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Injury and struggles highlight Nationals' frustrating Saturday night vs. Marlins

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Injury and struggles highlight Nationals' frustrating Saturday night vs. Marlins

The Washington Nationals lost to the Miami Marlins, 9-3, Saturday night to drop below .500 with a 9-10 record. Here are five observations from the game…

1. One of the biggest storylines surrounding the early part of the Nats’ season has been Anthony Rendon’s blistering start. He entered Saturday’s affair riding a 17-game hitting streak, the longest in baseball this season.

For the first time since Opening Day, Rendon did not record a hit. In a number of the previous 17 games, Rendon has had to wait until late in the game to record his streak-extending hit. Saturday, he was not given that chance.

In the third inning, Rendon was hit by a 95-mph pitch on or near his elbow, and while he stayed on to run and eventually came around to score, he did not return to the field in the bottom of the inning.

Rendon has been, by far, the Nationals’ best player in 2019. He has hit the ball as well as anybody in baseball not named Cody Bellinger or Christian Yelich, and his hot start helped cement him as maybe the best third baseman in the sport.

With Bryce Harper in Philadelphia and Trea Turner on the Injured List (also after getting hit by a pitch), Rendon has had to carry the burden of generating offense as the team’s lone remaining star position player. 

The Nationals will certainly be hoping for good news on Rendon’s long term outlook. In a tight National League East race, they can’t afford to lose anyone, let alone their best player.

Rendon was sporting a career-low strikeout rate prior to the Giants series this week, and he still has, by far, a career-high Isolated Power number. His slugging percentage and wOBA support these numbers. There’s no other way to put it: Rendon has been a stud this season.

The fact that the Nats’ third baseman stayed in the game initially bodes well, but if the news is worse than fans are hoping for, could this finally be the moment where the front office decides to call up top prospect Carter Kieboom?

2. Rendon entered Saturday’s game with the Seventh-best Barrels/PA percentage in baseball this season. It’s a Statcast stat that highlights how often a hitter, for lack of a better description, hits the ball really well (AKA barrels up the ball). It’s a good number to reference for how successful a batter is on a regular basis. 

It will surprise no one that Rendon ranks so highly. Seventh in Major League Baseball is pretty good. But it’s only good for third on the Nationals.

Ahead of Rendon? A couple of backups in Matt Adams and Howie Kendrick, who rank second and third in baseball, respectively.

Kendrick replaced Rendon Saturday and stayed stayed hot at the plate with an RBI single in his first at-bat. Adams had a multi-hit outing in place of Ryan Zimmerman and drove in two runs.

With the injuries the Nationals have suffered to their lineup this season, bench bats like Kendrick and Adams are more important than ever, and may end up playing more regular roles than anticipated. If Brian Dozier continues to struggle, Kendrick could find himself starting at some point, even when Trea Turner and Rendon are both healthy.

The Nats will be able to weather their early-season storm more easily if the two can stay hot for a while longer.

3. It would have been completely reasonable to expect a vintage Max Scherzer shutdown outing against the Marlins. Miami’s lineup isn’t going to scare anybody, and Scherzer felt due for a dominant performance.

Instead, it was a frustrating outing for the Nationals’ ace as he failed to complete six innings. Scherzer allowed 11 hits in 5.1 innings, striking out nine and walking none while giving up seven runs (six earned). 

He had swing-and-miss stuff, as he induced 18 swinging strikes on 108 pitches, 16 of which came from his fastball and slider.

Where he really struggled was with his changeup, an offering that resulted in zero strikes, swinging or called, on 13 pitches. The lack of an effective changeup meant hitters were able to stay balanced in the box, and as a result, they teed off on pitches they were able to put in play.

Nine of the 20 balls in play off Scherzer were hit 95+ mph. He has allowed hard-hit balls at a career-high rate this season, and that was already true before Saturday’s outing. In fact, he’s in just the 34th-percentile in all of baseball in hard-hit rate, a surprising mark for someone with Scherzer’s track record.

Even when the Nats would tie up the game, time and time again Scherzer gave the lead right back. Neither time the Nationals scored was Scherzer able to deliver a shutdown inning in the bottom half.

If Washington is going to make a run in the National League East, they need Scherzer to be his usual great self. Saturday was a step in the wrong direction.

Scherzer wasn’t his usual sharp self Saturday, but he wasn’t helped by his defense, either.

