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Clippard believes he's back in form

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Clippard believes he's back in form

ST. LOUIS -- It was only one outing, lasting all of three batters. But it was the first time he'd retired the side in 2 12 weeks, so Tyler Clippard had plenty of reason to feel good about his performance after it was over Thursday night in Philadelphia.

"I was itching to get back out there," the Nationals reliever said. "The last few days, I've been working on some things, and I knew I was close. I wanted to get back out there, and I'm glad I got in there tonight."

Clippard hadn't pitched a clean inning since Sept. 10, following up that appearance in New York with six consecutive shaky outings, including four straight in which the right-hander surrendered a run.

During that stretch, Clippard lost his closer's job to Drew Storen, though Davey Johnson remained confident enough in him to use him in a setup role. And that's where he'll stay through the rest of the regular season and into the postseason.

"It can be like a hitter going in a little slump," Johnson explained prior to Friday night's game against the Cardinals. "Am I going to take him out of the lineup, just because he had a couple oh-fers? No. I'm the same way on relievers. I know what he can do. I'm going to ask him to do it again. He doesn't have to prove anything to me. He's been great, not just this year but last year, too. I haven't lost any confidence at all in him."

Clippard has been working with pitching coach Steve McCatty, trying to figure out what was going wrong during his rough patch. Their conclusion: Clippard wasn't locating his fastball down in the strike zone enough.

"I can look back on those outings, and they kind of come back to just one or two pitches, and most of the time they were fastballs right down the middle," he said. "And you're not going to have success, especially in fastball counts. So it's kind of just getting that confidence back, and I think Thursday night helped me do that."

Clippard isn't satisfied with the way he pitched through much of September, but at this stage of the season he's more concerned about how he'll pitch in October. And he's confident Thursday night's performance is a sign of things to come.

"I'm not too worried at this point in the season about my numbers or anything like that," he said. "I just want to get going for the playoffs, get right for that. Time it up right so I can go on a good stretch here for the last month or so of the season, for the playoffs."

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8 bold MLB predictions sure to be proven wrong

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8 bold MLB predictions sure to be proven wrong

It doesn't have quite the same feel as Opening Day, but the first games after the MLB All-Star break certainly have their own unique excitement to them.

Teams are jockeying for playoff position, and the trade deadline is rapidly approaching. The Nats have struggled through the first half, but are still within striking distance of a spot in the 2018 postseason, so every game matters.

To help get you ready for the rest of the 2018 regular season, our baseball writers have provided a couple of bold predictions which are sure to be proven wrong by August.

Bold predictions for the second half of the 2018 MLB season:

Ryan Wormeli: 1) Despite the consensus top three teams in baseball all residing in the American League, this year’s World Series champion will be a National League squad.

2) Max Scherzer does NOT win the National League Cy Young award, even though most fans agree he has the best statistical season.

Cam Ellis: 1) Bryce Harper ends up with 45 home runs this season.

2) Koda Glover eventually gets the 7th inning spot.

Michaela Johnson: 1) Nationals win the NL East (I know this VERY bold but like I said I have high expectations).

2) Tanner Roark will get back on top of his game.

Tyler Byrum: 1) The Milwaukee Brewers will drop out of the playoff hunt. 

Every year the Brewers seem to be close to running away with the NL Central. Then, once we get closer to the All-Star break and move beyond they go silent. It’s getting quite ridiculous at this point. Last year they had 50 wins in the first half, finished with only 86.

2) Philadelphia will make a trade deadline acquisition, but it will not get them over the hump. 

There are just too many issues with the Phillies; starting pitching behind Aaron Nola, consistent batting as a team, and the bullpen. They’ve done a fantastic job to piece together a 53-42 record and sit atop the division, but it will be tough to maintain it. 

Right now, they are almost the exact opposite of the Nationals.

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Washington Nationals second half preview

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Washington Nationals second half preview

The second half of the 2018 MLB season gets underway on Thursday night and the Nats find themselves on the outside looking in at the playoff picture right now.

In order for them to get past the Braves, Phillies, Diamondbacks, Brewers, etc., a number of things will have to go right in D.C. over the next 65-ish games.

A few questions will be hanging over the franchise these next few months, so to help break down what to look for during the Nats’ second half, I enlisted some fellow NBC Sports Washington writers to help me out, roundtable-style.

Without further ado, here are some second-half predictions.

Contributors:

Ryan Wormeli - @RyanWarmly
Cam Ellis - @KingsleyEllis
Michaela Johnson - @mjohnson262
Tyler Byrum - @theTylerByrum

Most important Nationals player in the second half:

Ryan Wormeli: Stephen Strasburg
Everyone knows Max Scherzer is going to dominate as the Nats’ ace, and everyone knows Bryce Harper will hit home runs. In fact, assuming health, everyone knows the team will be pretty good at most spots. Strasburg, however, is the one that can take the Nats, to quote former Maryland coach Randy Edsall, from “good to great.” If he’s elite as their number two starter, this team is making the playoffs. Book it.

Cam Ellis: Bryce Harper

Michaela Johnson: Bryce Harper 
In the sense that it’s critical he gets hot again. Hopefully, his Home Run Derby win sparks something.

