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Gio, Nats move one step closer

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Gio, Nats move one step closer

NEW YORK -- It was by no means his best performance of the season, but it didn't need to be. Thanks to some early support from what has suddenly becomes baseball's most power-laden lineup, Gio Gonzalez needed only navigate his way through six quality innings Monday night to emerge as baseball's first 19-game winner of 2012.

And the Nationals, despite failing to record a hit after the fourth inning, still managed to pull off a thoroughly convincing, 5-1 victory over the Mets that moved them yet another step closer to October baseball.

Combined with the Braves' loss in Milwaukee, the Nationals saw their lead in the NL East grow to 6 12 games with 21 to play, their magic number drop to 15. The number to secure their first-ever postseason berth dropped to single digits: 9.

"Great win," manager Davey Johnson said. "And I think we eliminated the Mets from the pennant race, didn't we?"

Indeed, they did. Two days after knocking the Marlins officially out of contention for the division title, they did the same to New York.

"That made me a little happy," said Johnson, who 26 years ago led that franchise to its last World Series crown. "That's why I was throwing everything but the kitchen sink out there."

Johnson didn't mess around in the first game of this series at Citi Field. Despite a late four-run lead, he used top setup men Ryan Mattheus and Drew Storen and then closer Tyler Clippard and even sent in a defensive replacement for Michael Morse in left field.

Not that there was ever much doubt about the outcome of this game. That's in part because Gonzalez was so good at overcoming his frequent bouts of wildness, pitching around five walks to hold New York to one run over six innings.

"He scared me," the manager said. "He had more balls, I think, in the fourth and fifth innings ... than strikes. He had great stuff, but just wasn't really consistent. Wasn't one of his better ones, but he did have great stuff and he did battle and give me six innings, so I was real pleased with that."

Gonzalez couldn't really pinpoint why his command was so off.

"I don't know. Couldn't find the strike zone, drank a little too much coffee," he said. "Don't know what it is. I mean, a bunch of different answers to that one."

When he needed to settle down and throw strikes, Gonzalez was eased by words of confidence from catcher Kurt Suzuki and shortstop Ian Desmond, who helped the left-hander navigate his way through a ragged night.

"The thing I'm talking about with Gio is learning how to pitch -- especially when you don't have your best command or your best stuff out there -- and getting the job done," Suzuki said. "That's the sign of becoming a pitcher."

It helps to pitch with a lead, which Gonzalez was afforded thanks to three early home runs from Suzuki, Zimmerman and Desmond. That gave the Nationals 33 homers over their last 13 games, a sudden surge of power for a lineup that is just now realizing its full potential.

"We've got a lot of guys that are very strong," Johnson said. "They're growing to be good hitters. Zim's already a great hitter. I think he's fully over that shoulder injury. That ball tonight was crushed, one of the hardest hit balls I've seen. Look up and down our lineup, there's a lot of guys that have a bunch of homers."

Included in that bunch is Desmond, whose two-run shot in the fourth was his 22nd of the year. That's more than any middle infielder in Washington baseball history has ever hit, and it duplicates the total number of homers the shortstop hit through the first two-plus years of his big-league career.

"I mean, I'm a better hitter period this year than I have been in the past," Desmond said. "I think I figured some things out with the help of Davey and just kind of trying to move forward, take steps in the right direction and become the player I think I can be."

Desmond's not alone. Gonzalez this year is becoming the pitcher many thought he could be, now on the verge of his 20th win of the season. And the Nationals as a whole are becoming the team many hoped they could be but couldn't have imagined they'd become so soon.

With each passing day, they move closer to making it all official.

"It's great," Suzuki said. "Our main focus is to just win ballgames. We don't worry about other stuff. We just have to focus on our task and still win ballgames, and at the end of the season, hopefully it'll get us in a good place."

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Fantasy Baseball Outlook: Week 8

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Fantasy Baseball Outlook: Week 8

 

It's a fun time of the year in fantasy baseball. Now that we're seven-to-eight weeks into the season, teams are starting to realize they may need the help of their top prospects in order to compete this year, which means lots of young talent getting the call. Plus, many players who began the season injured are getting healthy. Between the prospects and players returning from the Disabled List, fantasy owners should have plenty of options to choose from when it comes to setting their lineups this week.

