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Bullpen, baserunning cost Nats in season-ending loss to Dodgers

Bullpen, baserunning cost Nats in season-ending loss to Dodgers

The Major League Baseball postseason is known for its surprises, but sometimes the results can be vividly familiar. After four games of airtight relief pitching, a fortuitous change of playoff character for the Nationals, their bullpen orchestrated an untimely letdown to allow another opportunity to advance in the postseason vanish into the night. 

With their 4-3 loss to the Dodgers in Game 5 of the NL Division Series on Thursday, the Nationals' season is over, and once again it ended far sooner than they expected.

This one didn't feature a blown lead quite like in 2012 or 2014. But the Nationals' relievers couldn't come through when counted on, resulting in yet another crushing playoff defeat.

The latest October disaster took place in the top of the seventh inning and it began with Max Scherzer's final pitch of the night, one that resulted in a towering solo homer by Joc Pederson that bounced into the visitors bullpen. 

"I gave as good an effort as I’ve ever given in my life. I put everything I got in every single pitch," Scherzer said. "The pitch I got beat on I hit my spot. I executed my pitch, he just made a great swing on it."

Pederson's bomb tied the game at 1-1, but matters would sink to much deeper depths before the inning was over. Yasmani Grandal drew a walk off reliever Marc Rzepczynski and later scored on a Carlos Ruiz single. The catcher pinch-hit against Blake Treinen and smacked a line drive off the glove of Anthony Rendon and into left field.

Setup man Shawn Kelley took over from there and served up a rocket triple off the center field wall to Justin Turner, the star of the series. That scored two and made it 4-1 Dodgers. Kelley then left with a nerve issue in his right arm. He is expected to be fine.

The Nationals inched closer with a jolt of a home run from Chris Heisey in the bottom of the seventh. The backup outfielder clobbered a two-run shot to left field off Dodgers reliever Grant Dayton. It was the first postseason pinch-hit homer in Nats/Expos franchise history, and it cut the Dodgers lead to one.

The Nats would get another chance in the inning by loading the bases on singles by Clint Robinson and Bryce Harper, and an intentional walk to Murphy. Rendon, however, then struck out swinging against closer Kenley Jansen to extinguish the rally. The seventh inning lasted a whopping 66 minutes.

"That's pretty unbelievable, actually," Trea Turner said of the inning's length. "It was a wild game."

Dodgers starter Rich Hill only made it 2 2/3 innings despite striking out six. He allowed one run on three hits and two walks during that span. 

Rookie Julio Urias later took over and walked Harper in the fifth, but ended the inning by picking him off at first. Urias nearly picked Harper off moments earlier. The Dodgers rookie, who threw only 77 innings during the regular season, led the majors in pickoffs. Harper decided to test him again and paid for it.

That wasn't the only baserunning mistake made by the Nationals. They nearly scored a run off Urias in the bottom of the sixth after Jayson Werth drew a leadoff walk. With two outs, he was sent home by third base coach Bobby Henley on a Ryan Zimmerman double to the left field corner. Werth, however, had no chance to score. He was dead on arrival with the relay throw beating him to the plate by about 30 feet. 

"After the fact, hindsight, [do I] wish I could have it back? Well sure, that's human nature," Henley said. "We tried to be aggressive all year. It's our style of play. Does it hurt? Sure it hurts. Any time it doesn't work out, you feel like it may have cost us."

"We’ve been aggressive ever since I’ve been here on that play. You live and die by those moments sometimes," Werth said.

The Nationals had another solid chance in the third inning with two men in scoring position. Turner led off with a single, stole second and then took third on a Harper flyout. Murphy was intentionally walked and stole second himself. But Rendon lined out hard to center field off reliever Joe Blanton to end the frame. The Nats third baseman set a Division Series record by stranding 22 men on base against the Dodgers.

"You can't be the best all the time. You can't always come out on top. You've gotta get knocked down every now and then," Rendon said.

