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Dominant Janssen, Storen help shorten game

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Dominant Janssen, Storen help shorten game

The impetus for last week's Jonathan Papelbon trade wasn't so much about the Nationals trying to bolster the ninth inning as it was about bolstering the seventh and eighth innings. Mike Rizzo already knew he had an elite closer in Drew Storen; what he didn't have were consistently reliable setup men to bridge the gap from starter to Storen.

One week since the blockbuster deal, the Nationals general manager's grand vision has been working to near-perfection. Papelbon is 2-for-2 in save opportunities since joining his new club, but the real stars of the Nats bullpen have been the guys pitching in front of him: Casey Janssen and Storen.

And Tuesday night's 5-4 victory over the Diamondbacks was perhaps the most striking example of that to date. Janssen entered for the top of the seventh inning of what was then a 3-3 game and proceeded to retire the side on seven pitches, six of them strikes. Then Storen cruised through the top of the eighth, also retiring the side, this time on nine pitches, all of them strikes.

If not for those crucial zeroes posted in the seventh and eighth innings, the Nationals might never be in position to win the game.

"To have guys down there that are quality arms, that can get outs, it just gives you more confidence as a team," said Max Scherzer, who threw 114 pitches over six innings before giving way to the bullpen. "We can continue to run out guys that can shut down innings. Having Papelbon here, it's a big plus."

That's because it allows manager Matt Williams to go to another pair of experienced, late-inning relievers earlier in games. It begins with Janssen, who after a frustrating first half of the season that included a long DL stint and then some inconsistent performances, has turned electric since. Over his last nine appearances, he has tossed 8 2/3 scoreless innings, allowing only two hits and a walk while striking out 10.

"I feel like I'm throwing the ball like I should and like I know how to throw," the 34-year-old right-hander said. "Obviously getting ahead helps out a lot. Getting the first out of every inning. The standard stuff. But I'm just commanding the ball to both sides of the plate well and hitting on my offspeed pitches when I need to."

The Nationals expected to count on Janssen for big outs late in games when they signed him over the winter to a contract that guaranteed at least $5 million. It took some time, though, for the veteran reliever to earn Williams' trust.

Janssen doesn't fault his manager for that, recognizing the onus was on him to perform.

"I was just a body down there, I felt like," he said. "I feel like they didn't know what they were going to get every time. And I know what I can do. It was just a matter of me showing them. And once they continued to see it, it was like, 'Hey, this is the guy we signed in the offseason that was supposed to help.' Obviously I'm getting to that point, and now I just need to continue it and kind of stamp it."

Janssen has become utterly dominant, but Storen has managed to take things to an entirely different level in the last week. His personal disappointment in the Papelbon trade is no secret, but the former closer has managed to channel those emotions into perhaps the best stretch of his pitching career.

In four appearances since Papelbon was acquired, Storen has faced 12 batters. He has retired all 12, striking out six. And he has thrown 32 of his 35 pitches for strikes.

"It's just about repeating your delivery," he said of this recent surge. "I've been able to do that. I feel very comfortable with where my mechanics are right now, and I'm throwing it where I want to. It's a good thing."

Tuesday's performance was especially impressive for Storen, given the fact he was facing the heart of the Diamondbacks' lineup (A.J. Pollack, Paul Goldschmidt, David Peralta) for the second straight night. He has retired all three both times.

"Any tie game is tough," he said. "Then [you have] to couple it with 2-3-4, who are some very good hitters. Then you've got to think about how I faced those guys last night, so they won't be seeing anything new. You've got to make sure you execute in those situations."

The manner in which Storen has responded to a difficult situation over the last week hasn't been lost on his teammates.

"It shows how professional he is," Janssen said. "It shows how good of a pitcher he is. ... Probably deep down he wasn't pumped [about] it, but he accepted it and has done a tremendous job. We need him to pitch well and to get the ball into Pap's hand in the ninth. Sometimes it's a thankless job, because everyone just hears about the closer. But we appreciate him a lot."

