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Nationals squeak past Giants, survive yet another careening night from the bullpen

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Nationals squeak past Giants, survive yet another careening night from the bullpen

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Nationals beat the San Francisco Giants, 9-6, Wednesday night to move to 8-8. Here are five observations from the game...

1. We have data for spin rates, ball drag, swing paths and everything possible in baseball.

Most decisions are predicated on that information. Who to pitch, who to hit, when to do so.

Matt Adams and Davey Martinez didn’t bother with the data in the seventh inning Wednesday. Adams has a career .593 OPS against left-handed pitchers. It’s the reason he’s a bench/platoon player instead of a full-time first baseman. But, Martinez let Adams face left-hander Travis Bergen, who came into the game with a 1.69 ERA. Adams hit a three-run homer off Bergen to blow the game open.

Kurt Suzuki also homered in the seventh.

The bullpen barely took the seven-run lead across the finish line to back Jeremy Hellickson’s effective start (5 ⅔ innings, two earned runs). It, of course, was a bumpy ride to get there. Austen Williams started the ninth inning with a 9-2 lead. He faced four hitters, retired none, allowed two home runs and was yanked when San Francisco pulled to within 9-6, forcing the Nationals to use Kyle Barraclough and to warm up closer Sean Doolittle.

Barraclough picked up an out, then was removed. Doolittle entered a game he never anticipated coming into. Buster Posey hit his first pitch for a double. Brandon Belt walked, bringing the tying run to the plate. Brandon Crawford struck out. Evan Longoria popped out on a 3-2 pitch. Mercifully, it was over just short of disaster.

“That happened really fast,” manager Davey Martinez said. “You guys saw it; everybody saw it. The biggest -- to have to use Doolittle up seven there in the ninth, was tough. We have to close out the game.”

Barraclough was used for an out to keep Doolittle’s pitch count down in hopes of using him against Thursday. Barraclough threw just four pitches. But, the mere fact they had to enter the game was damning.  

“In that situation, as well as things were going in that game, when you pitch in the closer’s role you can never really check out and you have to stay in the game mentally,” Doolittle said. “If something does happen, often times it happens really quick and it snowballs.”

Patrick Corbin is on the mound Thursday afternoon to chase the series win. The bullpen has a short night to move on.

2. Adjustments for Juan Soto in Season Two are ongoing.

The league’s pitchers have decided to not throw him fastballs. Soto came into Wednesday seeing fastballs just 42.9 percent of the time, according to Fangraphs. That’s a league low.

Along with a reduction in the fastballs thrown to him, the number of pitches in the strike zone to Soto has also declined significantly, down to 36.3 percent from 43.6 percent in 2018. And, his strikeouts are up accordingly. His K-percentage has risen from 20.0 percent to 28.8 percent.

Coming into Wednesday, Soto struck out 19 times this season. Of those, 12 were against off-speed pitches. Half of those were against changeups.

So, the book on him is clear: do not throw a fastball.

What did Giants starter Jeff Samardzija throw Soto on the second pitch in his first-inning at-bat? A fastball. Where did it land? In the right field seats.

That yin-and-yang for Soto is something to keep an eye through the season. Will he take walks when watching off-speed out of the zone? Will he not miss the rare fastball?

The league was expected to push back in Soto’s second season. It has. Soto needs to figure out how to best handle it.

3. Martinez modified his lineup Wednesday for multiple reasons.

He wanted Adams on the field against Samardzija. Adams came into the game with a 1.732 OPS against the Giants right-hander in 17 at-bats. He wanted Howie Kendrick in the lineup somewhere -- Kendrick hit his third home run in his 18th at-bat this season when he came to the plate in the first inning Wednesday. He also wanted Victor Robles to stay in the No. 9 spot.

