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Patrick Corbin once again carves through San Francisco

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Patrick Corbin once again carves through San Francisco

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Nationals beat the San Francisco Giants, 4-1, Thursday afternoon to move to 9-8. Here are five observations from the game...

1. If there is a reason to sign a pitcher for $140 million, spend a little more than everyone else on him and give an extra year in the contract, it showed up Thursday afternoon.

Patrick Corbin dominated for 7 ⅔ innings in a win against the San Francisco Giants. He did what Stephen Strasburg could not in the series opener: lockdown the National League’s worst offense.

Sean Doolittle worked the ninth. He allowed his first earned run of the season.

The win pushed the Nationals back over. 500 for the first time since April 13. Being one game over .500 ties a season-high. So, there’s that.

The rest of the week offers a path to being well above .500 by the time the Nationals come back to the District on Friday, April 26 to open a three-game series with the upstart San Diego Padres. The Nationals head to Miami for three games this weekend before moving onto Colorado. Combined records for those teams coming into Thursday? 10-27.

“I think now is that time [to get rolling],” Doolittle said. “I think it kind of started with this series. We had a chance to win the series against Pittsburgh. We kind of let it get away, but bouncing back, winning this series, we go on the road and face a couple teams that -- they're not playing their best right now. This is a chance maybe we can strike, win a couple series, come back home...we come back home, we got the Padres and the Cardinals, who are playing really well. This road trip's really important for us.”

2. The Giants continued to be a comfortable matchup for Corbin. They produced just a .439 OPS against him in six games last season. San Francisco struck out 46 times and had just 32 total bases in those six games.

Its offense is worse this year, helping lead to Thursday’s carving of them with back-foot sliders and 90-mph fastballs which appeared to be moving faster. Corbin allowed just two hits, a run, and struck out nine.

“I've faced [Brandon] Belt, I’ve faced [Brandon] Crawford a lot.” Corbin said. “They can do damage on lefties if you stay middle. So you can't take those at-bats off, you’ve got to still go out there and make quality pitches and we were just able to kind of do that throughout the course of the game. Just had a good gameplan, good flow and was able to work out.”

A sinker has also entered Corbin’s pitch mix more frequently.

“We all know at any point and any time, he can throw that slider,” catcher Yan Gomes said. “But it’s one of those things where maybe you guys are starting to notice it more, because his sinker is becoming a true left-handed sinker. He’s getting some good bite on it, good sink on it. And he’s getting some not-so-good swings on it. So we’re just going to keep going to that, knowing he can go to the slider at any time.”

Corbin’s shutdown of San Francisco followed his snuffing out of the Pittsburgh offense April 12. The Pirates scored one run in seven innings, conjured just four hits and struck out 11 times. His last two outings combined: 14 ⅔ innings, six hits, two earned runs, two walks, 20 strikeouts.

The consecutive outings make Corbin the team’s best starting pitcher to this point. His ERA is down to 2.36.

3. Wilmer Difo offense? For a day.

Difo homered, singled and walked, sending his average up to .229.

A sidenote to keep track of is Carter Kieboom in Triple-A Fresno. Kieboom is tearing through the Pacific Coast League. He’s hitting .422 with a 1.247 OPS. More intriguing is Kieboom has played 70 of his 100 innings this season at shortstop. The Nationals initially touted him as splitting time in a more even fashion between shortstop and second base in order to learn the right side of the bag.

He also has not committed an error. It’s hard to take a firm conclusion from that fact because it does not note his range or scoring decisions or simply plays that were not converted. But, it’s better than the alternative.

4. Washington came into the game 18th in MLB in strikeouts. Middle of the pack. Not bad.

Odd about their series with the Giants was the number of times they struck out looking. The Nationals struck out 30 times in the series. Of those, 15 strikeouts were looking.

Recall Nationals manager Davey Martinez was ejected Tuesday because of his irritation with Tony Randazzo’s strike zone. Thursday, numerous Giants and Nationals players were upset by the strike zone of Ryan Additon. San Francisco manager Bruce Bochy and left fielder Brandon Belt were both ejected for yelling at Additon.

Most of the called third strikes against Washington on Thursday appeared correct based on Gameday’s charting of location.

5. The schedule prompted another lineup pivot Thursday. Victor Robles was vaulted to the top of the order. Ryan Zimmerman was back at first base and hitting fourth. Michael A. Taylor took Robles’ place in the ninth spot.

The changes gave Adam Eaton his first day off of the season. Robles moved to right field to take his position.

The Nationals are in the midst of 25 games in 26 days following multiple days off to start the season. Such a run couples with Martinez being cognizant of protecting Howie Kendrick from playing too much -- despite his hot start (1.677 OPS in 20 at-bats) and being ranked fourth in exit velocity. He pinch-hit in the eighth inning.