4. The Nats had a comedy of errors with their gloves in the first series of the season, but had settled down a bit in the field since then. They entered today’s game with 11 errors on the season, middle of the pack across the league, though Baseball Reference has them in the bottom ten in most advanced defensive metrics (here’s where I mention that fielding metrics take much longer than three weeks to stabilize).

Against the Marlins, the defense was only charged with two official errors, but there were plenty of miscues.

Multiple botched relay throws from the outfield helped lead to two runs scoring in the bottom of the first. Yan Gomes had a throwing error while trying to throw out a base stealer. Victor Robles dropped a ball that hit the heel of his glove, albeit on a difficult play near the wall. Later, he made a terrific catch on a similar ball to center, but lost his balance and crashed into the wall, allowing the runner to score from second base on a sacrifice fly.

Even Scherzer himself was unable to make a big play in the field, coming in to pick up a slow dribbler in front of the plate. He tried to make a sliding throw to Gomes covering home plate, but his toss was off target and scooted to the wall, allowing another run to score.

The Nationals are hitting well, averaging more than five runs per game. The reason they’ve hovered around .500 all season long is they’re also allowing more than five runs per game, which is untenable if they want to be legitimate contenders. Some of that is the pitching, specifically the bullpen. But the defense could, and should, be better as well.

5. Is Victor Robles the team’s leadoff hitter of the future? If his 2019 stats when leading off an inning are any indication, he’ll do just fine in that role.

The MASN broadcast of today’s game highlighted the success of Robles, Adam Eaton, and Anthony Rendon leading off innings this season. With Eaton currently entrenched atop the order, Robles doesn’t need to worry about a permanent move just yet, but hitting behind the pitcher’s spot, he’ll have to lead off more often than not.

Robles entered Saturday’s game 10-for-18 in these scenarios, with two doubles and two home runs to boot. Against the Marlins he improved that number, going 2-for-3 with another double to pair with a perfectly executed bunt down the third base line for a hit.

It’s the second night in a row Robles has bunted for a base hit, showing off his elite speed. Statcast has his average sprint speed 39th in Major League Baseball, but he has the 9th-most Bolts (any run reaching 30ft/second) in the league. He has an extra gear that very few players in baseball can match, and he uses it as necessary to get on base before the team’s big bats come to the plate.

That top end speed, along with his contact abilities, will go a long way in helping him succeed at the top of a lineup some day. For now, the Nationals will be happy to keep having him lead off innings in front of the heart of the order.

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How to celebrate the ultimate D.C. sports day of the summer

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How to celebrate the ultimate D.C. sports day of the summer

Summertime; the time of year when you only look at your calendar to make sure you haven’t double-booked yourself for your ritual weekend brunches, or the time of year you exhaust every vacation day you’ve stored up over the course of the year to get the kids somewhere near their grandparents so you can continue to work on that ever-elusive summer dad-bod. Either one is a win in my book.

Summer also gives birth to one of the rare occasions when there can be three to four different DC-sports related activities all occurring within the same 24-hour timeframe. Thursday, June 20, is THAT day!

Who’s playing? Is there a chance I can attend the game? If not, how do you watch them all? These burning questions are about to be answered faster than you can ride down the escalator at the Pentagon City Metro Station…I think. So, let’s hurry and get started.

We’ll run through these one at a time, in chronological order!

Event 1: Soccer: 3 p.m. EST

1.       Who’s playing?

a.       The US Women’s National Team takes the pitch against Sweden as they look to continue their international dominance in the Women’s World Cup. And yes, it’s DC team because we’re the nation’s Capital.

2.       Reason to watch/attend?

a.       These women are the best Soccer players on the planet; having showcased their proficiency for many years on the world stage. Remember they put up 13 against Thailand in their first match! Don’t miss an opportunity to witness history in the making.  

3.       How to watch/attend?

a.       You can either pull up to Dulles and jump on the next flight to France, or you can be like the rest of us Super-geniuses and tune in at 3pm to watch it from the comfort of your favorite Soccer bar. Make sure to buy a round for anyone rocking a USWNT jersey; #OneNationOneTeam. USA, USA, USA!!!

Event 2: Baseball: 7 p.m. EST

1.       Who’s playing?

a.       The Washington Nationals are wrapping up a 4-game series against the Philadelphia Phillies.

