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Weekend starters coming into focus as Nationals prepare to host first place Braves

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Weekend starters coming into focus as Nationals prepare to host first place Braves

The Nationals entered this week knowing they’d need some strong pitching performances to hold down strong lineups from Philadelphia and Atlanta.

That still remains true, but the rain threw a wrinkle into the team’s plans. 

After gearing up to pitch both Monday and Tuesday, Patrick Corbin finally got his chance Wednesday afternoon in game one of the doubleheader.

Max Scherzer, despite *literally breaking his nose* the night before, twirled a 7-inning shutout gem in game two, giving the Nationals their second win in one day.

Erick Fedde took the mound to start Thursday night, leaving the full picture mostly clear.

Stephen Strasburg will match up against the Braves Friday night, looking to bounce back from allowing six earned runs in five innings his last time out. It’s been two poor starts in the last three for Strasburg, coming off a sterling month of May, so the Nats are hoping this is just a blip on the radar.

The Friday night outing will be worth paying attention to, as opposite Strasburg will be former Cy Young-winner Dallas Keuchel making his season debut after finally signing with Atlanta earlier this month.

On Saturday, Anibal Sanchez will try to continue his recent hot streak. Sanchez has only allowed seven earned runs since the end of April, with zero, one, one and two in his previous four outings. The strikeouts haven’t been there, but the run prevention has.

Sanchez, of course, had a nice bounce-back season in 2018 in Atlanta, leading to his deal with the Nationals this year. His best start of the season came at the end of May in Atlanta.

Sunday is when the proverbial “TBA” is scheduled to start for the Nationals. The speculation, right now, is that Joe Ross will make his return to the rotation.  

Ross has made 16 appearances this season, all out of the bullpen, and Davey Martinez has noticed some positives recently.

"Last outing he pitched, he pitched well,” Martinez told reporters. “Slider was very effective. Up to that point, his slider was not what he hoped it to be. The other day he had a really good slider. That was good."

The slider was Ross’ most effective pitch by xwOBA in 2018 and has been his second-most effective in 2019 while throwing it nearly one-third of the time.

When asked if Ross is a starter or a reliever, Martinez was direct about his opinion.

"We want him to start,” the manager said. “We want him to keep gradually extending his innings and getting his pitch count up."

If Ross can find his consistency while building up his stamina, he could eventually wind up as the solution to the rotation’s back-end woes. For now, the Nats would be happy with a single effective start, especially coming up against the hottest team in baseball, who happens to be leading the NL East.

The Nationals are going to have to rely on their rotation in the coming months if they want to compete for a division title. This weekend will be no different, regardless of who actually takes the mound.

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Nationals earliest chance to clinch comes at the start of the week

Nationals earliest chance to clinch comes at the start of the week

“Clinch” is the word everyone will be waiting to hear this week.

The final seven days of the regular season is upon the Nationals. They are in a virtual tie for the wild-card with can’t-lose Milwaukee. Eight games are coming up this week. The process to end doubt starts Monday night.

Two teams -- Chicago and New York -- sit with wild-card elimination numbers of three. Which means the Nationals could be in the playoffs as soon as Tuesday night.

A magic number refresher: Nationals win, they shave a game. Cubs or Mets lose, they shave a game. Combine those things to move quickly into the offseason or postseason.

So, if Washington wins its next three games, it’s assured of a tie. If it wins three and the Cubs or Mets lose once, then the Nationals entered the postseason. Tuesday night is the earliest night for possible champagne popping. You get the idea.

Playing into the final week with so much on the line is new for the organization. It has never been the wild-card team. Usually, the division is wrapped up by now or a middling season brought elimination. Never in between.

Washington clinched the division on Sept. 10 in 2017 in game 143. The clinch came Sept. 24 in 2016 in game 154. Washington was comfortably up 8 ½ games, at that point. Its postseason spot was not in doubt.

But, not so to start this week. A careening year has come down to the final seven days. Washington is close. It could seal entrance into the postseason quickly. It could drag it out and celebrate at the end of the week. It could botch the entire thing, stunningly falling to the side, going home on Sept. 30 instead of preparing for the next game. Tune in to find out.

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Wild-card tracker: Nationals hanging on with one week to go

Wild-card tracker: Nationals hanging on with one week to go

The calendar is taking numbers with it, stripping the season down day by day, turning what was a tight wild-card race more into a fight for geography.

Washington enters the final week of the regular season with a hefty schedule ahead and its lead for the right to host the Wild-Card Game gone. The Nationals lost, 5-3, in Miami on Sunday because the bullpen blew yet another lead. As much as things have changed since April and May, one has remained constant: the Nationals’ bullpen is the worst in the league and biggest threat to team success. Their wild-card magic number is four in spite of it. 

Meanwhile, Milwaukee hung on for a 4-3 win against Pittsburgh to sweep the Pirates. The Brewers carried a perfect game through six innings. They used three pitchers -- including eventual winner Gio Gonzalez -- to do it. Milwaukee’s blistering pace the last two weeks has pulled it into a virtual tie with Washington. The Nationals are .001 ahead of Milwaukee with a game in hand. The Brewers hold the tiebreaker should it come to that once 162 games are finally complete.

The Cubs are spiraling. St. Louis scored two runs in the top of the ninth then sent Andrew Miller to the mound to finish a four-game sweep of Chicago. The Cardinals won each game by one run, reaffirming how slight the gap between the postseason and disappointment may be. Chicago manager Joe Maddon is in the final year of his contract. Even with the currency from managing the Cubs’ first World Series win since 1918, Maddon’s chances of returning on a fresh deal appear slim. If Chicago misses the playoffs, they become more unlikely, and looking back at four one-run losses to a despised rival becomes an easy spot to start the grousing.

Chicago’s six consecutive losses have turned the wild-card race into a two-team adventure. Increasingly, the main question is where the game will be played as opposed to its participants. The next seven days will determine that.

Here are the postseason chances for each team, according to fivethirtyeight.com:

Nationals, 98 percent

Brewers, 98 percent

Mets, 2 percent

Cubs, 1 percent

Phillies, less than one percent

Monday, Washington opens a final eight-game homestand with Patrick Corbin on the mound and Bryce Harper in the batter’s box. Philadelphia lost Sunday to drop to 79-75. Its wild-card elimination number is a mere two, which provides the Nationals an opportunity for double satisfaction against the offseason’s “stupid money” spenders. Washington could both eliminate and clinch against Philadelphia by the middle of the week. 

The weekend delivers a tussle with Cleveland which could be meaningless or decide everything. An ideal setup would include Washington clinching its spot before the Indians arrive in town. To follow would be the question of how hard it wants to push for homefield. Can Davey Martinez rest his most-relied upon pitchers the final day of the season? Or will it be a desperate day just create another?

Watching Milwaukee will be more important. The Brewers’ magic number is down to three. Their soft schedule continues this week with visits to Cincinnati and Colorado. Sonny Gray opens the series for the Reds. Luis Castillo closes it. So, Washington can take some solace in knowing Cincinnati’s two top pitchers will be deployed against Milwaukee. However, Colorado, 67-89, is Colorado, and the final weekend against subpar competition gives Milwaukee ample chance to play at home Oct. 1. 

One week to go.

Coming up Monday:

Milwaukee off

Chicago off

Philadelphia at Washington, 7:05 p.m. Eflin (9-12, 4.00 ERA) vs. Corbin (13-7, 3.10)

Miami at New York, 7:10 p.m., Smith (9-10, 4.24) vs. Matz (10-9, 4.16)

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