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Matt Adams’ 11th-inning home run completes huge Nationals comeback

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Matt Adams’ 11th-inning home run completes huge Nationals comeback

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Nationals beat the San Diego Padres, 7-6, Sunday to move to 12-14. Here are five observations from the game…

1. Margins are thin each day at Nationals Park, in part because the league’s worst bullpen is always looming, in part because the offense and starting pitching often find a way to keep things tight before they become undone.

Washington entered extra innings Sunday following a youth-fueled rally against an early 6-0 deficit. Juan Soto (20) homered, Carter Kieboom (21) homered, Victor Robles (21) homered.

Erick Fedde -- yes, Erick Fedde -- pitched well in relief. Kyle Barraclough pitched well in relief. Joe Ross pitched well in relief. Tony Sipp pitched well in relief. Seven scoreless innings in all, piling together the bullpen’s best effort of the season.

So, two on, none out, for the Nationals in the 10th inning. Big business. By the end of it, no runs and one great play by Manny Machado.

Machado -- replacing stellar rookie shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. after Tatis’ split to catch a throw at second injured him -- smothered a hard ground ball up the middle from Howie Kendrick with two outs. He rose, then threw to first to end the inning. On they went.

Justin Miller moved through the top of the 11th; make it eight scoreless innings for the Nationals’ bullpen.

Then, San Diego with an odd tactical move in the bottom of the 11th: It left a right-hander in to face left-handed Matt Adams. He hit the third pitch he saw deep into right field for a walk-off win.

Joy followed. Needed joy for a team staring at a sweep, down 6-0 at home, heading toward an 11-15 record. Not everything was fixed in one day. But, it beat the alternative.

“We had a tough April, but we’re playing good baseball,” Adams said. “We just need to get some things to fall our way. Keep going out there and playing the game the way we know how to play it. Doing the little things right, getting guys in from third base with less than two outs, putting pressure on the other team. When we do that, I think we’re going to get on a roll and we’re going to forget this April even happened.”

2. Fedde was on the move Saturday when the Nationals began preparations for Sunday’s game against San Diego. Jeremy Hellickson’s starts are known for their brevity. Bringing Fedde in to replace an injured Ryan Zimmerman assured the Nationals’ bullpen of having a long man should Hellickson’s start not last. It didn’t.

Hellickson pitched three innings. Fedde pitched four.

The prospect-turned-question-mark was pitching well for Double-A Harrisburg (2.66 ERA in four starts) before arriving at Nationals Park for Sunday’s game. It’s also difficult to put sufficient stock in his work at such a lower level.

But, Fedde was crisp Sunday: four innings, two hits, three strikeouts, a walk and no earned runs. He threw 49 pitches, 34 strikes. The latter number has been a challenge for Fedde at the major-league level. A promising show for a day.

“I think today I tried to treat it as a start, I knew the bullpen had been kind of beat up,” Fedde said. “So I told myself, no matter what, it’s probably my job to get through four, five, six, whatever it might be, and the guys battled back and got it to the place where we were able to win.”

3. An eventful first few days for Carter Kieboom.

He homered to tie the game late in his debut Friday. He hit a ground ball Saturday which took a bad bounce off the mound and ricocheted right to the second baseman. Otherwise, it’s a seventh-inning single that probably pushes the Nationals in front. He homered Sunday to pull the Nationals to within a run.

Kieboom will have, at a minimum, a four-week stay in the major leagues. Trea Turner’s 4- to 8-week recovery timetable makes that portion of Kieboom’s path clear. Turner’s return makes the rest murky. It does not assure Kieboom’s departure. But, it would move him out of the starting shortstop spot.

Until then, Kieboom is an intriguing bat at the bottom of the lineup.

4. Let’s recount the third inning, which was part chaos, conundrum and comeback.

First, the top half: Hellickson pitching. His opening inning hinted his day would be short. Deep fly balls for outs -- and one that became a home run. Lots of hard contact. Launch angle and exit velocity teamed in the fourth when Eric Hosmer hit a three-run homer to put San Diego up, 6-0. An error in the inning by Brian Dozier complicated things.

Down six, steaming toward a weekend sweep, the Nationals were not in a good place. A zany bottom of the fourth changed that.

Robles singled when he beat Padres starter Joey Lucchesi to first thanks to a headfirst slide. Dozier singled. Then, for the second consecutive game, the Padres signalled for a 2-0 fastball to Juan Soto. He homered. Quickly, the lead was cut in half.

Howie Kendrick reached second on a two-base E-4. Hard to do, but true. Kurt Suzuki’s single drove him in; 6-4. Kieboom singled. Michael A. Taylor walked. Lucchesi teetered and Davey Martinez took a big swing in the moment.

Martinez replaced Hellickson 55 pitches into his bumpy outing. Adam Eaton pinch-hit. He struck out.

