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Nationals navigate chaos in steps toward contention

Nationals navigate chaos in steps toward contention

WASHINGTON -- How’s this for a week? Five hours of rain delays, two postponements, Max Scherzer breaks his face, Max Scherzer dominates while on the mound with said broken face, a sweep, a rally, a bullpen blowup, a key roster piece dismissed, a Sunday extra-inning loss. 

Welcome to the last week at Nationals Park, where the local nine have gone from finding their bearings to hopping into the fray. Washington went 4-2 against Philadelphia and Atlanta during the rain-stalled week, and it was lamentable. A perfect 6-0 was possible. A more likely 5-1 was quite attainable. But, 4-2 will be acceptable, especially in light of the early-season wandering through the darkness. 

“Hey, we played two pretty good teams,” manager Davey Martinez said. “With everything said and done, we came out 6-4. We got a day off [Monday], which the boys need. We come back, we got Miami for three. So let's have that day off, come back, and play Tuesday.”

The National League East division has enjoyed convulsions even before the midpoint of the season. Atlanta stands 14 games over .500 and firmly in first. Philadelphia has caught all of the Nationals’ former ills -- injuries, bad bullpen pitching, poor base level play -- during its tumble. It has lost seven in a row, 16 of 22 and was swept by Miami over the weekend. New York fired its pitching coach, then went into Chicago and split a series from the first-place Cubs before manager Mickey Callaway swore at a reporter and a starting pitcher charged him. Philadelphia and New York start a four-game series Monday to determine which is more in disarray.

Washington, meanwhile, is 18-9 in its last 27. Baseball Reference says its odds to reach the playoffs went up 17.9 percent in the last seven days. The Nationals now have a 31 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to fivethirtyeight.com. Fangraphs paints a similar picture: It pegs Washington with a 28.8 percent chance to reach the postseason.

The season’s midpoint arrives Friday following three games in Miami. Washington will be in Detroit that night, taking on one of the league’s worst offenses, before another homestand opens against Miami. Woeful Kansas City follows. Those three clubs are math boosters. They could also deliver the final impetus for general manager Mike Rizzo to deploy a strategy he used last season: find early help to keep pushing.

June 18, 2018, Rizzo dealt for Kelvin Herrera to aid a not-quite-there bullpen which was at least an arm short. Herrera was pitching well when he arrived. The cost was three players, two of which remain in the minors, one of which is with the Royals this season. 

Herrera failed in Washington, but the strategy was sound. Rizzo did not wait to fix the clear gap in his club -- yes, this seems an annual adjustment -- by lagging until the trade deadline. He instead aggressively attempted to solve a problem in a manner which carries risk and reward. The risk is overpaying because the work is being done well ahead of the market deadline. The reward is an extended benefit by acquiring help six weeks before running out of time to do so.

The Nationals remain at least one arm short in the bullpen. Trevor Rosenthal was released Sunday morning. Kyle Barraclough continues to watch from the bullpen railing. His right arm no longer hurts. It’s also not ready to throw pitches at full force. He remains weeks away from a return. 

Until then, the Nationals have an open 40-man roster spot to tinker with. Among the numerous restrictions suffered because of Rosenthal’s failures was the inability to move a piece not on the 40-man easily up to the 25-man roster. His departure offers a clean entrance.

The last week provides ammunition for further moves. Even Martinez bent to the idea these recent seven days mattered. Two postponements stalled outcomes before Washington handled free-falling Philadelphia and tussled toe-to-toe with the Braves. Atlanta outscored the Nationals 20-16 in the three-game series. Three of those runs came because of a Rosenthal meltdown. In essence, it was a draw.

“We know we’re capable of keeping up with any of these guys,” Yan Gomes said. “We’ve said it since the beginning: Eighth inning, ninth inning comes around, we’re going to battle ‘til the end. We gave ourselves a chance to win [Sunday], it just didn’t come our way. But no shame, no hanging our heads. We’ve still got to look forward.”

Gomes went back to packing when he was done with reporters. Going on the road with all the equipment is a team which has proven its baby steps toward course correction were not a fluke. Three weeks of good play have been compiled. The two coming weeks offer another trampoline. Expect Rizzo to look for even more bounce.

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Wild-card tracker: Nationals thankful for Marlins, Cubs slide back

Wild-card tracker: Nationals thankful for Marlins, Cubs slide back

Back before all this mania, Miami, as putrid as its season would be, loomed as a factor.

Handling the Marlins would be key for any contender. It wasn’t a question of winning, but of how much winning would occur against one of the league’s worst teams.

Following Friday’s 6-4 win in a sparsely attended Marlins Park, the Nationals moved to 14-3 against Miami this season. They are 16 games over. 500 for the year. They are plus-11 against Miami alone.

Asdrúbal Cabrera homered again, Trea Turner hit two homers, and Daniel Hudson pitched two innings to earn the save. So, the Nationals, 84-68, hold a one-game lead for the top wild-card spot. Milwaukee won again, joining a long list of teams to beat up on the Pittsburgh Pirates since the post-All-Star-break portion of the schedule began. Pittsburgh may be the league’s worst team, at the moment, and the Brewers host it for two more this weekend.

