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Strasburg dazzles as another quick start leads to a Nationals win

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Strasburg dazzles as another quick start leads to a Nationals win

The Washington Nationals bounced back to beat the Chicago Cubs, 5-2, Saturday to improve to 19-26. Here are five observations from the game…

1. Davey Martinez can’t draw up a night on the mound much better than riding Stephen Strasburg long enough to get to one inning of Sean Doolittle.

Of course, that was only possible thanks to the brilliance of Strasburg, who tossed eight stellar innings Saturday. He was efficient throughout, throwing just 93 pitches and walking only one. Strasburg allowed four hits, two runs (only one earned), and struck out seven Cubs.

Strasburg “only” induced 15 swinging strikes, far from his best number this season, but still pretty good. It didn’t matter, especially with how quickly he was able to make work of the Cubs, getting ground ball after ground ball all night long.

NBC Sports Washington’s own Todd Dybas pointed out midway through the start how Strasburg was going back to his fastball after multiple starts in this recent successful stretch where he featured his curveball prominently. That pattern held throughout his eight innings, and tonight, nearly half (7) of Strasburg’s swinging strikes came on the four-seamer.

Strasburg’s success tonight continues a great recent stretch. He’s allowed just 10 earned runs in his last 42.1 innings, spanning six starts. He’s got 54 strikeouts and just six walks in those starts, a remarkable 9:1 ratio. 

It all adds up to one of the best stretches of Strasburg’s career, as he continues to cement himself as one of three true aces on the current Washington staff. And tonight may have been the most impressive outing yet, considering how deep he went into the game and how hot the opponent’s bats had been.

2. The Nationals are hoping their lineup sees an uptick in performance with guys like Anthony Rendon, Juan Soto, and Trea Turner getting back in the swing of things after time on the IL. Those three combined for five hits, three RBI and three runs Saturday.

But it would go a long way for the offense if Brian Dozier finds his stroke as well.

The powerful second baseman is a notoriously slow starter, but when he gets on a hot streak, he can carry a team. It’s only two games, but this may be the start of one of his patented “in the zone” streaks at the plate.

Dozier has gone 3-for-4 and 2-for-4 in back to back games, including a stretch where he reach base six straight times. That includes tonight’s home run to start the scoring for the Nats.

It’s been hard to fault Davey Martinez for his daily lineup construction with all the injuries. Now that his team is getting healthy, it will be interesting to see where Dozier fits in. The top of the order seems well set with Turner, Rendon, and Soto sandwiching one or two of Howie Kendrick, Victor Robles and Adam Eaton. 

Where does that leave Dozier? Probably in the 6-7 range. But if he keeps swinging the bat like he has against the Cubs, that could change. In a week, Martinez has gone from not having enough viable options to potentially having too many. I’m sure he’s happier with the latter.

3. A pattern has emerged in recent wins for the Nationals. When they get off to a quick start, they win. When they don’t, they lose.

In four of their last five victories, the Nats have scored first, including early-inning leads of at least three runs in each game.

In the four losses during the same stretch, the opposing team scored first each time, including three times in the first inning. In those losses, the Nationals were ultimately outscored by a combined 31-8.

In other words, quick starts have been crucial to the team’s success. It’s a narrative that would make sense even if the numbers didn’t back it up. With the way the team has struggled so consistently this season, it would be natural to feel deflated after an early deficit. That feeling is magnified with the lack of faith in the bullpen's ability to keep games within reach.

Saturday night against the Cubs kept this pattern going, with the Nats jumping on the board first with a Brian Dozier home run in the second inning, followed by the three-run fourth inning. That would prove to be all the support Strasburg needed, and once again Washington was able to ride early momentum to a relatively easy win.

4. The team as a whole was looking to bounce back Saturday night, but so was their best reliever.

Doolittle has been, far and away, the most reliable, valuable member of the Nationals bullpen in 2019, but against the Mets Thursday, he wasn’t himself. The lefty allowed four hits and two earned runs in his inning of work, walking one and striking out two on 31 pitches.

Coming off his worst inning of the season, Doolittle was back to his usual self against the Cubs.  He only needed seven pitches (six strikes) to make quick work of Chicago in the top of the ninth inning and earn his eighth save, even with some funny business.

Joe Maddon came out to protest with the umpires about Doolittle tapping his toe on the mound after beginning his windup. It’s a move the Cubs’ own Carl Edwards Jr. had been banned from doing, so his manager was obviously upset to see the Nats’ star closer getting away with something similar.

It’s unclear if anything else will come from the points Maddon brought up, but on Saturday at least, Doolittle was unfazed even after getting “iced” by the opposing manager.

5. For all the struggles the Nats have faced this season, they might be in the midst of a turning point.

It may not feel like it to frustrated fans who just want to see the team reel off several straight wins, but the Nationals have put themselves in position to potentially "win" their third straight series against a quality opponent. Yes, technically the Los Angeles series was a 2-2 split, but considering the Dodgers had only lost four games at home all season prior to the Nats’ trip, we’ll count the split as a win.

