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Gio bested by Buehrle

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Gio bested by Buehrle

MIAMI -- In hindsight, the Nationals were perfectly happy to wind up with Gio Gonzalez in their rotation instead of Mark Buehrle. It was only seven months ago, however, that general manager Mike Rizzo's focus was set squarely on Buehrle, his top offseason target.

It wasn't until after Buehrle spurned the Nationals' three-year offer for a four-year deal with the Marlins and Rizzo's gaze turned to Gonzalez and the six-player trade that brought the left-hander to Washington.

The Nationals aren't complaining at all, not with Gonzalez tied for the league lead in wins and coming off an appearance in the All-Star Game. But on Saturday night, everyone else did get a good glimpse at what made Buehrle so attractive to them in the first place.

With pinpoint command a breakneck pace on the mound, Buehrle carved up the Nationals' lineup for seven innings, leading the Marlins to a 2-1 victory and making a hard-luck loser out of Gonzalez, who was in top form himself but came out on the wrong end of a difficult decision.

"He certainly pitched well enough to win that one," manager Davey Johnson said.

Gonzalez pitched extraordinarily well, scattering four singles and a double over six innings, striking out nine and walking none. Buehrle, though, was better, allowing just one run over seven innings and looking every bit worth the 58 million contract he received in December.

"That's the first time I've ever faced him, but obviously I've seen him a lot," Ryan Zimmerman said of the 33-year-old left-hander, pitching in the NL for the first time this season. "He's been in the league a long time, and he's been really good a long time. He's one of those guys who pounds the zone, he works quick, and he's got a bunch of different pitches that he throws for strikes."

Buehrle (9-8, 3.13 ERA) was so efficient -- he needed only 26 pitches, 20 of them strikes, to complete his first three innings -- the Nationals couldn't afford to try to work the count. He threw first-pitch strikes to 13 of the first 15 batters he faced, leaving just about every hitter in a hole or forcing them to try to put the first pitch in play.

The only run they finally managed to score off him came via small ball and hustle in the top of the fifth, with Ian Desmond beating out a bunt, then stealing second, then racing around to score on Jesus Flores' broken-bat single to left.

The Nationals had a chance to add to the tally later in that inning, with two on and nobody out. But Buehrle fielded Gonzalez's sacrifice bunt attempt and fired to third base to nail the lead runner. That proved costly when Danny Espinosa followed with a flyball to right that would have scored a man from third.

Instead, Zimmerman wound up at the plate with two outs and the bases loaded and wound up striking out on a 2-2 changeup in the dirt.

"I had a chance to get a big hit there, and he made some good pitches against me," said Zimmerman, who had been hitting .364 over his last 16 games. "I wish I could get a hit every time, but unfortunately the pitcher wins sometimes."

Zimmerman wasn't alone in his struggles against Buehrle or the two relievers Miami manager Ozzie Guillen summoned to finish out this game. Bryce Harper went 0-for-3 with a walk and two strikeouts, whiffing on three pitches against lefty Randy Choate in the eighth. Espinosa was 0-for-4 with a pair of strikeouts.

And Michael Morse went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts for the second consecutive day, once again getting called out twice.

"He's just in between the fastball and the breaking ball," Johnson said. "He's a better hitter than that. He'll come around."

The Marlins didn't have much more success at the plate against Gonzalez. They just managed to execute a couple of times with men in scoring position.

Carlos Lee drove in Jose Reyes with a fourth-inning single, with Reyes dancing off second base trying to distract Gonzalez throughout the at-bat.

"You just got to learn how to minimize damage," Gonzalez said. "Can't let him go out there and cheat on you a little bit and try to get too much of a lead."

One inning later, Emilio Bonifacio beat out a drag bunt, took second on a sacrifice bunt and then scored on John Buck's single to right-center. That's all the Marlins needed to take a 2-1.

"If you've got speed, speed kills," Gonzalez said. "And that's exactly what they were doing. ... All they had to do was put the ball in play."

Thus spoiled what the left-hander hoped would be a happy homecoming. Pitching nine miles from his home in Hialeah, Fla., Gonzalez had more than 600 family members and friends in attendance for his first-ever start in Miami.

Even in loss, the hometown kid couldn't help but smile afterward thinking about the experience.

"It's just one of those things you dream about," he said. "And that's exactly how I felt."

