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Pitching matchups for Nationals-Yankees opening series still coming into focus

Pitching matchups for Nationals-Yankees opening series still coming into focus

In eight days, the Nationals will play host to the New York Yankees in a three-game series to help kick off the 2020 MLB season. The reigning World Series champions will take on the team with the most titles in the history of the sport, presenting plenty of intrigue ahead of the sport’s first regulation games in almost nine months.

Even though both clubs boast their fair share of sluggers, all eyes will be on the pitching matchups—particularly the highly anticipated Opening Night bout between three-time Cy Young winner Max Scherzer and $324 million man Gerrit Cole.

Both Nationals manager Davey Martinez and Yankees skipper Aaron Boone confirmed Monday that their respective aces would be getting the ball July 23. Here’s how each pitcher ranks among pitchers with at least 300 innings over the last two years:

Strikeouts – Cole (1st/602), Scherzer (3rd/543)

Innings – Cole (1st/412.2), Scherzer (7th/393)

ERA – Cole (3rd/2.68), Scherzer (4th/2.70)

WHIP – Cole and Scherzer (T-3, 0.962)

fWAR – Scherzer (2nd/14.0), Cole (3rd/13.4)

Scherzer missed time in 2019 with a back injury but was healthy enough by October to help lead the Nationals to their first World Series title in franchise history. Cole, who spent the last two seasons with the Houston Astros before signing with New York last winter, finished second in AL Cy Young award voting before helping his club all the way to Game 7 against Washington.

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Cole vs. Scherzer should have every MLB fan tuning in on Opening Night, but that won’t be the only marquee pitching matchup in D.C. that weekend. Boone told reporters Wednesday that James Paxton would be starting opposite Stephen Strasburg for the second game of the series, though he has yet to announce who gets the ball for the Sunday contest against Patrick Corbin.

Paxton struggled to stay healthy last season but still turned in a solid season with a 3.82 ERA and 186 strikeouts over 29 starts and 150 2/3 innings. He will face the tall task of toping the performance of Strasburg, who led the NL with 18 wins last season and won World Series MVP honors. Strasburg joined Cole as a free agent last winter before re-signing with Washington on a seven-year, $245 million deal.

The Nationals will then turn to Corbin, who was courted by the Yankees while he was a free agent in 2018, for the series finale. Corbin was named the 2019 Warren Spahn Award winner as the best left-handed pitcher in baseball. In his first season with Washington, he went 14-7 with a 3.25 ERA and 238 strikeouts as he eclipsed the 200-inning threshold for the second straight year.

New York is hoping that Masahiro Tanaka will be ready to pitch that Sunday after taking a line drive off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton to his head July 4. Though Tanaka underwent a CT scan and said he hasn’t experienced any concussion-like symptoms, the Yankees are proceeding cautiously with their two-time All-Star.

"I want to be optimistic and say yes," Tanaka told reporters through a translator Tuesday. "But obviously the injury is at the head, so I think it's something that I need to be cautious about and kind of take it careful, more so than other injuries."

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If Tanaka is unable to go, the Yankees will likely turn to J.A. Happ for the series finale. Happ posted a disappointing 4.91 ERA over 31 appearances (30 starts) for New York last season after signing a two-year, $34 million deal the previous offseason. At 37 years old, he’s hoping to pitch out of the rotation for the entirety of the 2020 season in order to trigger a vesting option for 2021.

The three-game set will be the only series between Washington and New York this season, meaning fans won’t have another chance to see Scherzer-Cole or even Strasburg-Paxton in 2020 unless both teams make it to the World Series.

While that’s certainly not out of the question, the opening series’ pitching matchups will be a rare sight for fans to take advantage of when MLB kicks off its season.

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GM Mike Rizzo 'felt terrible' for Nationals grounds crew after tarp incident

GM Mike Rizzo 'felt terrible' for Nationals grounds crew after tarp incident

Sunday night was one to forget for the Nationals' grounds crew. Washington's clash with the Orioles was called in the sixth inning after the crew was unable to cover the field with a tarp before rainfall made the field unplayable. 