Tyler Byrum: Gio Gonzalez 
There are a couple of ways to look at this. Of course, Bryce Harper needs to be better and Stephen Strasburg has to come back fully healthy from the disabled list for them to even have a chance. Even if those two do that though, it probably will not be enough to make a climb in the division. 

Last year Gonzalez had easily the second-best season of his career. With a 15-9 record and a 2.96 ERA in 2017, Gonzalez could easily be a No. 2 pitcher on half of the teams in the major. This season his ERA is sitting at 3.72 and has only won six of the 19 games he started. More than just looking at his stats, his outings are short too, making it to the seventh inning only three times this year. Additionally, the two-time All-Star is on pace to strike out the fewest batters this season than in the past decade.

Max Scherzer will get the Nationals a win once a week, hopefull,y Strasburg will get it done too, but Gonzalez is the Wild Card.

Biggest X-Factor for the Nationals

Ryan Wormeli: Juan Soto
An X-factor is someone whose play can dramatically impact the team’s success. If they’re successful, the team wins. If they play poorly, the team suffers.

This can apply to a number of players on the Nats, but I’m going to go with Juan Soto. He’s already exceeded expectations all season long, and helped keep the team afloat. They probably wouldn’t be within shouting distance of the postseason without the young phenom.

If Soto maintains his abnormally strong play while the rest of the team gets it going, the ceiling on this team is higher than any in the National League besides maybe the Dodgers and Cubs. If not, then they can still be okay, but probably not good enough.

Cam Ellis: Stephen Strasburg

Michaela Johnson: Daniel Murphy
Since returning from injury he’s been solid, batting .324 in July. Davey Martinez has good discretion when it comes to resting vs. playing guys coming off injury, and I foresee a strong comeback for Murphy.

Tyler Byrum: Bryce Harper
This is Harper’s team and it always will be with him on the roster. Yes, that .214 batting average is not going to win him a pennant, but Harper is so much more to this team. The 2018 Home Run Derby champion has to bring the fire to the Nationals night-in and night-out, whether or not he is able to get hits on the board. 

Some people want to question his leadership ability (we’re not going to touch that topic), but he needs to inspire his guys in the clubhouse.

Show us the Harper that we saw at the derby, even with a poor batting average, and we’ll see a different team out on the field in the second half.

Will the Nationals make the playoffs?

Ryan Wormeli: Yes
I’m actually very on the fence about this question. I’m going to say yes, but it’s like 51-49. I just am too impressed with the Braves and Phillies, and the latter especially seems keen on making an aggressive move at the trade deadline.

Cam Ellis: Yes
Yes, BUT it'll be the wild card game at Nats Park and extremely stressful.

Michaela Johnson: Yes
If I was making a call based on what we’ve seen in the first half, obviously not. But I have high expectations for the second half based on a Harper resurgence and Murph recovery, so I’m going to say yes.

Tyler Byrum: Yes
Yes. There is too much talent on this roster for them not to. With Strasburg coming back it will be more than just Scherzer dealing out there. The Philadelphia Phillies should cool down at some point too and it will be a two-headed race between the Nats and the Atlanta Braves for the division.

More likely scenario: Bryce Harper is traded at the deadline OR he signs a long-term extension in D.C.

Ryan Wormeli:
I figure everyone will say he signs a long-term extension, and I’m not going to swim against the current here. It’s highly, highly unlikely that he’s traded at the deadline, but given the national conversation surrounding his future in the nation’s capital, I thought it was at least worth asking.

Cam Ellis:
Bryce signs an extension this offseason. That's my prediction

Michaela Johnson:
He signs an extension, based solely on this quote.

Tyler Byrum:
Signs extension. There is no way the Nationals will trade the leader of the team and the guy that just won the Home Run Derby on his own field. Sure it is fun to debate but that is the last thing that this clubhouse needs at this moment. 

On Monday night he showed his power and just why he is worth the lucrative extension.

However, trading Harper would be a typical case of #DCSports.

Who will lead the Nationals in batting average in the second half?

Ryan Wormeli: Daniel Murphy 
If he was never hurt entering the season, he could very well have been the betting favorite to lead the team in average all season long. He’s far enough removed from the Disabled List at this point to feel comfortable taking a shot on his pure hitting talent.

Cam Ellis: Anthony Rendon

Michaela Johnson: Juan Soto

Tyler Byrum: Trea Turner
He is due for a turnaround and none of the pressure is on him. There might also be some extra juice after his All-Star team snubbing. 

Biggest/most important trade deadline acquisition

Ryan Wormeli: JT Realmuto
Going to go out on a limb here and say the Nats in a bit of a panic move but one that’s completely defensible, do what it takes to pry the All-Star catcher away from the woeful Marlins.

Cam Ellis: Matt Harvey 
Another starting pitcher. The Dark Knight rises. 

Michaela Johnson:
*fingers crossed* Starting pitching.

Tyler: Manny Machado
This is a no-brainer. Once written off a decimated by injury, the Los Angeles Dodgers are back to being a World Series contender once again. Sitting at the top of the division, with no one in the National League pulling away, Machado will put the Dodgers back as the team to chance.

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