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Three months of trying to go 1-0 puts Nationals in power position

Three months of trying to go 1-0 puts Nationals in power position

Everyone falls into common sayings. Not just managers. People type “LOL” or don’t; say “thanks” or “thank you”; repeat mantras learned earlier or doled out for consistency. Repetition exposes these.

Davey Martinez instructs his team to “go 1-0 every day,” then tells the media he told the team to do that. He goes 1-0 every day by mentioning it...every day. It would seem trite if the steadiness wasn’t necessary across 162 games. May 24, before the Nationals played the Marlins, he dispatched the standard ditty. They won. Since then, for three months, they have been the best team in baseball. The coming week could put them in an even better position. 

Sunday brought new footnotes. Washington’s 7-5, 11-inning win in Chicago provided a sweep of the Cubs. The Nationals had not swept in Wrigley since 2005. The Cubs, one of the major league’s most dominant home teams, had not been swept at Wrigley this season. 

Washington needed everything to pull it off. Daniel Hudson earned the win by pitching the 10th and 11th innings. Anthony Rendon drove in two and scored twice thanks to his four hits. He is one of four MLB players with an OPS over 1.000 (Christian Yelich, Mike Trout and Cody Bellinger are the others). Juan Soto had three hits, including a seventh-inning single to put the Nationals up 3-2.

Despite the 6-7-8 hitters combining to go 0-for-15; despite Fernando Rodney finding a way to walk free-swinging Javy Baez with two out and up two, then giving up a game-tying homer; despite Howie Kendrick and Adam Eaton not in the starting lineup, the Nationals still swept.

Now, the update for the last 80 games consists of a 54-26 burn through three months -- the best record in MLB during that span -- to position themselves as the firm wild-card leader. Atlanta has not been cooperating, though. It swept over the weekend, too. The Braves’ lead in the National League East remains a steady six games. Seven head-to-head games are coming in early September across 10 days. Washington just hopes to be within reasonable reach when a four-game series opens in SunTrust Park on Sept. 5.

Sliding away is the rest of the National League East. Philadelphia has dropped to 5 ½ games behind the Nationals. The hot-and-cold Mets were the victims of Atlanta’s sweep. They are six behind the Nationals. However, those two teams aren’t far from the second wild-card spot, 1 ½ and two games behind Chicago, respectively.

The Nationals returned from Chicago to an off-day. The combined record of their two foes this week in Nationals Park? 90-170. Baltimore shows up Tuesday for a two-game series. Another off-day arrives Thursday. The weekend welcomes Miami, the National League’s worst team, to the District. Last weeks’ seven-games-in-seven-days schedule with a terrible turnaround is not in play this week. Washington will be able to rest, face bad teams and possibly get its closer back.

Sean Doolittle went on the 10-day injured list Aug. 18. Martinez said previously Doolittle is the closer when he returns. There are several reasons to rethink that stance after watching a week without him. The Nationals do not have a potent lefty in the bullpen outside of Doolittle. If Freddie Freeman is up with nobody out in the eighth and the tying run on, will Martinez leave Doolittle in the bullpen if Daniel Hudson is available? The added bullpen pieces give Martinez an opportunity to matchup in ways he couldn’t -- and didn’t -- before Doolittle went on the injured list.

All-around, this is a week to ride gracefully through. The next seven days contain as many off-days as the month of September. Meek opponents are visiting. Missing pieces -- including Ryan Zimmerman, who has 32 minor-league at-bats done -- are healing. The Nationals can wait until rosters expand Sept. 1 to put Zimmerman back with the big club and not have to make a move with Asdrúbal Cabrera. Carter Kieboom can also be called up Sunday since he is on the 40-man roster.

But, first, the Nationals will go a day at a time. Monday will be a win because it provides rest. Tuesday? Another chance to go 1-0.

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Davey Martinez says top prospect Carter Kieboom will have chance to start at third base

Davey Martinez says top prospect Carter Kieboom will have chance to start at third base

WASHINGTON -- Carter Kieboom will be provided every chance to be Washington’s starting third baseman next season. At least according to his manager.

Davey Martinez met with a small group of reporters Friday after a “Town Hall” event at SiriusXM’s downtown studios (which airs Jan. 23 at 5 p.m. on Sirius XM’s MLB Network Radio Channel). Third base was the prime topic afterward.

“He deserves a shot to make the team,” Martinez said. “We need to fill a void at third base, and we think he's appropriate. He can do the job. I wasn't at Winterfest, but the guys there said he put on about 15-20 pounds of muscle, so I'm looking forward to watching him play there.

"What I want to do, and I'm going to talk to him in the next few days, is just let him play third base and not move him all over the place and let him get used to playing third base and get him over there and see what we got.”

Washington was cornered into this gamble when Anthony Rendon and Josh Donaldson signed elsewhere. Asdrúbal Cabrera is the secondary option at third, Martinez said. Starlin Castro will remain at second base. Howie Kendrick could also play third base from time-to-time.

