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Nationals clinch spot in postseason after strange, roller-coaster season

Nationals clinch spot in postseason after strange, roller-coaster season

WASHINGTON -- For months, meetings in the manager’s office were designed to decipher what was going wrong. They thought then, and later, effort was not an issue. The bullpen was. Health was. Bumbling baserunning was. Ill execution in the field was, too. All were viewed as correctable by the Nationals’ coaching staff. 

The situation appeared more dire on the outside. Washington stumbled to a 19-31 record. Radio shows crackled with demands the manager be fired, opinion writers lurched ahead to wonder about a Max Scherzer trade, and the math was daunting. Only two teams had played 50 games at a worse clip and made the postseason in the last 30 years.

Yet, there they were Tuesday night, watching the closing moments in Pittsburgh on the center field scoreboard before partying in the clubhouse, cracking disbelief with a final win to clinch a spot in the Wild-Card Game. A year after missing the playoffs, the weirdest of seasons has led to an unlikely entrance into the postseason tournament, if even by the narrowest of holds.

“It's so special, this is so awesome after everything we've been through coming together after everything over the course of the season and having to crawl out of the hole that we found ourselves in in May,” Sean Doolittle said. “It makes it that much sweeter. this is really really special.” 

This is the major league’s oldest team in a new setting for the organization. It will enter a do-or-die single game Oct. 1, almost assuredly against the Milwaukee Brewers. Where the game will be played remains in flux. The typically season-ending National League Division Series would follow in Los Angeles two days later should a win occur Tuesday. Prior, Washington can at least begin aligning itself for handling the next nine guaranteed postseason innings thanks to its resurrection. 

Once the division drifted out of reach, finding a path to the Wild-Card Game became the only way for Washington to enter the postseason. Chicago chased it until finally folding in Pittsburgh via a 9-2 loss to the Pirates. A Tuesday night rally and 6-5 victory fueled by a Trea Turner grand slam -- leading to a third consecutive win in two days of play -- vaulted the Nationals’ math into an indisputable place. The ride there was strange.

Trea Turner’s broken finger from a bean ball. The Trevor Rosenthal Experiment. Being swept in New York. Adam Eaton vs. Todd Frazier. Derek Lilliquist fired. The Kyle Barraclough Experiment. Anthony Rendon unextended and killing. Max Scherzer’s broken nose. Scherzer’s black eye. Scherzer’s back injuries. Fernando Rodney up. Rodney’s appearances. Baby Shark. Daddy Shark. Shark chant. Dugout dances. El Cabby. Doolittle overworked. Doolittle back. Doolittle the closer -- maybe. Aaron Barrett returns. A seventh-run bottom of the ninth. Davey Martinez’s health scare. Martinez back. 

There’s more.

To repeat: been a strange season.

“That’s an understatement,” Doolittle said earlier in the week.

Coaches chewed on moments during those early postgame office meetings. Martinez often rewatched games through the early morning hours. His staff wondered about solutions and solidarity.

“The players have a much shorter memory than we do, which is great,” bench coach Chip Hale said. “Because they have to leave clubhouse and get ready the next day. We think about every move we made or I suggested to Davey on pitching, so it’s very difficult. But, the mood on those meetings when we were struggling was not because -- the one thing as a coach/instructor, whether it’s coaching Little League, or high school or college or professional baseball, is effort. And we felt like, even at our worst -- that series we had in New York -- we were giving great effort. And almost too much effort.

“So, we almost had to back them down a little bit in those situations. We felt comfortable with how they were playing. We didn’t feel like they had given up on us. Which is really important. That’s happened before in places I’ve been, I’ve seen that happen. We knew the veteran guys would start to settle the young kids down and make them realize, hey, it’s a long year, we’re going to have our run.”

It began with a sloppy win May 24 against Miami. Bit by bit, life was pumped back into the season. June: 18-8. July: 15-10. August: 19-7. September’s leveling didn’t prevent the final goal of claiming a postseason spot. 

“It was a situation where I think a lot of teams could’ve folded,” Mike Rizzo said. “A lot of teams, the clubhouse would have been fractured.”

