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Covid-19 may have solidified the universal designated hitter - and historic footnote for Sean Doolittle

Covid-19 may have solidified the universal designated hitter - and historic footnote for Sean Doolittle

The end of a pitcher at-bats likely came last year in Game 5 of the World Series. Gerrit Cole put together what could be considered the standard pitcher at-bat: he saw five pitches and struck out. Sean Doolittle walked off the mound after turning Cole into the inning’s third out.

Doolittle is now in line to become a historical footnote: The last time a pitcher faced a pitcher in Major League Baseball was Oct. 27, 2019 when Doolittle struck out Cole.

It appears that at-bat is the end because the universal designated hitter is expected to be agreed to for this year and next. Among the few, simple topics the league and MLBPA see the same is the introduction of the DH in the NL. This was coming even without this year’s tumult caused by the Coronavirus pandemic. The designated hitter has won.

The move creates more jobs. The union likes that. The move creates more offense. The league likes that.

    It also unifies the rules in the World Series. No longer is one team built for a certain set of rules all year, then has to pivot in the championship series. How ludicrous such an approach is becomes apparent when applied to other sports. Imagine the NBA Finals being played one way when the Western Conference champion hosted, another when the Eastern Conference champion hosted. It would seem crazy, because it is.

    So, no more pitcher bunting (or broken noses for Max Scherzer). Fewer strikeouts total. Pitchers in the National League will be easier to compare to their American League counterparts.

    Free agency will change. Long-term contracts will appear less grotesque because of the room to move a player to designated hitter. Platoons may also increase.

    Major League Baseball was a 24-team league when it agreed to the “designated pinch-hitter” being allowed in the American League. The owners voted on Jan. 11, 1973 to confirm the position’s entrance into the game.

    The change was supposed to be a three-year experiment. It never went away.

    The Yankees’ Ron Blomberg was the first designated hitter to reach the plate. Luis Tiant walked him April 6, 1973. Initially, the rule did not apply to the World Series. Then it was used every-other year. It became a permanent fixture of the World Series in 1986.

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    Purists will groan. The pro-DH crowd will celebrate. The argument is dissolution of strategy versus a plate appearance which has a legitimate chance of being successful.

    Double-switches in the National League force managers to think ahead. They also force managers to leave a pitcher in a little longer or take him out sooner. The decision-making process was more complicated. How much? It’s hard to say.

    Indisputable is how putrid pitchers are at the plate. Scherzer is among a handful who would practice hitting. The rest didn’t bother. And, the results showed that.

    Let’s look at the hard-hitting Nationals pitchers of 2019. They struck out 135 times in 349 plate appearances (39 percent of the time) last year. They had 41 hits total. Stephen Strasburg led them with 12 (he also hit the only home run in the group, producing a dance we all want to forget but can’t unsee). Scherzer took home the pitcher’s batting title with a robust .182 average.

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    Those people will no longer be hitting. But, Cole served their legacy well in his final at-bat. Five pitches from Doolittle, an eventual strikeout, and everyone left the field.

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    Juan Soto impressed in his first game back but is still working up to full strength

    Juan Soto impressed in his first game back but is still working up to full strength

    One game into his 2020 season, Juan Soto is already filling up the Nationals’ highlight reel.

    The 21-year-old outfielder missed Washington’s first eight games of the season after testing positive for the coronavirus on the morning of the team’s opener. He finally returned to the lineup Wednesday and went 2-for-4 with an RBI double and a diving catch in left field.

    “It feels good to be back,” Soto said after the game. “Being back with the team, trying to have fun in the game and everything. It’s amazing being with my team and my teammates and being ready to go.”

    Washington didn’t win the game, snapping a three-game winning streak with a 3-1 loss at the hands of the New York Mets. But even though the offense wasn’t clicking, Soto’s presence gave the lineup a much deeper look than it had over the first two weeks of the season. He hit fourth, with second baseman Starlin Castro slotted in front of him and Howie Kendrick hitting fifth as the designated hitter.

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    “In his first at-bat, he took a breaking ball and smoked it to left field for a double,” manager Davey Martinez said. “[Then he] took a ball up and in, stayed inside the ball, base hit to right. But he looked good, he really did. Little jumpy, but that’s to be expected his first game back. But he looked good.

    “I love writing his name in the lineup hitting fourth. It’s nice. So hopefully we continue to build him up and he gets ready to play and we can put him out there every day. I always say, he’s 21 years old so it doesn’t take him long to get ready, get loose. But we definitely got to keep an eye on him.”

    Soto originally was cleared to return practicing Saturday, but the Nationals had the weekend off after their series with the Miami Marlins was postponed because of a COVID-19 outbreak in the Fish’s clubhouse. He participated in simulated games through Monday and was available off the bench Tuesday against the Mets.

    Despite his strong performance Wednesday, the Nationals have an off-day Thursday that plays to Soto’s advantage by allowing him to take a day to rest. Martinez said he anticipates Soto being ready to go Friday when the Nationals open up a three-game series with the Baltimore Orioles.

