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Max Scherzer looks a lot more like Max Scherzer against Atlanta

Max Scherzer looks a lot more like Max Scherzer against Atlanta

A little-to-celebrate weekend ended with two positives: Monday is an off-day, and Max Scherzer is back.

The Nationals, finally, figured out a formula to stall Atlanta for a day during a 9-4 win. They beat the Braves’ best starting pitcher, Mike Soroka, ended their four-game losing streak, as well as Atlanta’s nine-game winning streak. The win changed nothing about the postseason future. Atlanta is going to handily win the division. The Nationals have a prime chance at a wild-card spot. Their main concern is hosting the game in order to have an opportunity to deal with Los Angeles in the division series.

Getting there -- the wild-card spot -- became more likely Sunday. Scherzer owned the Braves for six innings. He struck out nine, allowed two hits -- one a solo home run from Matt Joyce -- and threw his fastball an average of 95.5 mph. He hit 97.5 mph. And, he knew that was his ticket Sunday when he threw a four-seam fastball 55 percent of the time, producing 13 swinging strikes on 54 pitches. He’s re-established himself.

The concern for Scherzer was how he felt while ticking upward. His steady progression has run as hoped: 71 pitches in Pittsburgh, 89 pitches against Baltimore, 90 pitches against the New York Mets, 98 and seemingly set for more Sunday against Atlanta. His results have come along with the increase in pitches. Sunday was by far his best outing since returning from a rhomboid muscle strain.

Scherzer’s management of Freddie Freeman indicated his sharpness Sunday. Freeman entered the game with 34 at-bats against Scherzer and held him to a .206 career average. Not great, but also never easy for either. At the All-Star Game in Cleveland, the pair participated in a mutual lovefest.

“If he throws a ball to you, you know he’s setting you up for something else,” Freeman told NBC Sports Washington. “That’s the hardest thing.”

“He’s as difficult a hitter as I have to face in the league, and he makes me better because of that,” Scherzer said.

And such a large sample makes their exchanges that much more compelling and difficult to manage. Scherzer threw Freeman 10 pitches Sunday, seven strikes. He started his three at-bats in three different ways: first-pitch fastball, first-pitch changeup, first-pitcher cutter. In all, Scherzer threw Freeman six fastballs, three changeups and one cutter. They led to three outs.

Where Scherzer wasn’t as sharp was against left-handed Matt Joyce. A cutter strategized to be in under his hands course-corrected into the middle of the plate. Joyce hit it for a solo home run. Joyce also doubled. He was the only Atlanta hitter to record a hit.

Scherzer’s next outing will again be against Atlanta. He should make four more starts this season and won’t hit 200 innings pitched for the first time since 2012. However, he remains extremely competitive in the National League Cy Young race. His batting average against, walk-to-strikeout ratio, WHIP, WAR, FIP and ERA-plus are all in front of Los Angeles’ Hyun-Jin Ryu, who appears to be losing steam out West. No matter if Scherzer wins the award -- he seems a lock to be a finalist along with Jacob deGrom -- the Nationals at least know now he looks like the guy who annually competes for it. In an otherwise failing week, that’s a piece of good news.

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Daniel Hudson represents a key offseason question for Nationals

Daniel Hudson represents a key offseason question for Nationals

An intact unit from a championship team is typically positive. Bring back the winners. Try it again. Why not?

The Nationals’ bullpen, such as it was by the end of the season, will again be populated by pieces from the league’s worst ensemble in 2019. Closer Sean Doolittle is back -- that’s good. Washington picked up his $6.5 million option. To do so was a simple decision.

Also still on the 40-man roster are Roenis Elías, Hunter Strickland, Javy Guerra, Tanner Rainey and Wander Suero. Quickly, a bullpen foundation emerges. A left-handed specialist remains a need. Another power arm to pitch late is necessary. And, with the latter, is where the question about Daniel Hudson enters. 

Hudson -- along with Howie Kendrick -- represents a core question for the World Series champions: What is repeatable?

There is a discernible need in Hudson’s case. Washington has to find a way to supplement Doolittle with another closer-level reliever. Free agent options are extremely limited.

Hudson, 33, put together the second-best season of his career in 2019. The only other year which personally rivaled his 2.0-WAR output last season came in 2010. He was a very effective starter across 11 games almost a decade ago. 

His careening 2019 path falls right in line with the Nationals’ own stop-and-go trajectory. Hudson was released by the Anaheim Angels on March 22. Three days later, he signed with Toronto. It traded him for right-handed minor-league pitcher Kyle Johnston, who is in Single-A, at the trade deadline. Suddenly, Hudson was en route to the playoffs as a premier part of a revamped bullpen.

He dominated after arriving: a 1.44 ERA, 0.88 WHIP and a crucial bridge during Doolittle's August injury. Hudson finished Game 7 of the World Series with a slider to strike out Michael Brantley. He pulled off his glove -- though he almost forgets the pledge he made with Doolittle to do so -- then hurled it toward the dugout before he began celebrating.

Real life often intervened for Hudson during the season. The birth of his third daughter became a national hot-take topic for a brief time and yet another embraced opportunity for proving stupidity on social media. Hudson went on the paternity list and missed Game 1 of the National League Championship Series because of the birth. A Google search of “Daniel Hudson paternity list” proves how far the story resonated. The top result is from People magazine. 

Hudson, meanwhile also adjusted to an on-field role he didn’t want: being Washington’s full-time, then part-time, closer put him in position to handle the ninth inning. He said late in the season, “I hate closing.” Turns out he was good at it. Hudson arrived with 11 career saves. He picked up 10 more between the regular season and postseason after joining the Nationals. 

He also struck a positive note with Doolittle. 

“I want Huddy back,” Doolittle told NBC Sports Washington. “I don’t know how that’s going to shake out. I know the market for relievers is relatively set, but I want Huddy back.

“I think it works. It was really a unique situation where you had a couple guys at the end of the day, like, we weren’t super-attached to that role or that title (closer), we just wanted to win.”

That’s a repeatable sentiment. But, at what cost? Hudson’s ERA from 2016-2018: 4.61. His ERA with the Nationals was more than three runs lower. Would Washington be paying for recency bias and sentimentality? Or can it find a price point where Hudson’s return would be in line with his likeliness to revert? 

He’s one player. However, he represents a key question and a key spot.

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Sean Doolittle speaks out against disbanding of several minor league affiliates

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Sean Doolittle speaks out against disbanding of several minor league affiliates

When Sean Doolittle speaks, it's usually a pretty good idea to listen.

The latest piece of news the Nationals' closer has weighed in on? The proposed changes to baseball's minor league system, in which several teams may lose their affiliations and 1,000 players -- not to mention countless local employees -- would lose their jobs.

Doolittle is responding to reports of incoming changes that would drastically alter the shape and, more importantly, scope of minor league baseball. 

In an era with rapidly-declining attendance and fan interest every year, it's confusing to Doolittle and others why Major League Baseball would take actions to limit exposure to thousands of fans.

Doolittle points out in his thread of tweets why this seems counter-intuitive to what baseball is trying to do in winning over young fans. At the end of the day, the decision comes down to money, which will ultimately hurt fans in more remote areas of the country.

The Nationals and Orioles would be impacted too. The Frederick Keys, Baltimore's Single-A affiliate, is on the chopping block despite some of the best attendance numbers and community efforts in their league. The Hagerstown Suns, the Nats' Single-A affiliate, are also potential victims.

Once again, baseball is having the wrong conversations when it comes to improving the sport. Hopefully cooler heads like Doolittle's prevail and local teams across the country can continue to operate, bringing baseball to new fans everywhere.

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