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Nationals take commanding 2-0 NLCS lead thanks to another dominant Max Scherzer performance

Nationals take commanding 2-0 NLCS lead thanks to another dominant Max Scherzer performance

Here’s the math pertinent to the current stranglehold: Road teams which win the first two games of a best-of-seven series have won 88 percent of those series in MLB postseason history. This is where the Nationals stand after two days in St. Louis.

Washington holds a 2-0 lead in the National League Championship Series by riding an uncomplicated formula. Its starting pitching has been almost untouchable. The offense has been just enough. The Nationals come home with Stephen Strasburg well-rested to start Game 3 on Monday. They are two wins from the World Series.

Saturday, Max Scherzer took control for seven innings. Sean Doolittle, Patrick Corbin — yes, Corbin — and Daniel Hudson wrapped things up. Adam Eaton’s two-run double in the eighth provided the cushion in a 3-1 win. What’s going right lately? Everything. 

“It's kind of nice going back up 2-0 in the series, but those guys are really good over there,” Davey Martinez told reporters. “The series is far from over. We got a day off [Sunday], we're going to spend the night, get a good rest and work out [Sunday] for a little while, and then get back at it the next day.”

The familiar alarms from Friday began to wail again Saturday after the fifth inning. Scherzer had not allowed a hit while the Cardinals’ frustration built. Yadier Molina slammed his bat after popping out. Matt Carpenter watched a 97-mph inside fastball sizzle past for strike three when Scherzer dragged himself out of a 3-0 count. Left-handed swinging Tommy Edman watched a 97-mph fastball hit the outer edge for a called strike three of his own. That was just in the fifth.

An astonishing stat followed: In Games 1 and 2 of the 2013 American League Championship Series, Scherzer and Aníbal Sánchez held the Red Sox hitless through the first five innings in each start. They were the only pitchers in MLB postseason history to hold the same team hitless through five innings in consecutive games. Six years later, they had done it again.

And, like Sánchez, Scherzer was working with the most modest of leads. Michael A. Taylor’s solo home run provided the Nationals a 1-0 cushion against Adam Wainwright, who wasn’t far from matching Scherzer. Wainwright allowed just four hits in his first six innings: three singles and the home run. He walked no one and struck out nine. The curveball was his pitch of choice. Wainwright threw 34 among his first 77 pitches. Nineteen were strikes. Washington put just two in play.

Which made any St. Louis baserunner a danger. Dexter Fowler walked with two outs in the sixth to produce the Cardinals’ first baserunner since the first inning. But a check swing from Kolten Wong led to a tapper easily handled by Anthony Rendon. Scherzer walked off the mound 92 pitches into his outing. He had not allowed a hit. A challenging decision for Davey Martinez was coming around the bend.

“It's a 1-0 game, mistakes are, it's razor thin out there, you can't give -- I'm really thinking don't give up a solo shot,” Scherzer told reporters. “Just trying to work with Zuk and just navigate through this lineup. Just stay in the moment, stay with Zuk and just keep your mind what we need to do. And he did a great job of sequencing them and we did a good job of just executing pitches.”

Paul Goldschmidt made the decision-making easier. His leadoff single in the seventh snapped Scherzer’s push for history. Only two pitchers — Don Larsen and Roy Halladay — had thrown no-hitters in the postseason. Marcell Ozuna struck out. Molina grounded into a double play. Scherzer’s spot was due up second in the eighth. Matt Adams replaced him after 101 pitches, seven innings, one hit, no runs, two walks and 11 strikeouts. Scherzer has allowed one earned run in his last 15 postseason innings. His career postseason ERA is down to 3.35.

Keeping to Friday’s script, the Nationals added runs late to calm nerves and swell the lead. Eaton’s eighth-inning double down the first-base line scored two runs when Wainwright’s curveball finally lost a battle.

“Facing Wainwright and him and Yadi were kind of confusing me all day in that at-bat and keeping me really, really off balance,” Eaton told reporters. “And in that sense 3-2, kind of knew he was going to go to the breaking ball, more so than any other pitch -- or any other at-bat that I've had. And I knew he had to throw it for a strike so it kind of gave me an opportunity to sit on it and got it and hit it where they weren't.”

St. Louis manager Mike Shildt left Wainwright in the game to face Eaton 92 pitches into his efficient outing. Andrew Miller was ready. This decision will be the focal point in St. Louis. Miller came in after an intentional walk to Anthony Rendon. Juan Soto popped out, Howie Kendrick struck out. Inning over and question in: Why didn’t Miller enter to face Eaton then handle the two behind Rendon?

“You take your chances with a guy that's in the moment, in the competition, that's pitched as well as he has, that is still executing his pitches, and he more than deserved that opportunity,” Shildt said. “He snuck one down the line on him.”

Finally, a run emerged for for St. Louis in the eighth. Jose Martinez’s protracted at-bat against Sean Doolittle resulted in a crisp fly ball to the heart of center field. Taylor misread it. The ball clicked off his glove at the top of his leap then rolled to the wall. Paul DeJong, who had singled, scored the Cardinals’ first run of the series. Fowler’s pop out closed the inning. Hudson prepped to close the game. Then, Corbin began to throw in the Nationals’ bullpen.

Corbin entered to face the left-handed Wong. Two pitches later, Wong was out and so was Corbin. Dave Martinez hopped out of the dugout to bring Hudson — who became a dad for the third time after the Friday birth of another daughter — into the game. He retired Goldschmidt and Ozuna. Game over. Grip tightened.