They followed that up taking two of three from the Mets, who have faltered of late but are still talented enough to be heard from in the National League East this season.

And now, after bouncing back from last night’s tough 14-6 loss, the Nats have earned an opportunity to grab another series win Sunday night. Of course, they’ll need a strong start from Jeremy Hellickson, which is less likely than it was Friday with Scherzer or Saturday with Strasburg.

Eventually, if the Nationals want to make any real noise, they will need an elongated winning streak. They’ve yet to win more than two consecutive games at any point this season, and have already experienced three losing streaks longer than that.

The talent is there, especially as much of the team gets healthy, and the schedule is finally lightening up. Nats fans are tired of hearing it, but this may finally be the successful stretch they’ve been waiting for. At the very least, the opportunity is there.

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Nats’ bats blast Birds in Battle of the Beltways Game 1

Nats’ bats blast Birds in Battle of the Beltways Game 1

Is it a rivalry? That's a discussion for another time. Was it a blowout? You bet.

The first matchup of the two-game series went to the Nationals with a final score of 8-1 Tuesday night. 

Austin Voth recorded his first-ever Major League win even with a shaky first inning. The right-handed pitcher spoke to reporters postgame, saying the ball was slipping more than usual. 

With the fifth spot in the starting pitching rotation up for grabs, Voth believes "this is another opportunity."

"I know the last two outings that I've had haven't gone my way," the pitcher continued. "But I felt like I was fighting back in the start to put my name back in fifth starter contention." 

He did just that tonight.

"He's pitched well. I like what I'm seeing," said Davey Martinez. "If he struggles for an inning or a few pitches, he has that poise and gets back into that rhythm and I kind of like that."

It wasn't just the bullpen launching the Nats to victory. Three separate players (Soto, Rendon and Adams) combined for two RBI each. 

The Nationals were playing both long and short ball Tuesday night, with three of their eight runs coming from solo homers.

Matt Adams launched a ball to Eutaw Street to start off the Nationals scoring. Plaques line Eutaw Street to mark the balls that land there, and Adams' ball becomes the 102nd in the ballpark's history.  

Juan Soto batted a foul ball off of his shin in the top of the sixth. He responded two pitches later with a solo home run. 

Post-game, Soto admitted it hurt but, "I just get mad. When I hit it I was like 'you [pitcher] hit me.' It wasn't me it was the pitcher. I just get mad and I try to hit the ball as hard as I can." 

There is a lot of history between these two teams. The Nationals may have taken the 2018 series from the Orioles 5-1, but the all-time record still goes to the O's, 45-40.

The history between these two teams is not just on the field. Managers Davey Martinez and Brandon Hyde spent three years coaching together with the Cubs.

This is the first of four matchups this season between the two teams. The second and final game of the series takes place Wednesday night at Camden Yards. 

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Managers in Nationals-Orioles series embrace shared history as they face off for the first time

Managers in Nationals-Orioles series embrace shared history as they face off for the first time

Brandon Hyde and Davey Martinez have spent countless days on the same fields, but Tuesday night was the first time they found themselves managing against one another.

Before heading to the nation’s capital to manage the Washington Nationals, Martinez coached under Joe Maddon with the Chicago Cubs from 2015-17. Brandon Hyde was also in Chicago during those years, coaching first base and then succeeding Martinez as Maddon’s bench coach prior to his hire in Baltimore last offseason.

While both figures are competitive enough to not need any added motivation against the opposing team, it’s still a fun moment for the two longtime friends to appreciate.

“Oh, he’s awesome,” Martinez told reporters in the visitor’s dugout before Tuesday’s game when asked about his relationship with Hyde. “I know him and his family very well, almost like family of mine. When we got in town we had dinner together, so it was kind of fun.”

Martinez went on to emphasize he knows Hyde will be playing to win, too.

“Obviously we both know he’s very competitive,” Martinez continued. “He knows that we want to win and he wants to win, so put everything aside. We’re going to compete.”

Despite the difference in records and team expectations in 2019, Hyde was pretty clear about his desire to take down his former colleague.

“Obviously me and Dave are very close friends and I wish him all the success in the world,” Hyde echoed during his own pregame availability. “But obviously I hope we beat them these next couple games.”

Martinez is not the only National to have a relationship with Hyde.

“Davey’s over there, Henry Blanco’s very close friend of mine, Joe Dillon the hitting coach I played with in high school, so I have some close relationships on that staff,” Hyde said.

Martinez knows the Nats can’t let their guard down against weaker opponents, Orioles included. As he put it, the Nationals “gotta come out and play baseball like we always do.”

And yet, even though each manager is putting his best foot forward to try to win the game, same as every other night of the season, it’s hard to ignore the unique relationship between the two.

For most, it’s just another night of baseball. But as Brandon Hyde put it most simply, “this will be a little bit different managing against Davey on the other side.”

Orioles-Nationals has yet to fully develop into a true rivalry, but perhaps a few more games that feel just “a little bit different” will help one blossom going forward.

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