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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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Bryce Harper drives in 3, Nationals snap skid, beat Cardinals 5-4

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USA TODAY Sports

Bryce Harper drives in 3, Nationals snap skid, beat Cardinals 5-4

ST. LOUIS -- Koda Glover rewarded his manager's faith.

Bryce Harper had three hits and drove in three runs, Glover earned the save in the first opportunity since Ryan Madson was placed on the disabled list, and the Washington Nationals snapped a four-game losing streak with a 5-4 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday night.

The Nationals won for just the third time in their last 10 games and snapped the Cardinals' season-high, eight-game winning streak.

"We needed a win today," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. "Get on that plane, have a nice happy flight and come back tomorrow and be at home and be ready."

Tanner Roark (8-12) gave up four runs, three earned, in six innings.

A beleaguered bullpen that had blown two leads to start the losing streak took care of the rest. Justin Miller pitched two scoreless innings before Glover closed it out.

"There's been a lot of changes (in the bullpen)," Miller said. "It's unfortunate, a couple of injuries and stuff like that, but I don't really look at it as I've got the seventh or eighth or anything like that. I'm just going out there just trying to do my job."

Glover took the loss in the series opener on Monday, giving up a game-ending homer to Paul DeJong.

"The first game of the series didn't go as I would have liked for it to have went," Glover said. "So to get put back in that situation or even a better situation to get a save, I'm happy with that outcome."

Harper drove in the game's first run with a double in the first and knocked in two more with a bases-loaded single in the fourth to give the Nationals a 4-1 lead.

A pair of errors helped the Nationals extend their lead to 5-1 in the fifth. St. Louis committed three errors in the game after committing just four total errors during the winning streak.

"A couple plays clearly we expect to make and will make and just didn't go our way for a little bit there," Cardinals interim manager Mike Shildt said. "To the guys' credit they regrouped, settled down, and started playing back to the baseball they know they can play."

The Nationals had opportunities to pad the lead, leaving the bases loaded in the third and fifth while stranding nine runners in the first five innings.

"When you have an opportunity to put teams away you've got to do that," Martinez said. "Especially with how hot the Cardinals are playing right now. They're going to come back."

The Cardinals got within one in the sixth. After DeJong and Kolten Wong came up with back-to-back, two-out RBI hits, Harrison Bader hit a slow grounder to third. Anthony Rendon's throw to first got away from Ryan Zimmerman for an error, allowing Wong to score from second to cut the Nationals' lead to 5-4.

Just two of the four runs Luke Weaver (6-11) allowed in his 3 2/3 innings were earned. He gave up seven hits, including two to Roark, who scored both times.

Tyson Ross allowed one unearned run in 3 1/3 innings of relief.

Bader homered in the third and Matt Carpenter walked twice to extend his on-base streak to a career-high 34 games.

TRAINING ROOM

Nationals: RHP Jeremy Hellickson will have an MRI on his sore right wrist on Friday. RHP Joe Ross (right elbow surgery) threw 3 2/3 scoreless innings at Class A Potomac on Thursday and is hoping for a September return.

Cardinals: RHP Carlos Martinez (right shoulder strain) will begin a rehab Friday at Double-A Springfield. RHP Adam Wainwright (right elbow inflammation) threw two scoreless innings Thursday night at High-A Palm Beach.

UP NEXT

Nationals: RHP Max Scherzer (15-5, 2.19 ERA) will take the mound as the Nationals return home for a three-game series Friday night against the Miami Marlins and RHP Dan Straily (4-5, 4.42 ERA). Scherzer is 3-0 with a 3.43 ERA in three starts this season against the Marlins.

Cardinals: RHP Jack Flaherty (6-6, 3.22 ERA) kicks off a three-game series Friday night as the Cardinals host the Milwaukee Brewers and RHP Freddy Peralta (5-3, 4.47 ERA). Flaherty struck out a career-high 13 batters in his last start against the Brewers on June 22.