2.       Why should I watch/attend?

a.       This is the last day of Bryce Harper in THIS city until September. HALLELUJAH! 

3.       How to watch/attend?

a.       First pitch is at 7:05 p.m. so you can either slide by the park and enjoy the smorgasbord of delicacies offered at Nats park, or you can tune in on the tube. I suggest hitting the park and booing Harper until you lose your voice! Tell your boss it’s my fault you’re hoarse. It won’t be the first time someone did that.

Event 3:  Football: 7 p.m. EST

1.       Who’s playing?

       The Washington Valor are back home in Capital One Arena for another chapter in their I-95 battle with their rivals the Baltimore Brigade.

2.       Why should I watch/attend?

       The Valor won the AFL XXXI crown against the Brigade, on their home field. Baltimore hasn’t forgotten that sting  in the least bit. Plus, COA has a wicked Bud Light Party Zone where you can catch unlimited beer and perhaps a football from the field. If you haven't seen and AFL game in person, then you're missing out on some really fun action. They even let you down on the field after the game for autographs and pics with the players.

3.       How to watch/attend?

       Kickoff is at 7 p.m. whether you’re at the Arena or not. Since the Nats game is at the same time, you may have to decide which game to see in person and which one to stream on your phone. Hint: the Valor game is on NBC Sports Washington so there’s that. And, if the Nats game gets rained out, then problem solved and see you in the party zone! 

Event 4: Basketball(NBA): 8 p.m. EST

1.       Who’s playing?

a.       NOBODY, derp! But, it’s the NBA draft and frankly put, I couldn’t be more excited it’s finally here.

2.       Why should I watch/attend?

a.       This is the first official activation in the post-Grunfeld era for the Wizards. More importantly, this will be the first chance for Wiz fans to wrap their minds around the new direction the team will be taking. Optimism starts here!

3.       How to watch/attend?

a.       Unless you feel like hopping a flight to Chicago to see the Draft in person, I highly suggest you tune in to NBC Sports Washington for full draft coverage on ‘Wizards on the Clock’ at 8p. In my humble opinion, you won’t find better comprehensive coverage. You can watch on TV or via the MyTeams App while you’re at the Nats game booing Bryce if you’re slick with multi-tasking.

Event 4: Basketball(WNBA): 10 p.m. EST

1.       Who’s playing?

a.       Your Washington Mystics are out in Sin City to take on the Las Vegas Aces. Note: Bill Laimbeer sighting!

2.       Reason to watch/attend?

a.       The Aces sit atop the Western Conference with Australian native Liz Cambage (she can BALL) holding down the paint. It’s going to be a good test for the Mystics and you’ll get a chance to see how unrelentingly talented Elena Delle Donne, Natasha Cloud, and crew really are. Buckets, the Mystics get buckets!

3.       How to watch/attend?

a.       I know the temptation to hit Vegas is rising by the moment but fret not. You can save a ton of money and possibly help your best bud save his fragile relationship by staying in DC and catching the game at 10 p.m. on Monumental Sports Network/NBC Sports Washington.

Now you know how to do it while maintaining some semblance of sanity, and you can even keep a running tab on who’s been the most DC among your friends. I’m certain we’ll have another opportunity for this phenomenon when Fall comes back around, but for now, let’s all enjoy the summer and all the games therein!

 

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Max Scherzer loses a round, but wins the fight

Max Scherzer loses a round, but wins the fight

WASHINGTON -- Everything outside the damage framing his right eye was standard when Max Scherzer walked toward right field around 6:40 p.m. Wednesday. He went through his usual running routine before graduating to long toss with bullpen catcher Octavio Martinez then moving into the bullpen, where Kurt Suzuki waited.

As Scherzer warmed, fans lined up against the silver rail in section 127. The second bullpen catcher, Nilson Robledo, sat on a folding chair. Martinez stood and moved his head left to right as warmup pitches sizzled past. Pitching coach Paul Menhart flanked Scherzer with a towel over his right shoulder. When Scherzer took a water break during warmups, Menhart took his towel, wrapped it around Scherzer’s neck then scrubbed the sweat from his head and bruised eye while looking every bit the part of corner man. Only the Q-tip and vaseline were absent.

