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Gio Gonzalez gives up 5 in 1st of 11-8 loss to Pirates

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USA TODAY Sports

Gio Gonzalez gives up 5 in 1st of 11-8 loss to Pirates

WASHINGTON -- Gio Gonzalez gave up five runs in the first inning of yet another concerning outing for a Washington Nationals starting pitcher, and the NL East champions wrapped up the regular season Sunday with an 11-8 loss to the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Gonzalez (15-9) needed 39 pitches across 16 arduous minutes to record the game's first three outs, while his ERA rose from 2.75 to 2.96 just in that opening inning. The Pirates batted around as the lefty walked two batters, hit Jordan Luplow to force in a run with the bases loaded and allowed Max Moroff's three-run double along with Jacob Stallings' RBI single.

This came a day after 2016 NL Cy Young Award winner Max Scherzer left his last pre-playoffs start for Washington in the fourth inning after feeling something wrong with his right hamstring. At least Scherzer sounded optimistic about things Sunday, saying that an MRI exam showed he had only "tweaked" his muscle, not strained it.

Gonzalez wound up going only 4 1-3 innings, allowing six runs, seven hits and three walks. It was his shortest appearance of a bounce-back season after going 11-11 with a 4.57 ERA in 2016 and part of a downward trend of late: Four of Gonzalez's last five starts lasted five innings or fewer. Only one other time all year did he depart that quickly, way back on May 3.

This time, Gonzalez left after serving up three consecutive hits in the fifth.

Just to introduce another element of uncertainty from a game that didn't matter for either team, Tanner Roark -- slated to join Stephen Strasburg, Scherzer and Gonzalez in Washington's postseason rotation -- entered in the sixth and promptly gave up two runs, three hits and a walk in his one-inning tuneup.

Hardly the preferred sort of preparation before facing the defending World Series champion Chicago Cubs in an NL Division series that starts in the nation's capital in less than a week.

Washington's hitters did not exactly look ready for prime time for much of the day, either: They went 0 for 7 with the bases loaded, including a strikeout and groundout by Trea Turner, and a groundout by Bryce Harper.

Angel Sanchez (1-0) earned his first big league win with two shutout innings in relief. George Kontos got the final out for his first save in 322 appearances in the majors.

Washington's Anthony Rendon hit a three-run shot off in the first, his 25th homer of the year. Michael A. Taylor added his 19th homer in the seventh; he was hit by a pitch on his right hand in the eighth.

There was a welcome sight for Washington in the seventh: Harper racing home from first -- hair in full flow -- on Adrian Sanchez's double, showing no signs of trouble from the hyperextended left knee that landed the 2015 NL MVP on the DL for 42 games.

Nationals manager Dusty Baker pulled regulars at the start of innings, letting them join teammates on the field before being substituted while spectators responded with ovations.

Right fielder Harper left in the top of the eighth, first baseman Ryan Zimmerman (.303, 36 homers, 108 RBIs a year after .218, 15, 46) in the fourth, third baseman Rendon in the fifth, second baseman Daniel Murphy in the sixth and left fielder Jayson Werth in the ninth.

GOODBYE WERTH?

In the last regular-season game of Werth's $126 million, seven-year contract, he was greeted by a standing ovation from some in the announced crowd of 36,652 before his first at-bat. A video montage played on the scoreboard above center field and fans held signs saluting him, including one that read, "Thank you, Jayson." Werth doffed his batting helmet to the crowd before his final at-bat. When he jogged off the field in the ninth, Harper met him outside the dugout for a hug.

LONG DAY'S NIGHT

The time of 4 hours, 22 minutes made this the longest nine-inning regular-season game, by time, in both Pirates and Nationals history.

ATTENDANCE

The Nationals finished with a total home attendance of 2,524,980 in 2017, an average of 31,173.

UP NEXT

Pirates: Season ends with a 75-87 record, slightly worse than last year's 78-83. Pittsburgh hasn't had this few wins since going 72-90 in 2010, manager Clint Hurdle's first season.

Nationals: Host the NL Central champion Cubs in Game 1 of the NLDS on Friday. Washington went 97-65, two more wins than a year ago and one short of the Nationals-best 98 in 2012.

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Nationals players were critical of Dave Martinez's decision-making in the first half

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USA Today Sports Images

Nationals players were critical of Dave Martinez's decision-making in the first half

Baseball fans love the long ball. They love the flashy plays. They love the no-hit bids and the rare perfect game. All of these things dominate headlines and capture our attention. 

