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Three things to watch for as the Nationals host the Pirates

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Three things to watch for as the Nationals host the Pirates

After back-to-back series wins on the road, the Nationals return home to face Pittsburgh, their first series against a non-NL East foe. Here are three things to watch for: 

1. Can Rendon stay hot? Anthony Rendon is off to a blistering start to the 2019 season, currently on a 10-game hitting streak and leading the National League with a .429 batting average. He's flexed his power during this stretch, too, hitting four home runs, seven doubles and driving in 14 runs. Going into Thursday, Pirates pitchers had the fifth lowest combined ERA in baseball (2.84), so expect Pittsburgh to challenge Rendon this weekend. 

2. Will Scherzer miss a start? Max Scherzer took a comebacker off his ankle in last Sunday's win over the Mets, and as of Wednesday it was still bothering him. He's scheduled to start Saturday afternoon against the Pirates, but there's still some doubt if he'll be ready to go by then. 

3. Bullpen finally finding its form? Much criticized to start the season, the Nats bullpen pitched quite well during the series against the Phillies earlier this week. Despite facing the MLB's most exposed bullpen setting at Citizens Bank Park, Washington relievers gave up just two runs total over the three-game set; Trevor Rosenthal even recorded his first out of the year! But was it just momentary success, or something that will continue over the next few weeks and months? Only time will tell. 

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Nationals navigate chaos in steps toward contention

Nationals navigate chaos in steps toward contention

WASHINGTON -- How’s this for a week? Five hours of rain delays, two postponements, Max Scherzer breaks his face, Max Scherzer dominates while on the mound with said broken face, a sweep, a rally, a bullpen blowup, a key roster piece dismissed, a Sunday extra-inning loss. 

Welcome to the last week at Nationals Park, where the local nine have gone from finding their bearings to hopping into the fray. Washington went 4-2 against Philadelphia and Atlanta during the rain-stalled week, and it was lamentable. A perfect 6-0 was possible. A more likely 5-1 was quite attainable. But, 4-2 will be acceptable, especially in light of the early-season wandering through the darkness. 

“Hey, we played two pretty good teams,” manager Davey Martinez said. “With everything said and done, we came out 6-4. We got a day off [Monday], which the boys need. We come back, we got Miami for three. So let's have that day off, come back, and play Tuesday.”

The National League East division has enjoyed convulsions even before the midpoint of the season. Atlanta stands 14 games over .500 and firmly in first. Philadelphia has caught all of the Nationals’ former ills -- injuries, bad bullpen pitching, poor base level play -- during its tumble. It has lost seven in a row, 16 of 22 and was swept by Miami over the weekend. New York fired its pitching coach, then went into Chicago and split a series from the first-place Cubs before manager Mickey Callaway swore at a reporter and a starting pitcher charged him. Philadelphia and New York start a four-game series Monday to determine which is more in disarray.

Washington, meanwhile, is 18-9 in its last 27. Baseball Reference says its odds to reach the playoffs went up 17.9 percent in the last seven days. The Nationals now have a 31 percent chance to make the playoffs, according to fivethirtyeight.com. Fangraphs paints a rosier picture: It pegs Washington with a 49.7 percent chance to reach the postseason.

The season’s midpoint arrives Friday following three games in Miami. Washington will be in Detroit that night, taking on one of the league’s worst offenses, before another homestand opens against Miami. Woeful Kansas City follows. Those three clubs are math boosters. They could also deliver the final impetus for general manager Mike Rizzo to deploy a strategy he used last season: find early help to keep pushing.

June 18, 2018, Rizzo dealt for Kelvin Herrera to aid a not-quite-there bullpen which was at least an arm short. Herrera was pitching well when he arrived. The cost was three players, two of which remain in the minors, one of which is with the Royals this season. 

Herrera failed in Washington, but the strategy was sound. Rizzo did not wait to fix the clear gap in his club -- yes, this seems an annual adjustment -- by lagging until the trade deadline. He instead aggressively attempted to solve a problem in a manner which carries risk and reward. The risk is overpaying because the work is being done well ahead of the market deadline. The reward is an extended benefit by acquiring help six weeks before running out of time to do so.

The Nationals remain at least one arm short in the bullpen. Trevor Rosenthal was released Sunday morning. Kyle Barraclough continues to watch from the bullpen railing. His right arm no longer hurts. It’s also not ready to throw pitches at full force. He remains weeks away from a return. 

Until then, the Nationals have an open 40-man roster spot to tinker with. Among the numerous restrictions suffered because of Rosenthal’s failures was the inability to move a piece not on the 40-man easily up to the 25-man roster. His departure offers a clean entrance.

The last week provides ammunition for further moves. Even Martinez bent to the idea these recent seven days mattered. Two postponements stalled outcomes before Washington handled free-falling Philadelphia and tussled toe-to-toe with the Braves. Atlanta outscored the Nationals 20-16 in the three-game series. Three of those runs came because of a Rosenthal meltdown. In essence, it was a draw.

