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With bullpen ailing, starters pushed too far

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With bullpen ailing, starters pushed too far

On Tuesday night in New York, Max Scherzer took the mound for the bottom of the seventh in a 1-1 game, his pitch count at 100, and promptly gave up the runs that put the Yankees on top for good.

On Wednesday afternoon in New York, Gio Gonzalez took the mound for the bottom of the seventh in a game the Nationals led 2-0, his pitch count at 93, and promptly gave up the runs that let the Yankees tie the game.

And then on Thursday night in Milwaukee, Tanner Roark took the mound for the bottom of the seventh with the Nationals leading 5-4, his pitch count at 94, and promptly gave up the home run that let the Brewers tie the game en route to a 6-5 victory.

It doesn't take much effort to spot the recurring theme here. Three straight days, the Nationals sent their starting pitcher back out for the seventh inning either trying to protect a lead or maintain a tie game, and three straight times that starter was unable to finish the inning before giving up multiple runs.

The problem is twofold: 1) Nationals starters, despite their lofty pedigree, are averaging only 5.8 innings per game, which ranks 22nd out of 30 MLB rotations, and 2) Nationals relievers, aside from closer Drew Storen, haven't been consistently effective enough to leave Matt Williams comfortable enough to pull his starter even when he gets six quality innings.

And Thursday night's loss at Miller Park, among the most frustrating of the season for the Nationals, was merely the latest example of all this playing out in such a fashion.

Roark hadn't been in top form most of the evening, and particularly in the bottom of the sixth, when the Brewers produced four hard-hit balls off the right-hander (even though three of them went for outs). His pitch count at 94, Roark (who only joined the rotation two weeks ago after opening the season in the bullpen) appeared to be a strong candidate to have his night end right there.

Trouble is, Williams' confidence level in the vast majority of his bullpen options right now is weak. Storen has been brilliant as closer. Casey Janssen and Matt Thornton have been effective far more than they haven't, but Williams seems to be making a point not to work those veterans too much at this stage of the season, preferring they don't pitch back-to-back days unless absolutely necessary.

So it was that Roark took the mound again for the bottom of the seventh, with the Nationals clinging to a 1-run lead. Which didn't last very long. Roark served up a solo homer to the second batter he faced, Gerardo Parra, leaving the game tied and eventually leading to his departure and the summoning of rookie left-hander Felipe Rivero from the bullpen.

Then came the bottom of the eighth, in which Aaron Barrett gave up the eventual winning run via a strikeout that got away from catcher Wilson Ramos, a potential double-play grounder that turned into a costly error when second baseman Anthony Rendon's throw to first skipped wide of Clint Robinson and rolled to the dugout railing, a groundout to first and then a jam-shot by Scooter Gennett that managed to sneak down the third-base line, bringing the runner home.

And all that only preceded Barrett's final pitch of the eighth, a 92-mph fastball that sailed high above the plate and prompted Williams, pitching coach Steve McCatty and assistant athletic trainer Steve Gober to come to the mound to see if the young reliever was OK.

He wasn't. Barrett, whose fastball has averaged 94 mph this season, appeared to be concerned as he spoke to the three men before handing the ball to Williams and making the slow walk back to the dugout. Williams offered zero information after the game, refusing to even reveal what part of Barrett's body was injured and saying only the club hoped to know more Friday.

The insinuation, after all that, is that Barrett likely suffered a serious injury, though it's impossible to know that for sure at this point.

What isn't impossible to know is this: The Nationals bullpen remains a concern, an ever-changing unit of seven pitchers who individually and collectively have not offered up much in the way of consistency this season.

Perhaps new right-hander David Carpenter, acquired Thursday from the Yankees, will step right in and fill the void. Perhaps Janssen (who has tossed eight scoreless appearances but is remembered far more for a 4-run implosion in Cincinnati two weeks ago) will continue to pitch well and cement his status as Storen's top setup man.

But those are far from sure developments, and they won't do much to assuage anyone who is worried the bullpen as a whole is in bad shape right now.

