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Nationals drop to 0-2 following second consecutive loss to Mets

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Nationals drop to 0-2 following second consecutive loss to Mets

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Nationals lost to the New York Mets, 11-8, on Saturday afternoon. Here are five observations from the game...

1. Losing when being outplayed or outmanned is one situation. Losing because of mediocre baseball to open a season after six weeks of spring training focused on the “little things” is another.

Washington is 0-2 after back-to-back losses to the New York Mets, who were well-represented in the stands Saturday at Nationals Park. And the path to the loss was sigh-worthy.

The Nationals balked home a run. 

A player was picked off at first.

An error charged to the outfield gifted 90 feet that led to an easy second run following a hit.

A passed ball zipped to the backstop after the pitcher and catcher became crossed up on signs.

The starter didn’t pitch well. The bullpen pitched worse.

In all, Saturday was another careening (very) early ride for the Nationals. 

Despite all that, they still had a prime chance to tie the game in the bottom of the eighth inning when Matt Adams came to the plate to pinch-hit with two outs, the bases loaded and trailing, 8-4. New York countered with right-handed reliever Seth Lugo. Adams swung at the first pitch, watched it drift, drift, drift and eventually land in the glove of Mets right fielder Michael Conforto against the wall in right-center field. Adams put his hands on his helmet, then his hips, following the out.

Summed up the day. 

2. Trevor Rosenthal’s debut was one to forget. His first time in a major-league game since Aug. 17, 2017, resulted in a tie game being blown open.

His velocity was good, as Rosenthal hit 100 mph on the radar gun. His location and results? Not so much. He threw 18 pitches. 10 were strikes, and none led to an out.

“I was excited,” Rosenthal said. “It was a good day, a good step forward getting back. But obviously didn't end up how I wanted it to. I felt good.”

Rosenthal faced four batters, allowing three hits and four earned runs after a walk loaded the bases with no one out. One swing from No. 8 hitter J.D. Davis drove in two runs. It also ended Rosenthal’s brief, unsuccessful Nationals debut. Kyle Barraclough replaced him. He balked in a run which was charged to Rosenthal.

The eighth inning began with a 4-4 tie after the Nationals rallied from a  4-1 deficit. It ended with the Mets in front, 8-4.

Matt Grace and Wander Suero combined to allow three more runs in the ninth inning. 

3. Juan Soto drew a laugh and launched a catch phrase last season when he was asked how he came out of a mini-slump and answered, “Just keep doing Juan Soto things.” He was back doing Juan Soto things Saturday.

Soto started the day 3-for-3 against Noah Syndergaard. He singled to right, singled to left and doubled to right-center (more on that in a minute). Interesting is not just how he sprayed the ball around, something the Nationals became accustomed to last season. It’s the pitches he did it against.

Soto struck out twice Thursday against changeups from Jacob deGrom. Two of his three hits Saturday against Syndergaard were against changeups. This is an indicator of how fast he adjusts to how the opposition tries to get him out.

Soto’s “double” was simply a ground ball through the middle he turned into a double by sprinting as soon as he hit it.

Lots of “Juan Soto things” on Saturday among the few highlights for the Nationals.

4. What’s fun about prospects? Potential. They arrive with the best assumed since no body of work exists to proves otherwise. Placing Victor Robles in center field enables the Nationals to use their top prospect on a daily basis. He is laden with potential. Robles is also rapidly finding out the challenges that come with center field defense in the major leagues.

Jeff McNeil’s first-inning shot off the center field wall became a triple when Robles decided to jump -- though he didn’t have to -- to catch it. Robles tracked back to measure his steps before jumping into the wall. The other option was to beat the ball to the spot, which is what the Nationals teach as opposed to “drifting” toward a presumed landing area.

Robles found more trouble in the second when he broke in on Pete Alonso’s line drive to center. It’s unlikely a perfect read would have allowed Robles to catch the ball -- it was hit too hard. However, his read was wrong. Robinson Cano followed with a gentle fly ball to center in the next at-bat. Robles broke back, presumably concerned about his prior misread, before settling under the ball to catch it. He is clearly uncomfortable in center field in Nationals Park at this point.

“He's going to get better,” Davey Martinez said. “You've got to remember he's 21 years old and he's playing in the big leagues. I've been there. I know the struggle. He's going to get better. He talks about it and he wants to get better. Just a case where instead of breaking back he came straight up before and the ball was hit hard. I like his intensity. I like the way he's swinging the bat. And he's going to get better out there.”