By Tuesday morning, the Nationals needed a hand and a fifth consecutive double-header sweep -- which would make them the first team to do so in 29 years to get there. A 4-1 daytime win eliminated the showy Philadelphia Phillies from postseason contention and reduced their Magic Number to two. Chicago took a 1-0 lead in Pittsburgh before unraveling in the seventh inning against the hapless Pirates in a seventh consecutive loss, prompting a takeoff on a standard Nationals Park ditty by those in the upper reaches: “B-U-C-S, Bucs! Bucs! Bucs!” 

Turner’s first-pitch grand slam to left field followed moments later. He held the follow through, Phillies reliever Jared Hughes threatened to spike his cap and the Nationals jumped into the lead. Turner’s in-dugout dance celebration preceded a celebratory fist-throwing curtain call.

Nine outs later, Daniel Hudson finished the night. They had made it. May felt like another season, another team, another place all together. One of the biggest turnarounds in major-league history was finished. 

“These guys deserve everything they got so far,” Martinez said. “They played their butts off all year long and now we’re going to the postseason.”

Strange, but true.

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Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen claims the Mets have "probably the deepest rotation in baseball

Mets GM Brodie Van Wagenen claims the Mets have "probably the deepest rotation in baseball

By signing Rick Porcello and Michael Wacha this week, the Mets have built out quite the collection of starting pitchers. 

Porcello and Wacha will join Jacob de Grom, Noah Syndergaard, Marcus Stroman and Steven Matz in New York's starting rotation, a group general manager Brodie Van Wagenen thinks quite highly of. 

"There was a lot talked about our lack of starting pitching depth over the last couple of weeks," Van Wagenen said on SNYtv Thursday. "I think that story has changed, and I think that we're probably the deepest starting pitching rotation in baseball."

Considering the Mets share a division with the Nationals, who still boast a starting rotation headlined by Max Scherzer, World Series MVP Stephen Strasburg and Patrick Corbin, this is a pretty bold statement by Van Wagenen. 

Obviously he's the general manager and he has to say positive things about the club he's putting together. But to say those exact words on the heels of a rival winning a World Series because of their rotation? 

The Mets will host the Nationals in the first series of the season starting on March 26, so we may not have to wait long for these two rotations to face off. 

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Nationals prospect Sterling Sharp selected by Marlins in Rule 5 Draft

Nationals prospect Sterling Sharp selected by Marlins in Rule 5 Draft

The Nationals' No. 13 overall prospect is no longer in the organization, and it's not because of a trade that Washington made.

That's because the Miami Marlins selected pitcher Sterling Sharp with the No. 3 overall pick during Thursday's Rule 5 Draft. Sharp was susceptible to being drafted after the Nationals chose not to protect him by placing the right-hander on their 40-man roster.

The Marlins will pay Washington $100,000 for Sharp. The 24-year-old most remain on Miami's 25-man MLB roster for the entirety of the 2020 season or he will be offered back for $50,000.

Sharp, a 22nd round pick in the 2016 draft, made just nine starts for the Nationals Double-A affiliate Harrisburg in 2019 due to an oblique injury. His numbers were not especially eye-popping, as he posted a 3.99 ERA with an 8.2 K/9 ratio.

His performance in the Arizona Fall League was considerably better, where he put up a 1.50 ERA in six starts.

Sharp is incredibly athletic and could have played college basketball, according to MLB.com's Pipeline. Standing 6-foot-4, Sharp is known for his sinker and high ground-ball rate. In 2018, his last season fully healthy, he finished with 59.7 percent ground-ball rate, good for a Top 10 finish in all of the minors and the highest among qualified starters in the Nationals' farm system.

A three-pitch starter, Sharp has a solid changeup in his arsenal to go along with a low 90s fastball and his sinker.

Expected to make his MLB debut in 2020, Sharp could very well face his former team next season. As a divisional opponent, the Marlins will face the Nationals 19 times next season.

The Nationals did, however, select a prospect during the Minor League portion of the draft. Washington added switch-hitting shortstop Manuel Geraldo from the Giants system, who hit .255 with five home runs and 53 RBI in Double-A.

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