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Juan Soto’s adjustment keeps Nationals’ run pumping

Juan Soto’s adjustment keeps Nationals’ run pumping

PHILADELPHIA -- At times, Juan Soto seems to be a pairing of savant and prodigy. The latter because he is still just 20 years old. The former because what goes through his 20-year-old mind at the highest level of baseball suggests something beyond the ordinary.

Saturday night, Soto came to the plate against Philadelphia closer Hector Neris, his team down 3-2. Two were out and the not-fleet Anthony Rendon was on first base. The Nationals, as a group, were just 1-for-10 this season against Neris. Soto was 1-for-3 with a strikeout and walk despite the scouting report on Neris being direct: he throws split-finger fastballs almost 70 percent of the time. Soto knew this. Absorbing the knowledge is one thing. Doing something about it is different.

Soto hits from the back of the batter’s box. It’s common. The white line suggesting where the batter’s box should end is quickly wiped when the game begins. He establishes his left foot on that back line to handle the extreme velocity of modern pitching.

However, knowing Neris was going to send a splitter his way, Soto changed everything -- the night, the mood, another part of the season -- before a pitch was thrown to him. He moved forward two steps. Why? He wanted a better read on the break since he wasn’t worried about any other pitch. The initial math suggested this was a good idea. Philadelphia catcher J.T. Realmuto confirmed the thought by moving forward with Soto. He had to stay up to handle the break. He could have stayed back if Neris was going to throw a fastball. 

“I was just looking for that one,” Soto said. “Maybe that's why I see it just a little bit more hanging and I hit it.”

He, in fact, crushed it: 420 feet at 108.5 mph to left-center field to give the Nationals a 4-3 lead in the ninth. Sean Dootlittle -- with lower velocity than usual -- finished the game. Washington moved to 49-42. Philadelphia fell to 47-45. These are two teams rapidly moving in disparate directions.

And, the reason Saturday was because of Soto’s adjustment, swing and power. He rounded the bases with glee, banging on his chest a third before finally making it to a dugout party. After Neris retired Matt Adams, he trudged toward the Phillies dugout while being buried with boos. 

Soto has three career go-ahead home runs in the ninth or later. All have been against the Phillies, including one in the 10th inning on April 9 this season. 

“That was another one,” Soto said when reminded. “That was good. In that situation, we wasn't fighting that much against those guys. But right now…”

Right now, the Nationals hold a two-game lead in the wild-card standings thanks to a stunning 30-11 onslaught since May 24, the best in franchise and organization history over 41 games. Never better in Montreal. Never better since baseball returned to Washington. 

Saturday night’s addition to the surge was a direct result of Soto’s smarts and power.


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Bullpen’s first tight night without closer Sean Doolittle does not go well

Bullpen’s first tight night without closer Sean Doolittle does not go well

Tuesday was the first night that mattered without Sean Doolittle. Sunday and Monday blowouts made being without the closer moot. Stephen Strasburg’s dominance -- seven innings, four hits, six strikeouts, no earned runs -- paired with the offense’s sudden dormancy to produce a 1-0 game going into the eighth inning Tuesday. It was time to take a look at the Nationals’ bullpen without Doolittle. 

Fluctuating Wander Suero was brought in for the eighth. He loaded the bases without recording an out. Daniel Hudson was called in to fix the mess. He allowed a sacrifice fly and three-run homer. Nationals lose, 4-1. 

This is not a panic-in-the-streets loss by any means. The offensive numbers were bound to level -- for a night and beyond. It was, however, a reminder things don’t automatically improve after the struggling closer is extracted from the equation. Washington did not bring in high-end closers with extensive track records at the trade deadline. It acquired three arms which were improvements over the in-house options. All had closed before. None were paid to do so for a competitive team.

Davey Martinez faced a wrinkle when deciding how to deploy his relievers in Pittsburgh. Hunter Strickland’s weight-lifting accident broke his nose. He tweeted about the incident, said he was ready to pitch, however, the manager likely preferred to leave Strickland resting his readjusted schnoz in the bullpen. Which meant Suero came in.

Suero has become a split personality on the mound. He either uses his cutter to saw through an inning with surprising effectiveness or is a mess instantly endangering the game’s outcome. Of his 58 appearances, 42 have been scoreless. Doesn’t feel like it. Why? Because Suero has allowed two runs or more in eight of them. That’s plenty to skew a reliever’s ERA. His is back up to 4.97 after Hudson’s failure to limit inherited baserunners from scoring, which he had done expertly this season. Just two of 32 inherited runners (six percent) had scored against Hudson this year. Three came in Tuesday.

There is one other aspect here to note: When Doolittle went on the injured list Sunday, Martinez was asked repeatedly about his usage. His most common answer referenced the simplistic fact “Doolittle is the closer” with little explanation beyond that. Doolittle pitched more than an inning in seven of his 54 appearances this season. He was rarely brought into the situation Hudson was Tuesday.

That usage showed more flexibility. The best pitcher available was brought in at the most crucial point to face the toughest part of a light-hitting lineup. This was done on occasion, and partly, with Doolittle. Tuesday, it was sent out the best arm to try and hold the situation, then figure out the rest. This strategy pervades baseball. It just caught up in Washington.

It also didn’t work. 

So, night one without Doolittle was a failure. Recent nights with him had run a similar course, too. There are at least seven more to go.


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Hunter Strickland gave Nationals a scare with weight room mishap

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Hunter Strickland gave Nationals a scare with weight room mishap

The Nationals bullpen got a little thinner on Sunday when closer Sean Doolittle was placed on the Injured List with right knee tendinitis.

On Tuesday, the unit almost had another pitcher endure an IL-needing injury, as recently-acquired relief pitcher Hunter Strickland nearly injured himself in a weight room accident in Pittsburgh just hours prior to the Nationals matchup with the Pirates.

Strickland had a bar strike the right side of his face, according to manager Dave Martinez, the Washington Post reported. When seen walking in the clubhouse, the reliever had a stripped band-aid on his nose to couple with a very red face.

He underwent X-rays at PNC Park, and they confirmed that Strickland suffered a broken nose. Strickland confirmed the news via his Twitter account.

Just an hour later, Strickland was playing catch with teammates, and later signing autographs for fans. He is still available to pitch tonight, according to Mark Zuckerman.

For a unit that has had their troubles on the field in 2019, Strickland has been a much-needed addition. He's been close to lights out in seven innings of work, allowing just one run on four hits to go with five strikeouts.