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Nationals trade for Royals' closer Kelvin Herrera

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USA TODAY Sports

Nationals trade for Royals' closer Kelvin Herrera

The Nationals made the first major trade of the season this evening. 

Midway through their Monday night game against the Yankees, the team announced that they had completed a trade for Royals' relief pitcher Kelvin Herrera:

Herrera's a major acquisition for the Nationals, as the pitcher is in the middle of a career year. He's currently pitched 25 innings so far, posting a 1.05 FIP, 2.62 ERA and 0.82 WHIP. His 2.1 percent walk rate this season is a career low. 

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Catching up on the Orioles before they come to D.C.

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Catching up on the Orioles before they come to D.C.

It's not a rivalry, but it's not not a rivalry, either.

For the Nationals, playing the Orioles isn't the same thing as playing the Braves or the Phillies, but it's also not the same thing as playing the Tigers or the Rangers. That is to say, it means something.

For many Nats fans, however, the Capitals' glorious run to the Stanley Cup has drawn attention away from baseball, both in D.C. and around the league.

With the Orioles coming to town to finish off their season series (the Nats swept three games in Baltimore back in May when they had forgotten how to lose on the road), casual fans might be wondering how the DMV's other team is doing in 2018.

Well, if the road sweep didn't give it away, the Orioles have been really bad this season. Like, really, really bad. Like, might-be-picking-first-in-the-2019-draft bad.

So, how did the team that won the most games in the American League from 2012 to 2016 end up as the worst team in baseball in 2018?

There are a few factors we can point to, including some serious regression, bad injury luck, a lack of fundamentals, and a tough schedule. On a macro level, however, there's a clear reason for their struggles. The Orioles, who built their 2010s run behind power hitting and a great bullpen, haven't hit for power and haven't had a good bullpen.

The bullpen woes can partially be traced to injury, as Zach Britton has missed most of the year so far after undergoing surgery on his Achilles during the offseason. 

Britton was unbelievable in 2016, putting together one of the greatest relief seasons in recent memory, but he hasn't been quite right since. He struggled with minor injuries in 2017, which hurt his trade value during discussions at last year's trade deadline, and then he suffered his major injury over the winter.

When a team relies on its bullpen as heavily as the Orioles have in the last half-decade, missing any contributor hurts. Missing the best pitcher on the team hurts a lot, and missing one of the best relievers in the world hurts the most. Everyone else has had to move up a rung on the ladder, and it hasn't gone well.

Brad Brach made the All-Star Game in 2016, but since stepping into the closer's role this year he's struggled. A 3.58 ERA is unsightly for a reliever, and his 1.70 WHIP is among the worst of any closer. 16 walks in 27.2 innings have been a major culprit.

Mychal Givens, once considered an untouchable trade asset, is sporting a career-worst ERA of 4.04, and his and Brach's struggles, combined with Britton's absence, have given the O's a 4.17 ERA among all relievers, 22nd in baseball, and a .263 batting average against, which is next-to-last. They have no power pitchers to speak of, as they're striking out just 8.18 batter per 9 innings, 4th-worst in baseball.

The power has gone out at the plate as well. The Orioles have hit 77 home runs this season, which is good for 17th in baseball. That may not sound too bad, as it's right around the middle of the pack, but that total is buoyed by Manny Machado's MVP-level season. The rest of the team has hit a combined 59 home runs, an abysmal number. 

Until being benched recently, Chris Davis was on pace to record literally the worst single-season Wins Above Replacement total in Major League Baseball history. On his own, Davis is undoing any good done by Machado, and he's getting paid a boatload of money to do so. 

It's especially bad when considering how reliant the team is on long balls. Their team batting average is .228, which is barely better than Bryce Harper's .217 average everyone is freaking out about, and their team on-base percentage is a stunning .294, good for dead last in baseball.

Basically, this team never has baserunners, which means they need home runs to score (41.9% of their runs are scored via homers, which is top-10 in baseball). Considering how few home runs they've hit, it's no surprise they've scored the fewest runs in all of baseball.

So, when you see the Orioles' record is an astonishing 20-50 (for reference, that's seven games worse than the woeful Marlins) and they sit 27.5 games back of first place in the AL East, now you know why. The power is out in Baltimore, and it looks like it won't be coming back for quite some time.

Next time the Nats lose five of six games, fans won't have to look too far up I-95 to remember it could be a whol lot worse.