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Fantasy Baseball Outlook: Week 12

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Fantasy Baseball Outlook: Week 12

We're just a couple of weeks away from the midway point of the 2018 Major League Baseball season, which means many casual fantasy baseball players have collectively turned their attention to the gridiron. This is good news for those of you still interested, because outside of the truly competitive leagues, it's about to get much easier to navigate the waiver wire and make winning trades.

That said, we'll still be here all season long, providing advice for anyone looking to gain a competitive edge in their fantasy leagues. There's a lot to digest in the upcoming week, as many teams (including the Washington Nationals) will play a full seven game slate. It's an especially great time for stars in baseball, as a whopping six players are on pace to record seasons with 8.7 Wins Above Replacement or higher, but there's still plenty of great options beyond the obvious guys.

NOTE: Don’t expect to see guys like Bryce Harper or Trea Turner mentioned too often. They are clear must-starts every week. Don’t overthink it.

Week 12 (6/18-6/24)

One Nationals pitcher to start: Max Scherzer

We won't often include a guy on the level of Mad Max in our recommendations, but consider this a statement against the other pitchers. With Stephen Strasburg on the DL, Gio Gonzalez is really the only other startable option in the rotation, and while he's a fine play against the Orioles, he's not a sure thing. Scherzer is the best pitcher in baseball, so when in doubt, it's easy to fall back on his name. For now, feel free to use Gonzalez if needed, but the only clear, recommendable one this week is Scherzer.

One Nationals position player to start: Adam Eaton, OF

Consider this your reminder to not get cute and just start Adam Eaton whenever he's healthy. When he can manage to avoid time on the disabled list, he's consistenly been one of the best players in Washington, and an absolute must-start in fantasy. Yes, he's hitting "just" .286 in five games since returning from the DL, but there's no reason to believe he won't bounce back to one of the top hitters in the National League once he gets back in the swing of things. As long as he's hitting at the top of the Washington lineup, he'll be one of the top run producers in baseball.

One Nationals pitcher to sit: Erick Fedde

We likely would have advised against starting Fedde regardless of matchup, given his relative struggles in his two starts with the Nats this season. He's got a nice 9:2 strikeout-to-walk rate, but the ERA sits at an unsightly 5.91. What makes matters worse is the matchup; Fedde is once again slated to face the vaunted New York Yankees lineup. In New York, he allowed two home runs in just five innings, and while Nats park isn't the hitter's haven that Yankee Stadium is, the sluggers in their lineup make for a daunting matchup in any city.

Fedde probably isn't owned in most leagues, and there's no reason for that to change, even with his spot in the rotation likely secure as long as Strasburg isn't throwing.. 

One Nationals player to sit: Daniel Murphy, 2B

Nats fans were understandably rejoicing when Daniel Murphy returned to the lineup last week. It's always fun when one of your stars is back on the field after missing so much time. Still, like most players who haven't face in-game pitching in several months, Murphy has been slow to re-adjust at the plate. He's recorded just two hits in 15 at-bats, has only walked once, and has yet to notch an extra-base hit of any kind. His OPS is below-.200, and while no one should expect that to last, there's no need to rush him back into your lineups either.

It would be pretty tempting to slot Murphy into your 2B or middle infield spot now that he's healthy, since you likely drafted him to be one of your studs, but given his lengthy absence, the nature of his original injury, and his slow start since returning, it's probably a good idea to leave him on your bench for a week or two. Once he starts driving the ball again, he can start to return value for you, but there's no reason to let him drag you down in the meantime.

Any 2-start pitchers for the Nationals this week?

Given that the rotation is currently in a state of flux, we can't confidently say any starter will get two starts. Fedde looks like the most likely candidate, but as we outlined above, he's still a pitcher you want to avoid for now.

Any 2-start pitchers worth streaming around MLB this week?

