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Nationals hand Braves first ever loss at new SunTrust Park

Nationals hand Braves first ever loss at new SunTrust Park

Max Scherzer pitched two-hit ball over seven scoreless innings and the Washington Nationals handed Atlanta its first loss at SunTrust Park, escaping a major jam in the ninth to beat the Braves 3-1 on Tuesday night.

Atlanta scored a run against Nationals closer Blake Treinen and had the bases loaded with one out. But Shawn Kelley came on for his first save, getting Emilio Bonifacio to fly out to short right field and striking out Chase d'Arnaud -- twice, actually -- to end the game.

D'Arnaud clearly missed a pitch in the dirt, but the umpires gave him a second chance by inexplicably ruling it a foul tip. D'Arnaud made it a moot point, swinging and missing again.

Scherzer (2-1) got an inning-ending double play to work around his only serious trouble in the fourth. The 2016 NL Cy Young Award winner allowed only one other runner as far as second base, finishing with seven strikeouts.

Mike Foltynewicz (0-2) ended up on the short end of the pitching duel. He went seven innings, allowing five hits and a pair of runs.

Washington's Adam Eaton kept up the hot start for his new team with an RBI single.

Sparked by the debut of their new suburban stadium, the Braves swept San Diego in a four-game series and came in having won five straight overall, getting back to .500 after a 1-6 start.

But Washington has dominated its division rival over the last two-plus season, improving to 37-13 over their last 50 meetings.

Even on a balmy night for the opener of a three-game series against the defending NL East champions, the crowd of 21,834 was the smallest in five games at SunTrust Park.

The Braves had their best scoring chance against Scherzer when Freddie Freeman led off the fourth with a walk and Nick Markakis followed with a single to center.

Brandon Phillips grounded into a forceout, leaving runners at first and third for Adonis Garcia. On a 3-1 pitch, he grounded sharply to shortstop Wilmer Difo, who started an easy double play to end the inning.

Washington broke through the very next inning. Matt Wieters got it started with a double, went to third on a wild pitch and trotted home when Difo slapped a single to right. Scherzer moved the runner along with a sacrifice bunt, setting up Eaton's run-scoring hit to center.

The Nationals added an insurance run in the eighth on doubles by Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman.

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Nationals face dilemma as Sean Doolittle's usage mounts, velocity drops

Nationals face dilemma as Sean Doolittle's usage mounts, velocity drops

Davey Martinez had no hesitation in his answer or decision on Friday in Philadelphia. First game out of the break, facing a team right next to the Nationals in the standings, a 4-0 lead. Closer Sean Doolittle was coming in to end it, though it was a non-save situation and he is being used at an extreme level.

“Here’s my thoughts: It took me about three seconds,” Martinez said Friday. “Playing at Citizens [Bank] Park. Four runs. That ain’t much here. Those guys can hit. Doolittle’s coming in the game. It’s a big moment. And, he’s my guy. To me, that game right there, it’s huge coming off a four-day break.”

So, Doolittle made his 40th appearance of the season. Saturday brought his 41st appearance. He did not pitch Sunday, a day game after a late night.

Trends are emerging through his high usage rate. Doolittle’s velocity is down for the fourth consecutive season. The dip is slight year over year, from 93.9 mph average fastball velocity to 93.6. His velocity was distinctly down in Philadelphia over the weekend despite four days off. Doolittle threw 12 fastballs Friday, 10 of which were slower than his average fastball velocity this season. He threw 19 fastballs Saturday; 13 were below his average velocity (two others matched it). 

“I’m not exactly sure why it’s down,” Doolittle said Saturday. “I know from past experience, not to panic if I see the 91, 92. I feel pretty good -- everybody gets a little tired around this point of the season, but if I stay in my mechanics and don’t try to overthrow, I can still get that life and deception on my fastball. I can still, like [Saturday], I can still navigate innings and get guys out. These last two nights I’ve been really pleased with how I’ve been able to manage my energy level without maybe my best fastball.”

He is on pace for a career-high 72 appearances and 1,214 pitches. The latter would exceed his career mark of 1,019 by almost 200 pitches. One of the most telling numbers around Doolittle is his games finished vs. saves. He leads the league with 37 games finished but has just 20 saves, which is tied for fourth with three others. National League saves leader Kirby Yates has finished 35 games, but has 30 saves. Kenley Jansen: 33 games finished, 23 saves. Will Smith: 35 games finished, 23 saves. No other closer has appeared in more non-save situations.

Doolittle’s velocity also dropped earlier in the season before a mechanical adjustment kicked it back up to the 94- and 95-mph range for a spell. He did turn loose a 95-mph fastball Saturday. He half-joked about it.

“See it’s in there,” Doolittle said. “I just got to pick and choose, I guess, when to use it.”

His manager is using a more straight-ahead approach. Doolittle is out there, so he is using him. A lot.

And all this is more for recognition of the situation as opposed to blame assessment, When the bullpen was at its worst, Doolittle was summoned at times because his teammates were in the process of blowing a game or couldn’t be trusted in the first place. The Nationals were also rapidly losing ground, so Martinez had to be sure he was sure whenever possible. But, also, there have been times when Doolittle’s appearance in a non-save situation appeared unnecessary.

Piled together, the Nationals have an ongoing conundrum: they need to manage Doolittle’s appearances while in the middle of a push up the standings and without a definitive backup. Fernando Rodney has helped. An acquisition before the trade deadline could help further. And the coming week we’ll clarify if two games in Philadelphia were a blip or more foreboding.

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Nationals broadcaster F.P Santangelo: Team never panicked in slow start

Nationals broadcaster F.P Santangelo: Team never panicked in slow start

The Washington Nationals early start may have had fans and pundits writing off the team for the season, but no one inside the Nationals organization was panicking, said one insider. 

“I know there was a while there where everybody wanted Davey gone and people were questioning Mike," Nationals broadcaster F.P. Santangelo said on The Sports Junkies Monday, "but they were the calming forces in all this."

From bullpen woes to injuries, the Nationals had a rough start to their season and then suddenly, as if it had never happened, they turned it around.

“We were all scratching our heads like what in the world is going on? This team is way too good to be doing this and it was happening nightly,” Santangelo said.

As pressure mounted on the team to keep winning, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo reiterated time and time again during his Wednesday morning spot on The Sports Junkies that their goal was to play good baseball and to not worry about wins or losses, which Santangelo echoed.

"They were calm the whole time," Santangelo said. "They had veteran presence in the clubhouse and nobody panicked."

Suddenly, with a 12-10 win over the Miami Marlins on May 24, the Nats turned it around. Rizzo and the Lerners made the decision to cut their losses on Trevor Rosenthal's contract, the bullpen started to pitch well and adjustments were made accordingly, says Santangelo.

The Nationals open their two-game series against the Baltimore Orioles Tuesday at 7:05 p.m.

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