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'Insane' pitching leads Nats again

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'Insane' pitching leads Nats again

He's been the Nationals' No. 4 starter, technically speaking, since Opening Day. There is nothing about Edwin Jackson, however, that resembles a No. 4 starter.

Fourth starters don't boast a 2.91 ERA in late-June. Fourth starters don't boast a 1.04 WHIP. Fourth starters don't have seven consecutive quality starts.

And fourth starters don't carry a perfect game into the fifth inning and a one-hit shutout into the seventh inning as Jackson did Saturday night during a 3-1 victory over the Orioles.

"That's insane," closer Tyler Clippard said. "It makes us smile. ... I just can't imagine what those other teams are thinking when Edwin is our fourth guy. It's a joke. He's probably the No. 1 starter on more than half the teams in the league."

Actually, Clippard is spot-on with that assessment. There are 15 major-league rotations right that do not include one starter with a sub-3.00 ERA. Ergo, Jackson would lead exactly one-half of big-league clubs in ERA at this moment.

And it's not like the Nationals aren't getting anything out of their top three starters. Quite the contrary. Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann all claim similar (and in many cases better) stats to Jackson, giving the Nats as formidable a rotation as there is in the game.

There have been only four big-league teams with four starters with sub-3.00 ERAs since the mound was lowered in 1969: the 1972 Orioles, Dodgers and Angels and the 1985 Dodgers. There's still a long way to go, but the 2012 Nationals could put themselves in that elite company.

"It's unbelievable," manager Davey Johnson said. "It tells you just how good they've been going. I'm impressed. Everybody's impressed."

And that doesn't even take into account the back end of the Nationals' bullpen, which has managed to survive injuries to its regular closer, its backup closer and its backup to the backup closer and still shut the door on opposing lineups late in games.

With 2 23 scoreless innings Saturday night in relief of Jackson, the trio of Michael Gonzalez (0.00 ERA), Sean Burnett (1.04 ERA) and Clippard (1.95 ERA) put forth its latest dominant performance.

Burnett has given up three earned runs all season. Clippard hasn't given up a run in 12 consecutive converted save opportunities, a span during which he's surrendered one total hit.

All of which has allowed the Nationals to withstand closer Drew Storen's season-long elbow injury.

"Without Storen, those two guys did an unbelievable job earlier in the ballgame, and certainly they've come in handy here lately," Johnson said. "They've both been workhorses."

Clippard, in fact, has been so effective since taking over closer duties one month ago that his manager no longer believes he needs to return to a setup role once Storen comes off the disabled list around the All-Star break.

"Right now, he's my closer," Johnson said. "And the way he's going, I can't see going to somebody else. They'd have to show me up here probably in a setup role before they have the opportunity to close."

Clippard, who happens to be Storen's roommate and closest friend on the team, has long hoped to be given a chance to pitch the ninth inning. He's now proven an ability not only to handle the pressure that comes with that responsibility, but to thrive under it.

"We're always in tight ballgames," Clippard said. "I think that has to do with our team, and the importance of those late innings. It really helps me bear down and focus."

It also helps to know the man who takes the mound for the first inning every single night is likely to put together a dominant outing, setting up everyone's roles in the bullpen.

Jackson certainly did that on Saturday, retiring the first 12 batters he faced before Adam Jones reached on an error in the top of the fifth. Entering the top of the seventh, Jackson (4-4) hadn't been scored upon and had surrendered only one hit, his pitch count at a very manageable 80.

The 28-year-old right-hander did this despite not feeling like he had his best "stuff" from the moment he began warming up in the bullpen.

"It was just one of those days where you don't have blow-away stuff," said Jackson, who did manage to strike out five Orioles. "You just have to go out and pitch. That's pretty much what it was from the time I started throwing the pen, I knew what kind of day it would be. It's not my first time getting through it, so you kind of know how to handle the situation."

By the seventh inning, Jackson actually started to feel better, yet he was less effective for it. He served a hanging slider over the plate to Jones to lead off the inning and watched as the ball was scorched off the left-field foul pole for a home run. A flyball to the warning track and two singles later, Jackson was out of the game.

Not that he needed to worry about the guys who entered from the bullpen to pick him up. These days, anybody who toes the rubber wearing a Nationals uniform is likely to have success.

"That's the mentality we all have when we take the field: To be the better pitcher that day," Jackson said. "It's just one those things when the team is rolling and everything is going good, everybody is positive and everybody is taking the field with a positive approach. And it's just showing in the way we play right now."

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Roark is out, who could be in?

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Roark is out, who could be in?

LAS VEGAS -- Let’s strip the name and take a blank taste test. Wednesday, the Nationals sent an average of 197 innings out the door. That’s 591 outs. It’s not something to shrug off.

Trading Tanner Roark for a reliever, a minor-league one at that, extracts a path to almost 600 outs. The Nationals need to find a new one. Choices to do so aren’t very enticing.

They are back in the starting pitching market because of Roark’s regression the last two seasons coupling with an increase in pay. He’s expected to earn around $10 million out of salary arbitration. The Nationals are gambling they can find equal effectiveness through another starter -- or two.

There’s money to allocate now. It’s not much for the remaining upper tier of free agents. It’s sufficient to bring in someone on a one- or two-year deal and perhaps apply to a more versatile bench piece than a straight backup at first base.

Washington made Patrick Corbin the highest-paid pitcher this offseason. He was priority one. In a vacuum, he may not be worth six years and $140 million. But not all players carry the same value with every franchise. The Nationals had a clear need for another potent starter, and preferably a left-handed one at that. They received the combination with Corbin.