As always, we're here to help you sort through those painful roster decisions, and we're going to keep it simple to avoid paralysis by analysis. As a reminder, It's your team, and your decisions you ultimately have to deal with, so don't treat this advice as the gospel. That said, it doesn't hurt to gain as much information as you can when making your decisions. Good luck!

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 8 (5/21-5/27)

One Nationals pitcher to start: Gio Gonzalez

This is the second week in a row where every Nationals pitcher is only scheduled to pitch once. Last week, we recommended Max Scherzer because duh, and while we still think you should start him, it's also worth using Gonzalez. Gio has had a lot of success this season, sporting a 2.36 ERA in the middle of May, plus the Padres are notoriously poor against lefties (8th-worst batting average and OPS vs LHP in the majors).

Gonzalez isn't a must-start stud, mostly due to his high walk rate and resulting WHIP, but he's good enough to take advantage of the right matchups, and this qualifies.

One Nationals position player to start: Anthony Rendon, 3B

Just in case you're thinking about getting cute and sitting one of your studs, let this be a reminder that Rendon is great at what he does. In the past, we've recommended sitting him when working his way back from injury, but he's gotten enough reps at this point to get back into the swing of things.

It looks like he's struggled recently (one hit in the last seven days), but don't forget the Nats missed five straight days thanks to weather/planned off days. Plus, the Nats are set up to faces lefties in half their games this week, and Rendon has hit better against southpaws all season long.

One Nationals pitcher to sit: Tanner Roark

The Marlins have scored literally the fewest runs in baseball against right-handed pitching this season, and Roark hasn't been bad in 2018, despite the poor W-L record. Still, you're not sitting Scherzer or Strasburg, and we already recommended Gonzalez.

Roark has struggled against the Marlins in past years, as his 5.14 ERA vs the Marlins since 2015 is his 5th-worst number against any opponent, and while this year's Miami lineup looks far worse than in past seasons, and since Roark isn't the type of pitcher who gets enough strikeouts to raise his on a start-by-start basis, it's good enough of a reason for us to sit him this week. 

One Nationals player to sit: Juan Soto, OF

It's always fun when one of a team's top prospects gets called up, and that excitement doubles when the player is a teenager. It's always easy to see the high upside and imagine him taking the league by storm right from the get-go. That said, while it's worth a speculative pickup, we'd strongly recommend leaving Soto on the bench until we see A) how he hits against Major League pitching and B) what sort of playing time he'll get.


That's especially true this week, as his new manager Dave Martinez is already talking about sitting Soto against lefties, and wouldn't you know it, the Nats are scheduled to face southpaws in at least three games this week. It's possible Soto will be worth starting in the near-future, but for now, just be happy to add him to your rosters, not your starting lineups.

Any 2-start pitchers for the Nationals this week?

No. Not all starters have been scheduled yet, but the five-straight days off the Nats had last week threw a wrench into the works for their rotation, and as of now, no one is projected to make two starts.

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

It's a really weak week for two-start streaming options. Beyond the seven or so obvious starts, who are almost certainly owned in your leagues already, there's not a lot to choose from. We'll go with the calculated risk Jake Faria of the Rays. Faria gets two starts at Tropicana Field this week, and he's been much better pitching at home during the course of his career. He'll be facing two scary opponents on paper, but the Orioles have struggled at the plate all season long (with the exception of a recent hot streak, hence the risk), and Faria has already pitched well against the Red Sox this year, allowing just one run over the course of two starts.

This isn't our most confident recommendation, but there are far worse options you could turn to in a brutal week.

One player you might not realize you should pick up: Andrew Heaney, SP (Angels) 

Heaney continued his recent stretch of strong play, as while he allowed four runs and walked on Saturday, none of the runs were earned, and he struck out seven. Heaney is a former top prospect, having once been considered the best left-handed pitching prospect in baseball, and he has a superb 10.5 K/9 this season, to go along with a quality 57 percent groundball rate. That means he's not allowing a lot of contact, and the contact he is allowing isn't doing much damage.

Given his prospect pedigree and strong peripherals to start the year, Heaney is well worth an add if you find him available on the waiver wire. He's not just a speculative pickup, but somebody worth inserting into your starting lineup right away. Hopefully, because he plays on the west coast and isn't a household name, he's still available in some of your leagues.