The lineup:

Adam Eaton
Anthony Rendon
Juan Soto
Matt Adams
Howie Kendrick
Kurt Suzuki
Wilmer Difo
Jeremy Hellickson​​​​​​​
Victor Robles

So, mark Game 16 as Martinez’s first notable deviation in lineup structure. He wanted a set lineup during the season as often as possible. Wednesday was a change because of the opposing pitcher, Brian Dozier’s struggles (and injured toe following a foul ball Tuesday night), and Kendrick’s hot hitting

4. Dozier fouled a ball off his front foot Tuesday night. He had the blood-filled toe drained Wednesday, which removed him from the opening lineup. Martinez said Dozier was available to play late, if need be.

Dozier seemed undeterred by the toe issue. He took early batting practice on the field with Ryan Zimmerman. He later took grounders during regular batting practice.

Dozier tried to play through a knee problem much of last season. His work today despite the toe injury appeared as much a statement as preparation. It was enough to show Martinez he could enter as a defensive replacement for Kendrick in the eighth inning.

Martinez stopped short of using the “P” word -- platoon -- when discussing Dozier and Kendrick pregame.

“We’d love for him to play every day, but we have to take care of Howie,” Martinez said. “He’s going to play. But then again, I have to make sure he’s with us for the duration of the season.”

5. Hellickson has an interesting run going since joining the Nationals: In his 21 starts, he’s allowed three or fewer runs in 20 of them.

Hellickson doesn’t last long. He’s pitched more than six innings once. Hellickson’s starts also are not filled with bliss. Wednesday he walked four, struck out none, yet allowed just two earned runs.

However, he has kept the Nationals competitive in most of his starts as the No. 5 starter.

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Nationals calling up Adrian Sanchez, corresponding roster move pending

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Nationals calling up Adrian Sanchez, corresponding roster move pending

WASHINGTON -- Manager Davey Martinez wasn’t sure postgame Saturday what’s wrong with reliever Kyle Barraclough.

The right-hander’s velocity is down, his slider flat and too true, his results poor. Barraclough left the mound Saturday at dusk with a 6.39 ERA. He’s allowed seven home runs in 25 ⅓ innings this season. Little he has tried has worked. And his time on the team may be short.

Utility infielder Adrian Sanchez will join the team Sunday, according to a source. Sanchez’s likely departure from Double-A Harrisburg was reported Saturday night by Mick Reinhard, who covers the Senators, and noted Sanchez’s early removal from the game.

The question is who will be leaving to make room for him

Barraclough seems the logical choice. He has options remaining, so the Nationals could send him to Triple-A Fresno to try and work things out. They could also place him on the 10-day injured list, then send him on an extended rehabilitation in the minor leagues, as they did with Trevor Rosenthal. At a minimum, Washington will go from an eight-man bullpen to a five-man bench, finally delivering Martinez more versatility at the plate and in the field.

Barraclough and left-hander Tony Sipp were rarely used in the last three weeks. A week passed between appearances for Barraclough from the end of May to the start of June. Sipp pitched Sunday for just the fifth time since May 24.

If the Nationals do remove Barraclough from the roster -- in whatever fashion -- it will be another layer of indictment for their offseason bullpen plan. They acquired Barraclough via trade with Miami for international slot money. He was supposed to pitch the seventh inning on a regular basis, Rosenthal the eighth and Sean Doolittle the ninth. That lineup has been disastrous outside of Doolittle, compromising the entire season.

Rosenthal’s travails are well-documented. He pitched again Saturday, walked the first batter on four pitches, walked the second batter, then allowing a single to load the bases with no outs. He eventually allowed just a run. His ERA is 19.50 following the outing. It’s the first time this season Rosenthal’s ERA is under 20.00.

While trying to fix Rosenthal, and trying to hang on with Barraclough, the Nationals have turned to Wander Suero and Tanner Rainey to handle the seventh and eighth innings ahead of Doolittle. Few would have predicted that combination before the season began. Despite the relative concern, no one would have predicted the Nationals’ bullpen to be among the worst in the league for much of the season, but has turned out to be just that.

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Max Scherzer may be the last pitcher to tally 3,000 strikeouts

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Max Scherzer may be the last pitcher to tally 3,000 strikeouts

 

WASHINGTON -- Max Scherzer may be baseball’s final entrant into the 3,000-strikeout club.

