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Where is the dent in Houston’s roster? Nowhere

Where is the dent in Houston’s roster? Nowhere

What we know: Game 1 is Tuesday night in Houston. What we don’t: who will be pitching to start it.

There are reasonable guesses. Gerrit Cole is 99 percent the choice for Houston. Max Scherzer is the likely pick for Washington -- though it could tweak the whole situation by pitching Aníbal Sánchez in Game 1. Why Sánchez? Pitching Sánchez bumps Scherzer to Games 2 and 6, Stephen Strasburg to Games 3 and 7, and gives Patrick Corbin a start as well as two chances to use him out of the bullpen. The risk is two starts for Sánchez, though he has been pitching better than Corbin in the postseason.

Moving on. 

A closer look at the Astros confirms what is assumed from afar when the 107 in the wins column is viewed. They are a juggernaut. Often, that’s hyperbole. Not here.

Houston was No. 1 in Major League Baseball in OPS against right-handed pitching this season. Usually, that’s a left-handed heavy team which would suffer to a degree on the other side. Not the Astros. They were No. 2 in OPS against left-handed pitching. Rookie Yordan Alvarez carried an OPS over 1.000 against each side. George Springer is above .900 against both sides. So is Carlos Correa. 

Flip it. Maybe the Astros’ pitching has a notable problem against one side or the other. Nope. They are No. 2 this season in OBP-against by right-handed hitters (the Nationals are a right-handed heavy lineup). They are No. 1 against left-handed hitter in the same category. 

So, well, where else? The bullpen. Try there.

Roberto Osuna is the closer. He led the American League in games finished and saves. However, Osuna has not been infallible in the postseason. His ERA is 3.52. Sean Doolittle has been more than a run better, at 2.46. Daniel Hudson has not allowed a run. The key shot against Osuna came Saturday night when DJ LeMahieu hit a game-tying homer in the top of the ninth.

Osuna mixes a lot of pitches for a closer. He throws his fastball less than 50 percent of the time, his slider 18.4 percent of the time, a cutter 13.9 percent and a changeup 18.4 percent. He’s a rarity, the four-pitch closer.

Overall, the Astros’ bullpen was second in ERA.

Here’s another way to look at it: Do the Astros own the skills to get into the Nationals’ weakest point, the middle of the bullpen? Of course they do.

Houston led MLB in walk percentage and OBP. It is able to run up pitch counts, creating the gap between the high-end starter and the relievers with juice. The soft middle, as it is, for the Nationals, a place they desperately want to avoid.

So, to recap: the starting pitching is elite. The hitters operate against both sides. The bullpen is elite. The manager has been in charge of a club for three consecutive seasons of 101 wins or more, three consecutive ALCS appearances, two World Series appearances, and one title. Juggernaut, indeed.

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Nationals, Sánchez blasted by Orioles in another mediocre performance

Nationals, Sánchez blasted by Orioles in another mediocre performance

WASHINGTON --  The Nationals are 4-6 following a Friday night drubbing by the Baltimore Orioles, a team not expected to be remotely good in 2020.

The season’s fluctuations are under way. The Nationals went 1-4, looked listless and were charged with not having fun. They won three in a row to complete the push for an even record. They lost Max Scherzer and two games since. Friday night was particularly abhorrent. They were smacked 11-0 by an Orioles team which had 19 hits. It could have been worse.

“This is just one of those games where you’ve got to put it behind you as quick as you can and come back tomorrow and regroup and go get ‘em tomorrow,” Davey Martinez said. “This game was about as lopsided as I’ve seen in a long time.”

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Aníbal Sánchez has problems. His ERA is 7.84. It, like the Friday night score, could be worse.

He shrugged off his poor start to open the season. Sánchez was more irritated Friday -- back on the mound 12 days after the first time. When he walked Renato Núñez on a 3-2 pitch which wasn’t close to a strike, he yelled, then left the mound to pace. Pitching coach Paul Menhart came to visit.

Recall last year. Sánchez opened with a 5.91 ERA across April and May. He was much better in the following two months, righting his season and helping the Nationals from their malaise. But time for a course correction this season is limited.

“I think the situation that happened last year was [me] out of routine,” Sánchez said. “This is only something you have to handle no matter what. … This is going to happen this year early in the season. I think when you’re out of routine, it’s really hard to see what’s going on. Right now I can see the difference between the games with fans and no fans and all the kinds of things. A little bit something in your mind. At the end, I think I need to figure out how to control my game in all those situations.”

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Sánchez has made 16.7 percent of his starts (and the team is through the same amount of its season). Only nine remain. Reacting to two starts in normal times is not recommended. However, these are not normal times. Much like the offense -- which failed to score for the first time this season -- Sánchez needs to quickly gather himself. However, Trea Turner doesn’t feel the squeeze is on them yet.

“If we do, it’s just going to snowball on us,” Turner said. “There’s no point to. I think it’s more perspective -- more teams are in the playoffs this year, so you’ve got more room for error. More opportunities to make up ground. That being said, it is a shorter season. We need to take advantage of every game because we’re playing some good ball clubs. They kicked our butts [Friday]. Got to be ready each and every day.”

The Nationals play two more games during the weekend against Baltimore. Austin Voth starts Saturday, Stephen Strasburg returns Sunday. Friday opened a 13-games in 13 days stretch after the jumbled beginning of days off and postponements. Martinez said they were happy to finally be starting what a season traditionally feels like. Day after day, game after game. Time and geography lost to the rhythm of playing.

But, the Nationals entered the game 29th in Major League Baseball in runs, then failed to score. The only team to score fewer is the coronavirus-riddled St. Louis Cardinals who have played five games this season. Their starting staff is yet to anchor them. The bullpen has an injury to its most important offseason signing and Sean Doolittle is ineffective. Fixable problems, but problems to be sure.

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Phillie Phanatic returns favor to Bryce Harper with custom jacket

Phillie Phanatic returns favor to Bryce Harper with custom jacket

Despite only being in year two of his 13-year, $330 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies, Bryce Harper's love for the Phillie Phanatic is well-known.  

On Friday, the team mascot returned the favor by showing some love to Bryce Harper with his new custom suit jacket.

Let’s all take a walk down memory lane since it is #FlashbackFriday and relive the moment when Bryce Harper took his love for Phanatic to the next level on Opening Day with this look: a custom olive-colored suit with pictures of team mascot Phanatic scattered throughout the inside. 

This is just a reminder to find someone who loves you as much as the Phanatic loves Bryce. Or vice versa. A bromance like no other.

Now if the Phillies are smart, they’ll make these suits available for the fans. If they do, there'll be no competition for the best-dressed fan base in the future.

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