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Uncommon joy joins a glimpse of the future following Nationals rally

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Uncommon joy joins a glimpse of the future following Nationals rally

PHILADELPHIA -- Clubhouse and equipment manager Mike Wallace tried to coax chunks of cabbage into a dustpan with a broom not long before midnight Tuesday. A vacuum seemed a more suitable mechanism to pick up the strewn cabbage. But there was a problem with that idea.

“Too wet,” Wallace said.

So, he continued around the room, sweeping bit by bit, pulling in pieces of an early April celebration following the Nationals’ rally for a 6-5 win against the Phillies.

Wallace’s clean up duties came just 10 games into the season and on a Tuesday -- abnormal grounds for such elation. The yell heard from within the clubhouse shortly after the game -- audible in the outer hallway through closed double doors -- countered the date. It also told of the vegetable’s fate, spiked into the clubhouse carpet as a celebratory ode to a spring training cabbage race which produced the same exultant response.

“We passed the cabbage around,” manager Davey Martinez said. “The boys like their cabbage.”

Tuesday was different. The Nationals trailed 6-1 following a poor start from Stephen Strasburg. Just four innings for him, steering Martinez into the pothole-filled bullpen, lining up a likely second loss in Philadelphia and extracting any chance to win the series. Washington was on a path to a 4-6 record, Philadelphia a jump to 8-2 and a quick four-game lead over the Nationals. Even with a win, Washington would finish the night ahead of only the woebegone Miami Marlins in the National League East -- and by just 1 ½ games if it lost. It’s always early until it’s not.

Martinez is living a different life in his second season. His 2018 body of work provided baselines to grouse about. When new, no track record exists for reference. Year 2 comes with narratives and beliefs about what a manager can and can’t do. Sticking to Martinez like wet cabbage to carpet is the idea his bullpen management is suspect.

Everything he did Tuesday worked. Joe Ross for two clean innings. Matt Grace for two clean innings. Yan Gomes hit a two-run homer to bring them a little closer while the bullpen held. Martinez sent Howie Kendrick to hit in the seventh, he homered, the first pinch-hit homer of his career. Now, a one-run game existed because the bullpen went from arsonists to extinguishers for a night.

And, the final blows, a ninth-inning home run from 21-year-old Victor Robles and 10th-inning parabola from 20-year-old Juan Soto that went over the foul pole, dropped the future in front of everyone. Robles was just worried about reaching base with the team down one and just an out remaining to work with. Soto was swinging for revenge. His home run sailed over Bryce Harper’s head, hooking hard past the stands where they now cheer Harper following a bow and fist pump. Harper was asked repeatedly postgame about his view of the home run. His responses were terse, the joy of all his pregame hi-jinks stripped by Soto’s shot over his legendary hair, his homer off Strasburg long forgotten.

The result just made Soto smile. He recalled a week to the day prior, when Harper reclaimed Nationals Park and left-handed Jose Alvarez struck Soto out looking on a 3-2 fastball. Soto did not wait Tuesday. The second pitch from Alvarez was a meager 89-mph fastball at the top of the strike zone; an error Soto seized on.

“They try to throw me everything away, away, away, and wait for my pitch, wait for the miss, they going to miss one time,” Soto said. “If they miss it, they pay."

Not everyone was happy. “Juan, you suck!” chants kicked up in the bottom of the 10th. Washington led by four runs after scoring nine unanswered. Citizens Bank Park was emptying. The sounds couldn’t be missed, though they didn’t bother Soto.

"Yeah, I hear all the stuff, but I don't pay attention,” Soto said. “They keep say it and I just laugh at it."

Most projected the NL East to be a season-long rope burn for the participants. Two weeks in, that idea has proven true thanks to broad talent and quivering bullpens. The Phillies have the best offense, the Nationals the best rotation, the Braves the best young talent, the Mets a fighting chance. No one is perfect. No one flawed to the level of uncompetitive. Which is why these nights feel different and beg a question: Is this really April?

“I think we’re seeing how evenly matched these teams are in the NL East and what kind of summer it’s going to be,” Sean Doolittle said. “Each win feels maybe a little more important than in years past. There is a little bit more of a sense of urgency and a little bit more energy to early season games.”

The music boomed afterward. Soto and Robles lauded each other, a scene expected for years to come. Doolittle took a chance to joke about his rare plate appearance, a three-fastball, swing-free strikeout. “I was looking slider,” he said.

This pile of events Tuesday -- beleaguered bullpen working, comeback against the Phillies, trying to stay afloat in spite of themselves -- led to the uncommon early season postgame joy. Once most of the cabbage made its way to the trash and players to the bus, a symbol of the night rested quietly on Martinez’s office desk: A bottle of red wine next to a half-filled glass.

 

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WATCH: Juan Soto blasts longest home run of career for the second time this series

WATCH: Juan Soto blasts longest home run of career for the second time this series

All Juan Soto does is make our jaws drop.

The Nats slugger has been an elite hitter since they day he joined the big league club, but this week, he's tapped into his power unlike ever before. On Monday in New York, he crushed a home run 463 feet, farther than any Met at Citi Field in the Statcast era.