All of which continues to leave Williams in a tough spot. In a perfect world, he'd feel comfortable enough with his relief options to pull his starters before they have a chance to blow a lead late. But right now, he simply can't do that.

Until their bullpen stabilizes, the Nationals will just have to count on their vaunted rotation to start churning out more quality innings once they've surpassed the 100-pitch mark.

MORE NATIONALS: ZIMMERMAN TO THE DL

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Juan Soto crushes a homer in the first at-bat of his first-ever start

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@MLB

Juan Soto crushes a homer in the first at-bat of his first-ever start

Juan Soto, the highly-regarded 19-year-old Nationals' prospect, got his first major league start of his career tonight. 

How did it go, you ask? Surely it would take Soto - who was in Single-A less than two weeks ago - some time to adjust? 

What were you doing at 19??

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Can slumping Nationals, Gio Gonzalez end losing streak Monday vs. Padres?

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USA Today Sports Images

Can slumping Nationals, Gio Gonzalez end losing streak Monday vs. Padres?

When the Washington Nationals visited San Diego on May 7-9, they won the first two games of a three-game series to move within 1 1/2 games of the National League West lead.

At the time, the Nationals were on a bit of a run and the Padres were reeling with a 13-24 record.

Two weeks after that series, the Padres and Nationals meet again in Washington, D.C (7:05 p.m. ET, Monday). And the fortunes of the two teams have changed a bit.

Since winning that series finale at Petco Park to avoid being swept by the Nationals, the Padres have gone 7-4 and are riding a three-game winning streak.

The Nationals have gone 4-4 and just lost a third straight game to the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday in Washington to slip four games off the lead in their division.

The Nationals are the home team this time for a three-game series that opens Monday night with a matchup of left-handers -- Gio Gonzalez (4-2, 2.36 ERA) going for Washington with Robbie Erlin (1-2, 3.46) making a spot start for San Diego.

On paper, the pairing clearly favors the hosts.

Erlin, 27, has met the Nationals twice in his career. Both games were at Nationals Park. Erlin is 0-2 in the matchups with a 16.39 ERA.

In Erlin's two previous outings in the nation's capital, Erlin has given up 17 runs, 19 hits and six walks with six strikeouts in 9 1/3 innings. The Nationals have hit .413 against Erlin, who has a 2.68 WHIP against Washington.

This will be only the second start of the season for Erlin, who returned this year after having Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery midway through 2016.

Thirteen of Erlin's 14 appearances this season have been out of the bullpen. His one previous start was April 16 against the Dodgers. He gave up six runs (five earned), seven hits and two walks with four strikeouts in three innings.

Erlin is filling the vacancy created when rookie left-hander Joey Lucchesi went on the disabled list with a slightly strained glute. The Padres are hoping Lucchesi will miss only one start, although it looks like it could now be two or three.

Gonzalez is no stranger to the Padres. He started the May 9 game that the Nationals lost 2-1. Gonzalez allowed one run, five hits and three walks in six innings. Afterward, he said he struggled with his command.

Gonzalez was not involved in that decision. During his career, he has made seven starts against the Padres and has a 3-2 record with a 3.21 ERA, a 1.357 WHIP and a .253 opponents' batting average. Against the Padres, Gonzalez has given up 19 runs (15 earned), 41 hits and 16 walks with 41 strikeouts in 42 innings.

When the Nationals were in San Diego, first baseman-left fielder Matt Adams went 3-for-8 with a double, two homers, six RBIs and three runs scored -- although he got the third game off.

Since leaving San Diego, Adams has hit only .143. Washington's Bryce Harper is hitting .125 in the last eight games with a homer and three RBIs.

Another key player in the first Padres-Nationals series was Howie Kendrick, who was 5-for-12 with a double and two runs scored. But Kendrick has been lost with a ruptured Achilles tendon and on Saturday the Nationals promoted a 19-year-old prospect from Double-A.

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