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Scott Boras is once again in place to control the Nationals’, and baseball’s, offseason

Scott Boras is once again in place to control the Nationals’, and baseball’s, offseason

The calendar has once again put Scott Boras into the spirit. 
 
Coming holidays have nothing to do with his joy. He’s giddy, revved, his premium salesman self again because the regular season is over, which means free agency has begun.
 
Annually, Boras has a large grip on the market and the Nationals’ future. This year, he’s in a white-knuckle place. Boras represents both Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg. He also represents starter Gerrit Cole. Those three are the top free agents -- by a wide swath -- this offseason, putting Boras in a place of leverage he may always talk from but likely has this time.
 
The Nationals have long felt Boras’ influence, on both good and bad fronts. He convinced Nationals founding principal owner Ted Lerner that Max Scherzer was worth $210 million and, more importantly, a seven-year commitment when other teams did not believe that to be the case. The contract has been a coup despite its hefty numbers. But, Boras also provided underwhelming veterans to the Washington roster. Matt Wieters and Jeremy Hellickson are among those who come to mind.
 
This time around, he has curious clients. They’re different. Neither is Bryce Harper in flamboyance or age. Both have established relationships with the Nationals. The vetting process is unnecessary and even an exchange of numbers is probably well in the past. Two huge, but somewhat reticent, stars coming from the same team after winning the World Series will be new for everyone.
 
Rendon has used his own leverage on Boras. Back in spring training, when Rendon told NBC Sports Washington negotiations with the Nationals “hit a wall,” he also made clear how he perceived the agent-player relationship when it came to him and Boras. 
 
“What everyone has the misconception of is they think that we work for Scott,” Rendon said. “Like, no. That’s not the way it works. Like, I’m telling him how it’s going and you can ask him. We’ve gotten (into) some jibber-jabbers before, too. Like, I’m paying him. Nah, [debates] don’t fly with me.”
 
Move to Media Day at the World Series. Rendon was asked if he thought Boras would be busy this offseason. He quickly answered, “yeah,” then added this poke.
 
“He’s about to be even richer, too, probably,” Rendon said. “Must be nice.”
 
Strasburg undermined one of Boras’ prime tenets in 2016 when he signed an extension early. Washington had to trade back-end opt-outs as the cost of keeping Strasburg from the open market. Negotiations then worked from spring training into the first month of the season. Strasburg wanted nothing to do with them until both sides were very close to an agreement.
 
“I pretty much told Scott to kind of leave me alone as much as possible,” Strasburg said then. "To be honest, it’s hard to block something like that out. It’s your future and your kid’s kids future, too. I think one thing that kept me centered, kept me focused, was why do I play this game. Bottom line was I play this game because I’m a competitor.”
 
The deal gave Mike Rizzo a chance to crow a tad.
 
“I think we had a discussion with Scott,” Rizzo said then. “He works for the players. I think this was player-driven -- the agreement. I think that Stephen wanted to be here and he expressed that to Scott. We hammered out the best deal that we could.”
 
Strasburg agreed with that sentiment at the time, before the World Series, before he found a formula for good health which allowed him to lead the National League in innings pitched in 2019. It's one of the tenets which makes Washington hopeful Strasburg will return.
 
“I think what they believe in and what I believe in kind of coincide,” Strasburg said of the organization.
 
Strasburg chose to exercise his first opt-out opportunity. However, what he listed as causes for signing the extension -- level of comfort, opportunity to win, quality of life outside of baseball -- remain in place. The wrinkle is Boras will be working the open market with both of the top-tier pitchers under his guidance. 
 
Typically, competition between agents to define the market can drag out free agency. This offseason, Boras will simultaneously be handling the clients whose markets play off each other. Strasburg’s numbers will influence Cole’s numbers. Their age -- Strasburg is a little more than two years older -- should be the defining point for gap in payment and years. Boras will argue up Strasburg in order to later obtain more money for Cole. Waiting could be beneficial to both players and laborious for fans.
 
Boras is again in command no matter the ultimate process. Washington’s most pressing issues are in his hands. The league’s most in-demand players are in his hands. So is the future. Juan Soto, a client of the Boras Corporation, becomes a free agent in 2025.

 

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Sean Doolittle reacts to Houston Astros’ sign stealing allegations

Sean Doolittle reacts to Houston Astros’ sign stealing allegations

All eyes in the baseball world are on the Houston Astros this week as they’re investigated for allegedly stealing signs using a high-powered camera in 2017 after The Athletic published a report Tuesday that included a former player of the team verifying the accusations.

Nationals closer Sean Doolittle weighed in on the scandal Thursday night on Twitter, posting a thread commemorating Mike Fiers and Carson Smith for speaking out before slamming teams who go around the accepted rules for stealing signs.

Doolittle and the Nationals faced Houston in the 2019 World Series; although there’s no evidence the Astros used these sign-stealing techniques against them, The Washington Post reported that pitching coach Paul Menhart ordered the pitching staff to use more complex signs in the World Series in order to combat any potential wrongdoing on Houston’s part.

The Boston Red Sox were fined an undisclosed amount in 2017 for using an Apple Watch to steal signs from the New York Yankees, after which commissioner Rob Manfred issued a statement warning teams “that future violations of this type will be subject to more serious sanctions, including the possible loss of draft picks.”

Major League Baseball is investigating the allegations, with no timetable given for a conclusion. For now, Doolittle has a suggestion for how to spend your time.

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