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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.

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Bryce Harper's longtime friend Kris Bryant says Harper isn't headed for Cubs

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USA TODAY Sports

Bryce Harper's longtime friend Kris Bryant says Harper isn't headed for Cubs

After weeks of twists and turns and not enough information for any Nationals fan's satisfaction, the Chicago Cubs seem to be out of the race for free agent Bryce Harper.

Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant seemingly confirmed the news on Friday night from the opening ceremonies of the 2019 Cubs Convention.

"He's not signing here," Bryant said as he sat down with NBC Sports Chicago. 

Though there have been no official reports of whether or not the Cubs are completely out in the race to sign Harper, a word from one of Harper's longtime friends shouldn't be brushed aside.

Bryant and Harper took the field together in the 2016 MLB All-Star game, and faced off in the 2017 NLDS Cubs-Nats matchup. 

The pair have known each other since grade schoool, and played for rival high schools in Las Vegas. But despite their history, Bryant says that they haven't chatted much about the situation otherwise, choosing to focus on preserving their friendship.

"I never bring it up to him," Bryant admitted. "I try to be a good friend to him, and not talk about baseball when he doesn't want to talk about baseball."

"Whatever happens, I wish [him] the best."

You can see more of Bryant's interview with NBCSC below.

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What's it like for MLB players when their big contract money hits? Some advice for Bryce Harper

What's it like for MLB players when their big contract money hits? Some advice for Bryce Harper

An old friend of Max Scherzer’s came up with an idea: The new buy-in for their longstanding and hyper-competitive fantasy football league would be 10 percent of the participant’s salary. As an assistant baseball coach at a midwest Division I university, this would be a significant risk. However, he believed the chance was worth it since Scherzer had just signed with the Washington Nationals for $210 million.

Scherzer enjoyed the humor and emphatically nixed the idea. But, the point remains. Things change when finances increase to unfathomable levels. In the case of Bryce Harper, the world is about to change for generations of Harpers once he finally signs a new contract.

The idea of signing a single contract which guarantees such gargantuan sums is a strange one. Even to those signing. The 2016 Census pegged average annual American income at $57,617. If Scherzer averages 32 starts per year during the course of his seven-year deal, he’ll earn $937,500 per start. Informed having such financial clout is inconceivable to 99.9 percent of the population, Scherzer laughed in agreement.

“I know, I know,” Scherzer told me. “It’s inconceivable to me, too.”

So, what’s it like when money of that level hits? Harper’s next contract is expected to be north of Giancarlo Stanton’s $325 million extension. For this extrapolation exercise, let’s call it $350 million coming up for Harper. That should be enough to cover eight generations of Harpers at $100,000 annually for 80 years each with plenty left over. Crazy, right?

Scherzer and Ryan Zimmerman were both wealthy by any standard before signing their large deals. Scherzer banked nearly $30 million worth of contracts prior to the giant haul with the Nationals. Zimmerman cashed almost $20 million ahead of his six-year, $100 million contract extension in 2012.

They share similar views on the path to the money, why it exists and what happens (or should) after it hits.

“I think a lot of us work our whole lives, sacrifice a lot of things, [but] not for that,” Zimmerman told NBC Sports Washington. “Like, when you first start doing something, you don’t do it to make $100 million. But once you get into the business and start to do what you have to do -- it doesn’t, at least for me, I think you hope it doesn’t change who the person is. I think you come to realize, or at least I was always taught, you receive that or earn that because of the person that you are or the work that you do and you should just continue being that same person. You shouldn’t change. You’re just really fortunate to get paid that much money and play a game, but you have to remember why you got to that point.

“It’s hard to comprehend what it does to your life, because you’re in it. I think you’ll understand that more when you’re done playing. But you have the ability to obviously take care of your children and their children, and that’s the life side of it. I think that’s pretty cool. When you sign that, you realize I just took care of -- not just yourself, you don’t care about yourself -- you think about generations if you correctly take care of it.”

Scherzer was in agreement.

“Look...I think a lot of us, at the end of the day, would play this game out of love,” Scherzer said. “The money’s just a bonus on top. The money aspect of it really is just a fight for what -- the game generates all this type of money and it’s a fight for who rightfully deserves it, whether it’s the owners or the players. Who actually gets the fans to come out to the games? That’s where the business side of the game gets ugly because it turns into you’re actually having to argue what you’re actually doing on the field. That’s why it’s never a fun thing to actually talk about or have to explain, but every player understands it at the end of the day.

“Free agency exposes everything in your life. All your friends, your family. Just exposes every single circle that you have. You find out more about yourself going through that process, about the people around you, about how stable your life is. So that when you do actually sign a contract that sets you up for life, you know you’ve been down a road that you’ve had to fight for and you can just compartmentalize what’s going on, that you now have money for the rest of your life. That, at the end of the day, that is not the reason you play the game of baseball. The reason you play the game of baseball is because you want to win. For me, that was something I was able to grasp onto.”

Scherzer went on to point out there are no rule changes on the field because you own an enormous contract. The ball doesn’t care, the mound doesn’t care, the parameters of the game between the lines don’t care.

He also mentioned he still has the same favorite televisions shows. He continues to root for his favorite non-baseball teams just the same. His year-old daughter, Brooklyn, is unconcerned, as is the horde of rescue animals patrolling the house.

“Money doesn’t buy happiness,” Scherzer said. “It buys comfort and convenience.”

Zimmerman had to think for a minute when asked if he made any nonsensical purchases following his large extension. He bought a Land Rover (“or something like that”) and paid off his parents’ house. He also eventually bought a new house for his family.

“That was really it,” Zimmerman said. “... I don’t do anything crazy. I don’t know. I try not to be real stupid with anything.”

He laughed at the final line. Though it seems like sound advice, no matter income level.

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