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Lannan leads Nats to sweep in New York

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Lannan leads Nats to sweep in New York

NEW YORK -- The storyline, and the comparison, was too obvious to ignore.

Stephen Strasburg was supposed to start Wednesday night's series finale in New York. John Lannan instead took his spot and now will make four starts down the stretch run of a pennant race in place of baseball's most-hyped young pitcher.

Those who try to compare Lannan to Strasburg, though, haven't really been following the Nationals, this year or any previous year. Lannan simply isn't Strasburg. Nor has he ever tried to be.

Truth be told, Lannan isn't like any other member of the Nationals' rotation. He doesn't have Strasburg's dominating repertoire or Jordan Zimmermann's slider or Gio Gonzalez's curveball or Ross Detwiler's fastball or Edwin Jackson's experience. And he knows it.

"This rotation's different," Lannan said. "There's something about it. Every five days when Stephen was in it, it's just different. Day after day, there's no giving up. I go out there and I had to just not try to do what they do. I'm not necessarily that type of pitcher, but I do like to compete. And that's the one thing I did see: them competing. And I can do that."

So that's exactly what Lannan did Wednesday night. He didn't so much dominate the Mets as he navigated his way through their lineup. He threw lots of strikes. He kept the ball down in the zone. He induced a ton of groundballs. And he didn't allow a run over 5 23 innings, paving the way for the Nationals to pull off a 2-0 victory and a series sweep at Citi Field.

And thanks to the Brewers' sweep of the Braves, plus the continued collapse of nearly every NL wild-card contender, the Nationals now boast an 8 12-game lead in the NL East entering this weekend's showdown in Atlanta and a 15-game lead for the league's final playoff berth with only 19 games to go.

"This was a big series," manager Davey Johnson said. "We needed to kinda drive the nail in their coffin here and come into Atlanta with a good frame of mind. And that's what we're doing."

All that angst about the Strasburg shutdown and how the Nats would replace him? Nobody in the visitors clubhouse at the end of the night seemed too worried about that.

"I don't think anybody in here was concerned about what John was going to give us," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "We've all seen him enough. ... We don't think he has to prove anything to us. We've seen him pitch. He's done well and he worked his tail off down there in Triple-A, and he comes up and picks up right where he left off, if not better."

Indeed, combined with his back-to-back shutouts in late-August to close out his season with Syracuse, Lannan has now tossed 23 23 consecutive scoreless innings. And in his three big-league starts this year, he's now 3-0 with a 2.41 ERA.

All this from a guy who five months ago was stunningly shipped away to the minors and requested a trade from the only organization he's ever known. Feels like an eternity now, doesn't it?

"If you're not pulling for him, you're not human," reliever Sean Burnett said. "To see what he went through in late March and to deal with what he did and the way he handled it ... he earned a lot of respect in this clubhouse. We're all pulling for him, and a lot of fans are, too."

The Nationals needed Lannan to be as effective as he was Wednesday night, because they weren't offering much support at the plate. Wowed by Mets rookie Matt Harvey, who struck out 10 batters in only five innings, they had to settle for a pair of solo homers and nothing else from what has been the majors' most potent lineup in recent weeks.

Ryan Zimmerman's leadoff blast in the fourth got things started. Desmond's solo shot in the eighth off Jon Rauch provided the insurance.

That still set the stage for a tense bottom of the ninth. With Tyler Clippard unavailable after working the previous two nights, Johnson decided to entrust this lead to Burnett, who hadn't pitched in 10 days due to elbow inflammation.

"I didn't wanna go to Clip or Drew Storen, period," the manager said. "Especially Clip. I wanted to give him a couple days off. If I pitched him today, it would have been four out of five, and I wanted to give him a couple days off and have him fresh for Atlanta."

Turns out Johnson needed Storen to finish this one off after Burnett allowed a two-out single to put men on the corners and bring the potential winning run to the plate.

"Being 10 days and not seeing hitters, that situation -- I was a little geeked up," Burnett said. "But all-in-all, it was alright. Just got a couple balls up."

Storen, who saved 43 games last season as Washington's primary closer but after missing three months following elbow surgery has ceded the job this year to Clippard, wasted little time getting pinch-hitter Daniel Murphy to fly out to center and secure his second save of 2012.

"It's just part of the bullpen life," Storen said. "You just stay on your toes and never assume anything."

That same mentality might apply to Lannan right now. After a surreal year, most of it spent in the minors, he's trying not to assume anything and just live in the moment.

Everyone else can try to compare him to Strasburg. He's just thrilled to have a chance at last to perform for the Nationals in a pennant race.

"Just being on this team right now is incredible," he said. "You can not only see it, but you can kind of feel the chemistry and everything. It's something special, and I'm just proud to be a part of it right now."

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It's time to start paying attention to Trea Turner's sneaky-great season

It's time to start paying attention to Trea Turner's sneaky-great season

Remember when the Nationals put Trea Turner in centerfield so they could keep Danny Espinosa at shortstop?

Two years later it's Turner who leads all N.L. shortstops in fWAR, as you surely know if you follow the Nationals on literally any social media platform. 

So while Juan Soto and Bryce Harper continue to dominate all of The Takes, it's Turner who's been the Nats' best position player this season. 