Trouble is brewing for Chicago. It lost again to St. Louis -- this time a 2-1 mid-day defeat in Wrigley Field. The Cubs have lost four in a row. They are three games behind the Nationals and two behind the Brewers. Their path to 90 wins, which may ultimately be the threshold for postseason entrance, is narrowing.

The Mets won their third consecutive game. They are hanging around, 3 ½ games behind the Brewers with nine remaining on the schedule. Their wild-card elimination number is six.

News for Philadelphia is more dire. The Phillies dropped to 78-74 Friday night following a 5-2 loss in Cleveland. They are now five behind Milwaukee. Their wild-card elimination number is a mere five. 

Which brings us to the more detailed math portion of this program. Here are the postseason chances for each team, according to fivethirtyeight.com:

Nationals, 96 percent

Brewers, 84 percent

Cubs, 15 percent

Mets, 5 percent

Phillies, less than one percent

Coming up Saturday:

St. Louis at Chicago, 2:20 p.m., Hudson (16-7, 3.35 ERA) vs. Quintana (13-8, 4.37)

New York at Cincinnati, 4:10 p.m., Wheeler (11-7, 4.09) vs. DeSclafani (9-9, 3.93)

Washington at Miami, 6:10 p.m., Strasburg (17-6, 3.49) vs. Yamamoto (4-5, 4.87)

Philadelphia at Cleveland, 7:10 p.m., Vargas (6-8, 4.48) vs. Plesac (8-6, 3.64)

Pittsburgh at Milwaukee, 7:10 p.m., Marvel (0-2, 9.00) vs. Davies (10-7, 3.70)

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Howie Kendrick needed the Nationals, and they needed him

Howie Kendrick needed the Nationals, and they needed him

Howie Kendrick knew he was in trouble May 19, 2018, when he was down on the warning track and could not control his ankle. His Achilles tendon tore after he moved back for a fly ball in left field. His season ended. His career could have well ended with his season.

Last offseason’s shift in free agency affected those still in their prime. The market tormented Bryce Harper and Manny Machado before forking over large sums. It treated veterans destined to be part-time players worse. Super-utility player Marwin Gonzalez didn’t sign with Minnesota until Feb. 25. He turned 30 in April and was coming off a 2.5-WAR season for a team that went to the American League Championship Series. Yet, he couldn’t find a job anywhere.

This would have been Kendrick’s plight. Perhaps it would have been more challenging. He may never have found a job via a new contract. Think of the advertisement: soon-to-be 36-year-old coming off Achilles tendon tear, with reduced positional flexibility and past hamstring problems, seeks part-time work. 

Kendrick vowed from the start he would be back, healthy, and just ride out the recovery timeline as it was dictated. The second year of his contract made the process easier. It also all but assured him of a job again with Washington. At just $4 million, even as a bench player, Kendrick’s salary was easy to accept. If he showed good health and a quick bat in spring, he would again team with Matt Adams as a potent left-right combination off the bench. The second-year saved him from graveling in the offseason.

“if that was the last year of my deal, I don’t know if I would have been in the Major Leagues this year,” Kendrick said. “Because a lot of times the way the league is now, bringing veteran guys back and being around the game, you don't see too many veteran guys around anymore. 

“Having the ability to come back to a place I really enjoy and get to be around these guys... It's been fun. We got a lot of great young guys here, guys like [Victor Robles], [Juan] Soto, [Anthony] Rendon, [Trea] Turner, those guys they keep you going every day and it's been fun. And it’s been cool to be able to see these guys grow and they've helped me out too with my game.”

Kendrick is having his best offensive season. Delivering it this year became an enormous factor in the Nationals’ survival and turnaround. Ryan Zimmerman has been to the plate 168 times in 2019. Kendrick has filled the gap with one of the most potent part-time -- rightfully not full-time -- bats in the majors.

His OPS-plus is a career-high 142. His second-best season in that category? Back in 2011, when he was 27 years old in Los Angeles. His OPS is 119 points higher than any other season, his slugging percentage 88 points higher. He’s two homers shy of tying his career-best mark despite 237 fewer plate appearances than he had in 2011.

“I'm not an everyday guy anymore and I know that and [Davey Martinez] knows and I'm not going to complain one bit about the way I’ve been used,” Kendrick said. “When I play, I play. When I don't, I’m ready to play and go in the game and I’ve kind of streamlined that process a little more, I’ve figured out, being in the National League how to prepare myself and be ready. 

“We've come up with little drills for when we pinch-hit and things like that to be as ready as we can. And then once you get in the game, whatever’s going to happen is gonna happen, and that’s what I try to look at. Keep the same mindset as hey I prepared and I’m going to go out here and try to do my job and that's' all you can ask for. I think your teammates know that, and I think your coaches know that. I think that’s the biggest part of it, and mentally you just have to know you're not always going to succeed.” 

Though this year, he has -- a lot. 

Kendrick’s career-best season exists because he didn’t have to wade through the market. The second year of his contract provided him a work haven despite his age and major injury. His work during it likely created a chance for him to sign yet another one, something which may have otherwise not happened in the first place.

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