The challenge for the Nationals is handling this market after Charlie Morton and Lance Lynn complicated it. Morton signed a two-year, $30 million deal with Tampa Bay. Lynn received a three-year, $30 million contract from the Texas Rangers. If the Nationals didn’t want to pay Roark $10 million, they surely don’t want to pay another pitcher something near what Morton and Lynn received, even if it allows more control. Roark was entering the last year of his contract.

Dallas Keuchel remains atop the available starters. By WAR, the next-best available pitcher is 34-year-old Anibal Sanchez. He put together what appears to be an outlier season in 2018 following three consecutive years of significant regression. Sanchez’s ERA-plus went 80, 73, 70 before spiking to 143 last season, the third-best mark of his 13-year career. Sanchez has also averaged just 138 innings pitched on average the last four years. That’s a lot of outs between the workload Roark handled and Sanchez has as he heads into his age-35 season.

Next on the list by WAR? Gio Gonzalez. Moving on.

After that? Not much inspiration. Left-hander Wade Miley pitched well in just 16 starts last season. He has a carer 4.26 ERA. Miley has not put together a strong full season since 2013.

Matt Harvey? Trevor Cahill? Clay Buchholz?

Brett Anderson? James Shields? Jason Hammel?

These are not exactly places to hang your hat.

However, the Nationals have little choice. Their solution to replace Roark’s outs will come from outside the organization. Depth at Triple-A Fresno is negligible. Options in Double-A to help the rotation now are non-existent.

They have one intriguing pitcher lurking: Henderson Alvarez. The Nationals signed him to a minor-league contract with an invitation to spring training.

“Chance to make the team, if not, to pitch in Triple A for us,” Mike Rizzo said of his outlook on Alvarez.

Alvarez threw a no-hitter in 2013. He was an All-Star in 2014. Shoulder surgery was followed by shoulder discomfort, then another shoulder surgery. Alvarez didn’t pitch in 2016. He started three games for Philadelphia in 2017. He then pitched in the Mexican League in 2018, where he finished with 4.60 ERA in nine starts. The wildest of wild cards here.

Washington has also kept an eye on Japanese left-hander Yusei Kikuchi, who is available through posting system.

Somewhere, they need to find another 180 innings.

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Five things to know about new Nationals prospect Tanner Rainey

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Five things to know about new Nationals prospect Tanner Rainey

In what may be a Major League Baseball first, two players named Tanner R. were traded for each other Wednesday at the Winter Meetings.

It’s a fun (unconfirmed) fact, but what really makes it interesting for Nationals fans is the fact that one of the Tanners’ last name is Roark, which means Washington now has a hole to fill in their rotation. They’ve already added Patrick Corbin, but expect the team to search for other options now.

Roark had been a staple in the Nats rotation for the last few years, and often provided a steadying presence at the back end of the rotation. He was never as talented or awe-inspiring as Max Scherzer or Stephen Strasburg, but he never needed to be.

Let’s focus on the newest addition to the organization though: the one named Rainey.

Here are five things to know about Tanner Rainey.

1. He went to two small schools, but still has pedigree

Rainey was born in Louisiana, and played collegiate ball at Southeastern Louisiana University and the University of West Alabama.

He was both a first baseman and a pitcher, but was drafted as a pitcher in the second round of the 2015 MLB Draft by the Cincinnati Reds.

2.  His career got off on the wrong foot

Rainey made his Major League debut in April 2018, and it could have gone better. He allowed a grand slam to Scott Kingery of the Phillies, and he finished the season with a 24.43 ERA.

Of course, the caveat is sample size. He pitched just seven innings at the big league level in 2018, and while he struck out an impressive seven batters in those innings, his WAR was -1.0.

3. He was born on Christmas Day

This, of course, allows for many fun puns, especially considering he once played for the Reds. Rudolph The Red(s)-Nosed Rainey-deer? Okay, we’ll try to come up with something better.

The Christmas Day he was born on was in 1992, so he’ll be 26 in a few weeks. It’s a little old for someone without much Major League experience, but he’s got some arm talent, and relievers regularly develop into reliable options later in their careers.

4. He has an electric arm

Rainey may struggle with command at this point in his career, but he can really whip a fastball.

While we live in the era of velocity and relievers boasting ridiculous radar gun totals seemingly every day, it’s interesting to note that 100 mph is still an impressive mark to reach. As Simon mentions, only 36 pitchers hit triple digits in 2018, and Rainey was one of them. That’s something any bullpen can use.

When taking a chance on unproven minor leaguers, you might as well take a chance on somebody with a very valuable, very elite skill.

5. He may never end up working out, but that doesn't mean it was a bad trade if he doesn't

Most minor leaguers don’t pan out. The fact that Rainey has thrown a pitch in the Majors makes his career more impressive than millions of players before him. He was ranked in the top 30 (no. 23 to be exact) of the Reds’ prospects according to MLB Pipeline, so he’s clearly talented enough for the Nats to think they can tap into his potential.

If it doesn't happen, however, losing Roark won’t be the difference for this roster in competing or not. With the rotation they have, even as top-heavy as it looks, they can certainly still compete in the division, and if it works out, they’ve acquired a dynamic piece for the back end of the bullpen.

You have to give up something to get something, and this trade could end up looking good for both teams down the road. If the Nats were set on moving Roark, which it appears they were, they could have done worse than a hard-throwing reliever in an era when hard-throwing relievers are more coveted than ever before.

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