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What To Watch: Nationals try to avoid a sweep in Miami

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What To Watch: Nationals try to avoid a sweep in Miami

The Nationals have dropped two games to the Marlins already. Can they salvage a win in game three? Here are three things to watch for.

1. How healthy are the Nationals? Washington has been without Trea Turner for a couple weeks, and now two other star hitters look banged up. Anthony Rendon left Saturday’s game in the third inning after being hit by a pitch on the elbow. He stayed in to run the bases, but did not come out to the field in the bottom of the inning. With his blistering start to 2019, the Nationals will be hoping for good news on his injury long term.

Victor Robles was shaken up in the game as well. The speedy center fielder was sprinting back for a ball and made a terrific snag, but lost his balance and crashed head first into the hard wall. It wasn’t clear on the replay if Robles’ head or shoulder bore the brunt of the impact, but he looked out of sorts and allowed a runner to score from second base on the sacrifice fly.

The Nationals can’t afford any more injuries than they’ve already had.

2. Can the backups stay hot? Howie Kendrick and Matt Adams aren’t slated to be regular starters in the Nationals lineup, but they’ve been the team’s two best hitters (not named Anthony Rendon) so far in 2019. Both are hitting the ball hard, and the two combined to drive in all three runs scored by Washington Saturday night.

If Rendon does end up missing any games, Kendrick’s bat will play a major role for a team looking to stay afloat in an uber-competitive National League East.

3. How will Stephen Strasburg pitch? The Nationals haven’t gotten stellar performances on the mound from Anibal Sanchez or Max Scherzer in Miami, so they’ll be hoping Strasburg can turn it around.

Strasburg has scuffled a bit this season as well, with a 5.56 ERA, though he does have 28 strikeouts in 22.2 innings pitched. With the bullpen maybe turning it around, the starting rotation will need to find more consistency moving forward.

Download the MyTeams app (https://www.nbcsports.com/washington/myteams-nbc-sports) for coverage from NBC Sports Washington of the Nationals/Marlins game on Sunday. The game broadcast will be at 1:10 PM ET on 106.7 the Fan and MASN.

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Wild-card tracker: Nationals thankful for Marlins, Cubs slide back

Wild-card tracker: Nationals thankful for Marlins, Cubs slide back

Back before all this mania, Miami, as putrid as its season would be, loomed as a factor.

Handling the Marlins would be key for any contender. It wasn’t a question of winning, but of how much winning would occur against one of the league’s worst teams.

Following Friday’s 6-4 win in a sparsely attended Marlins Park, the Nationals moved to 14-3 against Miami this season. They are 16 games over. 500 for the year. They are plus-11 against Miami alone.

Asdrúbal Cabrera homered again, Trea Turner hit two homers, and Daniel Hudson pitched two innings to earn the save. So, the Nationals, 84-68, hold a one-game lead for the top wild-card spot. Milwaukee won again, joining a long list of teams to beat up on the Pittsburgh Pirates since the post-All-Star-break portion of the schedule began. Pittsburgh may be the league’s worst team, at the moment, and the Brewers host it for two more this weekend.

Trouble is brewing for Chicago. It lost again to St. Louis -- this time a 2-1 mid-day defeat in Wrigley Field. The Cubs have lost four in a row. They are three games behind the Nationals and two behind the Brewers. Their path to 90 wins, which may ultimately be the threshold for postseason entrance, is narrowing.

The Mets won their third consecutive game. They are hanging around, 3 ½ games behind the Brewers with nine remaining on the schedule. Their wild-card elimination number is six.

News for Philadelphia is more dire. The Phillies dropped to 78-74 Friday night following a 5-2 loss in Cleveland. They are now five behind Milwaukee. Their wild-card elimination number is a mere five. 

