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New week, same tight wild-card race for Nationals

New week, same tight wild-card race for Nationals

The Nationals packed slowly Sunday after blowing out Milwaukee. They were all heading to the same bus at 5:45 p.m., marooned in the clubhouse without an excuse for escape -- family, fatigue or just feeling like it.

Another laborious but fulfilling weekend was over. The team played more than nine hours of baseball in a 22-hour span. Davey Martinez said his feet hurt. The position players stood in the unrelenting sun all Sunday -- except for Adam Eaton and Anthony Rendon, recipients of an early departure during the blowout -- before finding relieve in the clubhouse air conditioning.

Next is four games in Pittsburgh and three in Chicago. The Pirates have crashed since the All-Star break. Only Miami has a worse overall record in the National League. Chicago is in the thick of the wild-card and National League Central races. The Cubs hold the second wild-card slot by two games despite being 4-6 in their last 10. They are .001 percentage points behind St. Louis for the division lead. 

Joe Ross starts things Monday for the Nationals. His ERA by month this season: 3.86, 14.85, 36.00, 8.10, 0.50. Things are better, to say the least. Ross has been able to maintain his velocity but also add movement to his two-seam fastball. He pitches up on occasion and deploys his curveball more often. 

Monday will be Ross’ final start before the Nationals have to decide who will remain in the rotation because of Max Scherzer’s “probable” return Thursday. Erick Fedde had a decent outing Sunday. If Ross pitches well again Monday, he seems to have the inside track to the fifth starter spot. That doesn’t mean Fedde is going back to Triple-A Fresno or Double-A Harrisburg. Martinez mentioned he expects the organization to find a way to keep Fedde around, which could mean being the long man in the bullpen.

Stephen Strasburg follows on Tuesday, Patrick Corbin is next, Scherzer is expected to finish the series in Pittsburgh. Which makes Ross’ outing that much more important. If he pitches well and the team wins Monday, they are set up for the remaining three games.

That’s not the case in Chicago. The Nationals will deal with a turnaround that only happens if a team is going to play the Cubs. Following a final night game in Pittsburgh, Washington flies to Chicago for a 1:20 p.m. local start. The Cubs, on the other hand, play a home day game Thursday. This is a byproduct of the city ordinance which limits the number of night games at Wrigley Field. It’s also a part of poor scheduling on the other side by Major League Baseball. 

There’s another scheduling quirk to be cognizant of: Atlanta has played 126 games, Washington 123. That three-game gap will not be closed until the final week of the season when Washington plays eight games in seven days and Atlanta is off twice. So, though, the Nationals are 5 ½ games behind the Braves in the National League East, it’s important to note they are four back in the loss column with three games in hand. The gap is more modest than it may seem.

First, off to Pittsburgh.

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Nationals' Yan Gomes hopes MLB umpires have their own section of the plane when flying with teams

Nationals' Yan Gomes hopes MLB umpires have their own section of the plane when flying with teams

With the start of the 2020 MLB season just nine days away, league officials are still considering a plethora of ideas for how to best ensure the safety of those involved in putting on games.

That includes the umpiring crews, who reportedly saw 11 umpires opt out of the season Tuesday in order to avoid the risk of contracting the coronavirus. According to Los Angeles Angels Joe Maddon, one of the measures MLB is considering is allowing umpires to fly with teams in order to limit the amount of travel and therefore possible exposure to the virus.

Nationals catcher Yan Gomes isn’t opposed to the idea, though he does recognize that there is some potential for a few awkward moments on the plane.

“I mean that could be a good thing from a safety standpoint and that could be a really weird and awkward deal if something happens in that game,” Gomes said. “I think we’re gonna have to be very cautious with that, putting them in one little section of the plane and hopefully not having to interact very much with players.

“That’s an interesting thing but if it’s something to keep everything safe from the game’s standpoint I think we can make that adjustment. I think everything [including] traveling and everything is going to be pretty unique this year and why not add umpires in there too?”

