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This time, closer Sean Doolittle costs the Nationals a game

This time, closer Sean Doolittle costs the Nationals a game

NEW YORK -- The Washington Nationals lost to the New York Mets, 6-1, Wednesday to drop their record to 19-30. Here are five observations from the game...

1.  What to say when the only person to trust can’t deliver?

That’s the status for these Washington Nationals, now 11 games under .500 after Sean Doolittle's worst outing since arriving in Washington, sliding further and further away, unable to stumble into wins and only capable of hunting down ways to lose.

A night after curious bullpen usage which delivered yet another wrenching loss, and was followed Wednesday afternoon by a pep-talk focused team meeting, manager Davey Martinez dispatched his knee-quaking posse of relievers in superior fashion.

Joe Ross opened the seventh with an out. Matt Grace followed with two. Six outs to go in a 1-0 game for the league’s worst bullpen.

Kyle Barraclough started the eighth. He struck out J.D. Davis. Adeiny Hechavarria doubled, though the ball should have been caught by Juan Soto. Pete Alonso grounded out. Todd Frazier came to the plate and options arrived. A mound visit was followed by a four-pitch walk to Frazier. Doolittle entered the game to face light-hitting veteran Carlos Gomez. Stomach-churning chaos followed.

Doolittle hit Gomez with his first pitch -- his first beaned batter of the year and first since May 29, 2018. Juan Lagares doubled two pitches later to clear the bases. Wilson Ramos was intentionally walked. Pinch-hitter Rajai Davis hit a three-run homer two pitches into his at-bat.

That was the end for Doolittle, who walked off the mound with a stunned look. The one reliable piece in the league’s worst bullpen had as disastrous a night as possible, flushing Max Scherzer’s start, throwing aside rare quality work from other relievers, sending the Nationals to their fourth consecutive loss in this can’t-get-right season.

What followed was a stupefied clubhouse beginning to process just how dire the situation is on May 22.

Adam Eaton wondered where answers are and said they need to come now.

“We need to do something different sooner rather than later,” Eaton said. “We've talked about this for weeks now. Just haven't been playing good baseball.”

Martinez said he was “shocked” by Doolittle’s off-kilter outing.

“I tell them all the time: This thing will turn around,” Martinez said. “It’s going to turn around. But we have to believe that it will. We have to will it. It’s time that we just believe that we’re good enough to play here, cause we are. And we’ve got to make it happen. We’ve got to make things happen. And stay strong. Stay together. Stay strong. Pull for your teammates. And this thing will turn around.”

Doolittle had a hard time wrapping his head around his rare 12-pitch crumbling.

“I don't know, it's tough and it's a tough spot to come in and the context of how our season's going it hurts you even more,” Doolittle said. “To have Max pitch so well tonight and the guys grind it out....shoot I don't know. I'm really frustrated. I'm disgusted with myself and I let the team down. And it hurts.”

Scherzer was stern in his comments about a spiraling season.

“When you face adversity, this is when you reveal yourself,” Scherzer said. “Whether you have the mental fortitude to come back and you can block out all the negativity that's probably going to surround us right now. You've got to come forward to the game with that positive attitude of knowing what you can control and that you have the right mindset that you're going to go out there and compete and compete at 100 percent. You have to think of all the little things you can do.”

There were those two words again: “little things.” They have conspired against the Nationals this year, undermining an-almost $200 million payroll, increasingly putting the manager’s future in jeopardy and ratcheting up calls for sweeping change. There’s been nothing little about them, and nothing the Nationals have figured out on the field or off to stop them from snuffing out the year before the season is even close to half done.

2. Scherzer needed 109 pitches to make it through six innings. The most important of those was his final one. The 11-pitch sixth gave the Nationals three fewer outs to pawn off on the bullpen. Scherzer opened the inning at 98 pitches before briskly working through Todd Frazier, Carlos Gomez and Juan Lagares.

He allowed four hits, struck out nine and walked two. The night drove Scherzer’s ERA down to 3.41. It all mattered little in the end.

“You just take it inning by inning, try to execute pitches,” Scherzer said. “I thought tonight I had a good inning out of the windup, had a good rocker step, and there were some pitches that I threw tonight that I executed well because I was nice and tall throughout my delivery. It kind of let me be able to pick up some consistency kind of early in the game and late in the game. When my delivery is right, and my slot is in the right spot, that’s when I execute all my pitches. So I felt like I was in better position tonight overall than I have been in the past.”

Why was Scherzer back to the mound after 98 pitches in five innings? Because of losses six weeks ago, three weeks ago, last week and this week. A team 10 games under .500 has to squeeze everything it can out of its ace on May 22. Time for a margin of error has eroded. What happened back then (losing series to Miami, for instance) piles up to have a grand influence on later.

3. Grace has been used as a matchup left-hander recently. He’s found that life more appealing.

Grace matched up with Cubs left-hander Anthony Rizzo and recorded an out Sunday. He faced Robinson Cano on Tuesday to pick up a ground out. Wednesday, Grace was brought in to face left-handed pinch-hitter Dominic Smith. Smith grounded out to first. Grace remained in to face Amed Rosario and recorded another ground ball out.

The Nationals are trying to put Grace in spots to get his feet back on the ground after a night as the punching bag at the end of a blowout loss against the Chicago Cubs last Friday (and a down season overall). So far, this role has been better.

4. Remember the extended minor-league assignments for after players were hurt? That’s gone. And the results are not great.

Matt Adams was activated Wednesday. Adrian Sanchez was sent to Double-A Harrisburg to make room on the 25-man roster.