In related news, Michael A. Taylor remains in Florida rehabilitating a sprained left knee and hip. There was a line of thought in spring training that Taylor could play early since the organization was emphasizing defensive runs saved this season. If Taylor played, Robles would receive more time to learn, and an opportunity to play when Adam Eaton received a day off, before eventually moving into the lineup on a more consistent basis. Taylor’s injury eliminated that option. Which put Robles into a defensive situation where he is learning live. The process has found multiple bumps in the first two games.

The flip side? He also homered and singled Saturday.

5. Not pretty in the top of the first. Stephen Strasburg allowed three earned runs -- which were partially his fault. A single against the shift with a runner on first -- otherwise a standard ground out -- started the mayhem. Michael Conforto reached first, Alonso zoomed to third from first. Trouble for the Nationals was no one was covering third in a timely manner. Strasburg eventually made it there, Robles’ throw got away and Conforto moved to second. It went as E-8, though Strasburg arriving to the bag late caused a delay on the throw which would have been caught by most position players. Robles probably should have just held the ball.

All spring, the Nationals harped on being better at the “little things” this season. That play was yet another early example of them not doing so often in the first two games.

The day as a whole was mediocre for Strasburg: six innings, seven hits, four earned runs, two walks, eight strikeouts. Strasburg threw 96 pitches, 62 strikes.

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Juan Soto impressed in his first game back but is still working up to full strength

Juan Soto impressed in his first game back but is still working up to full strength

One game into his 2020 season, Juan Soto is already filling up the Nationals’ highlight reel.

The 21-year-old outfielder missed Washington’s first eight games of the season after testing positive for the coronavirus on the morning of the team’s opener. He finally returned to the lineup Wednesday and went 2-for-4 with an RBI double and a diving catch in left field.

“It feels good to be back,” Soto said after the game. “Being back with the team, trying to have fun in the game and everything. It’s amazing being with my team and my teammates and being ready to go.”

Washington didn’t win the game, snapping a three-game winning streak with a 3-1 loss at the hands of the New York Mets. But even though the offense wasn’t clicking, Soto’s presence gave the lineup a much deeper look than it had over the first two weeks of the season. He hit fourth, with second baseman Starlin Castro slotted in front of him and Howie Kendrick hitting fifth as the designated hitter.

RELATED: LOSING MAX SCHERZER AND STEPHEN STRASBURG IS THE NATIONALS' BIGGEST NIGHTMARE

“In his first at-bat, he took a breaking ball and smoked it to left field for a double,” manager Davey Martinez said. “[Then he] took a ball up and in, stayed inside the ball, base hit to right. But he looked good, he really did. Little jumpy, but that’s to be expected his first game back. But he looked good.

“I love writing his name in the lineup hitting fourth. It’s nice. So hopefully we continue to build him up and he gets ready to play and we can put him out there every day. I always say, he’s 21 years old so it doesn’t take him long to get ready, get loose. But we definitely got to keep an eye on him.”

Soto originally was cleared to return practicing Saturday, but the Nationals had the weekend off after their series with the Miami Marlins was postponed because of a COVID-19 outbreak in the Fish’s clubhouse. He participated in simulated games through Monday and was available off the bench Tuesday against the Mets.

Despite his strong performance Wednesday, the Nationals have an off-day Thursday that plays to Soto’s advantage by allowing him to take a day to rest. Martinez said he anticipates Soto being ready to go Friday when the Nationals open up a three-game series with the Baltimore Orioles.

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“I’m going to rest tomorrow because I played nine innings, I don’t play nine innings in a long time,” Soto said. “We’re going to try to rest my legs, try…to keep in shape and try to come ready to Friday.”

Late start or not, Soto doesn’t plan on easing into action. After a scheduled off-day Thursday, the Nationals will have 13 straight days with a game. He said that while he will take advantage of the chance to rest, there will be no breaks once the games begin.

“I just try to play hard,” Soto said. “Every time I’m in the field, it doesn’t matter…if I’m in there, it’s because I’m going to give my 100 percent. If I come to the field and I’m in the lineup, I’m going to give my 100 percent no matter what. And when I’m in the middle of those two lines, I’m ready to give my 100 percent.”

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Losing Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg is the Nationals' biggest nightmare

Losing Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg is the Nationals' biggest nightmare

WASHINGTON -- Post a list of oh-no situations in the Nationals clubhouse and losing Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg at the same time would be on top of it.

