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Breaking down an inexplicable loss for the Nats

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Breaking down an inexplicable loss for the Nats

And you thought Monday's loss was tough to watch?

What transpired Tuesday in St. Louis made the previous night's game feel pedestrian, as if it was just some run-of-the-mill loss every team suffers during the course of the season. It wasn't, of course, but the Nationals' 8-5 loss Tuesday — coincidentally the exact same score as the night before — bordered on the inexplicable.

Seriously, how do you explain this game after the fact to someone who paid no attention to it? The Nats jumped out to a 4-0 lead, but Joe Ross lost all ability to find the strike zone and was yanked in the bottom of the third. Matt Williams then coaxed 4 1/3 scoreless innings out of Doug Fister, Matt Thornton, Blake Treinen and Felipe Rivero, only to cringe as Drew Storen blew a 2-run lead in the eighth and then as Casey Janssen served up a walk-off, 3-run homer to Brandon Moss in the bottom of the ninth, all while a fully rested Jonathan Papelbon watched helplessly from the bullpen.

Does that even adequately describe the events that unfolded at Busch Stadium, where (by the way) the Nationals have now lost nine consecutive games dating back to Game 1 of the 2012 NLDS?

It has become a nightly ritual to play the blame game with this team. And certainly given the manner in which they've been losing games — their last four have either been by 1 run or after taking a lead into the seventh inning or later — it's an appropriate exercise.

RELATED: Moss' 3-run homer ends it as Cardinals beat Nationals 8-5

So who gets the blame for this one? There were multiple offenders...

— Joe Ross, for his third-inning meltdown. The rookie right-hander has been both effective and poised throughout his surprising run this summer, but he was neither in this game. Everything fell apart for him during the bottom of the third, when he walked four batters, including three in a row, hardly any of those pitches located anywhere near the strike zone. He wound up getting pulled after throwing 32 pitches in the inning, only 10 of them strikes. That immediately raised a fair question: Is Ross fatigued after throwing 145 1/3 total innings this season when he has never thrown more than 122 1/3 in any previous year as a pro? Afterward, he told reporters he simply couldn't get a good grip on the ball due to the humidity in St. Louis. Ross has never used the rosin bag before. If what happened Tuesday really was strictly the result of a sweaty hand, can we excuse him for not taking a moment to try it out during that fateful inning? Or anybody else on the club for not insisting that he try it?

— The Nats lineup, for essentially shutting down after scoring four runs off Marco Gonzales in the top of the third. The only other run of the night came in the top of the seventh, and it was unearned and came without benefit of a single ball that left the infield. Yes, five runs should be enough to win a game, as it was Tuesday. But the lack of continued offensive pressure after getting to the St. Louis bullpen early certainly contributed to the eventual outcome.

— Drew Storen, for blowing a 2-run lead in the eighth. This is really where the game was lost. Handed a 5-3 lead, Storen proceeded to give up a leadoff single to Tommy Pham before plunking Brandon Moss with a 1-2 slider way down and in. Then he fielded Greg Garcia's sacrifice bunt attempt and foolishly tried to throw out Pham at third base. The ball wound up sailing past Yunel Escobar and rolling into the left-field corner (more on that in a moment) as a run came home. Storen told reporters afterward the throw was "right over the bag." That might be a bit off, but regardless of the location of the throw, the timing of it was questionable. At best, it was going to be a bang-bang play. Which means it wasn't worth the risk. Get the sure out at first base and then move on from there. Storen didn't, and so when Stephen Piscotty grounded into a double play a couple batters later, the tying run crossed the plate because the inning couldn't yet be over. And so Storen's struggles continue: He has now given up runs in six of his last 10 appearances, a stretch during which he has posted a 12.10 ERA. He also now owns a 7.71 ERA and six blown saves in 19 career appearances against the Cardinals (including the 2012 postseason).

— Yunel Escobar, for not catching Storen's throw (or at least knocking it down) and then casually tracking it down after it got away. Maybe Escobar wasn't expecting it. Maybe he didn't have enough time to properly position himself. Whatever the reason, he didn't execute his portion of that play as well as he could have executed it. And his slow retrieval of the ball, after pausing to roll his eyes when the throw got away, made the whole thing worse. And none of it helped refute the notion that the Nationals would be better off with a better defensive alignment in the infield: Anthony Rendon at third, Danny Espinosa at second.

— Casey Janssen, for giving up the winning runs in the bottom of the ninth. Janssen gets less blame than others, though, because it was foolish to think he was going to get out of that inning unscathed given the fact he was running on fumes. The veteran reliever had already thrown 26 pitches the previous night while giving up the decisive 4 runs. Now he was asked to come right back the next night and show no signs of fatigue while doing it. The inning started off find for Janssen, who got Jason Heyward to ground out and Yadier Molina to pop out. But then he served up a double to Cody Stanley and then he walked Pham and then he left a 1-0 fastball up and out over the plate to Moss, who crushed it to center field for the game-winner. That home run came on the 47th pitch Janssen had thrown in the span of 24 hours, a terrifyingly high number for a veteran reliever who has dealt with shoulder problems the last few seasons. Which is why plenty of blame needs to go to...