We'll start with some basics: 

Did you know that Trea Turner leads all N.L. shortstops in fWAR? He's currently sitting at 2.4 WAR, above the likes of Brandon Crawford, Addison Russell, and Trevor Story, to name a few. (We'll ignore the fact that the top six shortstops in the A.L. all have a better fWAR.) He's a top-10 shortstop in baseball during one of the strongest eras in the position's history.

Even after a dreadfully slow start, Turner's still on pace to have the best season of his career. He posted a WAR of 2.9 last year and -- barring injury -- will realistically eclipse that by the All-Star game. 

At the plate, two stats jump off the page in regards to explaining Turner's stellar season. 

First, Turner is drawing a *bunch* of walks. His current BB% clip (10.6 percent) would be far and away the best of his career and up four percentage points from last year. It's a factor that helps explain - partially, at least - why his on-base percentage has risen and his BABIP has dropped. More walks mean fewer swings, fewer swings mean less contact, less contact means lower BABIP, etc. It's not the whole picture, but it's a big part of it. 

Secondly, Turner is making impressive contact on pitches out of the strike zone. FanGraphs calculates out-of-zone contact using a statistic titled O-Contact, which is a blessing considering some of the titles they choose to give their other stats. 

The average O-Contact across MLB in 2018 is 64.7 percent. Trea Turner's career O-Contact is 62.4 percent (although realistically it's closer to the high-50's - a small-sample-size from his abbreviated first season mucks up the number a bit). 

This season, Turner's posted an O-Contact of 69.3 percent. Not only is that 10 percentage points higher than his O-Contact from last season, but a top-50 clip in all of baseball. He's one spot ahead of Mike Trout!  Put both of these together with some encouraging Statcast numbers (rise in HardHit%, already matched his total 'barrels' from last season) and you can see why Turner's been thriving at the plate. 

Defensively, he's improved across the board as well. His UZR and DRS - considered the two most reliable fielding statistics, if such a thing exists - are both up from last year. He has the 10th-best UZR of all major league shortstops and ranks 1st in DRS. 

Last season, he finished 17th in both UZR and DRS (of all shortstops with at least 800 innings; Turner didn't log enough innings to be considered a qualified fielder). He ended the season with both numbers in the negative. 

You may be skeptical of defensive stats, which is fine. But if nothing else, the fact that Turner is turning literal negative stats into positive ones is encouraging. 

Lastly, Turner continues to be an elite baserunner. At this point in his career, his speed is arguably his best tool:

You'll note that purple dot allllllllllll the way on the right. That's Turner! Now, let's take a look at how his speed compares across all positions:

Essentially, Turner is faster than like, 98 percent of baseball. In fact, by Sprint Speed, he's the 6th-fastest player in the game. He also ranks 2nd across all of baseball in FanGraphs "Baserunning" measurements, only behind fellow teammate and mindbogglingly good baserunner Michael A. Taylor. 

So, Trea Turner an elite baserunner (maybe the best if you combine his raw speed with his baserunning stats), a top-5 shortstop in the field, and an All-Star at the plate. 

Juan Soto's been great and Bryce Harper is still extremely talented, but this year, Trea Turner has been the Nationals' best player. 

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Juan Soto's 2-run double carries Nationals past Orioles

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USA TODAY Sports

Juan Soto's 2-run double carries Nationals past Orioles

WASHINGTON -- A teenager among men, Juan Soto has impressed his teammates on the Washington Nationals with his maturity and, even more so, his potent bat.

Soto hit a tiebreaking two-run double in the eighth inning, and Washington beat the Baltimore Orioles 4-2 Thursday night in the deciding matchup of a three-game interleague series between neighboring rivals.

Soto, a 19-year-old rookie, is batting .326 with 16 RBIs in 28 games. Starting in the cleanup spot for the first time, he drew a walk and delivered the game's pivotal hit.

"I think we're all amazed every single day," Washington ace Max Scherzer said. "He puts together great ABs. He has antics and has some flair. He's a great young player. He's just enjoying himself."

Bryce Harper led off the eighth with a double off Mychal Givens (0-4) and Trea Turner followed with a single. After Anthony Rendon struck out, Soto hit a liner into the gap in left-center.

"He's got unbelievable poise," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said of Soto. "No matter what the situation is, he goes out there with a game plan."

Whatever that plan is, it's effective.

"I just try to be focused and keep working," Soto said.

Rendon homered for the Nationals, who received seven strong innings from Scherzer and flawless work from their bullpen.

Newcomer Kelvin Herrera (1-0) pitched a 1-2-3 eighth inning and Sean Doolittle got three straight outs for his 20th save in 21 tries.

Seeking to end a rare run of two straight losses, Scherzer left a tied game after allowing two runs -- both on solo homers -- and striking out nine.

Afterward, the right-hander heaped praise upon Soto for the manner in which he's adapted to playing in the big leagues.

"He has a great feel for the strike zone," Scherzer said. "To have that type of eye, it's remarkable for him to be able to do that at this time and this age and this level."

Activated from the 60-day disabled list before the game, Colby Rasmus homered for the Orioles in his first at-bat since April 6.

"Me and Max, we go way back, so I felt real good," said Rasmus, who had been sidelined with a hip injury.

In addition, Rasmus made an outstanding throw from right field to the plate, nailing Wilmer Difo on a tag-up play in the seventh inning with the score tied.

Mark Trumbo also homered for Baltimore, his sixth of the season and third in four games.

Baltimore starter Kevin Gausman gave up two runs and four hits over six innings. The right-hander was lifted with the score tied, leaving him winless in his last seven starts.

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