One of my favorite sleepers this week is Domingo German. One of the most surprising stats in all of baseball right now is that among starting pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched, German has the second best swinging strike rate, behind only Max Scherzer. Swinging strike rate is a great stat to use when projecting future strikeout potential, and German's 15.9% is mighty impressive. German has a start at home against the Mariners and on the road against the Rays, so while it's not a cakewalk week, it's not especially daunting either. As an added bonus for those in points leagues, German is RP-eligible, giving you some extra roster flexibility.

The walks are a little high (21 in 53.3 innings) which has let to an elevated WHIP and ERA, but it's a good rule of thumb to follow the strikeouts when identifiying quality fantasy pitchers, and considering most of the two-start guys this week are obvious studs who are certainly already owned in your league, German is the exact type of option you should be looking to stream.

One player you might not realize you should pick up: John Hicks, C/1B (Tigers) 

This is a sneaky move, the kind that could easily get overlooked in most fantasy leagues but could provide a great return on investment. With Miguel Cabrera's unfortunate season-ending biceps injury providing an opening in the everyday lineup in Detroit, Hicks (who is catcher elgibile) will be taking most of the team's at-bats at first base going forward. While he's probably not worth rostering as a first baseman in most leagues, catcher is a notorious black hole in fantasy baseball in recent years, and this season might be the wost yet.

Hicks will maintain catcher eligibility all season long, yet he'll play the far less demanding first base every day, giving him less wear and tear on his legs, less concern with running the pitching staff, and most importantly, regular at-bats in a surprisingly not-atrocious lineup. Hicks isn't the type of guy you'd refer to as a league-winner prior to Opening Day, but he could make a real impact on a championship roster in the second half of the season.

One player you might not realize you should drop: Jake Junis, SP (Royals) 

Junis isn't the type of pitcher that I'd classify as a must-drop, but you shouldn't hesitate to move on if there's a clear better option on the waiver wire. Junis started the season strong and looked like a legitimate breakout player, but he's allowed six earned runs in each of his last two starts. A poor two-start stretch isn't the end of the world, which is why I'm not suggest that everyone jump ship regardless of team context. That said, he doesn't have the pedigree of a top pitching prospect, and he plays for one of the five worst teams in baseball, meaning you can't expect many wins even when Junis is throwing well.

At the very least, you prbably should leave Junis on the bench for the time being, and again, if there's an option you've been eyeing on the waiver wire, now is the time to strike. Don't feel bad if that means leaving Junis behind to free up a roster spot for your team.

MORE NATS NEWS:

- Nice Threads: MLB reveals All-Star jerseys
- Rankings Update: Where did the Nats fall?
- On the Farm: Latest Nats prospect report

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Nationals' offense remains quiet in 2-0 loss to Toronto

Nationals' offense remains quiet in 2-0 loss to Toronto

TORONTO  -- Max Scherzer lost his second straight start for the first time since 2015 when Marco Estrada pitched 6 2-3 shutout innings and Devon Travis homered Saturday for the Toronto Blue Jays in a 2-0 win over the Washington Nationals.

Scherzer (10-3) gave up four hits, including the two-run homer by Travis, in six innings. The two-time NL Cy Young Award winner struck out 10, increasing his major league-leading total to 152.

The right-hander, who lost to San Francisco in his previous outing, last lost two straight starts in a three-game skid in August 2015. Travis homered for the second game in a row when he connected in the fifth, right after Scherzer hit Luke Maile with a pitch.

Estrada (4-6) allowed three hits, one a bunt single, to win back-to-back starts for the first time this season. Toronto has won six straight at home after losing 10 of its previous 11 at Rogers Centre.

Trea Turner hit a two-out double in the sixth, but Estrada struck out Bryce Harper looking. An exasperated Harper was caught looking again to end the eighth, stranding a runner at first. Harper went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts, dropping his average to .221.

Estrada left after Michael A. Taylor's two-out single put runners at first and second in the seventh. Danny Barnes came on and needed two pitches to retire Wilmer Difo on a groundout.

Barnes and Aaron Loup each got two outs and former Nationals closer Tyler Clippard finished the three-hitter for his third save in six opportunities.

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