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Gonzalez' effort caps historic weekend for Nats starters

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Gonzalez' effort caps historic weekend for Nats starters

There was no no-hitter this time. It wasn't even a complete game. But what Gio Gonzalez turned in Sunday as a follow-up to Max Scherzer's gem may very well have been his most efficient and effective start of the season.

Buoyed by a nine run first inning -- one he helped contribute to with an RBI double -- the lefty starter hurled seven shutout innings against the Pittsburgh Pirates on just 85 pitches to help lead the Nationals to a 9-2 victory.

On a normal day, that'd be considered a really solid outing. But when you're the guy who pitches less than 24 hours after your rotation mate throws a no-no, even the very good can seem ordinary. 

"It was a tough act to follow," he said afterward. "I just one-upped [Scherzer] on the hit. That’s all I did."  

Regardless, Gonzalez' performance capped off what was a memorable and historic Father's Day Weekend for the Nats' rotation. He, Scherzer and rookie right hander Joe Ross combined for 23 1/3 innings of work with 25 strikeouts, three walks and just one earned run allowed between them.  As a whole, Washington's staff set a club record with 24 consecutive scoreless innings pitched before Pittsburgh scored two runs in the ninth.

"That's unbelievable," right fielder Bryce Harper said of the feat. "Starting with Joe Ross then going into the weekend and seeing Maxy do what he did...hopefully we can keep it going as a team. Hopefully we can keep it going as a staff." 

MORE NATIONALS: Scherzer the day after his no-hitter: 'I can't believe it happened'

It's a common saying in baseball that momentum is only as good as the next day's starting pitcher. But Gonzalez and other members of the Nats' clubhouse might beg to differ, as they suggested that the afterglow of a big-time performance or two can linger. 

"We just carried it over into today," first baseman Clint Robinson said. "[We're] playing with a lot of confidence these past three games. I think Gio fed off of Max and went out there and threw a good ball game."

"Joe was the guy who anchored for us and started us off," Gonzalez added. "Maxy, just an unbelievable game. He was fun to watch, every pitch. You didn’t mind sweating your butt of because he was pitching his butt off and it was fun to watch because Maxy’s incredible. It was just Mad Max doing whatever he does best, just going out there and dominating. It was kind of tough to follow up on his act."

The rotation's efforts helped the Nats sweep the previously red-hot Pirates and get Washington back into first place in the NL East. And though Herculean efforts like this past weekend's can't be expected every time out, it's obvious that the unit's consistency and health are the keys to the club's hopes for a second straight division title. 

"It's just one of those things of the game where when you get good starting pitching and all the hits start falling," said Robinson, "it just makes it fun so you can go out there and win ballgames."

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Team meetings like the one the Nationals had this week are no guarantee of a turnaround – but it can happen

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Team meetings like the one the Nationals had this week are no guarantee of a turnaround – but it can happen

Sometimes the doors shut on the outside world and struggling teams find clarity inside the sanctuary of a locker room. Sometimes they do not. 

The Nationals experienced the downside of a players’ only meeting this week when a clear-the-air session on Wednesday at Citi Field in New York was followed by two horrifying losses to the NL East rival Mets.

Now 12 games under .500, the season slipping away, their manager facing daily questions about his job security, the hardest part is here: Where do the Nationals go after a team meeting doesn’t solve the problem? 

Washington doesn’t need to go too far back into the history books to see that team meetings are often just exercises in frustration, They held one after a 3-0 loss to the Boston Red Sox last July 4. It capped a 9-20 stretch where they were shut out eight times in 34 days. 

You know what happened next. The Nationals drifted through an 82-80 season and failed to reach any of their preseason goals. A team 10 games over .500 and tied for first place in the NL East on May 31 was a game under .500 (42-43), seven games out and never got closer than five again. 

Of course, if there were no problems there would be no meetings. But sometimes players can root out issues by shutting out everyone, including the coaches. The Capitals did it each of the past two seasons. 

It’s easy to forget in the wake of winning the Stanley Cup in 2018 and a fourth straight Metropolitan Division title in 2019 that the Capitals had plenty of problems to work through. Former coach Barry Trotz blistered his team after a 6-2 loss at Colorado on Nov. 16, 2017 and left his players to sort things out. Washington was floundering at 10-9-1. 

The message got through. They won 12 of their next 15 games and finished the rest of the season 39-17-6. They went on to win the Cup – though there were a few more bumps in the road and a defensive overhaul following another team meeting in March. 

This year an embarrassing 8-5 loss at Chicago left the Capitals in third place in the Metro at 27-16-5. Maybe that doesn’t seem too bad, but they were in the midst of what would become a seven-game losing streak. They were teetering. Again the brutally honest talk after the loss to the Blackhawks eventually helped turn the tide.

“At the end of the day we’re pretty close, we’re a team. This group isn’t guys yelling,” Capitals forward Tom Wilson said after that Jan. 22 game. “We’re close, we know how we need to play. We just needed to address it, we needed to talk it out a little bit, get on the same page.

 But it took two more losses – one a brutal 7-6 overtime defeat at home to San Jose where they coughed up a two-goal lead twice, gave up the game-tying goal with one second to go and lost in overtime. Even productive team meetings rarely have linear results. 