One player you might not realize you should drop: Robinson Cano, 2B (Mariners) 

If somehow Cano is eligible in a DL spot in your league, and you don't have the spot filled with another star, then you can disregard this one. But, if he's listed in your league as suspended and not injured, then he likely won't be worth holding onto during his time away. 80 games is a lot, obviously, and a guy who's going to miss half the games in a season needs to be sensational in the other half to make up for it. Cano's past his prime, and while when healthy he's obviously still worth starting, he's not the type of guy you tie up a bench spot with, unless you're in the deepest of leagues.

Plus, if you're savvy, you can always remember to pick up Cano again a week or two before his suspension is up, since no one else in your league is likely to snag him in the meantime. For now, though, feel free to use the roster spot on somebody who will contribute over the next three months.

MORE NATS NEWS:

- Too Soon For Soto?: Nats make a bold call-up
- Rankings Update: Where did the Nats fall?
- Cause For Concern?: How worried should Nats fans be?

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Mike Rizzo makes bold move to call up Juan Soto

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Mike Rizzo makes bold move to call up Juan Soto

This is not a tweet I expected to read in May of 2018.

On the heels of their latest injury, the team is adding uber-prospect Juan Soto to the roster. It's unclear how much playing time he'll receive early on, but it's hard to imagine the team would be willing to start his service time clock and mess with his development track simply to sit him on the bench. He'll likely play, and make an impact on the team for as long as he's in D.C.

Let's not bury the lede, though. As you probably noticed in the tweet, Juan Soto is 19-years old. He was born in October of 1998, making him the youngest player in the majors, and bringing us one step closer to the first big-leaguer born in the 2000s. 

As incredible as it is for Soto to make the majors as a teenager (Bryce Harper and Time Raines are the only other teenagers to play in the majors in franchise history, which is pretty good company), what might be even more stunning is how quickly this came together for him. 

This will already be Soto's fourth different level of professional baseball this season alone, having spent time with the low-A, high-A, and AA clubs so far. In his entire life, Soto has just 35 plate appearances above class-A, which is almost unheard of for a player getting promoted to the big league roster.

He's hit everywhere he's been, with his career OPS in the minors a whopping 1.043 (his lowest wRC+ at any level is 132), though it remains to be seen if his prodigious bat is ready for Major League pitching. Still, simply being in the majors at such a young age is a great sign for his future, especially considering he's almost a year younger than anyone else playing in the big leagues right now.

Not that anybody should put Hall of Fame expectations on a kid who hasn't even faced a pitch in the majors yet, but Soto's meteoric rise gives him a better chance than most at greatness. Just last month, when discussing the dynamic Braves duo of Ozzie Albies and Ronald Acuna, Hall of Fame-expert Jay Jaffe did some research on young stars making the big leagues, and the numbers are promising.

According to Baseball Reference (and we're just going to take their word for it), there have been 19,261 players in the history of Major League Baseball, and 226 of them have been elected to the Hall of Fame. That's a minuscule 1.1%.

But, of every player to ever record 100 plate appearances as a 19-year old (a number Soto should easily hit if he stays up all season), the number of players who eventually made the Hall of Fame jumps to 24%. If Soto is only up for a cup of coffee this year, and next year is when he's here to stay, you can move up the list to players who recorded 100 PA in their age-20 seasons, and the number is still 19%.

Plus, that percentage is likely to increase in the coming decades, as there are 18 active players to reach the benchmark, including future locks Adrian Beltre, Miguel Cabrera, and Mike Trout, and guys who are young but on the right track (Bryce Harper, Manny Machado, Carlos Correa, and Giancarlo Stanton). Acuna, Albies, and Rafael Devers could find their way on the list one day as well. Considering only three of those names need to be enshrined in Cooperstown one day, it's safe to say that percentage is only growing.

That's a lot of stats that look nice for Soto and the Nationals, but obviously, we're at least a decade away from having a legitimate conversation about his Hall of Fame chances. Still, it highlights what we've known about him for quite some time. Juan Soto is a special, generational talent, and his rise to the big leagues as a teenager is worth writing home about.

What he's done so far is historic, and even if the move seems premature, it's plenty cause for excitement about the future of baseball in D.C.

MORE NATS NEWS:

- Rankings Update: Where does your team fall?
- Cause For Concern?: How worried should Nats fans be?
- Very Persuasive: How Rizzo convinced Reynolds to come to D.C.