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Middle-inning decisions again cost Nationals

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Middle-inning decisions again cost Nationals

Does this sound familiar: The Nationals scratch and claw their way to take a 5-3 lead against a first-place club into the sixth or seventh inning, only to watch that lead fritter away and ultimately lose by a score of 8-5?

It should sound familiar, because it just happened Monday against the Mets.

And last Tuesday against the Cardinals.

And last Monday against the Cardinals.

Yes, the Nationals' last three losses have all come in exactly the same fashion, with a 5-3 lead blown in the sixth inning or later, resulting in a final score of 8-5. In between all that, they've managed to win seven other games. So, really, had they just been able to hold those three late leads, they'd be riding a 10-game winning streak right and sit a mere 2 games behind the Mets in the NL East instead of the current 5.

They didn't do that, of course, and so they find themselves in their current predicament. So, how did Monday's middle-innings meltdown come about?

It began, really, in the bottom of the fifth, when manager Matt Williams faced his first real decision of the day: Pinch-hit for Max Scherzer with two on, two out and the Nats leading 5-4, or let the pitcher bat for himself?

Williams elected to leave Scherzer in, sacrificing a shot at expanding the lead in exchange for at least one more inning from his starter, who was at 89 pitches at the time.

"He's our best option in the sixth inning," the manager said afterward. "He's got pitches left. We want to make sure we're getting to the eighth. He's at [89 pitches] and he's got the lead. He's our No. 1 for a reason."

Scherzer did actually hit the ball hard, but right at second baseman Wilmer Flores, and so the fifth inning was over and the right-hander prepared to re-take the mound, trying to protect a 5-4 lead. Right away, Yoenis Cespedes doubled. And right away, the Nationals' bullpen sprung into action ... though that group wasn't called upon to pitch until the seventh, after Scherzer had allowed the tying run via a balk and a sacrifice fly that scored Cespedes from third.

When the relief corps was finally summoned, it was all hands on deck. Williams began the seventh with Blake Treinen, who has been highly effective against right-handed hitters this season (.183 batting average against, .494 OPS against) but not so much against left-handed hitters (.351 batting average against, .914 OPS against).

Treinen gave up a leadoff single to Flores (a right-handed batter) and then barely threw him out at second base on Ruben Tejada's attempted sacrifice bunt. And that was it for him. Enter Felipe Rivero to face the left-handed Curtis Granderson.

This, according to Williams, proved to be the crucial plate appearance of the inning. Rivero has been a revelation lately — he entered Monday having retired 13 consecutive batters over his last three outings — but he wound up walking Granderson to put runners on first and second with one out.

With David Wright stepping to the plate and the left-handed Daniel Murphy behind him, Williams could have stuck with Rivero, who has enjoyed success lately against both lefties and righties. But the Granderson walk changed everything, and so Williams found himself walking back to the mound again for another pitching change, this time bringing in right-hander Casey Janssen.

"If [Rivero] gets Granderson, we let him go through and get to [Murphy]," Williams said. "But since he walked him, a base hit there, they end up taking the lead.

Which is exactly what Wright did, though not against the left-handed Rivero but against the right-handed Janssen, who surrendered an RBI single that gave the Mets the lead for good.

For Janssen, who gave up seven total runs during last week's losses to the Cardinals, was pitching on the third straight day, something he hadn't previously done with the Nationals. He made no excuse for that, though.

"No, if you can't get up for situations like this," Janssen said, his voice trailing off. "It's always fun to pitch in situations like this. Adrenaline takes care of everything."

Janssen didn't have much time to get the adrenaline flowing, because he was pulled after facing only one batter, giving way to veteran left-hander Matt Thornton to try and get out of the inning without any more damage. Thornton, though, gave up a sacrifice fly to left that scored Granderson and then an RBI double to Cespedes, one of the least-favorable matchups for the day.

"Looking to get a groundball from Murphy," Thornton said of his plan-of-attack against the first batter he faced. "That's why I threw him inside so many times, hoping to get a double play there with Cespedes hitting on-deck. At the same time, trying to make sure I get an out. I didn't want him to do what he did do. But he had a hell of an at-bat. Fouled off some really really good pitches and got his job done."

Thus, a 5-5 game turned into an 8-5 deficit, one the Nationals would never make up. Which has become the norm around here.

Fifteen times this season they have taken a lead into the sixth inning and wound up losing. Last season, it only happened eight times.

And lately, it feels like the same thing is happening over and over.

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Nationals turn to Patrick Corbin to close NLCS in a sweep

Nationals turn to Patrick Corbin to close NLCS in a sweep

WASHINGTON-- Holding a bottle of Bud Light in his left hand, the one which produced enough quality pitches for a $140 million contract, Patrick Corbin was a peripheral party participant.