That, at least temporarily, is the situation for the Nationals following Scherzer’s departure Wednesday night. A couple hours after Strasburg finished a 32-pitch simulated game in Nationals Park, Scherzer left his start one inning and 27 pitches into it. Scherzer said postgame he “tweaked” his hamstring Tuesday when sprinting in the outfield. He went on to say he doesn’t expect the issue to last.

“I’m really not concerned about this,” Scherzer said after the Nationals’ 3-1 loss to the Mets.

His right hamstring also gave him trouble before his July 29 start against Toronto. Scherzer pitched through it then, piling up 112 pitches. He could not -- or would not -- work through it Wednesday after catcher Kurt Suzuki expressed concern about the look of his pitches following the top of the first inning.

“Zook saw what my stuff was playing like -- he didn’t like it,” Scherzer said. “He just didn’t like what he saw -- how the ball was coming out of my hand. We just had a conversation: ‘Just get out of here. You’re taking on too much risk to continue to pitch.’ I didn’t injure it any further. I didn’t do anything worse. That was my limit for [Wednesday]. I wasn’t going to push past that limit.”

RELATED: AS JUAN SOTO RETURNS, BASEBALL IS REMINDED OF JUST HOW MUCH IT MISSED HIM

The Nationals have sunk their money and faith into the starting rotation. It won them a World Series last year. Its existence is a prime result of Mike Rizzo’s foundational preference in team building. The organization gave long-term contracts to Scherzer, Strasburg and Patrick Corbin. Paying pitchers for such an extended period can be problematic. It hasn’t been in Washington.

Though, this year, the two top ends of that approach are not available to pitch in the season’s third week. It could be temporary. Strasburg’s simulated game went well Wednesday. His return to the mound could come Sunday in Nationals Park against Baltimore or Monday in New York against the Mets. The right wrist impingement which led to a nerve problem in his hand has calmed. Multiple injections and time off stifled the pain. The main problem before? He couldn’t get a feel for his pitches.

“I was waking up in the middle of the night and my hand was asleep,” Strasburg previously said. “Kept falling asleep and I was getting these feelings, and it wasn’t really bothering me throwing. It seemed like once I tried starting to ramp up and stuff, the symptoms started to increase.”

Which was exactly the concern across the league before the season began. Too much too fast was on the mind of every manager in July. It remains so in August. Martinez thought about the idea when he saw what he termed “weird” injuries around the league. His general concern exists around the bevy of older players on the Nationals. He was also wary of pushing 21-year-old Juan Soto back to the field too soon. A short season is a short season. But, years of team control -- as is the case for Strasburg and Soto -- is the long game. Not exchanging now for later has to be part of the thought process.

“We had to ramp these guys up fairly quickly,” Martinez said. “I know with our guys -- Max, Stras, all these guys -- they worked diligently over three months. These things during the course of a year....I’ll tell you right now it’s been really, really hot here. These guys are getting after it. That might have something to do with it. Dehydration. I just hope [Thursday] Max wakes up, he feels better, we get him back Friday, we’ll see where he’s at, then go from there.

“But we’ve got to be really, really careful. We really do.”

Scherzer is toward the end of his journey. This is year six of the seven on his $210 million contract. The deal is a win if Wednesday night was his last appearance (it won’t be). Scherzer has finished in the top five of National League Cy Young voting every year in Washington. He’s been among the three finalists four times. He’s won twice.

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Scherzer also turned 36 years old nine days ago. He went through multiple injured list stints last season because of back and neck problems. And, eventually, was part of stunning World Series news when he had to be scratched from his Game 5 start after his neck locked up on him the morning prior. Scherzer said he fell out of bed and his wife, Erica, had to help dress him because he could not raise his arm above his shoulder. He was back on the mound for Game 7.

He felt his delivery was causing the problem. Scherzer said in March video showed his glove in the wrong place, straining his back. This time, his hamstring groaned during his regular running routine. These are the kind of injuries that pile up with age. Scherzer’s ability to push aside the aging process during the life of his contract is almost as impressive as the outcomes all the times he does pitch. Run, lift, prepare, post. It’s a formula which kept him on the mound with regularity for a decade.

However, the process has become more challenging since last August when his back and neck problems began. This could well be a blip, though hamstring injuries rarely are. They tend to linger and nag, much like the problems for the Nationals to start 2020, which were precisely what they wanted to avoid.

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