— Matt Williams, for saving Jonathan Papelbon for a save opportunity that never came to fruition. Now, he's hardly the only manager in baseball who wouldn't use his closer in a tie game on the road. Many, probably most, would've done the same thing. The problem here was that the alternative was Janssen, who had thrown so much the night before and who didn't appear to have anything left in the tank, certainly by the time Moss stepped to the plate. Or Sammy Solis, who would've been a better lefty-lefty matchup against Moss but who was the only other pitcher left in the bullpen and thus was needed to be the long man in case the game kept going for awhile. None of the options was ideal. If Papelbon did pitch the ninth and didn't give up a run but his teammates scored off Trevor Rosenthal in the top of the 10th, who would've then closed out the game for the Nats? Janssen? Solis? Papelbon in his second inning of work? There was still plenty of opportunity for disaster, and while that doesn't excuse the manager for his bullpen usage, it does offer valid reason to hand out some blame to...

— Mike Rizzo, for not giving his manager more options that might have made these decisions easier. Tuesday was the first day of September, the first day major-league clubs are allowed to expand their active rosters beyond 25. Across the sport you saw teams add a bunch of reinforcements, as many as six or seven in some cases. The Nationals added three players: Solis, third catcher Pedro Severino and Dan Uggla. Why, with a pitching staff that has been struggling of late, weren't more arms called up? It's not as if the Nats won't be adding more players in the next few days. Why not bring those guys up as soon as they were eligible? If Williams knew he had a couple more fresh relievers available just in case the game kept going, he might have been more inclined to go to someone other than Janssen in the bottom of the ninth. The Nationals bullpen has been an area of concern since the day the club packed up in Viera and headed north. That it remains such a concern on September 1 is a troubling fact.

MORE NATIONALS: Nats make first round of September call-ups

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What went right in Dave Martinez’s first season with the Nationals?

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What went right in Dave Martinez’s first season with the Nationals?

After spending a decade as a Major League bench coach and managerial interviews with seven other ballclubs over the course of six years, Dave Martinez was hired to manage the Washington Nationals in 2018. The team had averaged 93 wins over the previous four years, winning 95-plus in three of the four seasons, but in 2018 they won just 82, barely reaching an above-.500 record in the first season under Martinez’s tutelage.

Based on the managerial turnover, Martinez drew the ire of many Nats fans. After all, if the Nats were going to move on from the proven success of Dusty Baker, shouldn’t the next manager be even better?

While the frustration surrounding a disappointing season was entirely understandable, Martinez shouldn’t be given as much of the blame as he has. We’ll have a piece coming later in the offseason about some of the things that went wrong in his debut season, so for the folks out there who want to point out his flaws, don’t worry. Your time will come, and we’re not saying he should be absolved of all blame this year.

This post, however, will highlight some of the successes Martinez had this season, and why he may very well still have a bright future ahead of him in Washington.

There are a few key reasons why I maintained all season long that Dusty Baker wouldn’t have had much more success than Martinez in 2018. First off, the litany of injuries the Nats dealt with were pretty astounding, and while they didn’t have any one major obvious injury, the sheer volume added up to cost the team a lot of games from proven veterans.

Those injuries led to probably the single biggest bright spot from the 2018 season: the emergence of 19-year old wunderkind Juan Soto.

It’s difficult to evaluate what Martinez’s patterns will be going forward in regards to young players vs proven veterans, but Dusty Baker had a well-earned reputation for favoring high-floor vets over high-ceiling rookies. It’s a fine philosophy to have, but it likely would have kept Soto in the minor leagues in 2018, robbing Nats fans of maybe the most entertaining part of their summer.

Martinez showed trust in Soto early, recognizing his preternatural ability to get on base and show in-game power, and Soto ended up with the 4th-highest Wins Above Replacement on the teams, to go along with the highest wRC+. Allowing Soto to grow and prove himself in high-pressure situations was maybe Martinez’s shrewdest move all season long. 

Now, instead of another highly-rated prospect who may or may not pan out, the Nats find themselves in the enviable position of being able to let Bryce Harper walk if he asks for too much money while knowing they have a capable replacement already on the roster. After one of the single greatest teenage seasons for a hitter in Major League history, the Nats now have one of the most valuable assets in the game in Soto.

Obviously, most of the credit for Soto’s incredible rookie season goes to Soto himself, but it’s partially thanks to Martinez as well that he got the opportunity.

