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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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42-year-old reliever Fernando Rodney will get a chance to prove he still has it for the Nationals

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42-year-old reliever Fernando Rodney will get a chance to prove he still has it for the Nationals

The Nationals are filling their open 40- and 25-man roster spot with veteran reliever Fernando Rodney on Tuesday, a source confirmed. 

Rodney, 42, is joining the Nationals bullpen after nine appearances for Triple-A Fresno which produced a 4.50 ERA and 2.125 WHIP. He was released earlier this season by Oakland after a rough start led to a 9.42 ERA. He will become the oldest active pitcher in baseball once added to the roster Tuesday.

This is a desperate swing by Washington to find help for a bullpen which entered Monday 29th in bullpen ERA. When Rodney was at this best -- something Nationals manager Dave Martinez saw in Tampa Bay -- he threw an almost unhittable changeup. It remains an effective pitch, if he can control it or his fastball. Command of both often give him trouble. However, the unpredictable nature of his pitching -- for better or worse -- is something that provides an odd duality. It can make him both ultra-effective or a ticking bomb. It almost always assures laborious outings.

Washington will be the 11th major-league team to employ Rodney in his 17 years of professional baseball. Being a three-time All-Star and former closer defines his on-field reputation. Randomly barking in the bullpen, shooting an imaginary arrow following a save or operating with a tilted cap exemplify the rest of Rodney's makeup. He once carried a "lucky plantain" at the World Baseball Classic. When pitching for Seattle in 2014, Rodney explained his bow-and-arrow gimmick like this: 

“The arrow? I don’t know,” Rodney said. “Just do something after the last out. Out 27. You know the game is over. I shoot the moon. I shoot the arrow, just let them know game over.

“That’s my game. Every time I go pitch, I do my arrow. That’s what the fans are waiting for. Rodney shoot the moon.”

He won't be on the mound to end a game in 2019 unless it is in mop-up duty. 

Multiple relief choices existed in Fresno for the Nationals. Few were good. Dakota Bacus has been the most effective Grizzlies pitcher this season. Yet, he remains in the minors. Veteran relievers George Kontos and Michael Blazek are also on the Grizzlies' roster.

Washington releasing Trevor Rosenthal on Sunday morning opened a 40-man roster spot. The Nationals sent Erick Fedde to Triple-A Fresno after the game Sunday to open a 25-man roster spot. Rodney fills those slots. Austin Voth remains in the rotation.

The Washington Post first reported Rodney's movement.

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Why controversy surrounds Adam Eaton and the Minor League Pay Problem

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Why controversy surrounds Adam Eaton and the Minor League Pay Problem

Washington Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton found himself at the center of the Minor League pay problem issue this past weekend.

On Thursday, Washington City Paper published an article describing the living and working conditions of a handful of the Class A-Advanced Potomac Nationals, one of Washington's minor-league affiliates. The article, which credited Eaton with saying that he doesn't believe minor leaguers should be paid "big time," but they could be paid slightly more. 

Additionally, Eaton said that he believes the MLB shouldn't make conditions in the minor leagues "more hospitable," because otherwise players could get complacent and, supposedly, have less of an incentive or drive to make the majors. 

Eaton's argument is more nuanced than those few quotes, and on Monday City Paper published an article with the entirety of Eaton's interview available online. 

WHAT IS THE PROBLEM WITH MINOR-LEAGUE PAY?

Four players sued MLB in 2014, alleging that its policies “artificially and illegally depressing” minor league salaries. The case was dismissed, but it elevated the concerns of minor league players and the disparity between the support for them and MLB players (here's a good place to start if you want to learn more about this fight). 

Many have had to live with host families or share small apartments with upwards of five teammates while in a major league team's farm system. Some, including Eaton, recall the abysmal food options provided to players by the teams, often including peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. 

The issue of whether minor leaguers are paid a "livable wage" has become a more prominent issue since the suit was filed.  In 2018 President Donald Trump signed the "Save America's Pastime Act," which enables MLB to exclude most professional baseball players from the Fair Labor Standards Act and thus insulates the current system of pay between the major and minor leagues. 

While those drafted in the earlier rounds may receive signing bonuses upwards of $8 million, those who do receive signing bonuses make up only a small percentage of those in the minor leagues. 

Last year, the monthly minimum salaries for minor league players were: $1,100 in rookie ball and Single-A, $1,500 in Double-A and $2,150 in Triple-A, according to an article from the Associated Press

WHAT DID ADAM EATON SAY?

Eaton's argument is complicated and mainly based on personal experience. (The Nationals outfielder spent time in the Arizona Diamondbacks' minor league system after he was drafted in the 19th round of the 2010 MLB Draft. Since then he's also spent time in the Chicago White Sox and the Nationals' minor-league systems, mainly on rehab assignments.)

It's unfair to lay out Eaton's claim as one claiming that nothing should change and minor league players should continue to be exploited. Eaton explicitly said that he "doesn't disagree [minor leaguers are] being exploited," but added that "it's for the betterment of everybody."

The outfielder credited his experience in the "dog-eat-dog world" of the minor leagues as helping him appreciate the majors all the more, because it kept him from getting complacent and made him focus on baseball.

But Eaton also admitted that there is what he calls "wiggle room" in the minor-league salaries; the minor league teams could increase salaries a little bit (but not too much, according to Eaton). 

WHY IS THERE CONTROVERSY?

The problem stems from the fact that Eaton's argument is complex, and he repeatedly backtracked in his interview with City Paper. Plus, words are extremely subjective. So while Eaton said that if MLB made the minor league life "more livable," then players would get complacent, he also said that minor league players shouldn't be exploited and should make slightly more money. 

Many articles published have used headlines that amount to "click-bait," which shave Eaton's argument down to "minor-leaguers should be exploited because it's a good thing." That isn't Eaton's whole argument, though. 

Understanding where Eaton's argument fits into the entire pay problem is important in understanding why Eaton is under scrutiny right now. And to do that, what amounts to a "liveable wage" and "liveable conditions" must be better defined. Eaton argues that minor league players should make enough so that they're "literally not eating crumbs," but not so much that they grow comfortable. As he claims, it's those minor-leaguers who are "milled by pressure," the 30th and 40th round draft picks with no signing bonus and no guarantee they'll ever reach the majors, who ensure a "longevity in the big league." 

HAS EATON SAID ANYTHING ELSE?

Well, yes. Eaton took to Instagram Monday, after the City Paper article with the complete interview transcript was published, essentially cleaning up his argument and apologizing for offending anyone. 

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