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    “I’m going to rest tomorrow because I played nine innings, I don’t play nine innings in a long time,” Soto said. “We’re going to try to rest my legs, try…to keep in shape and try to come ready to Friday.”

    Late start or not, Soto doesn’t plan on easing into action. After a scheduled off-day Thursday, the Nationals will have 13 straight days with a game. He said that while he will take advantage of the chance to rest, there will be no breaks once the games begin.

    “I just try to play hard,” Soto said. “Every time I’m in the field, it doesn’t matter…if I’m in there, it’s because I’m going to give my 100 percent. If I come to the field and I’m in the lineup, I’m going to give my 100 percent no matter what. And when I’m in the middle of those two lines, I’m ready to give my 100 percent.”

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    Losing Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg is the Nationals' biggest nightmare

    Losing Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg is the Nationals' biggest nightmare

    WASHINGTON -- Post a list of oh-no situations in the Nationals clubhouse and losing Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg at the same time would be on top of it.

    That, at least temporarily, is the situation for the Nationals following Scherzer’s departure Wednesday night. A couple hours after Strasburg finished a 32-pitch simulated game in Nationals Park, Scherzer left his start one inning and 27 pitches into it. Scherzer said postgame he “tweaked” his hamstring Tuesday when sprinting in the outfield. He went on to say he doesn’t expect the issue to last.

    “I’m really not concerned about this,” Scherzer said after the Nationals’ 3-1 loss to the Mets.

    His right hamstring also gave him trouble before his July 29 start against Toronto. Scherzer pitched through it then, piling up 112 pitches. He could not -- or would not -- work through it Wednesday after catcher Kurt Suzuki expressed concern about the look of his pitches following the top of the first inning.

    “Zook saw what my stuff was playing like -- he didn’t like it,” Scherzer said. “He just didn’t like what he saw -- how the ball was coming out of my hand. We just had a conversation: ‘Just get out of here. You’re taking on too much risk to continue to pitch.’ I didn’t injure it any further. I didn’t do anything worse. That was my limit for [Wednesday]. I wasn’t going to push past that limit.”

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    The Nationals have sunk their money and faith into the starting rotation. It won them a World Series last year. Its existence is a prime result of Mike Rizzo’s foundational preference in team building. The organization gave long-term contracts to Scherzer, Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. Paying pitchers for such an extended period can be problematic. It hasn’t been in Washington.

    Though, this year, the two top ends of that approach are not available to pitch in the season’s third week. It could be temporary. Strasburg’s simulated game went well Wednesday. His return to the mound could come Sunday in Nationals Park against Baltimore or Monday in New York against the Mets. The right wrist impingement which led to a nerve problem in his hand has calmed. Multiple injections and time off stifled the pain. The main problem before? He couldn’t get a feel for his pitches.

    “I was waking up in the middle of the night and my hand was asleep,” Strasburg previously said. “Kept falling asleep and I was getting these feelings, and it wasn’t really bothering me throwing. It seemed like once I tried starting to ramp up and stuff, the symptoms started to increase.”

    Which was exactly the concern across the league before the season began. Too much too fast was on the mind of every manager in July. It remains so in August. Martinez thought about the idea when he saw what he termed “weird” injuries around the league. His general concern exists around the bevy of older players on the Nationals. He was also wary of pushing 21-year-old Juan Soto back to the field too soon. A short season is a short season. But, years of team control -- as is the case for Strasburg and Soto -- is the long game. Not exchanging now for later has to be part of the thought process.

    “We had to ramp these guys up fairly quickly,” Martinez said. “I know with our guys -- Max, Stras, all these guys -- they worked diligently over three months. These things during the course of a year....I’ll tell you right now it’s been really, really hot here. These guys are getting after it. That might have something to do with it. Dehydration. I just hope [Thursday] Max wakes up, he feels better, we get him back Friday, we’ll see where he’s at, then go from there.

    “But we’ve got to be really, really careful. We really do.”

    Scherzer is toward the end of his journey. This is year six of the seven on his $210 million contract. The deal is a win if Wednesday night was his last appearance (it won’t be). Scherzer has finished in the top five of National League Cy Young voting every year in Washington. He’s been among the three finalists four times. He’s won twice.

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    Scherzer also turned 36 years old nine days ago. He went through multiple injured list stints last season because of back and neck problems. And, eventually, was part of stunning World Series news when he had to be scratched from his Game 5 start after his neck locked up on him the morning prior. Scherzer said he fell out of bed and his wife, Erica, had to help dress him because he could not raise his arm above his shoulder. He was back on the mound for Game 7.

    He felt his delivery was causing the problem. Scherzer said in March video showed his glove in the wrong place, straining his back. This time, his hamstring groaned during his regular running routine. These are the kind of injuries that pile up with age. Scherzer’s ability to push aside the aging process during the life of his contract is almost as impressive as the outcomes all the times he does pitch. Run, lift, prepare, post. It’s a formula which kept him on the mound with regularity for a decade.

    However, the process has become more challenging since last August when his back and neck problems began. This could well be a blip, though hamstring injuries rarely are. They tend to linger and nag, much like the problems for the Nationals to start 2020, which were precisely what they wanted to avoid.

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