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This is not a drill: Nationals bullpen implodes yet again in loss to Cubs

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This is not a drill: Nationals bullpen implodes yet again in loss to Cubs

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Nationals lost to the Chicago Cubs, 14-4, Friday to drop their record to 18-26. Here are five observations from the game…

1. Here it is again, another night lost to the worst bullpen in the major leagues, a bunch who is the organization’s most downtrodden in a decade-plus.

Washington’s bullpen allowed 11 more runs Friday night. It’s death grip on last place in team ERA remained intact. Strengthened, even. Justin Miller allowed runs. Kyle Barraclough allowed runs. Dan Jennings allowed runs. They recorded just five outs.

The trio gave up home runs -- two on three pitches for Barraclough. They hit batters. They walked them. They allowed singles. Everything but retire them with any efficiency, drilling their teammates into the ground once again after a one-run game grew to a 10-4 hot mess in the span of two innings.

For kicks, Kris Bryant hit his third home run of the night (this one off Matt Grace after victimizing Miller and Barraclough previously) in the ninth inning to bloat the lead to 12-4. Wilson Contreras backed him with a two-run homer of his own later in the inning. That was also off Grace, who has allowed as many homers (5) this year in 20 innings as he did last year in 59 ⅔ innings.

Otherwise, finger pointing for the night’s ills would have been focused on the runners Washington’s offense left on base. Seven through the middle three innings, including a runners-on-second-and-third-with-none-out and a bases-loaded situation with two outs in back-to-back innings. No one scored. Eleven left on overall. Not that it mattered in the end.

Other notable things happened in the evening: Trea Turner played for the first time since April 2. In keeping with another season-long trend, two players were hurt. Victor Robles and Justin Miller both left the game because of injuries. Robles has a wrist contusion. Miller has a rotator cuff strain. He is probably going on the injured list Saturday.

Washington cut a 3-0 lead to 3-2. It cut a 5-2 lead to 5-4. Then, the bullpen put its foot down, making sure the game was thoroughly out of reach and everyone felt like they were watching a rerun of a program they forgot they didn’t like in the first place.

“Right now, they got to regroup,” manager Davey Martinez said of the bullpen. “This is the bullpen we have. Like I said, yesterday, they were really good. Today, they weren’t. They got to regroup. The issue is -- when you fall behind on good hitters, you’re going to get hit. Yesterday, they didn’t. Today, 2-0, 2-1, 3-2, 3-2, 3-2 and you give those guys a chance. They’ve got to get ahead in the count and you’ve got to make your pitches.”

2. Max Scherzer snapped back at manager Davey Martinez as he approached in the top of the sixth inning with two outs and Miller ready to enter the game.

Well before Martinez reached the mound, and with Scherzer at 111 pitches, the manager began to receive Scherzer’s expletive-laden point of view on what was to happen next. Scherzer remained in. Albert Almora Jr. popped up the next pitch, inning over.

The night was not easy for Scherzer. He started it with a rare four-pitch walk to leadoff hitter -- for a day -- Kyle Schwarber. Bryant then singled. Both were outliers. Scherzer’s walks per nine innings this season is the second-lowest of his career. He’s also owned Bryant, who came into the game 1-for-11 in his career with eight strikeouts against the Nationals’ right-hander.

A grind commenced from there. Scherzer missed location with a slider to Javier Baez which turned into a double when it hit off Juan Soto’s glove in left field to score a run in the first. Another missed location -- and another pitch which was out of the strike zone -- became a homer for Almora in the second inning. That was a changeup which sailed inside.

Scherzer settled off after that: 1-2-3 in the third, three strikeouts in the fourth, a crucial double play in the fifth and finally dispatching Almora to make it through the sixth. Nine of Scherzer’s first 16 pitches were balls. Sixty-five of his next 96 were strikes.

“Just coming out early and just been getting beat early in the game and I’m not executing early in the game,” Scherzer said. “Was able to settle down and throw up some zeros and keep the game close. The four walks are what really sticks out in my mind. I’m completely accountable for those. When you walk four, it’s never going to be a fun night.”

