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This is not a drill: Nationals bullpen implodes yet again in loss to Cubs

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This is not a drill: Nationals bullpen implodes yet again in loss to Cubs

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Nationals lost to the Chicago Cubs, 14-4, Friday to drop their record to 18-26. Here are five observations from the game…

1. Here it is again, another night lost to the worst bullpen in the major leagues, a bunch who is the organization’s most downtrodden in a decade-plus.

Washington’s bullpen allowed 11 more runs Friday night. It’s death grip on last place in team ERA remained intact. Strengthened, even. Justin Miller allowed runs. Kyle Barraclough allowed runs. Dan Jennings allowed runs. They recorded just five outs.

The trio gave up home runs -- two on three pitches for Barraclough. They hit batters. They walked them. They allowed singles. Everything but retire them with any efficiency, drilling their teammates into the ground once again after a one-run game grew to a 10-4 hot mess in the span of two innings.

For kicks, Kris Bryant hit his third home run of the night (this one off Matt Grace after victimizing Miller and Barraclough previously) in the ninth inning to bloat the lead to 12-4. Wilson Contreras backed him with a two-run homer of his own later in the inning. That was also off Grace, who has allowed as many homers (5) this year in 20 innings as he did last year in 59 ⅔ innings.

Otherwise, finger pointing for the night’s ills would have been focused on the runners Washington’s offense left on base. Seven through the middle three innings, including a runners-on-second-and-third-with-none-out and a bases-loaded situation with two outs in back-to-back innings. No one scored. Eleven left on overall. Not that it mattered in the end.

Other notable things happened in the evening: Trea Turner played for the first time since April 2. In keeping with another season-long trend, two players were hurt. Victor Robles and Justin Miller both left the game because of injuries. Robles has a wrist contusion. Miller has a rotator cuff strain. He is probably going on the injured list Saturday.

Washington cut a 3-0 lead to 3-2. It cut a 5-2 lead to 5-4. Then, the bullpen put its foot down, making sure the game was thoroughly out of reach and everyone felt like they were watching a rerun of a program they forgot they didn’t like in the first place.

“Right now, they got to regroup,” manager Davey Martinez said of the bullpen. “This is the bullpen we have. Like I said, yesterday, they were really good. Today, they weren’t. They got to regroup. The issue is -- when you fall behind on good hitters, you’re going to get hit. Yesterday, they didn’t. Today, 2-0, 2-1, 3-2, 3-2, 3-2 and you give those guys a chance. They’ve got to get ahead in the count and you’ve got to make your pitches.”

2. Max Scherzer snapped back at manager Davey Martinez as he approached in the top of the sixth inning with two outs and Miller ready to enter the game.

Well before Martinez reached the mound, and with Scherzer at 111 pitches, the manager began to receive Scherzer’s expletive-laden point of view on what was to happen next. Scherzer remained in. Albert Almora Jr. popped up the next pitch, inning over.

The night was not easy for Scherzer. He started it with a rare four-pitch walk to leadoff hitter -- for a day -- Kyle Schwarber. Bryant then singled. Both were outliers. Scherzer’s walks per nine innings this season is the second-lowest of his career. He’s also owned Bryant, who came into the game 1-for-11 in his career with eight strikeouts against the Nationals’ right-hander.

A grind commenced from there. Scherzer missed location with a slider to Javier Baez which turned into a double when it hit off Juan Soto’s glove in left field to score a run in the first. Another missed location -- and another pitch which was out of the strike zone -- became a homer for Almora in the second inning. That was a changeup which sailed inside.

Scherzer settled off after that: 1-2-3 in the third, three strikeouts in the fourth, a crucial double play in the fifth and finally dispatching Almora to make it through the sixth. Nine of Scherzer’s first 16 pitches were balls. Sixty-five of his next 96 were strikes.

“Just coming out early and just been getting beat early in the game and I’m not executing early in the game,” Scherzer said. “Was able to settle down and throw up some zeros and keep the game close. The four walks are what really sticks out in my mind. I’m completely accountable for those. When you walk four, it’s never going to be a fun night.”

