo came into Tuesday hitting .184. Restless folks have asked if there is a way to play someone -- currently on the roster -- at shortstop instead of him. That’s not going to happen.

Kendrick is 35 years old, has never played shortstop in the majors and is coming off an Achilles tendon tear last season as well as a hamstring pull in spring training. He can’t play regularly without a significant risk of injury.

Dozier has not played shortstop since his rookie year in 2012, when he was a below-average defensive shortstop as a 25 year old. Dozier turns 32 in a month.

Rendon is not moving from third. The end.

Difo picked up two hits Tuesday. His offense will never be elite. It will likely not be league average. But, he’s not being removed from shortstop any time soon, and not for anyone currently on the roster.

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Nationals face dilemma as Sean Doolittle's usage mounts, velocity drops

Nationals face dilemma as Sean Doolittle's usage mounts, velocity drops

Davey Martinez had no hesitation in his answer or decision on Friday in Philadelphia. First game out of the break, facing a team right next to the Nationals in the standings, a 4-0 lead. Closer Sean Doolittle was coming in to end it, though it was a non-save situation and he is being used at an extreme level.

“Here’s my thoughts: It took me about three seconds,” Martinez said Friday. “Playing at Citizens [Bank] Park. Four runs. That ain’t much here. Those guys can hit. Doolittle’s coming in the game. It’s a big moment. And, he’s my guy. To me, that game right there, it’s huge coming off a four-day break.”

So, Doolittle made his 40th appearance of the season. Saturday brought his 41st appearance. He did not pitch Sunday, a day game after a late night.

Trends are emerging through his high usage rate. Doolittle’s velocity is down for the fourth consecutive season. The dip is slight year over year, from 93.9 mph average fastball velocity to 93.6. His velocity was distinctly down in Philadelphia over the weekend despite four days off. Doolittle threw 12 fastballs Friday, 10 of which were slower than his average fastball velocity this season. He threw 19 fastballs Saturday; 13 were below his average velocity (two others matched it). 

“I’m not exactly sure why it’s down,” Doolittle said Saturday. “I know from past experience, not to panic if I see the 91, 92. I feel pretty good -- everybody gets a little tired around this point of the season, but if I stay in my mechanics and don’t try to overthrow, I can still get that life and deception on my fastball. I can still, like [Saturday], I can still navigate innings and get guys out. These last two nights I’ve been really pleased with how I’ve been able to manage my energy level without maybe my best fastball.”

He is on pace for a career-high 72 appearances and 1,214 pitches. The latter would exceed his career mark of 1,019 by almost 200 pitches. One of the most telling numbers around Doolittle is his games finished vs. saves. He leads the league with 37 games finished but has just 20 saves, which is tied for fourth with three others. National League saves leader Kirby Yates has finished 35 games, but has 30 saves. Kenley Jansen: 33 games finished, 23 saves. Will Smith: 35 games finished, 23 saves. No other closer has appeared in more non-save situations.

Doolittle’s velocity also dropped earlier in the season before a mechanical adjustment kicked it back up to the 94- and 95-mph range for a spell. He did turn loose a 95-mph fastball Saturday. He half-joked about it.

“See it’s in there,” Doolittle said. “I just got to pick and choose, I guess, when to use it.”

His manager is using a more straight-ahead approach. Doolittle is out there, so he is using him. A lot.

And all this is more for recognition of the situation as opposed to blame assessment, When the bullpen was at its worst, Doolittle was summoned at times because his teammates were in the process of blowing a game or couldn’t be trusted in the first place. The Nationals were also rapidly losing ground, so Martinez had to be sure he was sure whenever possible. But, also, there have been times when Doolittle’s appearance in a non-save situation appeared unnecessary.

Piled together, the Nationals have an ongoing conundrum: they need to manage Doolittle’s appearances while in the middle of a push up the standings and without a definitive backup. Fernando Rodney has helped. An acquisition before the trade deadline could help further. And the coming week we’ll clarify if two games in Philadelphia were a blip or more foreboding.

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Nationals broadcaster F.P Santangelo: Team never panicked in slow start

Nationals broadcaster F.P Santangelo: Team never panicked in slow start

The Washington Nationals early start may have had fans and pundits writing off the team for the season, but no one inside the Nationals organization was panicking, said one insider. 

“I know there was a while there where everybody wanted Davey gone and people were questioning Mike," Nationals broadcaster F.P. Santangelo said on The Sports Junkies Monday, "but they were the calming forces in all this."

From bullpen woes to injuries, the Nationals had a rough start to their season and then suddenly, as if it had never happened, they turned it around.

“We were all scratching our heads like what in the world is going on? This team is way too good to be doing this and it was happening nightly,” Santangelo said.

As pressure mounted on the team to keep winning, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo reiterated time and time again during his Wednesday morning spot on The Sports Junkies that their goal was to play good baseball and to not worry about wins or losses, which Santangelo echoed.

"They were calm the whole time," Santangelo said. "They had veteran presence in the clubhouse and nobody panicked."

Suddenly, with a 12-10 win over the Miami Marlins on May 24, the Nats turned it around. Rizzo and the Lerners made the decision to cut their losses on Trevor Rosenthal's contract, the bullpen started to pitch well and adjustments were made accordingly, says Santangelo.

The Nationals open their two-game series against the Baltimore Orioles Tuesday at 7:05 p.m.

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