Friday was the second time this season Scherzer did not make it out of the sixth inning. The 112 pitches tied for the second-most of his year. On a night closer Sean Doolittle was likely not available, every out from Scherzer was crucial. He picked up 18. The Cubs romped through the bullpen after that.

3. Chalk up another victim to one of baseball’s, and the Nationals’, ongoing issues this season: hit by pitches.

Robles was struck on the left forearm in the bottom of the third inning. He remained in to run, then play right field in the top of the fourth. When his turn came to hit again in the bottom of the fourth inning, Adam Eaton replaced him.

X-Rays on Robles’ wrist were negative. He will be re-assessed Saturday.

Turner, who was activated Friday after not playing for seven weeks, broke a finger when a pitch hit him during a bunt attempt. Anthony Rendon was hit in the elbow, putting him out of games for a week and eventually on the 10-day disabled list. Juan Soto has been hit on the wrist.

It’s a league-wide scourge. As the Wall Street Journal points out, more hitters were hit by pitches last season than any time since 1900. This season is on track to pass that number.

4. Wilmer Difo was sent to Triple-A Fresno on Friday when the Nationals activated Turner. Utility infielder Adrian Sanchez remained on the big-league bench.

Martinez said Difo was sent down because he wants him to play every day. If he remained in Washington, Difo would move back to sporadic spot starts off the bench or rare pinch-hitting duties.

Sanchez is comfortable in that role. Also, the Nationals were exasperated with Difo’s inability to think the game, whether that was missing signs or making ill-advised decisions on the fly in the field.

Asked if the decision to send Difo to the minors for the first time since 2017 was to help deliver messages the staff has been trying to get through to him, Martinez denied that purpose.

“This is not a punishment for whatever,” Martinez said. “I also want to praise Adrian Sanchez for what he’s doing coming off the bench. I think he fits the role perfectly and he’s worked hard. He’s coming off the bench and he’s putting good at-bats together. Here’s a guy that can play all four infield positions, can play corner outfield, if need be. Also, he’s been working on catching, too, so he could be a third catcher.”

5. The Nationals needed a new bullpen member after placing Anibal Sanchez on the 10-day injured list Friday because of a left hamstring strain which presumably pops Erick Fedde out of the bullpen and into the rotation.

They selected Kyle McGowin from Triple-A Fresno. It’s an interesting choice.

McGowin has worked mostly as a starter. He will be in the bullpen in Washington after making eight starts in Fresno this season. McGowin -- a sinker-baller -- had a 4.32 ERA for the Grizzlies.

The strange part was his last start. McGowin was ejected after the opposition asked for his glove to be checked by the umpires. They looked, found a substance in his glove and threw him out of the game. He has since been suspended by the Pacific Coast League. The league -- also strangely -- does not announce suspensions. McGowin declined to comment on his suspension. Martinez said he didn’t know much about it.

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Max Scherzer is having the best month of his career

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Max Scherzer is having the best month of his career

Max Scherzer’s black eye receded from the full-circle package to a dark half-moon before he took the mound in Miami. And his memory reminded him of the last time he was there. It was April 20 and produced his worst start of the season: 5 1/3 innings, 11 hits, six earned runs, a loss to drop his record to 1-3 and raise his ERA to 4.34. The latter number has declined in every start since.

Scherzer’s eight innings of one-run ball Tuesday night against the Marlins drove his ERA down to 2.52. His league-leading strikeout total again increased by 10 for the fourth consecutive game. He walked no one. It took just 94 pitches -- 71 strikes -- to reach that point Tuesday in the Nationals' 6-1 win.

Two questions emerged after the outing: Is Scherzer back in the National League Cy Young Award race? Is this the best month of his career?

The first is an easy yes. His 4.2 WAR (according to Fangraphs) coming into the night was by far the best of any pitcher in the major leagues. National League ERA leader Hyun-Jin Ryu is second in the NL at 3.3. Scherzer leads the National League in innings pitched, strikeouts, starts and strikeouts per nine. He is third in strikeout-to-walk ratio, fourth in WHIP, fourth in OPS against, seventh in batting average against. In a nutshell, Scherzer is again dominating while doing the heavy lifting. He makes every start. He gets into the seventh inning or later 58.9 percent time. He handles all comers.

