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Gaffe by pinch-running pitcher costs Phillies, Nationals win 5-4

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Gaffe by pinch-running pitcher costs Phillies, Nationals win 5-4

PHILADELPHIA -- Vince Velasquez was aggressive at the wrong time.

Velasquez, a pinch-running pitcher, was called out for leaving second base early while tagging up, resulting in a game-ending double play that gave the Washington Nationals a 5-4 win over the Philadelphia Phillies on Tuesday.

After Aaron Nola outpitched Max Scherzer for the second time in six days in a matchup of NL Cy Young Award contenders, the Phillies watched Washington rally for three runs in the ninth to take a 5-3 lead.

Wilson Ramos got Philadelphia within a run with a pinch-hit double in the bottom half, and Velasquez ran for the catcher. Greg Holland relieved and retired Jorge Alfaro on a fly ball to center, with Velasquez moving to third as the potential tying run. Velasquez slid past the bag but wasn't tagged.

The Nationals, however, appealed that Velasquez left too soon, and he was called out. A replay upheld the ruling.

"I wasn't nervous. I was trying to put pressure on the outfielder," Velasquez said.

Manager Gabe Kapler told Velasquez after the game he should've stayed on second.

"He's an inexperienced runner who gave us a valiant effort," Kapler said. "He got overzealous."

Anthony Rendon hit a go-ahead, two-run homer off Pat Neshek (1-1) in the Nationals ninth. The Nationals trailed 3-2 when Bryce Harper drew a leadoff walk from Tommy Hunter. Neshek surrendered Rendon's 17th homer, and Washington added another run on an error after Ryan Zimmerman hit his third double of the game and stole third.

"I was just trying to see a pitch to hit," Rendon said about connecting on a 1-2 slider.

It was the latest gut-wrenching loss for the Phillies, who are 6-13 since Aug. 8 and fell 4 games behind NL East-leading Atlanta.

"It's a super difficult loss to swallow," Kapler said. "I don't worry about this group. They're tenacious and resilient."

Alfaro and Odubel Herrera hit homers off Scherzer to hand Nola a 3-0 lead. But poor defense and a shaky bullpen blew it.

Nola gave up two runs -- one earned -- and four hits, striking out eight in seven innings. He threw eight dominant innings in Philadelphia's 2-0 win at Washington last Thursday.

Scherzer gave up three runs and four hits in five innings, tying for his shortest outing of the season on April 4 at Atlanta.

"It was awesome," Scherzer said of the comeback. "A great team win."

Herrera, who hit a two-run shot off Scherzer last week, gave the Phillies a 1-0 lead in the fourth. Batting cleanup for the first time in his career, Herrera drove a 2-2 fastball into the right-field seats for his 21st homer. Alfaro connected in the fifth.

Nola took a shutout into the seventh before Rendon led off with a single and Zimmerman hit a double with one out. Matt Wieters followed with a grounder to first. Carlos Santana stepped on the bag for the second out but made an errant throw home allowing Zimmerman to also score.

Koda Glover (1-2) tossed a scoreless eighth for the win.

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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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