The actual, strategic role of a baseball manager is relatively limited. Yes, setting the lineup each day matters to a degree, and National League managers of course have more moves to worry about over the course of the game. Still, in a game without the X’s and O’s of football, basketball, and hockey, the most obvious strategy managers employ is in bullpen manipulation.

The Nats had a bounceback season with their bullpen in 2018, and Martinez certainly played a role in that. It wasn’t the elite bullpen season of years past, but as a unit the bullpen shave nearly half a run off their collective ERA compared to 2017, and they moved up from 23rd in baseball to 15th.

In this current era of bullpening and shortened starts, a strong bullpen has literally never been more important, and at the very least, Martinez proved himself capable of running one. In fact, given how the team’s remarkable injury misfortune extended to Sean Doolittle and the bullpen as well, it makes the manager’s performance even more impressive.

Individually, you can see the success as well, most prominently with the aforementioned Doolittle, who had a career year with a 1.60 ERA and a 36.8 strikeout rate. There were disappointments too, as there are in every bullpen every season, but it was still a good year for the group compared to last season.

Ultimately, the role of the manager in baseball is pretty overrated. Coaching schemes matter in football, X’s and O’s are critical in basketball and hockey, and substitutions matter in soccer. With baseball, the most important hat the manager wears is really a glorified babysitter.

I don’t use that phrase to diminish either the manager or the players he oversees, but rather to really emphasize that a manager’s most important job is handling personalities, not strategy decisions. This can be especially crucial on a team with as many big names and stars as the Nationals have on the roster.

It’s obviously not an area in which fans can truly evaluate a manager, since 98% of these actions take place behind closed doors. One way we can gauge how a manager is handling the team off the field is in their comments about him. A lot of times, a player’s positive thoughts on their manager falls into the “well, what else is he going to say?” category, but they can still be informative, especially when the praise is unprompted.

Even players no longer with the team, who have no obvious incentive to defend Dave Martinez, have gone out of their way to endorse him for the job.

The tweet is a quote from Daniel Murphy on the day he’d been traded away to the Cubs. Murphy, a player who has made it to the World Series under a heralded manager, in addition to playing for Baker and Martinez, knows what it takes to succeed in the role, and he clarified without being asked that Martinez would succeed.

In April, then-Nationals starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez and Martinez got into a dust-up over Gonzalez being pulled from a start when he felt he had more left in the tank. Tempers flared, and clearly neither side was happy with the other.

The next day, the two “had an animated conversation” at Gonzalez’ locker, according to The Washington Post. Afterwards, the pitcher had some thoughts on Martinez.

“It’s beautiful that our skipper speaks to us. It makes a huge difference knowing what’s going on. That was a situation that if people keep to themselves, it’d be a different story. Communication. That’s all we want. Once we have communication, everything is nice and calm and everything plays out the way it should play out.”

Having learned under the master Joe Maddon, Martinez is already developing a reputation as a superb communicator, a highly valued skill in a winning clubhouse. Even the team’s biggest star, and impending free agent, has nothing but kind words for his skipper.

In the video, Harper says, “He’s one of the best managers I’ve ever played for. His door is open every single day. He’s got a heart that — I haven’t really played for a manager like this guy. I look forward to hopefully playing with him for the next 10, 12 years. He’s one of the best, so hopefully, we’ll see what happens.”

Harper has doubled down on those sentiments multiple times. After his epic Home Run Derby performance at Nats Park earlier this summer, he brought up Martinez again.

“I’ve got one of the best managers in all of baseball. I’m very happy to have him at our helm. He’s a guy I’d run through a fricking brick wall for, and I was trying to do that for him tonight.”

If a first-year manager can get his most famous player to run through a brick wall for him three months into the job, that’s a pretty good sign for the connections he makes and relationships he builds.

It’s entirely possible, if not likely, that the Nats made a mistake in letting go of Dusty Baker last offseason, but that doesn’t make Martinez a bad hire. Rather, his willingness to rely on unproven talent in this era of baseball, improvements at managing a bullpen, undeniable communication skills and abilities earning the trust of the players all point to a bright future in Washington with Martinez at the helm.

It wasn’t a perfect debut debut season, but he still managed to get a few things right.

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2018 Nationals Position Review: The Nationals outfield is built to succeed

2018 Nationals Position Review: The Nationals outfield is built to succeed

The Washington Nationals outfield was one of the most intriguing position groups of the 2018 season. Two of the team's star figures, Bryce Harper and Juan Soto, resided out there more than 200 feet from home plate.

Fittingly, we'll start our position review series taking a look at the most talented group of players on the Nationals. 

Overall, they were outstanding. Each of the nine players brought something different to the team. Whether it was Harper doing Harper things, Soto continuing to break teenager records, or Michael A. Taylor filling in nearly every other day, there was versatility each night.

Good news for the Nationals is most of these guys will be back. Of all the outfielders still on the roster, only Harper is set to become a free agent. 