The Nationals will go from an MVP finalist and a top-3 defender at third base to a 22-year-old rookie, if Kieboom ends up the starter. He made nine starts at the position for Triple-A Fresno in 2019. Overall, he made 10 appearances at third and committed four errors. It’s a drastic shift in baseline for the defending World Series champions.

"He's young, and I talked to [infield coach Tim Bogar] about getting him out there every day early and teaching him,” Martinez said. “The biggest thing about that is positioning, and I think once he learns how to play that position, and where to position himself, I think he's going to be OK. ... I want him to focus on defense. I think he's going to hit, but I think he really needs to focus on defense in spring training and then we'll go from there.”

Mike Rizzo recently called the position a “strength” despite there being no viable evidence for that claim. Kieboom is the organization’s top prospect, so he graces everyone with the intrigue attached to his potential -- his short-lived flop in the majors last season notwithstanding. Cabrera is a 34-year-old utility player who finished 2019 with a solid year after splurging at the plate when he joined the Nationals. The former could fail because of youth, the latter because of age. In the Nationals view, a prospect could blossom and a solid veteran is available for insurance.

“Asdrúbal’s going to play, and I talked to him,” Martinez said. “He's going to play third, some second, he'll play some first. He'll pinch-hit off the bench, which is kind of nice having a switch-hitter like him. What I like is we got options.”

The main one at third, in the middle of January, is Kieboom.

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Nationals will enter Spring Training in familiar territory with fifth-starter competition

Nationals will enter Spring Training in familiar territory with fifth-starter competition

For a team that rose to contention behind the strength of its pitching staff, the Nationals have never been afraid to leave the back end of their rotation up to chance.

It started with John Lannan vs. Ross Detwiler in 2012. Then Tanner Roark edged out Taylor Jordan for the fifth spot in 2014. AJ Cole and Erick Fedde battled it out for the fifth spot in 2018 before Jeremy Hellickson leapfrogged them both two weeks into the season.

This year, three familiar faces will be in the mix for that coveted No. 5 spot: Fedde, Austin Voth and Joe Ross. All three pitched in hybrid spot-starter/long-relief roles while jumping back and forth between the minors and major leagues. Each had their struggles but also showed flashes of what their potential could be.

“It was a year where I got to do a lot in the sense of starting and relieving,” Fedde said at the Nationals’ annual WinterFest event last weekend. “Kind of just been the same old role of whatever I can do to help this team. It’s a benefit to be on a winning team where they just try to fit you in wherever you can help. Just trying to taking things one step at a time this year.”

Fedde started his career higher on prospect rankings than his fellow competitors did, but he’s mostly failed to deliver on that promise in three years since breaking into the majors. In 2019, his up-and-down performances continued, with four quality starts mixed in with three outings in which he allowed 5+ runs.

But the biggest hurdle to Fedde making the Opening Day squad might be his rare fourth option. Both Ross and Voth are out of options heading into 2020, meaning the Nationals must place them on waivers if they don’t make the active roster out of Spring Training. Fedde, despite being optioned in three separate seasons, accumulated a fourth option due to his lack of service time at the major-league level.

So that puts the spotlight on Voth and Fedde. With the addition of the 26th man to the active roster this year, the Nationals have already said they’ll be expanding their bullpen to eight pitchers. That means the loser of the fifth-starter competition likely gets relegated to a relief role.

“I’ve done both before,” Voth said at WinterFest. “Obviously, I’m used to starting more often but if I was a reliever as well, long-relief guy, I’d be fine with that. Just want to have a role on this team and be a part of this team.”

Based on last season’s results alone, Voth would appear to be the frontrunner heading into the spring. The former fifth-round pick posted a respectable 3.30 ERA and 9.1 K/9 over nine appearances (eight starts) in what qualified as his rookie season. A shoulder issue prevented him from making the World Series roster, but he insists he’s healthy heading into this year.

Voth’s injury paved the way for Ross to make the World Series roster and thus fill in for Max Scherzer in Game 5 after the ace was scratched with a neck spasms. He pitched admirably for being given the ball on both short notice and short rest. Overall, Ross’ 2019 numbers weren’t stellar, but he was also in his first full season back from Tommy John surgery.

Both pitchers will enter Spring Training looking to showcase improvements they’ve made over the offseason. For Voth, he wants to improve the effectiveness of his sliders against righties, working to increase its depth and add more velocity to better differentiate it from his curveball. For Ross, he will look to show that he’s fully healthy and capable of returning to his 2016 form when he made 19 starts and accrued a 3.43 ERA.

Fedde shouldn’t be counted out, but he’ll have to have a lights-out start to Spring Training in order to garner serious consideration. The Nationals probably have more roster questions entering this season than they’ve had in a long time, but the fifth-starter competition is a game they’ve certainly played before.

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