At question when the day began was if Scherzer would even make it this far. Scherzer was still asleep when manager Davey Martinez met with reporters in the morning before the doubleheader against Philadelphia began. Martinez was under the impression then Scherzer would pitch later in the evening, but did not know that for sure until Scherzer woke up, called trainer Paul Lessard and said he was ready to go. Not long after he confirmed himself ready, Scherzer arrived at the park where he practiced bunting in the batting cage. He finished his session with swings and a shout of “Let’s go!”

A final exultant spin and slap of the glove followed an 86-mph slider that closed Scherzer’s night -- forever the “Blackeye game” -- and sent it into lore three hours after he warmed up. A day after becoming national news, and being laughed at by his wife, Erica, for bloodying himself in BP, Scherzer threw seven scoreless innings for an ascending Nationals team which swept a doubleheader from Philadelphia. The opener was a 6-2 win. The nightcap a 2-0 victory anchored by Scherzer’s ornery performance while the swelling under his eye jiggled.

Before he arrived Wednesday, Martinez decided to dispatch fresh black T-shirts which said, “Stay in the fight” on the front and “162+” on the back -- a creation from him and director of mental conditioning, Mark Campbell. “I thought it was perfect timing to get them out,” Martinez said.

Asked about the “plus” on the back, Martinez added, “That’s what you play for.”

Such swagger would prompt eye-rolls three weeks ago when the Nationals staggered home from New York. Martinez’s job was in jeopardy -- to a degree. The season was in severe jeopardy. They are 15-7 since, a run good enough to push them three games under .500 for the first time since April 29. The spiraling Mets lost, so Washington hopped them into third place. The Nationals had not held that position since April 19.

Pitch 117 from Scherzer is one of the reasons they arrived in such a spot. He was tiring, J.T. Realmuto was up, and the tying run was on second. It was at-bat number 40 for Realmuto against Scherzer. General familiarity is one thing. To have faced an astute catcher that many times was another, which is why the final strike provided Scherzer so much sizzle when he left the mound.

“When Realmuto gets in the box, we've had a ton of history and we've faced each other so much, I just know it comes down to execution,” Scherzer said. “I was able to get ahead in the count and execute a good slider. That's where [Kurt Suzuki] and I, that just shows you where Zuk and I are at. I was praying for him to throw down a 1-2 slider and he called it. I was on the mound, just hey, just execute this, execute this, stay through this, don’t' get too far ahead of yourself, and was able to throw the pitch exactly the way I wanted to and get out of a jam and keep that a 1-0 ballgame.”

Realmuto became Scherzer’s 10th strikeout. Jean Segura made it to third base in the first inning. No other Phillies runner made it past second against Scherzer. His ERA has dropped to 2.62. He leads the National League in strikeouts. He doesn’t miss starts -- makes his “posts” as he calls them in old-time fashion -- whenever they come up. “Competitiveness” is always referenced when speaking reverently of Scherzer. Perhaps “reliability” is a more rewarding word. The first, presumably, leads to the latter.

“It’s probably one of the most impressive things -- I can’t let him hear me, I can’t toot Max too much to his face,” Brian Dozier said when looking for clearance in the clubhouse. “It really is one of the most impressive things I’ve seen in awhile. He’s probably the best pitcher in our generation and you don’t get that status unless you take the ball every fifth day no matter if you’re doing good, doing bad, got a broken nose, you always want the ball.”

“I was kind of joking with him, ‘Oh you’re throwing today?’ He kind of gave me the go-to-hell look. ‘Of course, I’m throwing today, what do you mean?’ That’s Max. It showed up today. He had really good stuff. Some of the best stuff I’ve seen.“

It was a visceral drama. Scherzer said the pain was limited, which left his pride likely more damaged than his face. Years of needling circled back at him following his viral gaffe in batting practice. Jokes about his appearance following a broken nose were made in the clubhouse. An NC State football helmet Trea Turner typically keeps in his locker was on the floor in front of Scherzer’s chair. A hand-written note was taped to a corner wall next to Scherzer’s locker with advice: “If you try bunting tonight, please do us all a favor and wear this.” The line to razz an incessant needler filled deep and quick.

“My phone's been blowing up, everybody calling and giving me flak,” Scherzer said. “I love it. If you can't talk trash on me right now, you never will.”

With that, he smiled, and the blood-filled pocket under his eye was raised. He could laugh 36 hours later after becoming a national punchline because showing up and getting it done is always a way to have the final say. He did both Wednesday.

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