Wednesday night, still against the Mets, he topped himself.

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Two days after hitting the longest home run of his career, Soto hit the new longest home run of his career. Wednesday's bomb was also, unsurprisingly, the hardest-hit home run of his career at 112.9 mph off the bat. Couple that with a 33-degree launch angle, and it's no surprise just how far the ball flew.

In one series, Soto has now hit two of the five longest home runs at Citi Field since 2015. Everytime we think Soto can't possibly top himself, he finds away to do just that. At this rate, it won't be a surprise to see him top this list, and plenty of others, when it's all said and done.

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Nationals’ trade deadline needs will hinge on offensive production

Nationals’ trade deadline needs will hinge on offensive production

The 2020 MLB season is just under three weeks old, which means the trade deadline is just under three weeks away. It’s still a bit jarring to be thinking about the deadline less than a month into the campaign but there’s been little about this truncated, mid-pandemic season that’s retained a semblance of normalcy.

It’s been an up-and-down start for the Nationals, who enter play Wednesday at 6-7 and just outside the playoff picture in the NL. Though the team had a less bumpy plan in mind for kicking off its World Series title defense, Washington has avoided major injury and put health scares surrounding stars Juan Soto, Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg behind it.

That said, the Nationals are going to need to start stringing more wins together if they want to secure themselves a favorable spot in the playoffs. Under MLB’s expanded postseason format for this season, the top eight teams in each league qualify for a best-of-three series with the top seed facing No. 8, No. 2 facing No. 7, etc. Teams will have until Sept. 15 to add players to their rosters in order for them to be eligible for the playoffs; the trade deadline is set for Aug. 31.

If the Nationals are going to make a move at the deadline, it’ll likely be for a position player.

Barring any injuries, Washington’s rotation isn’t going to change. Scherzer, Strasburg and Patrick Corbin are the most formidable starting trio in baseball and Aníbal Sánchez will be given every opportunity to show he can still pitch like he did in 2019. Even Austin Voth has impressed as the No. 5 starter, posting a 1.80 ERA over his first two starts.

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As for the bullpen, things aren’t going the way the Nationals had hoped and that seems to be working out just fine. Daniel Hudson is the closer after Sean Doolittle’s fastball velocity dropped and Will Harris struggled in two appearances before landing on the IL with a groin strain. Meanwhile, contributions have come from unexpected places. Tanner Rainey has improved his control and looks settled into a set-up role. Javy Guerra, Sam Freeman, Kyle Finnegan and Ryne Harper have all been reliable in the middle innings. Wander Suero just returned from the IL.

The Nationals could conceivably add another late-inning reliever, but they’re already facing a personnel crunch. The eight aforementioned active relievers plus long man Erick Fedde make up the team’s relief corps. That number will be cut down by one once Harris returns and would have to drop again if another arm is added. Left-hander Roenis Elías also remains on the IL and hopes to return this season.

Offensively, there are plenty of areas Washington could improve. Kurt Suzuki and Yan Gomes have combined to hit just .205 with zero home runs out of the catcher spot. Eric Thames has played almost exclusively against righties and has yet to show the power that landed him a free agent contract last offseason. Adam Eaton has a .577 OPS on the year while playing questionable defense in right field.

They’ve only played 13 and a half games—a tarp malfunction forced Sunday’s game to be postponed—so the Nationals probably aren’t going to make any knee-jerk reactions based on early returns. But Thames and Suzuki are free agents after this year. Eaton could be too if the Nationals decline his $10.5 million option for 2021. As the trade deadline draws closer, their production will be worth watching as they could be replaceable.

If they do dip into the catcher market, some potential targets for the Nationals include the Boston Red Sox’s Christian Vázquez (.798 OPS since start of 2019), James McCann of the Chicago White Sox (.804 OPS since 2019) and the Kansas City Royals’ Salvador Pérez (missed 2019, .825 OPS this year).

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Pérez would be the most expensive with a $14.2 million salary next season, which would likely mean the Royals would have to eat some money to make a deal work. McCann became expendable after the White Sox signed Yasmani Grandal last offseason while Vázquez could be a valuable trade piece for Boston while it retools its roster.

The first base market is much more expansive. Mitch Moreland (Red Sox), Todd Frazier (Rangers), Christian Walker (Diamondbacks) and Jesús Aguilar (Marlins) are just a few names that could be on the move. It’s still uncertain just how active this year’s deadline will be, but there will be plenty of talent available if teams are willing to pull the trigger.

It’s worth mentioning that the Nationals may be inclined not to partake in the trade deadline at all. Even if they’re in line to make the playoffs, one bad draw for the opening three-game series could spell the end of their season. General manager Mike Rizzo and Co. may decide it’s not worth sacrificing future assets to contend for a championship in a shortened season.

For now, the Nationals are still evaluating the players they already have. A lot can happen over the next two and a half weeks and they’re going to want to work with as big of sample sizes as possible before making moves that could have future implications.

The pressure is on the offense to show that the front office has nothing to worry about.

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