“We're inching our way back and I thought, 'Hey, we got bases loaded. We got our everyday right fielder sitting on the bench. We got to take a shot at tying this game up or go ahead. We'll figure it out from there,'” Martinez said. “Having Fedde, knowing he can go three or four innings was huge.”

The strategy was bold. Using Eaton that early meant Martinez had just two bench players -- Wilmer Difo and Yan Gomes -- the rest of the game. Anthony Rendon (more on him below) was also on the bench, but sending Eaton to the plate instead of Rendon made clear Rendon would not be available to hit, because that was an otherwise perfect situation for him to appear. 

In all, a crazed inning when sent the game sprawling away from the Nationals before they roped it back in.

5. Rendon was not in the lineup Sunday. Again.

Rendon’s left elbow remained sore after his three at-bats Friday night. Those came during his first appearance since being struck by a pitch in Miami on April 20. Rendon has a large bruise just above his elbow. Swelling returned to the spot after Rendon played in the series opener against the San Diego Padres.

Rendon’s chances of landing on the injured list are increasing. At the least, the Nationals have played six games with a short bench because Rendon was not placed on the injured list, but was also unavailable off the bench.

They have also greatly increased his absence should he end up on the injured list. Rendon could have been placed on the injured list as soon as April 21. Washington had another three days to put him on the injured list retroactive to April 21 while he sat out during the series in Colorado. It did not. Instead, Rendon played Friday, which reset his clock.

So, if Rendon is placed on the injured list Monday, for example, it can only be retroactive to the day after the last time he played -- which in this case is Saturday. That would cause him to be out until May 7, at a minimum, meaning Rendon would have three at-bats across 17 days and 16 games because the Nationals did not place him on the injured list in the first place.

 

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Nationals are off to season’s most dangerous spot: the road

Nationals are off to season’s most dangerous spot: the road

WASHINGTON  -- The Nationals ventured to their chartered train Sunday for a first: They were leaving Nationals Park to play a regular-season game elsewhere in 2020. This is a new challenge in a year filled with randomization.

The road is a bedeviling place in professional sports no matter the climate. Favorite places of all kinds -- restaurants, hotels, entertainment venues -- pull athletes from their hotel into the city streets. It’s standard. Among the running jokes in the NBA is players coming down with the South Beach Flu. Go to Miami the night before a game, play poorly the next, perhaps you caught it while out until 3 a.m.

For Major League Baseball in 2020, traveling has become the greatest barrier to the season’s completion. Organizations are petrified of an outbreak prompted by one person venturing into the night while on the road. Or even in the morning when visiting a cafe for breakfast.

The Nationals will first tangle with road protocols -- set both internally and by MLB -- this week in New York. A four-game series with the Mets will test their ability to sit still. Staying in the hotel is job one. A special guard was even considered in order to make it happen.

“I’m going to put [Mike] Rizzo in the lobby,” Davey Martinez said with a laugh.

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That, presumably, would be an effective deterrent to anyone who stepped out of the elevator, then into the lobby, coming face-to-face with the team president’s bald head. But, the job will be handled by MLB security, which is now in the hotels of road teams to watch the coming and going of players and staff following the coronavirus outbreak within the Miami Marlins organization. The rest is up to the Nationals.

“When you go on the road, you get in a routine: your favorite places to eat breakfast, your favorite places to go get coffee,” Martinez said. “There’s going to be none of that. And, that’s going to be tough. We got to adhere to the protocols. In order to keep everybody safe, we’ve got to stay in the hotel. So there’s going to be different things that we need to do. There’s not going to be any gallivanting around the city anymore. A lot of these cities, honestly, are pretty much closed down and there’s not a whole lot going on.

“We’ve got to be smart. If we’re going to pull this off and keep everybody safe, the best thing is to stay in the hotel and chill. There’s going to be plenty of food -- from what I gather -- at the ballpark. We’ve got restaurants that are going to cook for us. We’ll have lunch, we’re going to have dinner after the game. I think now we just got to feed ourselves for breakfast. I’m hearing that the hotels are going to be open for breakfast for room service, but we’ve got to do whatever we can to stay safe.”

One issue will be the pull to see family in different places. Juan Soto has family in New York. Several players have family in the Miami area. When Martinez returns to Tampa in mid-September, his adult children already know they won’t be meeting in order to protect his safety and that of the team.

“They understand,” Martinez said. “Hopefully, when this is all over, I’ll spend a lot of time with them.”

RELATED: STEPHEN STRASBURG'S DEBUT SHOWS HE STILL HAS A WAYS TO GO

He and Rizzo have trumpeted the same point from the start: what happens away from the field impacts everyone who goes to it. So, stay home, do your part, do not be the single lit match.