L.A. got little going against Scherzer until the fifth inning when Josh Reddick singled for their first hit of the night. Pederson and Andrew Toles each singled to load the bases. Scherzer proceeded to escape by striking out pinch-hitter Andre Ethier and getting Chase Utley to ground out to short. That allowed 43,936 to catch their breath after one of the more intense sequences of the night.

[RELATED: PHOTOS: Bryce Harper pays tribute to Harambe with bat decal]

Danny Espinosa drove in the Nats' first run in the first inning on a single to right field off Hill. It was Espinosa's first RBI and just his second hit of the NLDS. The Nats shortstop had previously been 1-for-11 with eight strikeouts and three hit-by-pitches in 14 plate appearances.

Espinosa scored Murphy all the way from second. But it wasn't easy, Murphy was given an aggressive green light by Henley and he had to do a stutter-step juke to avoid the tag by Grandal at home. It was another questionable send, but it worked out much better than the one with Werth. The Nats took a 1-0 lead that would hold until the seventh.

The Nationals had a final stand in the ninth inning and got two runners on base on walks by Harper and Werth. The Dodgers then called on former MVP Clayton Kershaw to replace Jansen - who tossed a career-high 51 pitches - for the final two outs. He got Murphy to pop out and rookie Wilmer Difo to go down swinging. The Nats went 1-for-10 with runners in scoring position.

"I think they brought in their horse," Harper said. "That’s why Clayton Kershaw is one of the best."

"That’s probably one of the craziest, if not the craziest game I’ve ever been a part of in my career, in my life. Man. This is a tough one to be on the wrong side of," Scherzer said.

With the loss, the Nationals are now 0-3 in their history in NLDS games with a chance to clinch. Manager Dusty Baker extended his MLB record to nine straight losses in playoff games with an opportunity to advance.

"It's not a very pleasant pain. I've gone through that pain a few times now," Baker said.

The city of Washington will go another year without a team in the semifinals of a major sports (MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL) league. The unfortunate streak will now extend to 19 years.

[RELATED: Redskins legend John Riggins fires up Nats fans]

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Nationals, Astros wade into first spring training game after polar opposite weeks

Nationals, Astros wade into first spring training game after polar opposite weeks

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- It’s tough to blot out the sun and joy in south Florida. Friday was an exception. The temperature dropped into the 60s, clouds won the day and if West Palm Beach can be labeled dreary, the title fit on Friday as the wind whipped around.

The poor weather forced the Nationals into a truncated workout before their first game of spring training. Typically, the Grapefruit League opener for each team would be a signifier of the creeping regular season. It’s not a thing. Certainly not a thing, thing. But that will be the case Saturday night when Max Scherzer faces the still-reeling Houston Astros.

The week has not been kind to the Astros. Meanwhile, the Nationals have mixed goofing around with standard practices.

Houston absorbed shots from multiple players, notably including Atlanta outfielder Nick Markakis, who said every Astros player “needs a beating,” which prompted Houston manager Dusty Baker to retort Markakis must have had his Wheaties that morning. Earlier in the week, a fan ran up and banged a garbage can when José Altuve and others were taking batting practice, then took off.

Washington was busy with a cabbage race on National Cabbage Day and mercilessly pelting the head of its public relations director with water balloons on his birthday. Music played, Scherzer tussled with Starlin Castro, Trea Turner and Adam Eaton when throwing live batting practice, and Howie Kendrick held a rematch with Will Harris for the first time as teammates.

No one talked about death threats, which Houston outfielder Josh Reddick did on Friday when mentioning some of the social media backlash he is managing. No one on the Nationals’ side prompted hi-jinks from fans. The air horn signalled when to move, modern rap or the gravelly of Chris Stapleton bellowed from large speakers, and everyone generally went about their business.

The question about Saturday is if anything out of the ordinary will happen. What if Scherzer loses command of a pitch in his first outing and hits an Astros player? Who decides intent? Baker is so concerned about retaliation against his players, he publicly called on the league to warn other teams. Commissioner Rob Manfred said he did as much when talking to a large chunk of managers at his annual spring training press conference. Tony Clark, executive director of the MLBPA, said Friday the issue remains on the minds of the Astros.