Friday was the second time this season Scherzer did not make it out of the sixth inning. The 112 pitches tied for the second-most of his year. On a night closer Sean Doolittle was likely not available, every out from Scherzer was crucial. He picked up 18. The Cubs romped through the bullpen after that.

3. Chalk up another victim to one of baseball’s, and the Nationals’, ongoing issues this season: hit by pitches.

Robles was struck on the left forearm in the bottom of the third inning. He remained in to run, then play right field in the top of the fourth. When his turn came to hit again in the bottom of the fourth inning, Adam Eaton replaced him.

X-Rays on Robles’ wrist were negative. He will be re-assessed Saturday.

Turner, who was activated Friday after not playing for seven weeks, broke a finger when a pitch hit him during a bunt attempt. Anthony Rendon was hit in the elbow, putting him out of games for a week and eventually on the 10-day disabled list. Juan Soto has been hit on the wrist.

It’s a league-wide scourge. As the Wall Street Journal points out, more hitters were hit by pitches last season than any time since 1900. This season is on track to pass that number.

4. Wilmer Difo was sent to Triple-A Fresno on Friday when the Nationals activated Turner. Utility infielder Adrian Sanchez remained on the big-league bench.

Martinez said Difo was sent down because he wants him to play every day. If he remained in Washington, Difo would move back to sporadic spot starts off the bench or rare pinch-hitting duties.

Sanchez is comfortable in that role. Also, the Nationals were exasperated with Difo’s inability to think the game, whether that was missing signs or making ill-advised decisions on the fly in the field.

Asked if the decision to send Difo to the minors for the first time since 2017 was to help deliver messages the staff has been trying to get through to him, Martinez denied that purpose.

“This is not a punishment for whatever,” Martinez said. “I also want to praise Adrian Sanchez for what he’s doing coming off the bench. I think he fits the role perfectly and he’s worked hard. He’s coming off the bench and he’s putting good at-bats together. Here’s a guy that can play all four infield positions, can play corner outfield, if need be. Also, he’s been working on catching, too, so he could be a third catcher.”

5. The Nationals needed a new bullpen member after placing Anibal Sanchez on the 10-day injured list Friday because of a left hamstring strain which presumably pops Erick Fedde out of the bullpen and into the rotation.

They selected Kyle McGowin from Triple-A Fresno. It’s an interesting choice.

McGowin has worked mostly as a starter. He will be in the bullpen in Washington after making eight starts in Fresno this season. McGowin -- a sinker-baller -- had a 4.32 ERA for the Grizzlies.

The strange part was his last start. McGowin was ejected after the opposition asked for his glove to be checked by the umpires. They looked, found a substance in his glove and threw him out of the game. He has since been suspended by the Pacific Coast League. The league -- also strangely -- does not announce suspensions. McGowin declined to comment on his suspension. Martinez said he didn’t know much about it.

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Bryce Harper's longtime friend Kris Bryant says Harper isn't headed for Cubs

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USA TODAY Sports

Bryce Harper's longtime friend Kris Bryant says Harper isn't headed for Cubs

After weeks of twists and turns and not enough information for any Nationals fan's satisfaction, the Chicago Cubs seem to be out of the race for free agent Bryce Harper.

Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant seemingly confirmed the news on Friday night from the opening ceremonies of the 2019 Cubs Convention.

"He's not signing here," Bryant said as he sat down with NBC Sports Chicago. 

Though there have been no official reports of whether or not the Cubs are completely out in the race to sign Harper, a word from one of Harper's longtime friends shouldn't be brushed aside.

Bryant and Harper took the field together in the 2016 MLB All-Star game, and faced off in the 2017 NLDS Cubs-Nats matchup. 

The pair have known each other since grade schoool, and played for rival high schools in Las Vegas. But despite their history, Bryant says that they haven't chatted much about the situation otherwise, choosing to focus on preserving their friendship.

"I never bring it up to him," Bryant admitted. "I try to be a good friend to him, and not talk about baseball when he doesn't want to talk about baseball."

"Whatever happens, I wish [him] the best."

You can see more of Bryant's interview with NBCSC below.

