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Nationals turn to Patrick Corbin to close NLCS in a sweep

Nationals turn to Patrick Corbin to close NLCS in a sweep

WASHINGTON-- Holding a bottle of Bud Light in his left hand, the one which produced enough quality pitches for a $140 million contract, Patrick Corbin was a peripheral party participant.

He’s generally quiet. When the All-Star break arrived, he and his wife, Jen, made initial plans to go to the Hamptons. They went to upstate New York instead. The couple stayed with Jen’s parents because getting to the Hamptons seemed like a pain. Then he came back to work.

Asked during the post-Wild-Card Game celebrating how he would explain the team’s run to someone from home who had not been watching, Corbin smiled.

“Who would that be?”

Fair point. 

What’s now pervasive well beyond the greater Syracuse area is the Nationals’ weeks-long burn. They are 15-2 in their last seventeen games. The season reached the edge of extinction late in the Wild-Card Game, then again in Game 5 of the NLDS. The National League Championship Series is a romp thus far, and Corbin’s chance to close it with a sweep comes Tuesday night in Nationals Park.

Washington, finally, is not playing from behind. No National League team has ever lost a seven-game series with a 3-0 lead. The Nationals even suddenly have a 50-50 shot of winning the World Series, according to projections at fivethirtyeight.com. Those odds will likely twist to favor the eventual American League champion, either New York or Houston. For now, the Nationals have the juice. 

“I wouldn’t say it’s odd,” Sean Doolittle said. “It feels nice. We’re not taking anything for granted, but this is definitely a better position to be in than we were three games after the last series. I think it can be a situation where we can come and continue to play with that loose confidence that is when we’re at our best, without feeling like we have our backs against the wall. Not that we’re uncomfortable in that position. But, we can be the aggressor in this situation.”

Corbin is trying to follow his rotation mates by snuffing out any St. Louis offense. The Cardinals have the worst batting average in NLCS history, a meager .121. St. Louis is going through a historic malaise. Corbin is going through his first postseason.

His start was rough. Corbin walked in a run to open Game 1 in Los Angeles. But, he worked his way through six innings despite the ineffective opening. A disastrous relief appearance followed three days later. Corbin’s routine and outcomes were upended. He sat in the dugout during the rest of Game 3 against Los Angeles, stone-faced and wondering what happened. Asked afterward why he remained instead of walking into the clubhouse to decompress, he said, “I don’t know.”

Things have been better since then. Corbin’s relief appearance in Game 5 against Los Angeles was paramount. He matched up late in Game 2 against St. Louis. Days typically reserved for bullpen sessions turned into in-game journeys during the season’s most difficult time.

“I feel great at this time,” Corbin said Monday. “Been lucky to stay healthy this whole season and just -- you just kind of continue to do what you've done, be smart about things. I think at this point in the season you're not lifting as heavy as you would and maybe backing down on some running and things like that. But pretty much the same routine. Body feels great. If you can't get up for these games, then yeah...”

Corbin faced St. Louis twice this season: April 29 and Sept. 17. St. Louis was an offensive force in April. September is the more relatable sample. Corbin went six innings, allowed five hits, no earned runs, four walks and struck out 11.

“I’ll just try to go over film and go over what I did do well and what I didn't do well,” Corbin said. “At this point, everyone kind of knows what I've done. I just need to go out there and execute those pitches.”

Corbin was speaking in the same press conference room used for his introduction almost a year ago. Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer sat in the front row. Together, they went into spring training, then the regular season, as the core of everything. They remain so in the postseason. Strasburg and Scherzer have done their series work to this point. Corbin’s chance comes Tuesday night, when he can close it down, send the Nationals to the World Series, and grab another round postgame.

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How Carter Kieboom influences Nationals’ needs in Day 2 at Winter Meetings

How Carter Kieboom influences Nationals’ needs in Day 2 at Winter Meetings

SAN DIEGO -- Stephen Strasburg is back. The rotation is set, at least one through four, and a crab-bucket crawl is ready for the fifth spot. Howie Kendrick signed to play second and first, as well as pinch-hit. Ryan Zimmerman is expected to return. Anthony Rendon remains in limbo.

So, what now?

Day Two at the Winter Meetings for Washington should bring calm. Or at least lesser salvos. The Nationals entered the San Diego soiree with noise around them. Rendon and Strasburg were huge factors in the offseason. Washington is the World Series champion. It, as much as anyone in baseball, was on the marquee when everyone gathered.

Business now is more pragmatic. The Nationals are likely out on Rendon -- despite meager attempts Monday to say they are not -- which means bullpen and second base are at issue. 