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Is Juan Soto a lock for National League Rookie of the Year?

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Is Juan Soto a lock for National League Rookie of the Year?

In April, it would have been unfathomable. In May, it would have been laughable. In June, it would have been improbable. In July, it started to look possible. In August, it might even have been likely. Now, it’s a complete toss-up.

Juan Soto is the worthiest National League Rookie of the Year. So is Ronald Acuña.

It’s one of the most exciting rookie races in recent memory, not simply for the otherworldly numbers each freshman sensation is putting up, but for just how good they are at such young ages. Juan Soto is a jaw-dropping 19. Acuña, by comparison, is the wizened veteran at the old age of... 20. 

The two are preternaturally talented, and their mature-beyond-their-years games have translated perfectly well to the big leagues. The question now is: which one will actually take home the hardware?

(Before we continue, I’ll note that Jack Flaherty, Brian Anderson, and Walker Buehler are all very talented young players who would at least be in the conversation in normal years).

The first step is to look at the numbers.

On the season Acuña is slashing .287/.347/.571, and his wRC+ is 144. He’s got 19 home runs and 8 stolen bases in just 68 games and his fWAR is 2.3. bWAR has him at 2.8

Soto’s slash line is currently .293/.420/.534, to go along with 15 home runs. His wRC+ is 153, and his fWAR is 2.7. His bWAR sits at 2.2.

Obviously, the numbers are terrific for both. Acuña has been up longer, but thanks to injury Soto has actually played 8 more games. Acuña has the edge in power, both in home runs and slugging percentage, plus he’s clearly the speedier player and better defender. If you’re looking for all-around game, he’s probably your man. Plus, for those who care about such things when voting on awards, the Braves are several games ahead of the Nats in the standings.

However, Soto’s performance has a couple things going for it. First of all, as impressive as it is that Acuña is taking the league by storm as a 20-year old, Soto is nearly a full year younger. It cannot be overemphasized how wild it is what Soto is doing as a teenager. He may very well be the greatest teenage batter in baseball history.

Secondly, Soto has been incredibly consistent. He’s basically been an All-Star level hitter since the day he was called up in May, whereas Acuña’s numbers, while very legitimate, are buoyed by his recent hot streak. He’s hit 8 home runs in 8 games, and of every hitter with at least 100 plate appearances since the All-Star Game, he has the highest wRC+ in that span. He’s had plenty of valleys to his peaks, though, and Soto has been a model of consistency. Of all hitters with at 200 at-bats this entire season, Soto ranks 7th over the entire season, That’s astounding.

Another point in Soto’s favor is just how historic his numbers are. Voters love a narrative, and as mentioned above, Soto is having literally the best offensive season a teenager has ever had. The highest wRC+ by a 19-year old in baseball history is Mel Ott with a 140 exactly 90 seasons ago. Soto is beating that by 13 so far.

The true separator, though, is Soto’s on-base percentage. His .420 mark is a comfortable 4th of all players with at least 300 plate appearances, behind elite batting eyes Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Joey Votto. And, once again, we’re talking about something historic.

Soto’s .420 on-base percentage, if it holds, will be the only OBP over .400 for a teenager with 200 plate appearances in Major League history. In fact, outside of Ott’s .397 in 1928, no other teenager has ever reached base at a .360 clip, let alone Soto’s astronomical .420.

Ultimately, I believe more in Acuña’s future, but I think Soto’s been the better player this season. Acuña is more well-rounded, but Soto’s elite batting eye has made him a top 10 hitter in baseball already. If Soto had been up on Opening Day and played at this level, he’d be on pace for a 5.5 WAR, which would top even Bryce Harper’s 2012 season.

As mentioned, though, voters love a narrative. If Acuña comes back from his injury and stays as hot as he’s been all August, it’ll be tough to ignore his performance during the Braves’ stretch run. This award is not over, but for now, Soto should be considered the favorite.

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