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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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Trea Turner goes 4 for 4 to help Nationals beat Orioles

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USA TODAY Sports

Trea Turner goes 4 for 4 to help Nationals beat Orioles

WASHINGTON -- Presented with identical opportunities to ring up a big inning, the Washington Nationals took full advantage and Baltimore Orioles squandered the chance.

That goes a long way toward explaining why the Nationals are a contender and the Orioles own the worst record in the big leagues.

Trea Turner went 4 for 4 with a homer , Anthony Rendon drove in three runs and Washington extended its recent domination of the Orioles with a 9-7 victory Tuesday night.

The game was essentially decided in the fifth inning, which began with Baltimore leading 4-1.

In the top half, the Orioles loaded the bases with no outs and scored only one run -- when Manny Machado hit into a 4-6-3 double play.

Washington loaded the bases with no outs in the bottom half and batted around, scoring four runs on four hits and a pair of walks. Adam Eaton contributed a two-run single, Rendon hit a sacrifice fly and Bryce Harper chased starter David Hess with an RBI double.

"They did a lot better job cashing in their bases loaded, nobody out situation than we did," Orioles manager Buck Showalter conceded.

For the game, Baltimore was 0 for 5 with runners in scoring position. The Nationals were 5 for 10.

"This team is starting to become relentless," manager Dave Martinez said. "They kept pounding and pounding and pounding, had a couple of big innings there and scored some runs."

The Nationals trailed 6-5 before getting six hits in a four-run seventh. Rendon delivered a two-run double off Tanner Scott (0-1) that made it 7-6, and Turner capped his four-hit night with a double.

Both teams noted that more than a couple of Washington's hits were bloopers and seeing-eye grounders, but the Nationals certainly weren't about to apologize.

"I feel like all year we've been hitting balls right at people," Turner said, "so it's nice to get a bunch of those in one game and come out with a win."

Washington has won six straight over its neighboring interleague rival, including four games this season by a combined 20-8.

Pitching in his second big league game, Nationals starter Jefry Rodriguez gave up five runs, four hits and four walks in five innings.

Justin Miller (5-0) pitched two innings of relief, newcomer Kelvin Herrera worked a perfect eighth and Sean Doolittle gave up a solo home run to Joey Rickard while earning his 19th save.

Jace Peterson and Trey Mancini each hit two-run homers for the Orioles, who have lost 16 of 19.

This one can be blamed on an all-too-telling fifth inning.

"It's just one of those things where if they got hits they seemed to have found holes," Showalter said. "They hit some balls hard, too."

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3 Up, 3 Down: Allow Juan Soto to distract you from Bryce Harper

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USA TODAY

3 Up, 3 Down: Allow Juan Soto to distract you from Bryce Harper

Nationals fans are teetering on the edge. 

On one hand, the Nats are 3.5 games out of first place after a 10-week span full of injuries and underperformance. The team just acquired All-Star closer Kelvin Herrera, and their 19-year-old left fielder looks like an All-Star already. 

On the other hand, doom is imminent. The Monstars stole Bryce Harper's abilities at some point over the last three weeks, Steven Strasburg can't stay healthy, and the offense is pushing everyone's patience to the limit. 

So who's overperforming? Who's underperforming? Who's out there just trying their very best? LET'S LIST. 

Three Up

1. Juan Soto

Our large young son Juan continues to impress. He's now hitting .325/.411/.602 with a 1.013 OPS in 95 plate appearances over 25 games. That means we're mercifully starting to leave the 'fluky start' narrative behind. He's been the best hitter on the Nationals by a wide margain since he got called up - although that's perhaps more of an indicitment on the rest of the lineup than it is on Soto. Still, in less than a month he's probably earned the starting left field spot for the rest of the summer. Not bad. 

2. Justin Miller

Miller is 31, on his third team in four years, and owns a career ERA north of 4.50. Despite all of this, Miller's been the best reliever in baseball since coming up for the Nats. Of relief pitchers with at least 10 innings pitched (we hear your sample size comment and are not going to acknolwdge it), no one has a better FIP than Miller (0.64). He's striking out over half of the batters he sees and has yet to walk a single person this year. All the elite relief pitchers are already at 30-40 innings pitched, so Miller has a while to go before these stats mean a whole lot. If he stays even 75 percent as good as he's started, the Nats' bullpen looks scary. 

3. Michael A. Taylor

Have yourself a week or two, Michael A.! The centerfielder is slashing .500/.556/.583 over the last 14 days, the first of many "Maybe He Put It Together?!" runs we'll see from him this year. He also has six stolen bases during that span, more than anyone else on the team. His plate discipline has been better over the last two weeks, with a BB% a shade over 11 percent - only behind Juan Soto for highest on the team. Juan Soto, man. 

Three Down

1. Bryce Harper

A couple things here. We'll start with the admission that Bryce Harper is obviously not having a superb year. We've already briefly touched on why looking at only his batting average is a lazy way of judging his season, and we stand by that. With that said - Harper's had a bad season. The last month has been particularly painful. There's no way of dressing up a .189/.278/.400 slashline over the last 30 days. Still, his contact has been as great as his luck terrible - there's a positive regression coming, we promise. 

2. Pedro Severino 

And you think Harper's been slumping?? Over the same 30 days, Severino has hit .098/.179/.115 with a .294 OPS. He's essentially daring the Nats to put together a trade package for JT Realmuto at this point. He has six hits over his last 68 plate appearances and five of them are singles. 

3. Shawn Kelley

Kelley owns a 6.09 FIP and a 4.32 ERA over the last month (10 games, 8.1 innings pitched). He's walking close to nine percent of the hitters he's faced during that time. He has a 12.5 HR/FB over the last month. With the trade for Kelvin Herrera and the sudden emergence of Justin Miller, Kelley's role going forward isn't quite as clear anymore. 

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