Testing negative, keeping the house in order, and playing on has both become a point of pride and competition. The Nationals enter the week with only one positive test result since play began -- that belonged to Soto, and he thought it was a false positive -- and the league’s worst offense. Without their best hitter, Washington has gone through a season-long scoring drought. Only the St. Louis Cardinals have scored fewer runs. They have also played seven fewer games because of a coronavirus outbreak in their organization.

“It's a new baseball season that we've never had before,” Rizzo said. “There's protocols in place that kind of break the routine that we've had our whole careers and our whole lives. So the team that adapts to that best and easiest and most seamlessly will have an advantage of being more comfortable playing baseball. Once the game starts, you're just playing baseball. I think that everybody kind of gets into their comfort zone, at least for the three hours during the game.”

The playing baseball portion has been more difficult than following protocols. The Nationals are a bewildering 4-7 through the jagged first two weeks of the season. They arrive in New York with Max Scherzer ready to return Tuesday. They may also recall a four-game series in Citi Field from last year. When the Nationals walked into the park, they were in a bad place. When they walked out, everything was worse.

They want to worry about the pitching matchups more than hotel entrances and exits. The league has tightened protocols since the Marlins debacle. The Nationals are even working on how to spread out their pregame meetings in conference rooms. And, maybe Martinez was on to something. In a season where cardboard cutouts have been put to use, a life-sized Rizzo with his hands on hips in the hotel lobby may just come in handy.

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Stephen Strasburg’s debut shows he still has a ways to go

Stephen Strasburg’s debut shows he still has a ways to go

WASHINGTON -- Elegant pitching took place in the top of the fourth inning Sunday when Anthony Santander led off the inning.

Stephen Strasburg threw him a 79-mph curveball for a called strike. An 87-mph changeup was a ball. Another changeup produced a swinging strike. A third consecutive changeup led to another swinging strike and an out.

Strasburg needed just 43 pitches to finish four innings in his season debut. The problem was he went to pitch the fifth -- and that his achy right hand still has mild issues.

He recorded one out, faded rapidly and was removed after allowing five sudden runs. The hook was too late. The Nationals fell behind, 5-0, and were on the verge of a weekend sweep at the hands of the Orioles and a troublesome 4-8 record before the game was suspended because of oddball circumstances with a malfunctioning tarp.

“You can look at the negative, or you can look at the positive,” Strasburg said. “I think there was a lot more positives. I'm just going to focus on that. Obviously command and execution wasn't very good there in the fifth. They just hit a bunch of singles and found the right spots. So they made me pay for it.”

Strasburg’s start came two weeks after he was supposed to be on the game mound for the first time in 2020. A right wrist impingement caused a nerve problem in his right hand, which led to pain in his thumb. All of the issues with the hand subsided after time off and treatment. He threw a bullpen session Wednesday. Sunday, “Seven Nation Army” poured out of the stadium speakers for the first time this season.

The first four innings showed a pitcher with lowered velocity, but exceptional command. In essence, Strasburg looked like himself. Plenty of curveballs, changeups and outs. Of his 69 pitches, 37 were curveballs or changeups.

RELATED: NATS VS. ORIOLES SUSPENDED DUE TO EXCEPTION IN MLB RULE BOOK

Javy Guerra quickly worked to warm up when Strasburg faltered in the fifth inning. The first out of the inning came on a 101.1-mph line drive from Dwight Smith Jr. It was a harbinger.

Austin Hays hit a line drive to right field. Chance Sisco hit a line drive to right field. Davey Martinez and trainer Paul Lessard came up the dugout steps to head toward the mound because Strasburg shook his right hand. Strasburg waived them back to their spots, though there was an issue.

“To be honest, I felt it,” Strasburg said of his hand pain. “I don't know if it was necessarily like fatigue or just not having necessarily the stamina built up quite yet. But it's something where I don't think I'm doing any long-term harm on it. But it does have an impact on being able to feel the baseball and being able to commit to pitches. That's something I haven't quite figured out how to pitch through it yet, so I think the goal is to continue to get built up and get the pitch count up to where that won't be flaring up over the course of the start.”

He walked the next batter. Pitching coach Paul Menhart went to talk to him. This, presumably, is when Strasburg should have been removed from the game. He was left in.

Bryan Holaday singled. A run scored. Hanser Alberto doubled. Two runs scored. Santander singled. Two runs scored.

Guerre came in. Strasburg departed.

The good news is Strasburg finally made a start in 2020. And, Max Scherzer is expected to return to the mound on Tuesday in New York.

The bad news is 25 percent of Strasburg’s potential starts are over. Starting pitchers were only in line for 12 this year. He missed two, then failed in the fifth inning in what would have been his third start. That gives him nine to go -- if the season makes it to the end -- with a hand that isn’t quite right.

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