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On long, up-and-down day, Strasburg stands tall

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On long, up-and-down day, Strasburg stands tall

PHILADELPHIA — A lot happened over the course of seven hours Sunday at Citizens Bank Park, where the Nationals and Phillies engaged in 18 innings of baseball, some of it good and some of it bad and some of it painful.

A doubleheader split — a 3-2 victory in the opener, then an 8-5 loss in the finale — might have left the Nationals feeling like the entire day was a lost cause. Nothing gained, nothing lost.

That may be true in the standings, but the standings felt inconsequential on this day to what proved to be the most important development of the entire afternoon/evening: Another really impressive start by Stephen Strasburg.

With seven innings of 2-run ball, Strasburg validated his 5-inning return from the disabled list last week and gave further evidence to suggest his early season struggles are long behind him, with plenty more positive outings still to come.

"It's huge," said first baseman/outfielder Clint Robinson, who drove in two runs in the nightcap. "He struggled a little bit to begin the year, but now that he looks like he's back on track, he's just another piece to our great rotation. We need him a lot. He's really important to us. So to get him back on track and out there throwing up zeroes like everyone else is really important."

Dominant starting pitching was the common denominator throughout the Nationals' 8-game winning streak, which finally came to end Sunday evening after Tanner Roark was rocked for eight runs in a spot start necessitated by Saturday's rainout after only 1 1/2 innings. It's how this team was built to win. And Strasburg is a key piece to that puzzle.

What he has shown in two starts since a brief DL stint to deal with a strained trapezius muscle and out-of-whack mechanics — two runs, eight hits, two walks and 15 strikeouts over 12 innings — suggests he is back to his old self again.

"It's nice that he's healthy," manager Matt Williams said. "It's nice that he feels good about going out there. He's had no issues, which is great. When he doesn't, that can be the result."

Strasburg's start was important not only for the results he posted but for the quality innings he pitched. In the opener of a doubleheader with an uncertain Game 2 starter, the Nationals needed something like this from Strasburg, and he delivered.

Picking up right where he left off Tuesday against the Braves, Strasburg was in complete control throughout, relying on his fastball to set up hitters. He did turn to his offspeed stuff more to put guys away, leading to a season-high nine strikeouts, thanks to the best change-up he has featured in quite some time.

"Change-up is starting to come back to me," he said. "I'm starting to execute it a lot better and more consistently."

Perhaps the most important thing Strasburg did on Sunday, though, was take the mound for the bottom of the seventh and emerge from that inning having preserved the Nationals' 3-2 lead ... not to mention their bullpen.

With his pitch count at 96 and having labored somewhat in the sixth, Strasburg might normally have been pulled. But with another game still to be played, with a fill-in starter out of the bullpen, Williams decided to try to squeeze one more inning out of his right-hander.

"It's important for him to stretch it," the manager said. "We knew that going in. So, yeah, I thought it was important for our whole team for him to get deep in the game for us, and he provided that."

Strasburg finished with some of his best work of the day, retiring the side on a flyball and two more strikeouts, capping a 113-pitch performance that was sorely needed.

"This whole season my arm strength has always been there," Strasburg said. "It's been kind of fighting through the mechanical issues and everything like that. So I was glad to go out there for seven, and I felt just as strong in the seventh as I was in the first."

The Nationals would have loved to get a comparable start out of Roark in the nightcap, but the right-hander didn't have one in him. Pressed back into the rotation for one spot start, he was roughed up for eight runs on 12 hits (11 of them singles) in only 3 1/3 innings.

Not that the Phillies were blasting the ball all over the park against Roark. Three of the hits never left the infield, and another two were perfectly placed groundballs that sneaked their way through.

"That's the game of baseball," Roark said. "You can't win them all. You can't pitch lights-out every single time. You just go out there, go about your business, do your job and sometimes it goes that way."

Given how well their rotation has performed over the last week-plus, the Nationals couldn't be too upset with one clunker of a start at the end of a long weekend.

"They had some balls that snuck through," Williams said. "They did a nice job of staying on baseballs and making contact and hitting it through the middle of the diamond. But a lot of grounders today that got through the infield, a couple balls off the end of the bat. Yeah, not his day."

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Nationals set to bring back Matt Adams

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Nationals set to bring back Matt Adams

The Nationals just checked another box.

They have reached an agreement to bring back first baseman Matt Adams, pending a physical, NBC Sports Washington has confirmed.

The deal is for one year with a mutual option in 2020.

Adams flourished last season with the Nationals when he delivered an .842 OPS with an 118 OPS-plus in 306 at-bats as a part-time player. He was crucial since Ryan Zimmerman spent the middle of the season on the disabled list.

The Nationals later flipped Adams to the St. Louis Cardinals for “cash considerations”, which made him little more than a waiver claim for St. Louis. The Nationals just saved the remainder he was owed on his contract following the Aug. 21 transaction.

Adams, a quiet professional, fit well in the clubhouse. One on-field tear earned him a T-shirt homage to his nickname: “Big City doing Big City things” that several of his teammates wore pregame.

His role will be the same as last season: insurance for Zimmerman, as well as a power left-handed bat off the bench who will receive the occasional start if Zimmerman is healthy.

Adams’ return also enables the Nationals to shop for a true second baseman as opposed to a hybrid player like Marwin Gonzalez. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo has continually moved the needle from standing pat to hunting for a starting second baseman. For now, a platoon of Wilmer Difo and Howie Kendrick is in place.

The Nationals' largest gap remains in the rotation following the trade of Tanner Roark. They need to find 180 innings in a thin free agent pitching market to replace Roark’s production from the last three seasons.

Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic first reported the agreement with Adams.

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Tanner Roark is out, who could be in?

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Tanner 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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