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Nationals enter Game 5 with less angst and more embrace

Nationals enter Game 5 with less angst and more embrace

The Nationals’ season has come skittering to the edge for the third time in eight days. Not that it’s apparent.

Their mood following the season-extending Game 4 on Monday in Nationals Park remained filled with pep. A miniature disco ball spread colored circles across the clubhouse ceiling. Gerardo Parra blew on his whistle. Davey Martinez clarified for one of the younger players he shouldn’t just be packing for Los Angeles, but also beyond, sending him back to his locker instead of into the lukewarm evening.

Washington is in Los Angeles for Game 5 on Wednesday night with hope and expectation. Pressure is more likely to sit in the other dugout, where the back-to-back National League champions reside. Los Angeles is worried about one thing after losing the past two World Series and not winning one since 1988: taking the title. It’s the only outcome which will do following a 106-win season and seventh consecutive division title.

For the Nationals? They’re here. Barely. Washington has spent the season emerging from ghastly situations, first in May, then whenever the bullpen was used, in the eighth inning of the Wild-Card Game and again in the now-even National League Division Series. Stephen Strasburg -- its greatest weapon against opponents and the troubling in-house bullpen -- is on the mound.

“I think it's something that you train for, you dream about as a kid, and you want to have those opportunities to just see how your stuff stacks up,” Strasburg said of the chance. “When you're in the moment and stuff it's a great feeling, just going out there and competing against the best.”

The Nationals’ preferred formula for the evening is simplistic: Strasburg for seven innings, Sean Doolittle and Daniel Hudson for the rest. A repeat of Game 4’s pitching would be ideal. They want to distribute 27 outs among three pitchers, even with Patrick Corbin and Aníbal Sánchez available in the bullpen. Max Scherzer will not be an option during this visit to Los Angeles.

Strasburg’s postseason ERA is down to 0.64 after 28 innings. He controlled the Dodgers in Game 2 with his curveball, leaving L.A. manager Dave Roberts admittedly surprised postgame by its high usage. Strasburg jumped from 31 percent of his pitches as curveballs in the regular season to 40 percent against Los Angeles, making Roberts’ postgame head-scratching the real surprise of the evening. Strasburg has relied on his curveball throughout the year. How such a well-run opponent was caught off-guard by it remains a mystery.

“For me I think it just comes down to execution,” Strasburg said. “I try and focus on the things I can control and good pitching is supposed to get good hitting out most of the time. They always say a guy that gets a hit three out of 10 times is in the Hall of Fame, so I'm trying to get him out those seven other times.”

How he tries to do it Wednesday night will be among the evening’s most compelling storylines. At times in the regular season, starting pitchers face the same opponent in less than a week, complicating strategy. Do they change? Stay the same? Do the hitters swing early after a bad outcome or dare the pitcher to do it all again? Could, as Strasburg suggested, throwing quality pitches simply be enough, even if the approach is a re-run?

“I don't know the exact numbers, but I think he was even more 50 percent, over 50 percent secondaries against us that first time,” Roberts said. “And is he going to continue to do that? Are we going to make an adjustment? I just do believe that the changeup and then the curveball usage, he was very sharp with both those pitches. When he's making pitches like that with that on top of the fastball, he's going to be tough on anybody, so I think for us to kind of hunt a location and be ready to capitalize on mistakes is very important.”

Scherzer watched Strasburg confound the Dodgers in Game 2 before his relief appearance. Swings at off-speed pitches in the other batter’s box. Swings which buckled knees which emphatically missed the baseball. The Dodgers produced 20 swinging strikes and 15 called strikes against Strasburg in just six innings last time. His combination of crispness and confusion -- about what was coming before it was released and identifying it once in flight -- resulted in one earned run in six innings.

“It’s the chess game,” Scherzer said. “When you’re sequencing pitches together the way Stras was [Friday], and you execute pitches the way you can, you can always be ahead of the hitter because of what you can do with the baseball if you can locate.”

Strasburg pitched six innings that night on short rest. He is fully rested for Wednesday’s mound visit, arriving under the same protocol Scherzer did Monday night in Washington. His job is to pitch seven innings, whatever it takes, keeping the Nationals’ bullpen in its seats. Strasburg said Friday pressure is something he’s learned is under his control. That same day, so were the Dodgers. Again combining those outcomes could finally push the Nationals into the National League Championship Series.

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If Stephen Strasburg were to sign with another NL East team, would he be booed in his return to Nationals Park?

If Stephen Strasburg were to sign with another NL East team, would he be booed in his return to Nationals Park?

As a free agent, Stephen Strasburg is welcome to sign with whomever he wishes. Although the Nationals are currently the favorites to re-sign one of their aces, where Stras will end up is certainly up in the air.

If Stephen Strasburg were to sign with another NL East team this offseason, would he be booed in his return to Nationals Park?

Bryce Harper was booed relentlessly in his return to Nationals Park in a Philadelphia Phillies uniform. Would the same principle apply to other former Nationals?

The Nationals Talk Podcast discussed the sentiment on their latest episode.

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"I think he would be initially cheered and then sort of booed," Todd Dybas said. "Just his general demeanor doesn't prompt the divisiveness that certainly Bryce Harper did and does," Dybas continued.

Dybas also mentioned that information following Strasburg's hypothetical signing with another team would be a big factor in the fans' decision to boo or not to boo, such as when Harper chose the Phillies over the Nationals when the deals were somewhat comparable, to which Chase Hughes agreed.

"The context is just so much different in the sense that Stephen Strasburg just delivered a World Series and was one of the central reasons why," Hughes said. "He should never have to buy a drink in this town again even though he's probably going to end up with like $400 million in his career, in career earnings."

Tim Shovers agreed that Strasburg's hypothetical return would deliver a "mix" of cheers and boos.

Hopefully, this scenario stays hypothetical, and the Nats can re-sign the World Series MVP.

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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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