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Jose Lobaton unlikely hero as Nationals beat Dodgers in Game 2, draw even in NLDS

Jose Lobaton unlikely hero as Nationals beat Dodgers in Game 2, draw even in NLDS

Offensive jolts often come from where they are least expected in the MLB playoffs, however sometimes they emerge from exactly where a team is seeking them, from a player they signed in free agency in part because of his postseason prowess, or from another only in the lineup due to an injury.

The Nationals received all of the above in their 5-2, series-tying Game 2 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sunday. All-Star second baseman Daniel Murphy keyed several rallies and catcher Jose Lobaton launched a three-run homer, as the Nats adjusted to and conquered L.A. starter Rich Hill, who began his day with seven strikeouts through three scoreless innings, only to unravel shortly thereafter.

"That's what playoff baseball is all about right there, man," first baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "For Loby to do that, it really turned the game around. To say it was a big swing is an understatement."

Murphy had the type of day that made him an NL MVP candidate this season. He landed three singles - two to drive in runs - walked and scored. He approached Hill with patience and resolve to spark a lineup that collectively looked off-balance early against the Dodgers southpaw. 

Murphy's first RBI knock scored Trea Turner in the fifth inning. His second, poked to opposite field off lefty Grant Dayton, brought home Jayson Werth, who reached on a double with two outs in the seventh.

Murphy helped the Nats go 4-for-8 with runners in scoring position after a 1-for-10 performance in Game 1. The Dodgers went just 1-for-9 in Game 2.

"He wants to be in that position," Baker said of Murphy. "You have to want to be in that position."

"On both sides you can see that senses are so heightened in the playoffs," Murphy said. "It's so much fun."

Lobaton's homer in the fourth inning was a massive breakthrough for the Nationals, their first real sign of life against Hill. Lobaton took a curveball - Hill's signature pitch - and dropped it in the visitors bullpen in right field. The sellout crowd erupted as Murphy jumped and raised his arms with joy rounding third. The Nats suddenly had a lead for the first time in the series.

"Man, that was huge," manager Dusty Baker said. "I didn't think anybody could hit a home run out of left field today, the way that wind was blowing everything back. I mean, he had to hit it a ton."

"When I hit the ball, I didn't know it was going to go out," Lobaton said. "When it went out, I was like 'wow, that's pretty cool.'"

That flipped a switch after Tanner Roark dug them a hole with two runs allowed in his first three innings. The Nationals' most consistent starting pitcher this season, Roark was not his usual self on Sunday. Whether it was playoff  jitters, or his long wait to pitch - seven days of rest since his final regular season outing - Roark couldn't command the strike zone and began his outing with 30 balls among his first 60 throws. 

Roark was all over the place, nearly decapitating Dodgers rookie superstar Corey Seager with an errant fastball in the first inning. Seager then answered with a laser home run over the right field fence, much like he did off Max Scherzer in Game 1.

Roark also encountered trouble in the second and third innings, the latter including an RBI single by Josh Reddick. Lobaton dropped the throw in from right field on his tag attempt at the plate. Roark went 4 1/3 innings and allowed seven hits and three walks.

The Nationals missed a few chances to score early on Hill, including with the bases loaded in the bottom half of the second. Murphy singled, Ryan Zimmerman walked and Danny Espinosa took a fastball off his left arm. Lobaton, however, then hit a grounder right to Hill, who threw home for the forceout to begin a 1-2-3, inning-ending double play.

Lobaton's big swing in the fourth built off a strong performance in Game 1 by fellow catcher Pedro Severino. After pitching in with a double and a run, Severino was replaced by Lobaton because of the latter's three career hits off Hill. Manager Dusty Baker had a hunch and it proved prescient. Through two games, both backstops have helped compensate for All-Star Wilson Ramos, who was lost for the season with a torn ACL.

"[Lobaton] will probably be starting... tomorrow," Baker said. "Boy, just keep it coming."