“We know we’re capable of keeping up with any of these guys,” Yan Gomes said. “We’ve said it since the beginning: Eighth inning, ninth inning comes around, we’re going to battle ‘til the end. We gave ourselves a chance to win [Sunday], it just didn’t come our way. But no shame, no hanging our heads. We’ve still got to look forward.”

Gomes went back to packing when he was done with reporters. Going on the road with all the equipment is a team which has proven its baby steps toward course correction were not a fluke. Three weeks of good play have been compiled. The two coming weeks offer another trampoline. Expect Rizzo to look for even more bounce.

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Nationals finally end Trevor Rosenthal journey

Nationals finally end Trevor Rosenthal journey

WASHINGTON — The end came Sunday morning when manager Davey Martinez steeled himself to deliver the news to Trevor Rosenthal. The decision was made the night before, late in the evening Saturday after Rosenthal threw 15 pitches, just three of which were strikes. An internal meeting was followed by a conclusion: The relationship between the Nationals and one of their biggest offseason signings had run its course -- a result which seemed to be pending for weeks. So, after walking in Sunday morning, Rosenthal met with Martinez and learned his time was up.

“Just at this point in time, he put the work in, we put the work in, we tried to get him right and just things didn’t work out,” Martinez said. “So it was time for us to move on and I wish him and his family the best.”

Gone is hope, a headache and a significant investment. Washington won the race to sign Rosenthal in the offseason, paying him $7 million and tacking on a club option for next season following an eye-popping showcase. He arrived in spring training with his velocity intact. His ability to locate never followed, at times handcuffing the manager in game, and later complicating the entire roster.

Yet, he always thought he was close, saying as recently as Saturday night a “small tweak” was the only thing necessary to get right. Rosenthal primarily worked with Senior Advisor, Player Development Spin Williams and pitching coach Paul Menhart when trying to fix his failures. He also had ex- and current teammates offering advice. In his head were a variety of battling thoughts about mechanics, pressure and results. He remained upbeat throughout, so much so it was unclear if he was fully in touch with what was occurring.

Rosenthal's final numbers are abnormal and hard to fathom despite witnessing the process which delivered them: 6 ⅓ innings, eight hits, 15 walks, three hit batters, a damning 22.74 ERA. He’s the second leg of an enormous bullpen construction failure by general manager Mike Rizzo last offseason. His two key acquisitions -- Kyle Barraclough (currently on the IL with a 6.39 ERA) and Rosenthal -- created the greatest drag on what again stood as the league’s worst bullpen coming into Sunday. Rizzo declined through a team spokesperson to speak with reporters on Sunday. That left the duty to Martinez and Rosenthal’s teammates.

Two of the three relievers NBC Sports Washington spoke with Sunday morning did not know Rosenthal had been released. And by look of his locker, there was little evidence a change had been made. Two gloves were on the shelves, a loan baseball sat next to his hat, his game pants hung on a hook. Sean Doolittle and Ryan Zimmerman bobbleheads held their station in the home of someone who was suddenly whisked away without packing. Presumably, Rosenthal will return Monday, when the clubhouse is empty and his former team has boarded a plane for Miami, to collect his belongings.

“My heart goes out to him because you think about how before this season, when he pitched in spring training, he had been away for the game for 16 months recovering from Tommy John surgery,” Doolittle told NBC Sports Washington. “I had some IL stints myself, that whole time you’re working your way back, you’re envisioning all the success you’re going to have when you come back and helping the team win. There’s so much optimism and anticipation surrounding that. When it doesn’t go your way like that... he just could never quite get it going. I know he tried a number of different fixes. He worked really hard, he had a great attitude about things. It’s tough. There’s no...I don’t know. It stinks.”

Doolittle watched film at times with Rosenthal. Other relievers watched with the understanding of how volatile life can be in the bullpen when healthy, let alone when returning from an extended layoff caused by injury. They also thought Sunday morning of what comes after being released. Other elements of life show up.

“You feel for him because you’ve been there,” Javy Guerra, who was released this season by Toronto, told NBC Sports Washington. “I think for the most part, when you step away from the field, you understand there’s real life going on and there’s a lot of people involved in the decisions and everything that happens. I think for the most part, you sit back and assess it. It’s tough. That’s the realistic part of this game. As you get older, there’s more people in play. I think that’s what people don’t really understand as much. You have to move your family now. Turns into more of a production. It’s unfortunate.”

Martinez didn’t sleep much Saturday night knowing his morning duty was to inform Rosenthal of his team-less future. He also knew the Nationals couldn’t continue to push back toward relevancy with a reliever who can’t record an out despite operating with a four-run lead. Massaging a bullpen on a daily basis is often labeled the most difficult part of a manager’s job. Doing it with a setup man who can’t pitch is all the more difficult.

Washington has populated its minor-league system with veteran relievers like Fernando Rodney and George Kontos. None are pitching particularly well, all were available for a reason. Kyle McGowin was recalled Sunday to offer temporary long relief. Another move is likely Tuesday when the team begins a six-game road trip. Rosenthal will not be joining them.

“There’s always going to be a lot of questions, I wish we just had more time for him to stay here and figure it out,” Doolittle said. “It stinks.”

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