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Bryce Harper to the Cubs? His personal connections to Chicago could make it happen

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Bryce Harper to the Cubs? His personal connections to Chicago could make it happen

Winter has been coming for quite a while for the Washington Nationals. Specifically, Winter 2018. And much like last season of HBO’s beloved Game of Thrones, winter has finally arrived.

Bryce Harper has potentially played his final game in a Nationals uniform, and all fans can do over the course of the next few months is play the waiting game. Instead of sitting around twiddling our thumbs, however, we’re going to take a look at some of the major players who will be active in Harper’s free agency this winter.

We’ll do our best to gauge how genuine each team’s interest in the superstar is (spoiler alert: they are all very interested) and try to guess how good their chances are of landing him. 

Bovada updated their odds on Harper’s ultimate landing spot after the regular season ended, and they’ve got the Nationals as the fifth-most likely team for him to (re)join.

Number one on that list? The Chicago Cubs.

The Narrative

It may come as a surprise, as the Cubs have a reputation for growing young, star position players on trees and therefore may not have an obvious need for another outfielder. But there are a few signs pointing towards the “lovable losers” (a fairly outdated nickname, by the way) as one of the favorites.

We’ll just go ahead and address a few of these right off the bat.

NBC Sports Chicago helpfully listed a number of examples of Harper’s flirtation with the Cubs a year ago, and many points remain just as strong today.

My personal favorite sign of his affinity for the North Siders? His dog is named after their iconic home ballpark, Wrigley Field. I once joked in a wedding toast that the groom was such a huge Cubs fan, the bride should be prepared to name their first dog “Wrigley.” (Fun fact: I was proven right earlier this year.)

Your dog is a part of your family, and naming a family member something so unambiguously pro-Cubs can only come across one way. It’s a telling sign, maybe not of Harper’s ultimate intentions, but at least of where a part of his heart lies.

I’m not saying anything, I’m just saying.

Doubling down on the Wrigley love, Harper has mentioned multiple times how much he loves the Friendly Confines. He’s also taken pictures wearing Chicago Bulls gear, and attended a Golden Knights-Blackhawks game and didn’t wear Vegas gear. As a reminder, Las Vegas-native Bryce Harper wore his Golden Knights sweater quite proudly during the Stanley Cup Final last season when they took on the Washington Capitals.

I’m not saying anything, I’m just saying.

It’s clear he enjoys the Windy City, but that’s not his only connection to the franchise. One of the faces of the Cubs is star third baseman Kris Bryant, who also grew up in the Las Vegas area and started playing baseball with Harper as adolescents. The two are very close friends, and their wives have also become quite close. 

Kayla Harper and Jessica Bryant even posted a photo on Instagram with the hashtag #HarperToTheCubs. Social media has played a key role in these rumors, and Harper himself once posted a photo with Bryant and their wives with the caption #Back2BackOneDay.

I’m not saying anything, I’m just saying.

The Roster

Of course, there are other factors at play beyond conspiracy theories and rooting interests. The actual state of the team, in terms of finances and roster construction, is extremely relevant. Let’s take a look at the outlook for the team over the next couple of seasons.

The Cubs really started competing in 2015, though that was considered “a year early,” so the relevant window of looking at their salaries begins in the World Series year of 2016. According to Spotrac, the Cubs’ payroll has hovered in the $170 million to $200 million range since that season, reaching a high point of $194 million this past season. 

It’s generally fair to assume any competitive team’s payroll will raise each season, especially a team as public and, frankly, rich as the Cubs. Chicago is obviously a major market, and it seems clear that the franchise can move into the $200M+ range in the coming years. This will happen regardless of whether or not they land Harper, as most of their best talents are young and will be entering arbitration and, more importantly, free agency of their own the coming years.

Spotrac has about $180 million committed for 2019 already, about a $40 million difference from Baseball Reference that can probably be explained by expected arbitration salaries.

