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Alarming stretch has Strasburg befuddled

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Alarming stretch has Strasburg befuddled

PHOENIX — Stephen Strasburg has never pitched like this, not for a somewhat-prolonged stretch. At least not since he came into anyone's consciousness outside of his hometown of San Diego.

Not in three seasons of college. Not in his two months in the minors. Not since he made his major-league debut nearly five years ago.

The numbers, in the wake of a 14-6 thrashing at the hands of the Diamondbacks on Tuesday night, have become alarming. Strasburg's 6.06 ERA ranks 106th out of 112 qualified major-league starters. His .327 opponents' batting average ranks 110th. His 1.71 WHIP ranks 111th.

And neither Strasburg nor the Nationals seem to have a firm grasp how to solve the problem.

"I'm just embarrassed I let the team down," the right-hander said after giving up eight runs in 3 1/3 innings Tuesday night at Chase Field. "It sucks. I'm just trying to go out there and help this team win some games. I didn't do that tonight."

Once among the most-feared pitchers in the game, Strasburg brought zero intimidation factor to the mound with him in this start. The Diamondbacks hammered him from the get-go, with eight of the 20 batters he faced recording hits, four of them for extra bases, two of them clearing the fence.

His velocity — his fastball averaged 96 mph and topped out at 98 mph — wasn't the problem. But his command certainly was, with six of the eight hits he surrendered coming on pitches in the upper half of the strike zone.

"I left a lot of pitches up," he said. "I didn't hit a spot. They're a good-hitting team. I've got to do better."

And so the obvious questions that were raised after this outing were about Strasburg's mechanics, whether he feels 100 percent healthy and whether those two things could be related. Seven days removed from another abbreviated start in which he complained of discomfort underneath his shoulder blade, requiring a chiropractic adjustment, Strasburg's performance was no better.

Matt Williams insisted health was not an issue.

"The concern coming out of the last one was his health," the manager said. "And I think he passed that one, which is good."

Strasburg was less definitive when asked if his back felt fine during Tuesday's game.

"Yeah, it's good enough," he said.

Whether health or mechanics are part of the equation right now or not, Strasburg's batterymate believes there's a more fundamental reason for the right-hander's struggles.

"I think he's thinking too much," catcher Wilson Ramos said. "In this game, when you're thinking too much, it's hard to do everything right. It's like, for example, a hitter. When a hitter's going to the plate and thinking too much, you're not going to hit the ball well. It happens, too, with a pitcher. He has to go out there and fight and try to do the best he can. You can't go out and think too much. I think that's what's happening with him right now."

Ramos was hopeful when Strasburg took the mound on Tuesday, excited about the way he threw warming up in the bullpen — "Today is probably going to be a good game," he thought to himself — but then surprised when none of that carried over.

"I don't know what was happening with him," the catcher said. "It was really different on the mound from the bullpen."

With Strasburg's fastball command off, his curveball flat and his changeup ineffective, Ramos resorted to calling nine sliders, a pitch Strasburg rarely throws to begin with. That worked briefly but then backfired when Mark Trumbo destroyed the right-hander's final pitch of the night (an 89 mph slider) to left for a 3-run homer.

Williams trudged out of the dugout to take the ball from his starter, and Strasburg trudged back to the clubhouse. His pitching stats place him squarely near the bottom of the sport for the first time in his career, and now he must find some way to get himself back on track.

"Just keep my head down, keep working hard, keep battling, keep fighting," he said.

"I just know that he's got great stuff," Williams added. "His stuff will show itself in the end. We've got all the confidence in the world in him. It hasn't been his best stretch, but he's a competitor."

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Nationals players on the stressful process of choosing a nickname for Players' Weekend

Nationals players on the stressful process of choosing a nickname for Players' Weekend

Zimm, Brown Eye and T3 will all take the field against the Cubs in the annual Players' Weekend series August 23-25.

Some Nationals players got creative when choosing nicknames, and others (yes you, Javy Guerra aka Javy) could use some inspiration. 

Other nicknames just made sense.

Fernando Rodney's nickname, "La Flecha", translates from Spanish to "the arrow". If you had the opportunity to watch the Fernando Rodney experience, you know that he celebrates a save by shooting an imaginary bow and arrow to the sky. 

He described the routine just like pitching: "you know where it is going exactly, you got a good shot."

When asked if he had any other nickname ideas he joked that he thought about using "Plátano Power". A joke dating back to 2017. 

Patrick Corbin is using his Players' Weekend jersey to honor his late friend and Angels pitcher, Tyler Skaggs. His nickname will say "Forty Five", Skaggs' number which Corbin wore days after his death. 

Other nicknames were no brainers, almost decided for the players. 

Wander Suero will go by "The Animal", the nickname given to him in the minor leagues that stuck with him. One of his coaches, Donald Ray "Spin" Williams, would tell him all the time, "you're an animal" because of the way he hustled. It caught on with his teammates and Spin still calls him that. 

Sean Doolittle's nickname was teased for a long time, Obi Sean. His Star Wars-themed bobblehead was a giveaway earlier in the season, featured the relief pitcher as Obi-Wan Kenobi from the popular franchise. The nickname is also his Twitter name though no one calls him that.