Prospect Carter Kieboom is an option at second base. The Nationals began to work him there last offseason and continued to do so throughout 2019 with Triple-A Fresno. Kieboom made limited appearances at third base (10 games, nine starts, four errors) and is not ready to play that position at the major-league level. His work at shortstop in the major leagues showed he’s not ready to play there, either. There’s also no need with Trea Turner under contract.

Which means Kieboom’s future influences possible spending, which influences Rendon -- slightly -- and has a bearing on the bullpen expenditures. 

“He's close,” Davey Martinez said of Kieboom. “After we had him, he went back down to triple A, kept his head up, and played really well, hit well, did some adjustments. He's going to come to Spring Training and get a shot to play different positions. We'll see. We'll see what transpires, but he's a kid that we value very much. We know what he can do with the bat. We've got to figure out a position for him, whether it's second base or third base, but I think that he adds some value and he could help us in the future.”

This is expected and necessary posturing from Martinez. They don’t know where Kieboom should play. They think his bat will play. Can he become a productive hitter and average defender at second base? If so, that’s high value. Could he eventually take over third base? Washington has to consider the notion when tangling with whether to pay Rendon, or, more likely, Josh Donaldson via a shorter contract.

“I really feel that he learned a lot just coming up that short period of time,” Martinez said of Kieboom. “We know what kind of player we think he can be, and like I said, he's learned how to become that player. He went back down, and I've seen a lot of guys that came up and had a rough time that go back down and don't quite put it together. He went back down there and had a really good year in triple A.

“So it's just a learning process for him. ...And the biggest thing I'll tell Carter is that he's a guy that needs to use the whole field when he hits and not to take his at-bats out to the field. It's two different things. You've got to play defense, and then you've got to hit. I think that's something, as a young player, that you need to learn to be consistent up here.”

The organization’s belief in whether Kieboom can do that will factor into its decisions in San Diego. Monday’s Strasburg splash kicked things off. Tuesday is likely to be more about filling gaps than record contracts.

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Anthony Rendon’s future appears set following Stephen Strasburg deal

Anthony Rendon’s future appears set following Stephen Strasburg deal

SAN DIEGO -- On the stage Monday at the Winter Meetings, two key components of Anthony Rendon’s future chatted before the television’s red camera light popped on.

Mike Rizzo and agent Scott Boras passed a final 30 seconds before showtime with small talk, then addressed the first bombastic signing of the Winter Meetings: Stephen Strasburg is returning to the Washington Nationals on a seven-year, $245 million deal. This, for all intents and purposes, ends Rendon’s time with the organization. 

The math creates a crunch. Rizzo tried to maneuver around the reality when on the dais next to Boras, but the reality is Washington does not want to surpass the competitive balance tax, it does not want to blow out payroll, and it has little wiggle room. Rendon moving on is the now an anchor in the offseason.

Washington operates with a big payroll and pocket-lining approach. A seeming dichotomy. It spends just to the edge. Then, it stops. Not too far to go over the tax. Not too far to appear reckless. But always far enough to say, correctly, the organization is a willing spender, a point Rizzo leaned on when asked about Rendon’s future Monday.

“You look at the history of the Nationals and the way we've positioned ourselves and the details of the contract and the way that it's structured, this ownership group has never shied away from putting the resources together to field a championship-caliber club,” Rizzo said. “I don't see them in any way hindering us from going after the elite players in the game.

“I think that Anthony Rendon is, again, one of the players that is most near and dear to my heart, a guy we've drafted, signed, developed, watched turn into a superstar, playoff success, and a huge part of the world championship run that we went on. So he's a guy that we love.

“The ownership has always given us the resources to field a great team, and we're always trying to win, and we're going to continue to do so.”

That is a 141-word non-answer. 

Washington’s managing principal owner Mark Lerner did not help Rizzo’s position before the Winter Meetings by stating the team could bring back only Rendon or Strasburg -- not both. 

“He did?” Rizzo joked. 

He did. Which, naturally, makes reporters curious about the correlation between a statement from ownership and Rizzo’s operating capacity.

“Well, when you look at those comments, and then you look at the structure of this particular deal and the structure of deals we've had getting up to where we are right now, I think Mark realizes that there's ways to fit players in, there's ways that you can field a championship-caliber roster -- and, again, the resources have always been there, so I don't expect that to change,” Rizzo said.

Here, he hopped into the idea Strasburg’s deferred money -- reportedly $80 million to be paid out within three years of the contract’s expiration -- suggesting the manipulation of those numbers keeps Rendon in play for the organization. It’s not enough. Not based on how the Nationals allocate and spend.

Which means they chose. Strasburg or Rendon. They could only have one, and they signed the homegrown pitcher and thanked Rendon for his time.

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