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'He was white as a sheet'

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'He was white as a sheet'

ATLANTA -- The official temperature at Turner Field when Stephen Strasburg took the mound Saturday afternoon was 104 degrees. One hour earlier, as Strasburg was getting ready to warm up for his start against the Braves, that number actually sat at 106 degrees, officially the hottest reading ever recorded in the city's history. The Clean Air Campaign classified this as a "Code Purple" day, which means the air quality reached "very unhealthy" levels.

Strasburg thought he had prepared for this. He'd known since making his last start Monday in Colorado -- where the gametime temperature was a record 100 degrees -- what awaited him in Atlanta, and according to teammates had been taking precautions for several days in anticipation of this outing.

But as the Nationals right-hander very slowly walked off the field in the middle of the fourth inning, his shoulders slumped, his uniform sopping wet, it was obvious to Davey Johnson what needed to be done.

"When he came back in, he was white as a sheet," the manager said. "And I said: 'That's it.'"

Thus ended the shortest start of Strasburg's season in disturbing fashion. As the young ace retreated to the air-conditioned clubhouse to receive three rounds of IV fluids and other treatments to address what the Nationals called "heat-related issues," his teammates fought their way through another five innings of torturous baseball, ultimately taking a 7-5 loss to the Braves that didn't seem as serious by day's end than Strasburg's health.

"It's obviously a great decision by Davey," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "You preach to kids: 'Hey, if you're hot and you feel dizzy, come out of the game.' I knew a kid who died at a young age in Florida. He felt like he was hot, he kept on practicing. And the next thing you know, he was gone. I was relieved they made the right decision and got Stras out and he didn't give too much of a fight. It was a responsible decision."

Shortly after this 3-hour, 14-minute ballgame played before a crowd of 26,491 that tried to seek refuge by retreating to the few covered sections of the stadium, Strasburg stood in front of his locker, a bandage covering his inner left elbow at the site of the IV injection. He seemed dejected that he couldn't pitch deeper into the late afternoon.

"Obviously I want to go out there and compete, and I expected a lot more of myself," he said. "By no means was I going out there thinking I wasn't prepared for it. I did everything I could to be ready for it as far as hydrating and everything. I've just got to learn from it."

Strasburg warmed up in the bullpen wearing a navy blue pullover, perhaps not wanting to soak his red game jersey before he ever threw an official pitch. It didn't take long for that to happen, though; by the time he walked off the mound following a 24-pitch first inning, he already looked fatigued.

Strasburg did contribute to the Nationals' cause. He actually delivered an RBI single in the bottom of the second after the Braves intentionally walked catcher Jesus Flores to load the bases for the pitcher (who now boasts a .375 batting average and 1.090 OPS).

But he really struggled during the bottom of the third, issuing two walks and two doubles and needing extra time between pitches to catch his breath and wipe sweat off his brow.

"I tried to go up there a couple of times, just calm him down and tell him: Hey, breathe. Take your time. Just trust yourself'" Flores said. "But I knew at the same time, the weather wasn't easy to handle it."

In between innings, Strasburg tried to cool off in the air-conditioned clubhouse. But he had no time for that after the third inning because he was due up third. He trudged to the plate, intending never to take the bat off his shoulder, yet still was forced to trot to first base after Atlanta lefty Mike Minor walked him.

By the time that inning ended and Strasburg slowly made his way to the dugout, Johnson realized he couldn't allow this to continue any longer.

"It was pretty scary, and he wasn't talking too good," said the manager, who also said the pitcher's blood pressure was "way up." "I found out later that he got a little dizzy while he was out on the mound. The problem was he was totally dehydrated."

Chien-Ming Wang had already been warming in the bullpen for an inning, just in case a change needed to be made. Because Strasburg (who wound up throwing 67 pitches) was being removed from the game due to a physical ailment, Johnson asked the umpiring crew to give Wang as much time as he needed to warm up.

Wang, a native of Taiwan who has become accustomed to pitching in excessive heat and humidity, wasn't so much fazed by the conditions as much as his continued inability to locate his bread-and-butter sinker. The veteran right-hander wound up getting tagged for four runs and five hits in two innings, turning what was a close game into a sizable deficit.

It was the latest in a string of poor outings by Wang, whose ERA now sits at 7.61 as he tries to right himself out of the bullpen.

"Coach gave me this opportunity," he said through interpreter John Hsu. "I just need to do my best and try to get myself back, just like before."

The Nationals' patience with Wang (who was re-signed for 4 million in November) appears to be running thin.

"He's just not right," Johnson said. "His release is not right, and I'm concerned about it. He's a veteran pitcher and it's not really spring training. We're in the heat of battle. So I don't know."

The date of Wang's next appearance remains to be seen. The date of Strasburg's next appearance tentatively remains Friday, against the Rockies in Washington. That's his final scheduled start before the All-Star Game, an exhibition he's likely to find out Sunday he'll participate in for the first time in his career.

"It's serious," Johnson said of the dehydration. "But it's not something he can't recover from."

A native of San Diego, where the temperature rarely exceeds 80 degrees, Strasburg knows he's going to have to deal with plenty more hot summer days on the East Coast.

He'll continue to prepare as well as he can, even though the precautions he took before Saturday's game still prevented him from overcoming the extreme elements.

