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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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Ryan Zimmerman’s return to the Nationals is finally happening

Ryan Zimmerman’s return to the Nationals is finally happening

If Ryan Zimmerman did not return to the Nationals, he at least would have a future teaching how not to negotiate.

Zimmerman openly drove down his bargaining leverage for almost a year before signing a one-year deal on Friday to return to the only professional team he’s known, a source confirmed. The deal is reported at $2 million.

Throughout the season, Zimmerman openly discussed his interest in returning and understanding it would be at a low rate. As if his stance wasn’t already clear, Zimmerman explained at a screening of the Nationals’ championship video he would return or play more golf.

“So, we’ll be good to go,” Zimmerman said.

It’s baseball for now. Zimmerman rejoins the defending World Series champions to play his 16th season. He’s a 35-year-old platoon player this season. Zimmerman’s money and legacy have been established. He’s back in the fold to pursue another title. 

And he makes an already old Nationals team older. Zimmerman turns 36 years old the day after the 2020 regular season ends. Howie Kendrick will be 37 years old by midseason. Asdrúbal Cabrera is 34 years old. Eric Thames is 33 years old. Will Harris is 35, Daniel Hudson 32, Sean Doolittle 33, Max Scherzer 35, Kurt Suzuki 36. Yan Gomes will be 33 just after the All-Star break. 

Zimmerman will share first base with Thames and, occasionally, Howie Kendrick. They provide an intriguing splits-based platoon. Thames hits right-handers well -- 23 of his 25 2019 home runs came against them, as did much of his opportunity in Milwaukee -- and Zimmerman has a .917 career OPS against left-handed pitchers. Zimmerman is the much better defender.

He’s back because he -- and the Nationals -- believe Zimmerman’s production remains directly tied to his health. His September and postseason work showed Zimmerman’s bat speed remains intact. He is quietly one of the better defensive first baseman in the league. They think they can protect him. Overall, the Nationals are so comfortable with an expanse of older players because they plan to shield them with limited usage. Also, Josh Donaldson went to Minnesota, clearing the cash and providing a need for Zimmerman. 

Kendrick, Cabrera and Starlin Castro can play various infield spots. Thames and Zimmerman will reduce the other’s role, as well as pinch-hit when not starting. Davey Martinez has options. He also has the challenge of rotating players. One thing on his side: older players know they are just that. Grousing about playing time should not be an issue with the group, the majority of which played as role players last year on the way to a World Series title. 

One other thing to note about Zimmerman: he’s 30 home runs short of 300. Can he get there with another two years on the field? He has at least one more to add to his total, assuring his driver has another lonely summer.

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Scott Boras vehemently disputes the Jose Altuve buzzer-cheating rumors

Scott Boras vehemently disputes the Jose Altuve buzzer-cheating rumors

Renowned MLB agent Scott Boras outright denied the buzzer-cheating rumors surrounding his client Jose Altuve, in an interview with TMZ.  The high-profile agent didn't mince words about the allegations. 

After Altuve hit the series-clinching walk-off home run in Game 6 of the 2019 ALCS, the Astros' star appears to tell his teammates not to rip off his jersey. This led to rumors that he was hiding a device underneath it.

It's not factual," Boras said. "It's just innuendo."

There is nothing to any form of electronic dynamic," Boras told the reporter. "The Commissioner's office studied it. Everyone knows it."

Altuve publicly denied the rumors regarding the buzzer to help him tip pitches last weekend at the Astros' winter FanFest.

Altuve congratulated the Nationals on winning the World Series and believes everything from the fallout of the trashcan scandal will be resolved in due time.

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