After Roark exited, the Nationals got key outs from their bullpen. Marc Rzepczynski struck out Yasmani Grandal and got Howie Kendrick to line out to strand three runners in the fifth. Sammy Solis took over for Rzepczynski to end the top of the sixth on an Adrian Gonzalez flyout to leave two runners on base.

Blake Treinen replaced Solis to record a dominant seventh inning. He got Reddick to line out to left, Yasiel Puig to ground out to short and Grandal to go down staring at a slider.

"You just try to finish your inning with nobody on. You don't want to give them any momentum," Treinen said. "To be able to get after [Grandal] early and put him away, it means a lot to be able to finish your inning clean."

Treinen continued his effort in the eighth inning, with Kenrick going down looking at a sinker that barely clipped the bottom edge of umpire Chris Guccione's strike zone. After that, it was veteran Oliver Perez who retired former Phillies stars Carlos Ruiz and Chase Utley on groundouts. And after Perez, closer Mark Melancon tossed a scoreless ninth.

"Both sides were aggressively going to their bullpen, and this kind of shows you the importance of the bullpen in these playoffs," Baker said.

"Our bullpen, everybody we bring in is pretty lights out," Harper said. "Melancon shut the door right there and it was a beauty."

Murphy and Lobaton brought home the runs, but others in the Nationals' lineup also made their mark. Zimmerman singled and walked to follow his two-hit performance in Game 1. Turner added two singles, a run and a steal. Bryce Harper singled and Espinosa reached twice, each time getting hit by fastballs from Hill.

The Nationals fought for this one. Now the NLDS is locked at 1-1 as they tilt west for Game 3 in Los Angeles.

MORE NATIONALS: Dodgers well-aware of Nats' Trea Turner and his threat to steal

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Nationals, Astros wade into first spring training game after polar opposite weeks

Nationals, Astros wade into first spring training game after polar opposite weeks

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- It’s tough to blot out the sun and joy in south Florida. Friday was an exception. The temperature dropped into the 60s, clouds won the day and if West Palm Beach can be labeled dreary, the title fit on Friday as the wind whipped around.

The poor weather forced the Nationals into a truncated workout before their first game of spring training. Typically, the Grapefruit League opener for each team would be a signifier of the creeping regular season. It’s not a thing. Certainly not a thing, thing. But that will be the case Saturday night when Max Scherzer faces the still-reeling Houston Astros.

The week has not been kind to the Astros. Meanwhile, the Nationals have mixed goofing around with standard practices.

Houston absorbed shots from multiple players, notably including Atlanta outfielder Nick Markakis, who said every Astros player “needs a beating,” which prompted Houston manager Dusty Baker to retort Markakis must have had his Wheaties that morning. Earlier in the week, a fan ran up and banged a garbage can when José Altuve and others were taking batting practice, then took off.

Washington was busy with a cabbage race on National Cabbage Day and mercilessly pelting the head of its public relations director with water balloons on his birthday. Music played, Scherzer tussled with Starlin Castro, Trea Turner and Adam Eaton when throwing live batting practice, and Howie Kendrick held a rematch with Will Harris for the first time as teammates.

No one talked about death threats, which Houston outfielder Josh Reddick did on Friday when mentioning some of the social media backlash he is managing. No one on the Nationals’ side prompted hi-jinks from fans. The air horn signalled when to move, modern rap or the gravelly of Chris Stapleton bellowed from large speakers, and everyone generally went about their business.

The question about Saturday is if anything out of the ordinary will happen. What if Scherzer loses command of a pitch in his first outing and hits an Astros player? Who decides intent? Baker is so concerned about retaliation against his players, he publicly called on the league to warn other teams. Commissioner Rob Manfred said he did as much when talking to a large chunk of managers at his annual spring training press conference. Tony Clark, executive director of the MLBPA, said Friday the issue remains on the minds of the Astros.