Adams did all his rehabilitation work with the major-league team. He took batting practice on the field and in the batting cages before that. He also took ground balls and infield practice. What he didn’t do was go on a minor-league assignment despite not playing since May 3. The Nationals judged him ready to play because his swing looked in place against a pitching machine.

Wednesday, he made a crucial error in the first inning. Robinson Cano rolled a small ground ball to first, Adams fielded, pivoted and threw toward second base, where the runner on first was heading. The ball never came close to the bag. It went to the outfield instead, which presented the Mets with runners on second and third and one out instead of a runner on first and one out (or a chance at a longshot double play). It, most importantly, cost Scherzer more pitches.

Scherzer pitched his way out of it as he often has this season. He came into the game leading the league in FIP (fielding-independent pitching).

Trea Turner played just two games for Triple-A Potomac after missing seven weeks. Asked how many games he would have preferred to play there, Turner said one. He made two wayward throws his first game back with the Nationals.

So, instantly putting these guys back on the field -- which is every player’s preference and a spot the Nationals’ record has leveraged them into -- is not ideal.

5.  Kyle McGowin will start Friday. His visit to the rotation is expected to be temporary.

McGowin will pitch in Jeremy Hellickson’s spot. He was up to give length in the bullpen. Like Erick Fedde, he’ll be drawn away from the relievers to fill a rotation spot.

McGowin is a sinker-ball pitcher. He made one start at the end of last season. He also is currently suspended by the Pacific Coast League after a substance was found in his glove following an inspection by umpires during his last outing.

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One year later, Bryce Harper is in a very different spring training atmosphere

One year later, Bryce Harper is in a very different spring training atmosphere

When Bryce Harper signed his then-record 13-year, $330 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies last March, the stands at Spectrum Field in Clearwater were filled to the brim on a daily basis while the media scrums in the home locker room had twice as many reporters firing questions.

That’s what happens when the most polarizing player in baseball, a former MVP and No. 1 overall pick who’s drawn his fair share of both fans and critics, joins a big-market organization looking to jump back into contention for the first time in almost a decade.

But a year later, with the Phillies having missed the playoffs entirely and much bigger storylines dominating the sport, things have been calmer in Clearwater this spring.

"It's definitely different coming into camp," Harper said Tuesday, per NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Jim Salisbury. "It's good knowing I'll be here the next 12 years, a lot more calm, not as crazy, not as many cameras. I'll enjoy that and just get ready for the season."

Harper made his spring season debut Tuesday, going 0-1 with a walk and sacrifice fly while playing five innings in right field. With a month to go before the start of the regular season, Harper’s goal for the rest of spring isn’t too complicated.

"Just be healthy," he said. "Take good routes in the outfield, throw the ball well out there, have good at-bats."

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Max Scherzer not pleased with new playoff format proposal

Max Scherzer not pleased with new playoff format proposal

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- Here is a summation on Max Scherzer’s thoughts about the proposed playoff format changes: No.

Is he willing to talk about it? Yes. Does his voice matter as a member of the MLBPA executive board? Yes. Would he consider alterations in the future? Yes.

However, the idea of adding teams to the postseason -- expanding the total number of entrants to 14 which would be almost half the league -- is not something which appeals to Scherzer at this point. 

“For me, it’s really hard to sit there and say our playoffs are broken,” Scherzer told NBC Sports Washington. “When we look at how we won the World Series, we made it as a wild-card team and we won the World Series, we’ve also seen the best team in baseball go out there and win the World Series as well. To me, as we sit here today, the playoffs are functioning as they should because the second wild-card spot and the teams behind it are typically only a few games behind, so really adding those teams, those teams should already be in the hunt and finding a way to make the playoffs already.”

If the proposal was law last season, here’s how the National League playoffs would have looked (number of wins in parentheses):

Division winners

Atlanta Braves (97)

St. Louis Cardinals (91)

Los Angeles Dodgers (106)

Wild-cards

Washington (93)

Milwaukee (89)

New York (86)

Arizona (85)

The 84-win Cubs would have finished a game out of the final wild-card spot.

The Dodgers would receive a first-round bye. The Braves would get to choose their opponent from the bottom three wild-card teams (Presumably, it would be Arizona in order to avoid Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg or Jacob deGrom in a one-game playoff). So, the 97-win Braves would be playing the 85-win Diamondbacks for the chance to advance. If the Diamondbacks know they have the same shot as a 97-win team, what’s to prompt their investment in the offseason or trade deadline? 

“When you start talking about increasing the teams that make the playoffs, I have a huge concern over the competition that resides in the regular season,” Scherzer said. “In this format that is proposed, really the team that finishes in second place is really in the same field as the team that finishes in seventh place. We’ve seen trades in the past where good teams have unloaded players for a number of reasons and maybe not necessarily put the best product on the field, and they don’t feel they would have to compete as strongly if there is a very, very strong team in the league. 

“So, there’s significant concerns for me moving forward with their proposal. Something I think we can work through, something we can talk about. But I think there’s other issues at play with our system, with the CBA and the way the economic structure of the game is working that I think are more pertinent issues we need to address as a whole to increase competition throughout the game. Without addressing those concerns, I think it’s pointless to start talking about the playoffs.”

Those concerns are?

“Those are concerns that will be addressed when the time is right in the CBA talks,” Scherzer said. “Those talks will [begin] after [the] 2021 [season]. I look forward to having those talks. We need to have those talks about what the game needs to look like going forward, how teams can compete -- small-market teams, large-market teams and what the game needs to move to as we continue to see how fans experience the game.”

But, for now, it’s a no on the playoff expansion.

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