"It just didn't seem to change the symptoms or anything," he said. "It's tough. I feel like I let the team down today. It's just something I've got to get over."

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Craig Kimbrel could help any NL East contender solve a division-wide problem

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Craig Kimbrel could help any NL East contender solve a division-wide problem

WASHINGTON --  Progressively, the lines of desperation and declined price will have to intersect.

At least it would seem. Craig Kimbrel’s demands reportedly are receding during his extended unemployment. The needs of contenders in the National League East’s rock fight continue to increase day by day. The sides should be on a path to merge. Right?

Take this week. 

Atlanta announced closer Arodys Vizcaino underwent right shoulder surgery. He’s out for the season. This the day after his would-be replacement, A.J. Minter, gave up three earned runs in ⅔ of an inning. Braves general manager Alex Anthopoulos acknowledged he heard the chants from Braves fans Tuesday night demanding he sign Kimbrel.

Philadelphia placed reliever David Robertson on the 10-day injured list because of a flexor strain (initially labeled elbow soreness). It used Hector Neris to close Wednesday afternoon. He entered with two runners on base. Neris struck out the first batter, gave up a soft single, hit Wilson Ramos to load the bases, then struck Keon Broxton to end the game. That’s an interesting path to the end.

The Mets are living similar to the Nationals. They have a closer -- Edwin Diaz -- who can be relied on. It’s getting to him which has been such a challenge. Seth Lugo (5.06 ERA), Jeurys Familia (6.48) and Robert Gsellman (3.48) are often dispatched to drag New York to the ninth inning.

All five members of the National League East are in the bottom half of bullpen ERA entering play Friday. Philadelphia is 15th, Atlanta is 22nd, Miami is 24th, New York is 27th and Washington remains last by a wide margin -- almost a run-and-a-half worse than 29th-ranked Baltimore.

The Nationals’ bullpen toiling around with the have nots is endangering the team’s season as a whole, the $190 million payroll investment, the demands of the Lerner family to be better than first-round playoff exits. But, few paths are available to fix it without relinquishing a commodity -- whether human or financial.

Multiple reports claim Kimbrel’s asking price has come down in both years and cash. It may never reach a point of intersection with the Nationals if team ownership remains steadfast against surpassing the competitive balance tax threshold for the third consecutive year. Passing the $206 million roster mark would result in a 50 percent tax on every dollar spent from there on. 

Kimbrel would also cost the Nationals a compensation draft pick and international draft money because he declined a qualifying off from Boston. In all, four layers of cost exist around Kimbrel: salary, luxury tax, a draft pick and international money.

Financial stances can change when circumstances do. Though, the Nationals’ leverage with Kimbrel has evaporated. Owning the league’s worst bullpen is not a promising negotiation point for a team preferring to restrict this final portion of spending. Imagine their pitch: “We’re desperate for your services, but don’t want to spend much.” 

Whichever lagging bullpen signs Kimbrel still needs to subsist until he is ready. In Washington’s case, it continues to hunt for solutions ahead of a six-game road trip which starts Friday in Miami. Trevor Rosenthal’s lost early season, a better way to match up with left-handed hitters, help in the middle and a way to use closer Sean Doolittle less -- he’s on pace for 86 appearances -- are all on the docket. 

“Things haven’t gone the way we envisioned them coming out of camp,” Doolittle said this week. “Part of being a reliever -- you don’t get to this level without having taken some lumps; without having taken some punches. So guys, they might be in the jungle a little bit right now, but they know how to get through this. We’re working on it. Guys are talking to each other about things they can do, whether it’s pitch selection or mechanics or straight up execution to try to get things smoothed out. 

“We’re in it as a group. As a reliever, you can’t have an ego. You have to be ready for whatever the team needs, whatever the group needs and be ready to pick your teammate up.”

Doolittle’s words could have come from the leader of any NL East bullpen. Four contenders with the same problem populate the division. One big name looms. Day by day, the tussle for a fix and leverage goes on. 

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3 things to watch as the Nationals head to Miami for the first time in 2019

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3 things to watch as the Nationals head to Miami for the first time in 2019

The Washington Nationals wrapped up their series with the San Francisco Giants by winning the final two contests to take the series. Now their sights turn back toward their division and the Miami Marlins for a three-game tilt. Here are three things to watch for:

  1. Negotiations between Anthony Rendon and the Nationals opened back up this week in their six-game homestand. How will the Nats third baseman take the added noise? He was 3-for-11, both hits being singles, in the two games following. Before the Giants series started he was batting .400 with a 1.333 OPS.
  2. From the lead-off spot Adam Eaton has been doing damage to opposing pitchers in a short amount of time. While still early, he's at .319 on the year and getting base knocks in the opening innings. Five of his 22 hits are from the first at-bat of the game to go with three walks. Getting the young pitchers rattled early in Miami will allow them to jump out to early leads. 
  3. This year's Marlins are putting up the 2018 Baltimore Orioles numbers. Through 19 games they have four wins. Two in their past 15. They've scored the fewest runs (48) in MLB. They're bad and a couple of innings pitched against the Marlins might just be what the Nats bullpen needs.  

 The game broadcast will be at 7:10 PM ET on 106.7 the Fan and MASN2. 

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