“When you have comments publicly that suggest certain things may happen on the field, it’s hard to ignore those,” Clark said.

Clark spent roughly four hours meeting with Astros players on Friday. A large “2017 World Series champions” sign was one of the few things above the 6-foot-8 head of the players’ union. He said Houston players were “contrite and direct” in their discussions with him and they were concerned about “making sure the game is in the best place possible moving forward.” Clark’s comment came at lunchtime the day after the Nationals went through a parade through downtown West Palm Beach to yet again celebrate winning last season.

Houston will not play its regulars Saturday. Washington will play a few. Joe Ross will pitch after Scherzer. Everyone will watch Carter Kieboom in the field at third base. Baker and Martinez should cross paths. In the stands? Who knows? Every stadium is filled with metal garbage cans and beer vendors.

“I’m hoping that on our side, I can’t tell you anything about the Houston Astros or what they’re going to do or whatever, but for us we act professional, we go about our business and we get ready for the season,” Martinez said. “Go out there and compete and just get ready to play.”

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As Las Vegas gives odds for Astros’ hit batters, Houston players say they’re not worried about it

As Las Vegas gives odds for Astros’ hit batters, Houston players say they’re not worried about it

The unwritten rules of baseball say that when your team is wronged or disrespected by an opponent, it’s on the pitching staff to retaliate.

Whether spoken aloud or not, that rule will be put to the test this season when the Houston Astros play out their 162-game schedule. From AL West division rivals to clubs that lost to Houston in recent playoff series, teams from across MLB are trying to grapple with the Astros’ sign-stealing scandal that’s dominated the sport’s headlines for most of the offseason.

After many players came out voicing displeasure with MLB’s decision not to punish the players involved with the cheating scheme, Las Vegas sportsbooks put out an over/under total of 83.5 for the number of times the Astros will be hit by a pitch in 2020.

NBC4 Washington’s Lindsay Czarniak spoke with several members of the Astros on Friday about whether opposing teams would try to retaliate for their use of technology to steal opposing pitchers’ signs in real time during their World Series run in 2017 and parts of the 2018 season.

“I’m not concerned about that,” shortstop Carlos Correa said. “We’re grown men out here and whatever happens, happens. We just go out there and be professional and play the game.”

In 2019, there were 1,984 hit batters, or an average of just over 66 per team. Only one team, the New York Yankees, exceeded that total of 83.5 (they had 86 batters hit by a pitch). But despite MLB cracking down on pitchers intentionally hitting batters and handing out stiffer penalties for pitchers suspected of doing so, the number of hit batters has been on a steady incline the last half-decade.

In fact, the number of hit batters has increased every season since 2015. There were 1,602 batters hit by pitches that season, an average of 53.4 per team. That makes the 2019 total a 23.8 percent increase over the figure from five years prior.

Houston was right at the league average last season, watching its hitters take pitches of themselves 66 times. While the threat of disgruntled players deciding to take matters into their own hands looms, the Astros are preaching the same company line about only focusing on themselves.

“We can’t worry about that,” starter Lance McCullers told Czarniak. “That’s something that a lot of players have been speaking out about. We’re not sure if those players [are] speaking that way because they want to sound a certain way, they want to be portrayed a certain way. We can only worry about what’s in this locker room at that’s something that Dusty has really been preaching to us.

“We just got to go out there and we just got to play baseball and whatever comes along with this season we’ll address it and we’ll deal with it then.”

These comments also come on heels of MLB issuing a memo to teams laying out a new process umpires will be using to determine if pitchers are intentionally hitting batters during games. The umpires will now discuss the pitch in question among themselves before anyone is tossed, with managers being held more accountable. The change is reportedly not related to the Astros but comes at a convenient time for them and MLB.

That all said, 83.5 is still a high number for bettors to consider. It wouldn’t be unprecedented, but the Astros would most likely be among the most-hit clubs in baseball if they do approach that total.

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