Doolittle has changed his nickname for the past three years. "It gives you an opportunity to show a little personality and have some fun with it." He said he can show that he is "a Star Wars nerd." 

These nicknames are chosen in Spring Training, and Doolittle remembers this happening early in the morning. "It's 6 or 7 am and they are walking around the clubhouse with a clipboard asking what you want your players weekend nickname to be at the end of August." He joked, "it's not the most creative time, you're not really awake yet." 

Tanner Rainey was one of those players who may not have been awake yet. When asked if he would answer a few questions about his nickname he laughed and said, "I don't even know my nickname." (For those wondering, it's Rainman).

He said he never really had a nickname but a few guys started calling him Rainman.

"If there's not one I would have went with Rainey on the back of the jersey," he said.

This choice is not because he doesn't like the idea. Rather, he is just focused on baseball during Spring Training.

"Alright that's in late August, this is February," said Rainey. "Let's worry about tomorrow first." 

Doolittle had the perfect way to describe making such an important decision.  "You know-how like the month leading up to Halloween you are like 'I have no idea what I want to dress up as.' You scramble for a costume and you're like 'yeah this works, whatever, at least I dressed up'. That day and the week after it feels like you have all these great ideas and you are like 'aw I should write these down'." 

"So maybe I will do that this year," Doolittle joked. "Maybe I need to start a notes app on my phone."

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Max Scherzer is back and could tilt the postseason race

Max Scherzer is back and could tilt the postseason race

PITTSBURGH -- Everyone wanted Max Scherzer back on the mound. He’s arguably the best pitcher in baseball, undoubtedly a key in the National League pennant race, a preeminent figure on the Nationals. And, he talks a lot.

“I think a lot of guys are ready to get him out of the dugout,” Patrick Corbin said Wednesday. “He’s kind of getting on nerves. He’s taking pre-workout [drinks] in games he’s not even playing. That’s just him. No, we’re excited. He’s the best in the game.”

He was back, finally, Thursday in Pittsburgh. Scherzer threw a 95-mph fastball at 7:29 p.m. At 8:49 p.m., Wander Suero jogged in from the bullpen because Scherzer had finished for the night. Four innings, 71 pitches, 48 strikes, one earned run. Scherzer was effective, not dominant. He’s in full reboot mode following two simulation games and being almost a month out from his previous start.

“Just wanted to come out here, not really empty the tank [Thursday] and just pitch,” Scherzer said. “I can’t get hurt again. That’s just the reality of this. Got out here, was able to go four innings and get a good feel for this of getting back in there. Just getting back in the game action because now it’s real. You can simulate games all you want, but simulated games aren’t real.”

What matters is that he’s back. Scherzer’s first of two tuneups -- he faces Baltimore next on Aug. 28 after dealing with the hapless Pirates -- yield to huge September outings. The Mets. The Braves -- twice. The Phillies. Tight races, big nights, why he makes $210 million. He’s thought about that, “in some ways.”

“But right now I’m living start to start,” Scherzer said. “I’m living really day-by-day of what I can and can’t do and trying to communicate with the trainers and strength coaches of, hey, what exercises can we do to get back out there and get this thing as strong as possible. [Thursday] was a good step. I’ve got a lot more work in front of me.”

He’s been good, but not a powerhouse in the postseason for the Nationals. His 3.72 ERA reflects that. Game 5 against the Cubs in 2017 is the last time Scherzer took a mound in the playoffs. He gave up the lead on three hits, two earned runs and a strikeout. He allowed just one earned run in his start earlier in the series. The loss cost Dusty Baker his job. It also installed another nasty Game 5 chapter in the Nationals’ short existence. 

His nearest shot at redemption could well ride on what he does the rest of the way. Scherzer will still have a limit on his pitch count against Baltimore. He should be loose by his third start -- with the ever-reaching caveat, all is dependent on how he feels the day after an outing. 

"Hopefully [Friday], he wakes up, he's well-recovered and we move forward," Davey Martinez said.

Scherzer’s second stint on the injured list could cost him a chance at another Cy Young Award. He remains top-five in ERA, batting average against, WHIP, strikeouts, opponent OPS and more. He is No. 1 -- by far -- in fWAR despite the time missed. Hyun-Jin Ryu is fifth in that category.

And, the time away didn’t temper his work on the bases. Scherzer beat out a double play in the second inning, then went first to third on a Trea Turner double. He later picked up a single to right field. 

Scherzer has also considered the idea he may need to be different the remainder of the season. His velocity was strong against the Pirates during the Nationals’ 7-1 win. But, that’s never been the problem during this process. Almost half of his pitches against Pittsburgh were four-seam fastballs. They averaged 94.5 mph. 

It’s the other stuff. Throwing a slider with everything he has. Snapping curveballs and managing changeups. Scherzer was pitching more than throwing with pure might in his first start back. 

He hopes to feel well Friday morning after sleeping as much as possible on the flight to Chicago, then more once the team lands. Afterward, he’s back in the weight room to strengthen the area around his rhomboid muscle. His pitch count will go up next time. The ability to “empty the tank” will, ideally, follow. As will a postseason appearance -- maybe.

“This is a good start, but I’m not out of the woods,” Scherzer said.

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