Which brings us to the more detailed math portion of this program. Here are the postseason chances for each team, according to fivethirtyeight.com:

Nationals, 96 percent

Brewers, 84 percent

Cubs, 15 percent

Mets, 5 percent

Phillies, less than one percent

Coming up Saturday:

St. Louis at Chicago, 2:20 p.m., Hudson (16-7, 3.35 ERA) vs. Quintana (13-8, 4.37)

New York at Cincinnati, 4:10 p.m., Wheeler (11-7, 4.09) vs. DeSclafani (9-9, 3.93)

Washington at Miami, 6:10 p.m., Strasburg (17-6, 3.49) vs. Yamamoto (4-5, 4.87)

Philadelphia at Cleveland, 7:10 p.m., Vargas (6-8, 4.48) vs. Plesac (8-6, 3.64)

Pittsburgh at Milwaukee, 7:10 p.m., Marvel (0-2, 9.00) vs. Davies (10-7, 3.70)

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Howie Kendrick needed the Nationals, and they needed him

Howie Kendrick needed the Nationals, and they needed him

Howie Kendrick knew he was in trouble May 19, 2018, when he was down on the warning track and could not control his ankle. His Achilles tendon tore after he moved back for a fly ball in left field. His season ended. His career could have well ended with his season.

Last offseason’s shift in free agency affected those still in their prime. The market tormented Bryce Harper and Manny Machado before forking over large sums. It treated veterans destined to be part-time players worse. Super-utility player Marwin Gonzalez didn’t sign with Minnesota until Feb. 25. He turned 30 in April and was coming off a 2.5-WAR season for a team that went to the American League Championship Series. Yet, he couldn’t find a job anywhere.

This would have been Kendrick’s plight. Perhaps it would have been more challenging. He may never have found a job via a new contract. Think of the advertisement: soon-to-be 36-year-old coming off Achilles tendon tear, with reduced positional flexibility and past hamstring problems, seeks part-time work. 

Kendrick vowed from the start he would be back, healthy, and just ride out the recovery timeline as it was dictated. The second year of his contract made the process easier. It also all but assured him of a job again with Washington. At just $4 million, even as a bench player, Kendrick’s salary was easy to accept. If he showed good health and a quick bat in spring, he would again team with Matt Adams as a potent left-right combination off the bench. The second-year saved him from graveling in the offseason.

“if that was the last year of my deal, I don’t know if I would have been in the Major Leagues this year,” Kendrick said. “Because a lot of times the way the league is now, bringing veteran guys back and being around the game, you don't see too many veteran guys around anymore. 

“Having the ability to come back to a place I really enjoy and get to be around these guys... It's been fun. We got a lot of great young guys here, guys like [Victor Robles], [Juan] Soto, [Anthony] Rendon, [Trea] Turner, those guys they keep you going every day and it's been fun. And it’s been cool to be able to see these guys grow and they've helped me out too with my game.”

Kendrick is having his best offensive season. Delivering it this year became an enormous factor in the Nationals’ survival and turnaround. Ryan Zimmerman has been to the plate 168 times in 2019. Kendrick has filled the gap with one of the most potent part-time -- rightfully not full-time -- bats in the majors.

His OPS-plus is a career-high 142. His second-best season in that category? Back in 2011, when he was 27 years old in Los Angeles. His OPS is 119 points higher than any other season, his slugging percentage 88 points higher. He’s two homers shy of tying his career-best mark despite 237 fewer plate appearances than he had in 2011.

“I'm not an everyday guy anymore and I know that and [Davey Martinez] knows and I'm not going to complain one bit about the way I’ve been used,” Kendrick said. “When I play, I play. When I don't, I’m ready to play and go in the game and I’ve kind of streamlined that process a little more, I’ve figured out, being in the National League how to prepare myself and be ready. 

“We've come up with little drills for when we pinch-hit and things like that to be as ready as we can. And then once you get in the game, whatever’s going to happen is gonna happen, and that’s what I try to look at. Keep the same mindset as hey I prepared and I’m going to go out here and try to do my job and that's' all you can ask for. I think your teammates know that, and I think your coaches know that. I think that’s the biggest part of it, and mentally you just have to know you're not always going to succeed.” 

Though this year, he has -- a lot. 

Kendrick’s career-best season exists because he didn’t have to wade through the market. The second year of his contract provided him a work haven despite his age and major injury. His work during it likely created a chance for him to sign yet another one, something which may have otherwise not happened in the first place.

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