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Nationals star Stephen Strasburg is, in fact, happy to be here

Nationals star Stephen Strasburg is, in fact, happy to be here

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- A jovial guy looking strikingly like Stephen Strasburg was at Strasburg’s locker Sunday afternoon. Beard a bit long, hair on top a bit shorter.

Turns out, it was actually Strasburg, who is including a touch of humor and more frequent smiles in recent post-pitching conversations with reporters. It may not last. But, for now, there is a veteran pitcher pleased with progress in place of an often dour competitor who grapples with his perfectionist self.

Strasburg threw 84 pitches against a recognizable New York Mets lineup Sunday. This was not an afternoon spent against late spring canned ham delivered via a split-squad game. Instead, the Mets rolled out several of the hitters Strasburg will see March 30 when he presumably takes the mound in Game 2 of the season opposite New York’s Noah Syndergaard.

“Fastball command was good,” Strasburg said. “Got really aggressive on it. But that’s OK, at this point. You don’t want to  -- you want to work on stuff, but at the same time, well aware we open up with them. So, you know, don’t want to be featuring everything you might be featuring later on.”

Other recent realizations have reminded Strasburg he is now 30 years old, entering season 10 and just generally a legit veteran. He looked down at first base Saturday and recognized Stubby Clapp, a former Olympic player with Canada. Clapp, 46, was coaching first base for St. Louis. Strasburg turned to Erick Fedde: “‘I faced that guy in the Olympics.”

How did a Sunday afternoon conversation with media arrive at Clapp? Because Strasburg decided to face the Mets. Both Jacob deGrom and Syndergaard were lined up to pitch against the Nationals on Sunday and Monday, respectively. DeGrom was announced as sick Sunday. Syndergaard won’t be pitching in the split-squad game Monday. Instead, they will both pitch a minor-league game. Basically, the Mets chose to have their top two pitchers avoid the first opponent of the season.

Strasburg didn’t bother with such gamesmanship -- beyond relying on his fastball often. Instead, he took the mound then noted his status in the division.

“I mean, I’m the longest-tenured pitcher in the NL East,” Strasburg said. “What’s another start against the Mets? I think it just comes down to execution for me and that’s the same thing for everybody.”

The quote carries weight on three levels: Strasburg, somehow, realizes he has been in the division longer than any other pitcher. And only one starter is close to him. Season six is in front of deGrom. Season five is next for Syndergaard. Max Scherzer is entering his fifth season in the division. Same with Aaron Nola in Philadelphia. It’s technically year nine for Julio Teheran. However, he made six appearances total in his first two years.

Strasburg’s statement also shows inherent confidence that scouting reports can’t counter him when he’s on. Last, a T-shirt worthy slogan -- “What’s another start against the Mets?” -- came from him, of all people.

He was pleased to get a look at the Mets close to the opener.

“You want to see if they’re making any tweaks to their approach or if they’re going to be the same type of hitter,” Strasburg said. “I think over the years, you kind of realize that guys have certain strengths and they’re going to stick to those strengths much like myself.”

So, five innings, six hits, three earned runs, six strikeouts and two walks. Four of those hits happened in the fifth and sixth innings when Strasburg primarily threw first-pitch fastballs down the middle. His work was done in the first four innings when he carved through the Mets. It all left him happy. For now.

Soto rolling along

The box score claims Juan Soto was 3-for-4 Sunday with two doubles and a home run. Not so inside Soto’s brain. He thought he beat out a grounder for an infield single though he was called out.

“In my mind, it’s 4-for-4,” Soto said with a smile.

Soto has hit a home run in three of his last four games. His spring OPS is 1.288 after 35 at-bats. It’s spring -- always a necessary caveat -- but the point here is nothing indicates a change for Soto. If anything, he might be a better all-around player because he is improved defensively and on the base paths. The hitting situation has not changed.

“I feel really comfortable at the plate, I’m seeing the ball really well,” Soto said. “Better than when I got here. I’m almost ready.”

Taylor takes a first -- small -- step

Michael A. Taylor’s MRI revealed a sprained left hip and knee. Sunday, a modest workout sent him to social media to express his pleasure.

Thankful for the good news on my MRI!! Feeling good after hitting, throwing and running (in the pool) today. #Nationals #SpringTraining #MLB

Manager Davey Martinez clarified Taylor took one-handed swings off the tee, threw “lightly” from about 90 feet and did run in the pool. Martinez also called it an expected “baseline” for the day. The explanation appeared targeted to calm takeaways from Taylor’s tweet.

“We'll see how he comes back and feels tomorrow,” Martinez said. “But for us, that's a good thing that he's feeling that good. We'll see where it takes us in the next couple of days.”

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What to watch as Nats continue three-game series against Marlins

What to watch as Nats continue three-game series against Marlins

This is the Nationals’ first time in Miami this season, and the team finished with a 3-2 loss against the Marlins on Friday night. Here are a few things to look for as they enter the second game of the three-game series against the Floridians: 

  1. Friday night’s situational hitting was poor, NBC Sports Washington’s Todd Dybas reported. The Nats left 10 runners on base in a 3-2 loss to the Miami Marlins.However, the Nationals’ offense has changed this season. This was exemplified in Friday’s series opener against the Marlins, in which both Adam Eaton and Victor Robles bunted to get hits.
  2. Eaton singled on a bunt in the first inning, eventually scoring on a Juan Soto RBI single, while Robles also reached base safely in the third following Eaton’s strategy and then stole a base. These creative plays helped get men on base, but again, more often than not they stayed there. Brian Dozier hit his second home run of the season in the seventh inning, a solo shot which gave the Nats their second and final run of the night. Dozier had a rough start to the season, and after Friday’s game, he has just two RBIs – both via solo homers. He has a batting average of .182, and he’s lost playing time to Howie Kendrick as the season has moved forward. Kendrick has a batting average of .477, the highest on the roster.
  3. Anthony Rendon continued his hit streak, extending it to 17 games with a double Friday. This is the longest hitting streak in the MLB this season, as well as the third baseman’s personal record. Within the organization, Rendon is chasing Hall-of-Famer Heinie Manush’s record, which stretched to 33 consecutive hits in 1933. Can he get another on Saturday?