It's a nightmare scenario for anyone working in that particular field. Your job is to protect the baseball field as much as you can from the elements so games can be still be played after a storm passes. Washington's grounds crew didn't get the job done on Sunday, but Davey Martinez and now general manager Mike Rizzo made sure to support their colleagues. 

"These guys work extremely hard and they're so good at what they do, so I just felt terrible for them," Rizzo said on The Sports Junkies Wednesday. "I went down there and tried to make them feel better after they called the game off. We all make mistakes, I've made bad trades and bad signings, [the Junkies] have had bad shows. They had a bad day at the office and their bad days are seen by millions of people.

"I support those guys," he said. "[Director of Field Operations] John Turnour is the best in the business," he said. "He's got a really difficult geographical city to be a head grounds crew member in Washington D.C. The weather is really tricky here and he navigates is terrifically."

RELATED: NATS GROUNDS CREW BATTLING THE TARP IS PEAK 2020

Like any professional, the grounds crew members seem to have learned from their off-game and are working to make sure it doesn't happen again. According to Rizzo, they're already putting in the time to get back on track. 

"[Turnour] had that one hiccup and I guarantee it won't happen again because they're doing drills about it and they're going to practice with how [the tarp] rolls out," Rizzo said. "It was something that if you don't know about tarps and covering fields it's hard to understand what went wrong."

I don't know about you, but I certainly don't know a single solitary thing about rolling out a massive tarp onto a baseball field in the rain and on a tight schedule. Still, of all the regular seasons you'd want to have games postponed for reasons within your control, the 60-game 2020 schedule is not the one.

The Nationals, who already had one series postponed due to a coronavirus outbreak within the Marlins clubhouse, need as much schedule flexibility as possible moving forward. So it's good to see the staff responding in such a productive way following an extremely unfortunate situation. 

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Max Scherzer's first start since hamstring injury was a battle, but one he won against the Mets

Max Scherzer's first start since hamstring injury was a battle, but one he won against the Mets

Better. Though the bar was low.

Max Scherzer worked for six innings Tuesday night in New York. He made it through one roughshod inning during his last outing against the Mets because his hamstring “tweak” was enough of an alarm that he decided to stop pitching.

That was seven days prior to his start against the Mets, which the Nationals won, 2-1. Ostensibly, Scherzer had not pitched for 13 days. He lasted the one inning, needed to work his hamstring problem out, then find a way back to the mound.

Davey Martinez wanted him to stop sprinting -- the initial cause of the hamstring problem -- in between starts. Scherzer did not want to stop sprinting, so he continued to do so once he felt better. He also pitched twice from a mound in the days before the bottom of the first on Tuesday. Both times, he felt 100 percent when pushing and landing. The hamstring was fine. So much so, that he expected to throw the 105 pitches he did to hold off the Mets across the grinding innings they imposed on him.

“Took some shots there early, but didn’t break and found a way to execute pitches there later in the game,” Scherzer said.

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He finished with seven strikeouts across the six innings. Just a run scored. But, there were eight baserunners and Scherzer was in severe trouble in both the first and second innings. Those were the issues as he hunted a path to better out-pitches and location.

“It honestly kind of reminded me of Game 7 of the World Series when he went out there and he couldn’t zone in on the strike zone,” Martinez said. “His stuff was good. His pitch count got high. Once he settled in, we started noticing he started getting through the ball a little better. Balls started coming down. Started throwing a lot more strikes.”

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“Even though my pitch count got out of control, I was just able to just stay with [Kurt Suzuki] and continue to pound the zone and find a way to get through six [Tuesday],” Scherzer said.

The good is clear: He is back on the mound, healthy, throwing 98 mph and 100-plus pitches. Stephen Strasburg returned two days prior, though he is not 100 percent. Scherzer is physically right, if slightly rusty. That combination was sufficient in his first start after the hamstring problem.

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