The often overlooked bullpen of a club, however, almost always serves as the glue holding everything together. Relief pitching is derived of unsung heroes who are asked to perform on short notice and in sticky, high-pressure situations. 

Head skipper of the Washington Nationals, Dave Martinez, is being criticized for his handling of the bullpen during the first half of the season. 

By now it's well-documented that the Nats played their first 96 games at .500 leaving the club in third place in a division the team has walked all over back-to-back years. 

Sure, one can chalk it up to injuries, lack of roster changes or an inexperienced first-year manager working through kinks. But, there's a reason this team expects to compete for a pennant year in and year out: depth. The buzz around Martinez's decision-making continues to point toward his inability to dish out relief pitching assignments to the player's liking.  

Brandon Kintzler, Ryan Madson, Sean Doolittle, Sammy Solis and Matt Grace once made up the team's relief staff in May. Between disabled-list periods for Kintzler and Madson, and Sammy Solis being sent down to Class AAA Syracuse, the staff took a beating in the month of June. 

Nats relievers aren't necessarily upset about overuse, but more so because of a lack of communication between player and manager. 

At times during the first half of the season, relief pitchers felt overworked and that their wishes were not being acknowledged nor granted by Martinez. 

Sean Doolittle was quick to point out that the addition of Kelvin Herrera, who joined the team on June 18, sparked a change in Martinez's approach. 

“Over the last maybe month or so, maybe since we got Herrera, he’s gone around to the relievers and been a lot more proactive with that communication,” Doolittle said.

On a more tricky note, trust has also been targeted as an area needing improvement. 

When a starter gets in a jam or doesn't seem like he is 100%, Martinez often calls on reinforcements to begin the warming up process. Guys have noticed a pattern in which relief pitchers who initially warm up are often not the ones who start the following inning. 

From a relief pitcher's perspective, this is a sign of Martinez's distrust. Dramatic or not, there was a glaring disconnect throughout the first half of play. 

“With a veteran group, I think we all expect to come into a team and say we’ve all been there; we just want things to go boom, boom, boom and be a piece of cake. But we also all know it’s not like that,” Shawn Kelley said.

Handling his veteran rotation in the second half of the season should become easier for Martinez as Stephen Strasburg is expected to start Friday. The right-hander was placed on the disabled list June 10 with right shoulder inflammation. 

Strasburg pitched 5 2/3 innings in a rehab start for Class A Potomac on Sunday, allowing three runs while striking out seven and walking one. It was his second rehab start since going on the DL. He allowed one run in 3 1/3 innings for Potomac on July 11. Strasburg is 6-6 with a 3.46 ERA this season, striking out 

95 in 80 2/3 innings.

One thing that hasn't been criticized is Martinez's positive attitude. Players often rave about him as a person and how he brings a source of energy in the clubhouse. 

This was on full display during Monday night's Home Run Derby at Nationals Park. 

Moments after Bryce Harper won the Derby, Martinez was among the first to congratulate his All-Star slugger as he hoisted him in the air. 

As the second half of the season gets underway Friday, expect to see a manager who brings forth an openminded approach to his club while in pursuit of a deep October run. 

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Max Scherzer thoroughly enjoyed the All-Star experience in D.C.

Max Scherzer thoroughly enjoyed the All-Star experience in D.C.

All-Star Weekend is entertaining for fans and provides and much-needed break in the 162-game MLB season.

It’s not all just for fun, though. Following his start Tuesday night, Max Scherzer shared the benefits of being able to spend a few days sharing a locker room with players from across the league.

Being in the clubhouse, talking to veterans, talking to guys who have been here, getting to know everybody, getting the personalities, you can actually learn a lot from the other players in the league. They’re watching you, they’re watching your team and you get these conversations and it’s great. You’re talking about everybody and you find little things in the game that make them successful and what made you successful and see if you can get better.

Scherzer also didn’t hold back when talking about how great a job the city and his team did hosting the rest of the league. This is his sixth season as an All-Star, so he's speaking from quite a bit of experience.

It was awesome, what an atmosphere. I thought we were a great host team, all the other players in here loved the facilities and the treatment they received - D.C. did it right.

So according to Max Scherzer, the All-Star Game is great, but All-Star Weekend in D.C. is as good as it gets.

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