He’s generally quiet. When the All-Star break arrived, he and his wife, Jen, made initial plans to go to the Hamptons. They went to upstate New York instead. The couple stayed with Jen’s parents because getting to the Hamptons seemed like a pain. Then he came back to work.

Asked during the post-Wild-Card Game celebrating how he would explain the team’s run to someone from home who had not been watching, Corbin smiled.

“Who would that be?”

Fair point. 

What’s now pervasive well beyond the greater Syracuse area is the Nationals’ weeks-long burn. They are 15-2 in their last seventeen games. The season reached the edge of extinction late in the Wild-Card Game, then again in Game 5 of the NLDS. The National League Championship Series is a romp thus far, and Corbin’s chance to close it with a sweep comes Tuesday night in Nationals Park.

Washington, finally, is not playing from behind. No National League team has ever lost a seven-game series with a 3-0 lead. The Nationals even suddenly have a 50-50 shot of winning the World Series, according to projections at fivethirtyeight.com. Those odds will likely twist to favor the eventual American League champion, either New York or Houston. For now, the Nationals have the juice. 

“I wouldn’t say it’s odd,” Sean Doolittle said. “It feels nice. We’re not taking anything for granted, but this is definitely a better position to be in than we were three games after the last series. I think it can be a situation where we can come and continue to play with that loose confidence that is when we’re at our best, without feeling like we have our backs against the wall. Not that we’re uncomfortable in that position. But, we can be the aggressor in this situation.”

Corbin is trying to follow his rotation mates by snuffing out any St. Louis offense. The Cardinals have the worst batting average in NLCS history, a meager .121. St. Louis is going through a historic malaise. Corbin is going through his first postseason.

His start was rough. Corbin walked in a run to open Game 1 in Los Angeles. But, he worked his way through six innings despite the ineffective opening. A disastrous relief appearance followed three days later. Corbin’s routine and outcomes were upended. He sat in the dugout during the rest of Game 3 against Los Angeles, stone-faced and wondering what happened. Asked afterward why he remained instead of walking into the clubhouse to decompress, he said, “I don’t know.”

Things have been better since then. Corbin’s relief appearance in Game 5 against Los Angeles was paramount. He matched up late in Game 2 against St. Louis. Days typically reserved for bullpen sessions turned into in-game journeys during the season’s most difficult time.

“I feel great at this time,” Corbin said Monday. “Been lucky to stay healthy this whole season and just -- you just kind of continue to do what you've done, be smart about things. I think at this point in the season you're not lifting as heavy as you would and maybe backing down on some running and things like that. But pretty much the same routine. Body feels great. If you can't get up for these games, then yeah...”

Corbin faced St. Louis twice this season: April 29 and Sept. 17. St. Louis was an offensive force in April. September is the more relatable sample. Corbin went six innings, allowed five hits, no earned runs, four walks and struck out 11.

“I’ll just try to go over film and go over what I did do well and what I didn't do well,” Corbin said. “At this point, everyone kind of knows what I've done. I just need to go out there and execute those pitches.”

Corbin was speaking in the same press conference room used for his introduction almost a year ago. Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer sat in the front row. Together, they went into spring training, then the regular season, as the core of everything. They remain so in the postseason. Strasburg and Scherzer have done their series work to this point. Corbin’s chance comes Tuesday night, when he can close it down, send the Nationals to the World Series, and grab another round postgame.

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How To Watch Nationals-Cardinals NLCS Game 4: Date, time, TV channel, live stream

How To Watch Nationals-Cardinals NLCS Game 4: Date, time, TV channel, live stream

If you haven't heard it enough around the water cooler, we're here to tell you that the Washington Nationals are one win away from their first World Series appearance. They've steamrolled the St. Louis Cardinals through the first three NLCS games, outscoring the birds 12-2. 

Sweeping St. Louis could be one for the books. Here's how to watch potential history go down.

2019 NLCS Game 4: St. Louis Cardinals @ Washington Nationals

Date: Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Location: Nationals Park, Washington D.C.

Time: 8:05 p.m. ET

TV Channel: TBS

Broadcasters: Ernie Johnson, Ron Darling, and Jeff Francoeur

Live Stream: TBS.com, or you can download the TBS app

Radio: 106.7 The Fan (Washington DC Market), ESPN Radio (Nationally)

Weather: 63°F

Nationals vs. Cardinals History

All-Time Record (post-2005): Cardinals lead 61-44

Regular-Season Series: Cardinals lead 5-2

Last Playoff Appearance: Cardinals (2018), Nationals (2017)

Remaining National League Championship Series Schedule:

Wednesday, Oct. 16: 
- NLCS Game 5*. Cardinals @ Nationals. TV Channel: TBS

Friday, Oct. 18: 
- NLCS Game 6*. Nationals @ Cardinals. TV Channel: TBS

Saturday, Oct. 19:
- NLCS Game 7*. Nationals @ Cardinals. TV Channel: TBS

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