The unit is young and has strong depth. Potentially it also has Howie Kendrick, who missed a majority of the season and is still under contract for a year. 

Honestly this could be a position group that has some of their bench pieces on the trading block during the offseason. There are holes spattered around the rest of the roster and there are outfielders to spare with or without Harper coming back.

Without further ado, here is a look at each of the outfielders this past season. 

Bryce Harper

There are multiple ways to look at Harper's production this season. In some ways he was productive, in others it was one of his worst years on record. 

He took care of the important stats. With 34 home runs it was his second-highest dinger output of his career (only behind his MVP season in 2015) and tied for the seventh-most in the National League. Although a slightly irrelevant stat, he did have a career-high 100 RBIs as well. 

As a whole his batting average was .249. But if you take into account how poor his start to the season was, and a .214 batting average with that, the just turned 26-year-old finished nicely. 

Spin it as you will, his OPS was .889 with a MLB-leading 130 walks. 

Harper is still the best position player with a Curly W on his chest. If he returns, that title will not exchange hands next season. 

Juan Soto

Call him a kid. Call him our son. Call him a phenom.

Whatever you call him, he is the future of the Nationals. With Soto in the outfield it makes the idea of the team not wanting to sign Harper sound a little less crazy. 

For your convenience, here is a list of all of the accomplishments he had this past season.

What makes it all even more impressive is that he did not even play the full season. He was called up in the middle of May.

His 22 home runs, 70 RBIs, 121 hits, .292 batting average, .923 OPS all came with him only playing three-quarters of a season.

Oh and he turns 20 in less than a week. 

Adam Eaton

A stint on the 60-day disabled list did not prevent Adam Eaton from having the best hitting season of his career. He had career-highs in batting average (.301) and OBP (.394) only playing in 95 games. 

He's never been a long ball hitter, but getting him on-base is his strongest asset. In nearly every contest the seven-year veteran batted lead-off for the Nats. However, the Nationals were unable to take advantage of him getting on base. Eaton only came around to score 55 runs. 

With Harper, Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, and Juan Soto typically batting behind him, that is a total that should be much higher. 

Of note, 2019 will be his final season under contract for the Nationals. This season, perhaps even the offseason, Washington will need to decide if he is one of the right pieces going forward. Re-signing Harper is sure to be a big factor in that decision. 

Michael A. Taylor

Initially filling in for the injured Eaton, Taylor had a formidable 2018 season. Performing on the field and at the plate earned him a start in the regular rotation. 

Of the regular contributors he did have the lowest batting average in the outfield. His speed however is what he brings to this squad. 

Holding the fort at center field, alongside whichever pair of Nationals at his side, he makes it difficult for balls to get behind him. 

Defensively he is a huge asset to Washington. Offensively he does need to pick it up. 

Andrew Stevenson

This season was the most action that Andrew Stevenson has seen since being drafted by the Nationals in 2015.

At 24 with 75 at-bats, he mustered a .253 average for a decent year as a call-up.

The jury is still out for Stevenson, but the Nats have plenty of time to decide what move to make with him. The next two years he is under team control and is likely a tradable piece.

Victor Robles

Everyone was waiting to see Victor Robles, the Nationals top prospect, get some consistent playing time with the Nats. 

This season he got that time in September, with the team pretty much out of postseason contention.

There was nothing too staggering about Robles during that month, but he did piece together a .288 batting average. The big highlight was this monster homer he hit.

He'll get more time in 2019. Without Harper he'll likely be on the team's daily roster.

Moises Sierra

Probably the only National on this list that you haven't heard of but the Nats took a chance on Moises Sierra in the minor leagues.

In the lineup for 27 games in Washington, Sierra did not do much on the offensive end, batting .217. He's still a fringe major leaguer and has a lot to prove to get extra time with this group of players.

Howie Kendrick

At the time the loss of Kendrick was considered detrimental for the Nationals. He was the team's primary second baseman to start the season and his injury led to Daniel Murphy seeing significant time.

Still, he did play in the outfield, although he has lost the speed from his youth in Los Angeles. 

He had a phenomenal offensive start to the season no matter what spot he was at in the batting order. 

Likely he will not be an option in the outfield, given the new crop of players that proved themselves this season. But, do not be surprised if Kendrick has to spend some time in the grass if Harper is not on the roster next season.

Kendrick is guy that the Nationals cannot afford to not be in the batting order. 

The Other Guys:

There are two other outfielders that saw action in 2018, Brian Goodwin and Rafael Bautista. 

Goodwin was traded to the Kansas City Royals before the trade deadline. He had limited production with the Nats over the past three seasons. With Soto, Taylor, and

Robles now in a position to step in, the organization simply did not have room for him. 

Bautista got sent back to the minor leagues and will likely stay there unless there are some unforeseen injuries. 

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