“When you have comments publicly that suggest certain things may happen on the field, it’s hard to ignore those,” Clark said.

Clark spent roughly four hours meeting with Astros players on Friday. A large “2017 World Series champions” sign was one of the few things above the 6-foot-8 head of the players’ union. He said Houston players were “contrite and direct” in their discussions with him and they were concerned about “making sure the game is in the best place possible moving forward.” Clark’s comment came at lunchtime the day after the Nationals went through a parade through downtown West Palm Beach to yet again celebrate winning last season.

Houston will not play its regulars Saturday. Washington will play a few. Joe Ross will pitch after Scherzer. Everyone will watch Carter Kieboom in the field at third base. Baker and Martinez should cross paths. In the stands? Who knows? Every stadium is filled with metal garbage cans and beer vendors.

“I’m hoping that on our side, I can’t tell you anything about the Houston Astros or what they’re going to do or whatever, but for us we act professional, we go about our business and we get ready for the season,” Martinez said. “Go out there and compete and just get ready to play.”

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As Las Vegas gives odds for Astros’ hit batters, Houston players say they’re not worried about it

As Las Vegas gives odds for Astros’ hit batters, Houston players say they’re not worried about it

The unwritten rules of baseball say that when your team is wronged or disrespected by an opponent, it’s on the pitching staff to retaliate.

Whether spoken aloud or not, that rule will be put to the test this season when the Houston Astros play out their 162-game schedule. From AL West division rivals to clubs that lost to Houston in recent playoff series, teams from across MLB are trying to grapple with the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal that’s dominated the sport’s headlines for most of the offseason.

After many players came out voicing displeasure with MLB’s decision not to punish the players involved with the cheating scheme, Las Vegas sportsbooks put out an over/under total of 83.5 for the number of times the Astros will be hit by a pitch in 2020.

NBC4 Washington’s Lindsay Czarniak spoke with several members of the Astros on Friday about whether opposing teams would try to retaliate for their use of technology to steal opposing pitchers’ signs in real time during their World Series run in 2017 and parts of the 2018 season.

“I’m not concerned about that,” shortstop Carlos Correa said. “We’re grown men out here and whatever happens, happens. We just go out there and be professional and play the game.”

In 2019, there were 1,984 hit batters, or an average of just over 66 per team. Only one team, the New York Yankees, exceeded that total of 83.5 (they had 86 batters hit by a pitch). But despite MLB cracking down on pitchers intentionally hitting batters and handing out stiffer penalties for pitchers suspected of doing so, the number of hit batters has been on a steady incline the last half-decade.

In fact, the number of hit batters has increased every season since 2015. There were 1,602 batters hit by pitches that season, an average of 53.4 per team. That makes the 2019 total a 23.8 percent increase over the figure from five years prior.

Houston was right at the league average last season, watching its hitters take pitches of themselves 66 times. While the threat of disgruntled players deciding to take matters into their own hands looms, the Astros are preaching the same company line about only focusing on themselves.

“We can’t worry about that,” starter Lance McCullers told Czarniak. “That’s something that a lot of players have been speaking out about. We’re not sure if those players [are] speaking that way because they want to sound a certain way, they want to be portrayed a certain way. We can only worry about what’s in this locker room at that’s something that Dusty has really been preaching to us.

“We just got to go out there and we just got to play baseball and whatever comes along with this season we’ll address it and we’ll deal with it then.”

These comments also come on heels of MLB issuing a memo to teams laying out a new process umpires will be using to determine if pitchers are intentionally hitting batters during games. The umpires will now discuss the pitch in question among themselves before anyone is tossed, with managers being held more accountable. The change is reportedly not related to the Astros but comes at a convenient time for them and MLB.

That all said, 83.5 is still a high number for bettors to consider. It wouldn’t be unprecedented, but the Astros would most likely be among the most-hit clubs in baseball if they do approach that total.

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