 

Sounds weird to say. The mark is a vaunted one and previously a measuring stick for Hall-of-Fame candidacy. That was before a shift to fewer innings by starters from the time they are young. 

 Friday night, Scherzer climbed into 27th on the all-time list. He passed legacy names Warren Spahn and Bob Feller thanks to another 10-strikeout outing.

“Sweet,” Scherzer said when informed of the movement. “Let’s keep going.”Scherzer is 35 years old, in his 12th season and has 2,585 strikeouts. He’s on pace for 297 total this season -- if he makes his typical 33 starts. Hitting that mark would put him at 2,756 at the end of the year. He would be 24th all-time at that stage and a standard season away from cracking 3,000. Justin Verlander will beat Scherzer to the mark, making Scherzer the 19th pitcher all-time to strikeout 3,000 or more should he get there. CC Sabathia surpassed 3,000 in late May. Sabathia, Verlander and Scherzer could cap the group for the rest of history.

The club’s exclusivity is often overlooked. Twenty-seven players have hit 500 or more home runs. Twenty-three players have 300 or more wins (speaking of marks which are unlikely to be reached again; Scherzer has 164, and, yes, wins are wins).

Among active players with 2,000 or more strikeouts, Clayton Kershaw is the youngest. He’s 31 years old and has struck out 2,342. Recent injuries have derailed what was a clear express path to 3,000. He becomes a free agent in 2022. And Kershaw is a good example of how usage is changing the chances to strike out 3,000.

He has not pitched more than seven innings this season. Part of that is to protect him following his back problems. Another portion is seven innings is the norm. Less is also common. Entering the eighth or ninth is almost unheard of. Only two pitchers have thrown two complete games this season. Twenty pitchers have one or more complete games this season. Last year, no pitcher finished with more than two complete games. Only 13 pitchers threw 200 or more innings. 

Yet, strikeout rates are at an all-time high while innings pitched by starters dips. So, let’s look at extrapolation for a younger pitcher, like Trevor Bauer, who is operating in this new era and will do so going forward.

Bauer is 28 years old. He’s struck out 1,035 batters. A decade more of 200 strikeouts per season gets him there -- narrowly. But, the problem for Bauer, like others alluded to above, is he rarely pitches into the eighth inning. Two of his 15 starts this season have gone a full eight innings. Only three have lasted more than seven. Three others have lasted less than six. Most often he pitches six to seven innings. He’s never thrown more than 190 innings in a season.

Let’s call it a 6 ⅔ innings for his average outing going forward. He strikes out 1.1 batters per inning this year. He’s never made more than 31 starts in the season. So, give him 28 starts per year for the next 10 years. That gives Bauer 205 strikeouts per season, on average, and discounts any future regression (which is likely). Together, Bauer could crack 3,000 strikeouts in his age-38 season. Any steps back -- a season of 21 starts because of injury, a reduction in innings on average, his strikeout totals reducing in the typical fashion of a pitcher in his mid-30s -- would cost him his slim chance.

In between Kershaw and Bauer are a variety of 30-something pitchers on the downside of their careers. Jon Lester is 35. He has 2,259 strikeouts. Cole Hamels is also 35. He’s at 2,498. Felix Hernandez has struck out 2,501. He’s 35 years old and left a rehabilitation start for Triple-A Tacoma early on Friday because of fatigue. Zack Greinke is 35. His 2,520 strikeouts give him an outside shot, as does his ability to pitch well despite an ongoing reduction in velocity. 

Pitchers of that ilk often found career-extending deals in the past. Now, teams are more likely to pay a younger starter much less instead of being on the hook for $10 million or more for a veteran winding down. Or, if they are signed, it’s only a one- or two-year deal. One guy who has a chance: 30-year-old Stephen Strasburg. His strikeout rate has held during his career -- and into this season. The question, as always, is health. It took Strasburg nine-plus seasons just to hit the midway point (1,554 coming into Saturday’s start).

Scherzer’s path is not in doubt. He will need around 240 strikeouts next season to hit it. Which means be prepared sometime in late August when Scherzer will be checking off another milestone, one which will be a challenge to hit again.

 

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