So, to make a long, financially complicated story short, the Cubs have a lot of money invested into the team, but are still very much in their competitive window and have close-to-bottomless pockets. So, while Harper would give them their highest payroll ever, they can afford it, and may end up viewing it as an opportunity to invest in Harper instead of another one of their young stars a few years down the line, which could be a smart long-term play if they don’t mind 1-2 seasons of an inordinately high payroll.

Since the money is theoretically workable, the next thing to look at is the actual roster construction. Will the Cubs have room for Harper on the field? Remember, because the Cubs play in the National League, they won’t have the luxury of hiding one of their sluggers in a DH spot, meaning there really is only room for three outfielders.

MLB.com’s official depth chart for the Cubs lists Kyle Schwarber, Ben Zobrist, Ian Happ, Albert Almora, Jayson Heyward, Kris Bryant, and Terrance Gore as the team’s outfielders.

Bryant is obviously primarily an infielder, and Zobrist and Happ are utility players best suited to the infield. It’s important to note that manager Joe Maddon likes to move his players around, so they will find themselves patrolling the outfield on occasion, but it’s not their preferred positions. Gore is clearly a backup on the team for his pinch-running abilities, and he certainly wouldn’t be a block on a guy like Harper.

That leaves Schwarber (the guy who could really use a DH spot), Almora, and Heyward.

Almora is a former top-10 pick, so he comes with a lot of pedigree, and has proven himself a terrific young defensive center fielder. I’ve long been a big fan of his, and the fact that he’s not just pre-free agency but pre-arbitration means he is exceedingly affordable for a payroll in need of cheap talent. He’s the center fielder of the future and is a valuable piece that shouldn’t be moved. 

Of the Cubs payroll committed for 2019 already, $20 million of the $22 million is committed to Heyward, who remains a fantastic defender who has inexplicably fallen off with the bat since his days in Atlanta. Given the ways he can still contribute and the money committed to him through 2023, it’s pretty unlikely he gets replaced by Harper.

That leaves Schwarber, who is young and controllable, not to mention a pretty great power bat in his own right, though again, someone who would really benefit from a universal DH. 

From the Cubs’ perspective, it comes down to whether or not they’re willing to turn Schwarber into a part-time player.

A Harper-Almora-Heyward outfield would definitely represent an upgrade both defensively and offensively, and instantly becomes one of the most complete outfields in baseball. Not to mention a Baez-Bryant-Harper-Rizzo (in some order) middle of the lineup would easily be the most fearsome foursome in the National League. Having Schwarber’s power off the bench would be a dangerous late-inning weapon as well.

If they’re A) willing to commit the money for the next two seasons before their homegrown players start to get prohibitively expensive and B) are willing to trade Schwarber or bring him off the bench (and again, Maddon is notorious for finding creative ways to move guys in and out of the lineup and get everyone at-bats), then Harper makes a lot of sense for a team looking to capitalize on what is generally considered an open National League over the next few seasons. 

Once the Braves and Padres’ young talent are fully realized, it will become that much harder to make the World Series out of the Senior Circuit, so now is the time to strike for the Chicago. It looks like there’s mutual interest between the two parties, and the Cubs are one of the only franchises who can realistically afford Harper’s undoubtedly massive asking price. 

The Odds

Ultimately, the even odds the Cubs are getting feel a bit too strong to me, if only because there are other teams out there with money to spend, designs on competing, and a more obvious fit in the field for Harper. Still, if I had to set the odds myself, I’d almost certainly have the Cubs as one of the 3 biggest favorites, if not the biggest. The difference, however, is not quite as big as Bovada’s “Even vs +500 and beyond” odds would have you believe.

Harper famously graced the cover of Sports Illustrated at the age of 16, and he was referred to as baseball’s answer to LeBron. He may not have reached LeBron’s “one of the five best players ever to play his sport” level just yet, but there’s an interesting quote in that 2009 profile. When asked about his goals for his baseball career, among other things, Harper says “play in the pinstripes.”

Considering he also lists “playing in Yankee Stadium” and is a Duke, Cowboys, and Lakers fan, it’s easy to assume he was referring to the Yankees’ iconic uniforms.

But you know who else wears pinstripes? The Chicago Cubs. 

I’m not saying anything, I’m just saying.

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