 But they can also make things worse. The Wizards had a team meeting in January 2018 and soon after got destroyed by Charlotte 133-109. They rallied and beat Detroit two days later and their record was 26-20. 

But the fruitless meeting couldn’t solve Washington’s underlying issues. And while injuries played a factor, the Wizards only made the playoffs as the No. 8 seed and lost to Toronto in the first round in six games. 

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If the Nationals’ season isn’t over, it’s close

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If the Nationals’ season isn’t over, it’s close

NEW YORK -- Dealing with tomorrow has often become the only palatable way for the Nationals to forget yesterday.

They lose in eye-gouging fashion, roll in the next day to reset, and, at least in New York, find a topper. That formula has them on a train home from what could have been a series for re-emergence, but instead placed them in a worse place than they started. Washington is 19-31 following a sweep in Flushing. It would have to go 71-41 (a .634 winning percentage) to reach 90 wins. If it’s not already, the season is on the verge of being over. Manager Davey Martinez disputed that idea.

“I mean we're not out of it that's for sure, I can tell you that right now," Martinez said after Thursday’s 6-4 loss. “Like I said, everyday we're close, we compete, we're in every game. Now we just got to finish games.”

A slog-filled drive from midtown to Queens delivered the tired team back to its baseball quarters Thursday morning. Sean Doolittle changed then pulled his red hood up, sitting at his locker 10 hours after he stated he was “disgusted” with himself for Wednesday’s crash. Such a devastating night has been common for the 2019 Nationals. It was not for Doolittle. He hit a batter for the first time since May 29, 2018. He allowed four earned runs in an outing for the fifth time in 348 career appearances (1.4 percent of the time he pitches). In keeping with the season, the worst-possible outcome arrived at the worst-possible time, then another terrible one followed.

Martinez remained upbeat, sipping a morning drink concoction common in his native Puerto Rico. He rewatched Wednesday's game -- a masochist’s errand this season -- as he regularly does, went to sleep around 2 a.m., awoke at 7, arrived at Citi Field around 9:45. The leash on his future has been shortened greatly by the four failing days in New York.

The Nationals wandered out for stretch and light throwing in front of an oddball scene. Thursday was “Weather Day” at Citi Field with the Big Apple-famous Mr. G hosting in his Mets jersey. Mr. G  -- known to his friends as Irv Gikofsy, New York City’s most popular weatherman -- kicked up a “Let’s go Mets!” chant down the third base line while the Nationals relievers ran routes and caught a foam football to get loose in the same part of the park. The recently re-emerged Mrs. Met, who popped back up in 2013 after decades of dormancy, used her giant noggin to nod along.

The game was another compilation of missed opportunities, bullpen disasters and bad luck. Washington left eight runners on base through the first six innings alone. The Mets’ path to runs was aided by slop and basics. Carlos Gomez single in the fifth. He ran to steal second, Yan Gomes’ throw went into center field, Gomez went on to third base. A sacrifice fly scored him.

J.D. Davis singled in the sixth. Todd Frazier was hit by a pitch. Stephen Strasburg’s wild pitch moved them both over. Another sacrifice fly scored one, a Wilson Ramos infield single scored the other. The Mets led, 3-1.

The Nationals didn’t score with runners on first and third and one out in the first. They did not score after Juan Soto’s leadoff triple in the second inning. They did not score after a one-out double in the third. They did not score with runners on second and third and one out in the fourth. They did not score with a runner on second and one out in the fifth. This is not hyperbole for effect. It’s facts. Sigh-worthy ones.

The only effective offseason signings are Kurt Suzuki and Patrick Corbin. The others have not just resided below expectations, they have been among the worst in the league at their position.

Gomes, acquired in a trade, leads the league in passed balls. He’s committed three errors in his 29 starts. Coming into Thursday, he had a 65 OPS-plus (100 is average).

Brian Dozier started the afternoon with a 73 OPS-plus and -0.5 WAR. Those two numbers would be worse if not for a recent uptick both in the field and plate from him.

And, the most egregious failure of the offseason has been Trevor Rosenthal’s saga. Martinez was asked directly Wednesday if Rosenthal simply has the “yips”. He said they still believe Rosenthal’s problems are mechanics, not thoughts, despite him throwing baseballs to the backstop in central Pennsylvania. The luxury-tax averse Nationals are paying him $6 million to do so.

Finally, Thursday was enough for Martinez to shed his tranquility. After Howie Kendrick was ejected in the top of the eighth, Martinez ran to home plate to start an argument of his own. He half-circled home plate umpire Bruce Dreckman, yelled, pointed and carried on in a manner that begged Dreckman to throw him out. He did. Martinez went from rankled to furious. He spiked his hat, kicked the dirt, and yelled some more. The event provided his third career ejection and looked to be among the final moves of a manager on the verge of returning to private life.

A strange thing followed: his team rallied for three runs to take a 4-3 lead. No matter. There’s no goodness Washington’s bullpen can’t undermine. Wander Suero gave up a three-run homer in the eighth to Gomez. New day, different reliever, same ear-bleeding outcome.

Which again made talking about tomorrow the only way to deal with the grotesqueness of today. Trouble is tomorrow may not matter anymore.

“Things are going to change,” Martinez said. “Things are going to change. And I know that. So we just got to keep pounding away, keep playing baseball. There's good players in that clubhouse, really good players. We'll turn things around.”

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