His June blitz, in particular, has put him back in the Cy Young discussion. Following Tuesday night’s man-handling of Miami, Scherzer has a 0.97 ERA in the month. He’s struck out 54 and walked five. His WHIP is 0.70. Each start has lasted seven innings or more. He’s thrown 70 percent of his 536 pitches for strikes.

Why is he so diabolical? Look at the first three innings Tuesday against the Marlins. A 14-pitch first included some effort and 10 fastballs. Scherzer picked up no swinging strikes on those fastballs, which meant the eager Marlins were getting a good look at the pitch. So, he changed.

In the second inning, Scherzer threw five four-seam fastballs, four sliders/cutters, (Scherzer calls his 90-mph pitch often identified as a “cutter” his “power slider”), three changeups and three curveballs. That mix produced five swinging strikes.

In the third inning, six fastballs, five sliders, one changeup, three swinging strikes.

Which is the complication for the opposition. He will move off whatever is not working and immediately dispatch a fresh bouquet. He can command all of it, throw any of it when he wants, and he’s been obsessing over it for almost a week. Good luck.

An age-35 season is not supposed to be a time of ascension, but, as he is wont to do, Scherzer appears to be running against perceived norms. 

June of 2017 is the only month of his career to challenge June of 2019 for personal supremacy. The numbers that month: 0.99 ERA, 36 ⅓ innings pitched, 51 strikeouts, six walks, a 0.55 WHIP. He made five starts that month. He’s already made five this June, struck out more batters and walked fewer while carrying a lower ERA.

Scherzer has a start remaining this month. It comes against one of his former teams, the Detroit Tigers. No major-league club has scored fewer runs. That mix should further define this as the best month of Scherzer’s Hall-of-Fame bound career and help answer the Cy Young question, too.

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Ryan Zimmerman is ready to rejoin Nationals, but in what capacity?

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Ryan Zimmerman is ready to rejoin Nationals, but in what capacity?

Key for Ryan Zimmerman was the simplistic act of staying on his grumpy feet for nine innings. The idea had been elusive for weeks. Zimmerman last played a full baseball game on April 27. Plantar fasciitis sent him to this fate, and each time he progressed, an ache pulled him back.

Monday, Zimmerman played nine innings for Double-A Harrisburg. He picked up two hits, but more vital was the ability to play a full game his third time on the field in four days. Zimmerman played Friday and Saturday before taking Sunday off. Tuesday becomes decision day: is Zimmerman ready to join the team Wednesday or does he have to wait? He'll wait at least another day since he is in the Senators' lineup as the designated hitter Tuesday.

There's a benefit to waiting. Washington goes to Detroit for interleague play this weekend. That affords them a chance to use the designated hitter and a window to play both Howie Kendrick and Zimmerman throughout the series without greatly taxing either.

Bringing Zimmerman back sooner also has the benefit of putting his glove on the field and expanding bench options for manager Davey Martinez. The veteran can be protected in a rotation at first base. The Nationals have Brian Dozier hitting and fielding well. Kendrick hits line drives whenever he is in the lineup. Matt Adams provides a powerful matchup option. This is how things were supposed to work from the start of the season. But, they did not come to order until late June.

Zimmerman's injury has also decided the fate of his $18 million club option for next season. It has graduated from unlikely to no chance. Though, he appears open to coming back at a much lower price. Zimmerman's body has forced him into a position of being a part-time player only, at this stage. He said last week his body "felt great" outside of the plantar fasciitis issue in his foot. Don't be surprised if he and the Nationals work something out for one more season.

For now, the club has to decide when Zimmerman will be back on the field. If he felt good Tuesday following another rehabilitation game, he could be ready as soon as Wednesday. Which prompts another decision: Do they release spirit animal Gerardo Parra to make space? Would they entertain a change for Michael A. Taylor? Something has to give if Zimmerman is finally ready.

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