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Without any umpires at Nationals Park for the first few weeks of training camp, Gomes and fellow backstop Kurt Suzuki have had to act as the team’s umpires during intrasquad games.

“It’s been super tough so I think I respect them even more,” Gomes said. “From my angle, I’m over here trying to frame balls and then I tend to forget what pitch it was. I don’t know. I haven’t had too many people complain but I think I’ve done an OK job and I think Kurt is a little tighter than I think I am.

“The first day, I made some tough calls for our own pitching staff and I was like, ‘You know what? I’m gonna give it at least a couple balls for these guys because I don’t want—the rollover innings are probably the toughest thing.’”

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An umpire crew will be reporting to D.C. in advance of their first exhibition game against the Philadelphia Phillies on Saturday. There’s going to be no way for catchers and umpires to avoid breaking social distancing guidelines when they stand in front of each other once games begin, but even so, Gomes isn’t worried about it.

“There’s really no concern level,” Gomes said. “Everyone here is doing a really good job on the testing and everything. It’s really just a matter of everyone staying safe and not do those silly, try-to-joke-around touches. I think we’re just going to have to be careful with that.”

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Which Nationals would have been named All-Stars in a normal season?

Which Nationals would have been named All-Stars in a normal season?

July 14, 2020 was supposed to be a day for celebrating the best players in Major League Baseball. The 2020 MLB All-Star Game, set to take place that evening at Dodger Stadium, had the promise of putting some of the biggest names on display such as Mookie Betts in his new LA threads, Gerrit Cole still fresh off signing a $324 million deal last winter and Mike Trout from only a few miles down the road.

However, the coronavirus pandemic had other plans. MLB suspended spring training on March 12 and spent three months on hold before ultimately settling on a 60-game season that begins July 23. As a result, there will be no All-Star Game for the first time since 1945.

The Nationals, coming off their first World Series title in franchise history, have plenty of stars who would’ve merited consideration. Even with 2019 NL MVP candidate Anthony Rendon departing for the Los Angeles Angels in free agency, there’s no shortage of talent in D.C.

Here are the players that stood the best chance of representing the Nationals in this year’s All-Star Game.

The favorites

SP Max Scherzer

Name value alone could’ve gotten him in if fans could vote on pitchers, but even a 35-year-old Scherzer can’t be counted out of making another run at the NL Cy Young.

SP Stephen Strasburg,

The reigning World Series MVP is already a three-time All-Star and coming off an offseason in which he signed a seven-year, $245 million deal to return to Washington.

LF Juan Soto

Making his first All-Star team would seem like something of a formality for Soto, who has already established himself as one of the game’s best young stars.

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Needed a career year

SP Patrick Corbin

Corbin was given the Warren Spahn Award for the best left-hander in baseball last season and is no stranger to the Midsummer Classic. If he could’ve avoided the infrequent implosion (five starts of 5+ runs allowed in 2019) on the mound, he stood a good chance of posting numbers worthy of a selection.

RP Sean Doolittle

With Will Harris and Daniel Hudson in the fold, Doolittle wouldn’t have been relied on as much as he was last season. By getting more rest and still handling closer duties for a contending team, Doolittle certainly would’ve been in the running.

SS Trea Turner

No broken finger holding him back, Turner had a chance to show he can help replace some of Rendon’s production in what would’ve been his age-27 season. Shortstop is a deep position in the NL (Trevor Story, Javier Báez, Fernando Tatís Jr., Corey Seager) but Turner has to make it one of these years, right?

2B Starlin Castro

Castro may not be the first player who comes to mind when you hear “four-time All-Star” but that’s what happens when a young, healthy infielder plays every day during a rebuild. However, coming off a 2019 second half in which he hit .302 with 16 home runs, Castro came to D.C. looking to show he’s developed into a different kind of player.

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If he made the leap

CF Victor Robles

Though it’s a bit of a long shot considering his struggles at the plate as a rookie, Robles has always displayed the tools that make coaches dream of what he can become. As he gains a few more pounds—Robles is one of the strongest players on the team—and improves his plate discipline, there’s no telling what his ceiling might be.

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