“He's just having good at-bats,” Martinez said. “When he hits the ball, he's hitting the ball really hard. He's just squaring balls up. He's in a good place. It was tough, last night when I was thinking about the lineup, not to have him in there cause he's doing so well. But then again, he just came off a hamstring injury and I got to make sure he's available not just for today but for the whole season. We got to keep him fresh.”

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Nationals face dilemma as Sean Doolittle's usage mounts, velocity drops

Nationals face dilemma as Sean Doolittle's usage mounts, velocity drops

Davey Martinez had no hesitation in his answer or decision on Friday in Philadelphia. First game out of the break, facing a team right next to the Nationals in the standings, a 4-0 lead. Closer Sean Doolittle was coming in to end it, though it was a non-save situation and he is being used at an extreme level.

“Here’s my thoughts: It took me about three seconds,” Martinez said Friday. “Playing at Citizens [Bank] Park. Four runs. That ain’t much here. Those guys can hit. Doolittle’s coming in the game. It’s a big moment. And, he’s my guy. To me, that game right there, it’s huge coming off a four-day break.”

So, Doolittle made his 40th appearance of the season. Saturday brought his 41st appearance. He did not pitch Sunday, a day game after a late night.

Trends are emerging through his high usage rate. Doolittle’s velocity is down for the fourth consecutive season. The dip is slight year over year, from 93.9 mph average fastball velocity to 93.6. His velocity was distinctly down in Philadelphia over the weekend despite four days off. Doolittle threw 12 fastballs Friday, 10 of which were slower than his average fastball velocity this season. He threw 19 fastballs Saturday; 13 were below his average velocity (two others matched it). 

“I’m not exactly sure why it’s down,” Doolittle said Saturday. “I know from past experience, not to panic if I see the 91, 92. I feel pretty good -- everybody gets a little tired around this point of the season, but if I stay in my mechanics and don’t try to overthrow, I can still get that life and deception on my fastball. I can still, like [Saturday], I can still navigate innings and get guys out. These last two nights I’ve been really pleased with how I’ve been able to manage my energy level without maybe my best fastball.”

He is on pace for a career-high 72 appearances and 1,214 pitches. The latter would exceed his career mark of 1,019 by almost 200 pitches. One of the most telling numbers around Doolittle is his games finished vs. saves. He leads the league with 37 games finished but has just 20 saves, which is tied for fourth with three others. National League saves leader Kirby Yates has finished 35 games, but has 30 saves. Kenley Jansen: 33 games finished, 23 saves. Will Smith: 35 games finished, 23 saves. No other closer has appeared in more non-save situations.

Doolittle’s velocity also dropped earlier in the season before a mechanical adjustment kicked it back up to the 94- and 95-mph range for a spell. He did turn loose a 95-mph fastball Saturday. He half-joked about it.

“See it’s in there,” Doolittle said. “I just got to pick and choose, I guess, when to use it.”

His manager is using a more straight-ahead approach. Doolittle is out there, so he is using him. A lot.

And all this is more for recognition of the situation as opposed to blame assessment, When the bullpen was at its worst, Doolittle was summoned at times because his teammates were in the process of blowing a game or couldn’t be trusted in the first place. The Nationals were also rapidly losing ground, so Martinez had to be sure he was sure whenever possible. But, also, there have been times when Doolittle’s appearance in a non-save situation appeared unnecessary.

Piled together, the Nationals have an ongoing conundrum: they need to manage Doolittle’s appearances while in the middle of a push up the standings and without a definitive backup. Fernando Rodney has helped. An acquisition before the trade deadline could help further. And the coming week we’ll clarify if two games in Philadelphia were a blip or more foreboding.

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Nationals broadcaster F.P Santangelo: Team never panicked in slow start

Nationals broadcaster F.P Santangelo: Team never panicked in slow start

The Washington Nationals early start may have had fans and pundits writing off the team for the season, but no one inside the Nationals organization was panicking, said one insider. 

“I know there was a while there where everybody wanted Davey gone and people were questioning Mike," Nationals broadcaster F.P. Santangelo said on The Sports Junkies Monday, "but they were the calming forces in all this."

From bullpen woes to injuries, the Nationals had a rough start to their season and then suddenly, as if it had never happened, they turned it around.

“We were all scratching our heads like what in the world is going on? This team is way too good to be doing this and it was happening nightly,” Santangelo said.

As pressure mounted on the team to keep winning, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo reiterated time and time again during his Wednesday morning spot on The Sports Junkies that their goal was to play good baseball and to not worry about wins or losses, which Santangelo echoed.

"They were calm the whole time," Santangelo said. "They had veteran presence in the clubhouse and nobody panicked."

Suddenly, with a 12-10 win over the Miami Marlins on May 24, the Nats turned it around. Rizzo and the Lerners made the decision to cut their losses on Trevor Rosenthal's contract, the bullpen started to pitch well and adjustments were made accordingly, says Santangelo.

The Nationals open their two-game series against the Baltimore Orioles Tuesday at 7:05 p.m.

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