 

Download the MyTeams app for coverage from NBC Sports Washington of the Nationals/Marlins game on Saturday. The game broadcast will be at 6:10 PM ET on 106.7 the Fan and MASN2. 

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Middling Anibal Sanchez and quiet bats do Nationals in against Marlins

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Middling Anibal Sanchez and quiet bats do Nationals in against Marlins

The Washington Nationals lost to the Miami Marlins, 3-2, Friday night to drop back to 9-9. Here are five observations from the game...

1. For all the offseason efforts at improvement, winning the National League East could come down to its one member which is trying to lose.

The four spenders each play Miami 19 times. By the end, going 11-8 against the in-the-tank Marlins may become a lamentable part of some team’s 2019 legacy. They either brought in a marquee pitcher, a generational outfielder or a former MVP third baseman. But they didn’t do enough against the Marlins, costing themselves the single, taut playoff spot that emerges from the division. It’s a viable storyline to project.

The Nationals took their first negative step toward that fate Friday in a 3-2 loss to the Marlins.

The situational hitting was poor -- Washington left 10 runners on base. The starting pitching was so-so -- Anibal Sanchez took the loss. The bullpen made one dire mistake -- Matt Grace’s first pitch hit left-hander Curtis Granderson with the bases loaded, forcing in the decisive run. The luck wasn’t great -- Caleb Smith, a quality left-hander marooned in Miami as the staff’s best pitcher, was on turn. Anticipate him representing Miami at the All-Star Game this season.

Brian Dozier homered. Mark that in the positive column. Joe Ross pitched two innings of quality relief. Put him next to Dozier.

Otherwise, the loss was sigh-worthy for a team trying to lurch forward, ending its up-and-down run of the first three weeks.

2. Another day, another hit for Anthony Rendon.

His sixth-inning double extended his hitting streak to 17 games, the longest in Major League Baseball this season. It’s also an extension of a personal best for Rendon.

Rendon’s 15 extra-base hits in 17 games is a Nationals/Expos record.

Who is he chasing for the organization’s hit streak record? Hall-of-Famer Heinie Manush, who hit safely in 33 consecutive games back in 1933.

Manush played for the Senators from 1930-1935. He hit .336 when he set the Washington record for consecutive game with a hit. He led the league in triples (17) and hits (221) that season.

Manush won a batting title in 1925 when he hit .378 for Detroit. Rendon is currently hitting .377 in the opening weeks of the season.

3. Sanchez was ok. Not great, not terrible. Just ok.

He lasted 5 ⅓ innings, allowed five hits, three earned runs, walked four and struck out six. His ERA is 4.91.

Regression for Sanchez this season was expected. His 2.83 ERA in Atlanta last season came strongly against the current of his previous pitching. Sanchez had a 5.67 ERA over the three prior seasons.

However, this has been a leap back, a full two runs in arrears of last season’s ERA. More troubling than the ERA is Sanchez’s path through lineups. His walk rate is up, his strikeout rate down.

As the season moves along, a comparison point for Sanchez will be the results of left-hander Wade Miley in Houston. The Nationals made a multi-year offer to Miley which was better than the offer he eventually settled on with the Astros, according to a source. Miley ended up signing for just one year in Houston because the free agent market went south, and Washington quickly pivoted to Sanchez. Keeping track of the two via ERA-plus (which accounts for park factors) during the season will be a fun exercise. Coming into Friday, Miley was by far the better pitcher in that department, 129 to 95. Another bloated outing from Sanchez only increased that gap.

4. The Nationals hoped to play a different brand of offense this season. They wanted to deploy more athleticism, using speed and contact to produce runs.

They took the idea to the extreme Friday. Adam Eaton and Victor Robles both bunted for hits. Eaton scored Washington’s first run after reaching base via his drag bunt up the first base line.

Robles stole second and ended up on third following his bunt in the same direction in the third inning.

Creative work at the plate for both.

5. Another bullpen twist hit Friday. Austen Williams was placed on the 10-day injured list because of a sprained right AC joint. Austin Adams was called up to replace him.

Williams had a disastrous outing Wednesday in the Nationals’ 9-6 win over the Giants. He allowed four earned runs -- on two home runs -- after the Nationals entered the ninth inning with a 9-2 lead. Williams’ inability to get an out in the ninth eventually forced closer Sean Doolittle into a game he never should have entered.

Doolittle’s entrance also complicated the current series in Miami. He pitched back-to-back games to close the series against San Francisco. His Friday availability was in question because of that, though the Nationals didn’t end up needing him.

The right-handed Adams, 27, joins the team from Triple-A Fresno. He struck out 12, allowed a hit and didn’t give up an earned run in his six innings with the Grizzlies.

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