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It’s not whether Sean Doolittle should have been in, it’s whether he should have come out

It’s not whether Sean Doolittle should have been in, it’s whether he should have come out

It’s the speed of the unraveling which is so alarming. The result alone -- ⅔ of an inning, four earned runs, soul-splitting loss -- would be damning enough for Sean Doolitle. But to not record an out before a three-run lead is gone? That’s a different breed of anguish.

The Mets put Doolittle in this spot Friday night. Their recent mojo in jeopardy with the Nationals’ closer on the mound, New York found a way to roar forward in a 7-6 win. Doolittle didn’t have it -- again -- in Citi Field. The Mets entered the game hitting .385 against him this season with a 1.025 OPS. Then J.D. Davis double. Wilson Ramos singled. Todd Frazier homered. Tie game. 

Five batters later, Michael Conforto’s single over the head of Adam Eaton -- a fly ball with a 70 percent catch probability -- landed in right field. The Mets stormed onto the field following their seventh consecutive win. Doolittle popped his cap up and looked down as he walked off the field.

Citi Field is home to ugliness for Doolittle this season. He was stunned May 22 when he allowed four runs and did not record an out. That was the second of three consecutive losses to New York in its final at-bat during a four-game sweep. The “dark times” as Doolittle referred to them once this season, back when April and May were working daily to sabotage August and September.

That night was the worst outing of Doolittle’s career. Friday carried its own disastrous weight because of the Mets’ recent run. They are cooking and believe the vibe to be authentic. Stephen Strasburg did plenty to stifle such thoughts with a seven-inning, good-enough performance in which he set the organization’s strikeout record while giving up three earned runs. He left with a 5-3 lead. That’s when Davey Martinez’s choices began.

Everyone in the bullpen had at least one day off. So, Washington is up two entering the eighth inning. Martinez picks Daniel Hudson to handle it. He does so adroitly. 

The Nationals tacked on a run in the ninth. Fernando Rodney warmed alongside Doolittle. Up four, maybe Rodney starts the inning. Up three, Doolittle is the easy choice, the Mets’ prior success against him notwithstanding. He’s the closer with a 2.81 ERA and two days of rest in his pocket. In he goes.

The question is if he should have stayed in. Multiple things for Martinez to consider there: psyche, who is coming up, who replaces him.

To the first. Removing the closer mid-inning is always a tenuous proposition. It’s a confidence bash and rarely happens. Blowing a save? Part of the game. Stow it, forget it, move on. Being taken out in the middle of ninth-inning chaos? Only in exceptional circumstances, and maybe not even then.

Left-handed Joe Panik followed Frazier’s home run. Should be an out. It’s a good matchup. Panik singled. At that point, it appeared clear Doolittle was reeling. Rodney was ready. All that mattered was keeping the game tied. 

Juan Lagares bunts, Anthony Rendon makes a nice play to cut down Panik at second. One out. Left-handed Jeff McNeil -- tied for second in the majors with a .336 average -- is next. Seemingly, this is a spot for Doolittle, who has held lefties to a .554 OPS this season. However, McNeil has almost even OPS splits and is hitting 40 points higher against left-handers. The calculus for Martinez is do I leave my struggling closer in to stay left-on-left, his strong suit, though it doesn’t matter to the batter and said closer is having a bad night. McNeil flies out. Two outs.

This could have been the spot for Rodney. Two outs, the winning run on base, a right-handed batter, Amed Rosario, who fairs much worse against right-handed pitching. But do you trust Rodney to fix this? Doolittle stays in. Rosario singles. 

That brings Conforto to the plate. He’s worse against left-handed pitching. Demonstrably so. Do splits matter at that point? Doolittle has thrown 21 pitches, few well-executed, and the game is flying on him. Conforto hits a fly ball over Eaton’s head. Game over.

According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the Mets were 0-187 in games they trailed by three runs or more in the ninth since the last time they won such a game -- four years ago. Opponents were hitting just .179 against Doolittle, leading to a 1.68 ERA, since the All-Star break.

Which means Doolittle should have been in the game to win it, but probably should not have been left in to lose it.

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Patrick Corbin's 222nd strikeout helps Nationals pitchers make history

Patrick Corbin's 222nd strikeout helps Nationals pitchers make history

The Nationals starting rotation has been one of the team's strongest assets during the 2019 MLB season. Specifically, the three-headed monster of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin have helped Washington stay in the thick of the playoff race following a slow start.

There are plenty of numbers the three have put out this season that shows their success, but one specific stat really puts the year into perspective. 

By striking out Harrison Bader in the fourth inning of Tuesday's game against the St. Louis Cardinals, Corbin picked up his 222nd strikeout of the campaign. Having one pitcher wrack up that many punch-outs in a season is impressive, but Corbin isn't alone, and that makes the feat historic.

Corbin joins Scherzer (222) and Stephen Strasburg (235), giving the Nationals three pitchers over the 222 mark. In all the years of Major League Baseball, that's never been done before.

With the Nationals very much clinging to a playoff position with around two weeks left in the season, all three will be looking to add to their totals down the stretch. If Washington does end up in the postseason, these are three arms that opposing teams would prefer to not see. 

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Anthony Rendon just 15 hits away from a feat not accomplished in D.C. in more than 50 years

Anthony Rendon just 15 hits away from a feat not accomplished in D.C. in more than 50 years

Anthony Rendon is competing against himself for the National League batting title.

His toughest competition? A sidelined Christian Yelich. 

Yelich remains second in batting average, four points behind Rendon, and rooting on his surging Brewers teammates while unable to play. A foul ball broke Yelich’s kneecap seven days ago. His numbers remain gaudy: 44 home runs, 30 stolen bases, an 1.100 OPS and, most important to Rendon, a .329 batting average.

None of those numbers will change, yet they will chase Rendon. He could slide back from his current .333 average and dip below Yelich. 

The Nationals have 13 games to play. Rendon averages 3.8 at-bats per game, which means he has around 50 at-bats to go. In order to become the first Washington player since Mickey Vernon in 1953 to win the batting title, Rendon needs 15 more hits. He would then finish at .330.

Vernon debuted as a 21-year-old in 1939. He hit .257 that year. Vernon missed his age-26 and age-27 seasons because of military service (1944 and 1945) before returning to lead the league in hitting with a .353 average, the best of his career, in 1946. He also doubled 51 times on the way to a top-5 MVP finish. His second batting title arrived in 1953 when Vernon hit .337. That’s the season Rendon is looking to put his name next to.

Vernon’s .337 was a comparatively down number for a batting champion, but would hold up well in this era. Of the 117 American League-leading batting averages since 1901, only 28 had a lower average than his .337 (Washington was in the AL then). Flip to the modern National League. Vernon would have at least tied for or led eight of the last nine seasons.

No National League player has hit .350 since Chipper Jones hit .364 in 2008, when he played just 128 games and narrowly made it into the qualifying threshold. Jones went 2-for-3 during the season’s final week that year, rarely playing for a Braves team out of contention. Albert Pujols finished second at .357.

The same trend exists in the American League. Two hitters -- Joe Mauer (.365 in 2009) and Josh Hamilton (.359 in 2010) -- exceeded .350 in the last decade. In the previous 10 years, it happened five times, plus Manny Ramirez hit .349 (yes, it was that era). So, instead, take the AL in the 1980s: six times the batting champion his .350 or better. Not so anymore. Even with this new ball.

Rendon doesn’t need to hit that threshold. He just needs his 15 hits, a stagnant Yelich not to flip ahead of him and Ketel Marte, now a distant third at .326, to hold his place. Then, he is next to Vernon.

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