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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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If teams start 19-31 like the Nationals, it really is over in a 50-game season

If teams start 19-31 like the Nationals, it really is over in a 50-game season

To put 50 games in context, just flashback to last season. It’s easy enough. Say it: 19-31. If the Nationals could, they would trademark those numbers together.

Fifty games is a flash. Almost a death knell to the eventual 2019 World Series champions. That’s a season over in late May. Think of it this way: Teams play around 30 games in a normal spring training alone.

The owners have pushed this number into the public with their non-counter-counter to the players’ suggestion of 114 games. Commissioner Rob Manfred is trying to use the March agreement between players and owners as a cudgel. Players are refusing to take a further pay cut on top of the one already negotiated. Manfred in turn is saying, “Fine. Then we will schedule the amount of games that are in line with what you are being paid.”

In play now is the 48-game season, according to ESPN. A smidge under 50. A full blitz that would be looked back at as a farce if it’s attempted to be played in the regular way. Playing half a season in the traditional manner is probably the minimum for any legitimacy. Even then, 2020 will be awash in caveats.

The Nationals’ 2020 recovery came against restrictive odds. The manager was supposed to be fired. Some suggested trading the best players, and to do it sooner than later. Season simulations said the Nationals were done. Or as close to it as possible.

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A 50- or 48-game season would cook anyone who has a bad two weeks. Lose a frontline starter? It’s over. Have your shortstop and leadoff hitter hit on the finger by a pitch and miss three weeks? It’s over. Half a season feels like a baseball sprint. Fifty games or less defines the league’s desperation to put some pennies back in its pocket in 2020.

There is one fun idea around a 50-game season. It was hatched at Fangraphs. The premise is one big 50-game tournament. Not the usual three-game series in this town, and four-game series in that city.
Fangraphs makes the on-point mathematical argument that 50 games determines next to nothing when comparing the best in the league to the mediocre. It’s just games for the sake of games.

Since baseball is trying to wade through extraordinary times, why not attempt something extraordinary, such as the tournament?

The model used at Fangraphs included 32 teams, all 30 major-league clubs plus two futures teams, one from each league. Let’s use that premise.

Stage the whole thing in the Texas Rangers’ new park -- Texas is already saying it will allow fans. Have a loser’s bracket. Make the final a five-game series. Pay the players what was already negotiated. Pin more money to the outcome. Run it from early July to the end of September. That way, you still play through much of the summer but duck under a possible fall coronavirus spike the owners are so wary of.

No caveats about if the season was long enough for an authentic champion. This is a complete outlier. The tournament year. Players wore microphones. Some kid from Double-A struck out Bryce Harper in a big at-bat. No leagues. Everyone in the same pot. Have some fun amid an historically troubling time.

What’s not working is the public whining from both sides. The inability to make a deal. The lack of common ground. Both groups are working toward one idea: loss mitigation. A 50-game season does little of that and carries even less validity. Just ask a team that opened last year 19-31.

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MLB return: Union fires back at owners in latest statement, reject additional concessions

MLB return: Union fires back at owners in latest statement, reject additional concessions

The latest whack of the negotiation tether ball came Thursday night when Tony Clark, the executive director of the MLBPA, issued a statement of discontent.

“In this time of unprecedented suffering at home and abroad, Players want nothing more than to get back to work and provide baseball fans with the game we all love. But we cannot do this alone,” it began.

Clark went on to cite the league’s most recent suggestion of a “dramatically shortened” season “unless Players negotiate salary concessions.” The league suggested a 50-game season would be reasonable for the amount of money players agreed to in salary following a late-March negotiation.

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The statement went on to refer to the league’s stance as a “threat,” as opposed to the players' proposal, which in Clark’s view, was designed to move the negotiations forward. He rattled off the various items in the union’s proposal, which was framed around a 114-game season: more games, two years of expanded playoffs, salary deferrals and the exploration of additional “jewel events” (All-Star Game, etc.).

Clark said a conference call with the MLBPA’s eight-person executive board, which includes Max Scherzer, and several other player leaders concluded “the league’s demand for additional concessions was resoundingly rejected.”

Clark went on to say the players are ready to compete and get back on the field.

The union’s reaction to MLB’s non-reaction is not a surprise. Players are adamant they are not taking further salary cuts. The league solidly believes salaries should -- and need to be -- negotiated if there is to be some form of 2020 season. Everyone continues to wait for a solution.

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