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Nationals hold off Cardinals

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Nationals hold off Cardinals

By Mark Zuckerman
Nationals Insider

ST. LOUIS -- The champagne was on site, stored away in crates out of view from the main room in the visitors clubhouse at Busch Stadium. So, too, were the plastic locker covers, the ones that can quickly be installed to prevent all that champagne from ruining clothes, jewelry and electronics.

The Nationals showed up Saturday afternoon prepared for a party, just in case events fell their way. But before their 6-4, 10-inning victory over the Cardinals was complete, they already knew there would be no celebration on this night. The Braves' 2-0 win over the Mets kept the NL East race alive for at least one more day.

The Nationals, though, know they don't need to count on Atlanta for anything any more. Thanks to this victory, they lowered their magic number to 1. If they simply win one of their final four games, they'll win the division and enter the postseason no worse than the NL's No. 2 seed.

The clinch could now come Sunday afternoon, with the Nationals closing out this series against the Cardinals about 30 minutes after the Braves and Mets get underway at Turner Field.

A clinch Saturday night -- on the eighth anniversary of the day Major League Baseball announced baseball was returning to Washington after a 33-year hiatus -- certainly would have been sweet. But a clinch Sunday afternoon -- on the 41st anniversary of the Senators' final game at RFK Stadium -- would be just as meaningful for the Nationals and for generations of D.C. baseball fans.

The Nationals reached this precipice of history after a nip-and-tuck, extra-inning affair against the Wild Card-contending Cardinals, one that saw Michael Morse kick things off with one of the strangest grand slams in decades, then saw Jordan Zimmermann and four relievers try to hang on for dear life to prevent St. Louis from completing a late rally that would have spoiled the night for everyone.

The first three men out of the bullpen (Sean Burnett, Ryan Mattheus and Tyler Clippard) managed to get the job done. The fourth man out of the pen, Drew Storen, was not as fortunate.

The Nationals' once-and-future closer blew a 4-3 lead in the bottom of the ninth, allowing back-to-back, groundball singles to Pete Kozma and Daniel Descalso before Jon Jay lofted a sacrifice fly to center, plenty deep to bring Kozma home with the tying run and send this one to extra innings.

No worries, because Kurt Suzuki picked everyone up with a clutch, two-out, two-run double in the top of the 10th, moments after St. Louis manager Mike Matheny decided to intentionally walk the struggling Danny Espinosa and pitch to the recently-hot catcher instead.

Suzuki, now hitting .322 with 20 RBI over his last 27 games, scorched right-hander Fernando Salas' pitch to the wall in left-center, bringing home both Adam LaRoche and Espinosa and letting everyone in the Nationals dugout breath a bit again.

Craig Stammen then finished it off, earning a rare save to cap off a tense evening of baseball.

They treated this like any other day inside the Nationals clubhouse before the game, players lounging around playing cards or watching the Ryder Cup on television. Little would anyone realize the champagne and plastic locker covers were lurking in an adjacent room, ready to be moved into position should events make it necessary.

For that to happen, of course, the Nationals not only needed to win but the Braves needed to lose for the second straight night. They'd been sneaking peeks at the out-of-town-scoreboard for several weeks, but they really were keeping a close eye on the giant, LED display above the right field fence at Busch Stadium.

"This one here is plastered all over in front of you," manager Davey Johnson said. "So you can't hardly miss it."

Thus, the Nationals had to notice very quickly when the Braves jumped out to a 1-0 lead on the Mets in the bottom of the first. And they had to notice when the lead doubled to 2-0 in the bottom of the fifth, then remained just like that deep into the ballgame, a somewhat demoralizing development for a club that was hoping to celebrate on this night.

Not that the Nationals weren't holding up their part of the bargain, storming out of the gates to take a 4-0 lead in the top of the first in as bizarre a scene as you'll ever see on a big-league field.

After Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman and LaRoche all reached safely with one out, Morse stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and Kyle Lohse on the ropes. He pounced on Lohse's first pitch and drilled the ball on a line to right field, where it caromed off something and bounced back onto the field.

The Nationals all assumed it was a home run, but Cardinals right fielder Carlos Beltran fired the ball back into the infield, so now nobody was entirely sure what happened. Harper crossed the plate, but Zimmerman stopped at third and LaRoche stopped after rounding second. That left Morse scampering back to first base, where he wound up getting thrown out.

The umpires immediately huddled up and agreed to go take a look at the tape, then after a brief delay they confirmed what everyone watching on TV saw: the ball struck an advertisement beyond the fence, clearly a home run.

So Morse was awarded the grand slam, and the Nationals were suddenly up 4-0 ... except for one small problem: All four of their baserunners needed to reposition themselves and jog around the bases to make it official. Thus everyone was treated to the surreal sight of Morse standing in the batters' box, no bat in hand, pantomiming a swing and then trotting 360 feet to complete his Immaculate Grand Slam.

If that wasn't a positive omen for the Nationals on a potentially historic night, what else could be?

How about a dominant pitching performance from Zimmermann, whose up-and-down second half of the season ended on an uplifting note. For six innings, the right-hander was in complete control, scattering four singles and a walk, not allowing any of those runners to cross the plate.

Zimmermann, though, finally faltered in the seventh, letting four straight Cardinals reach in rapid succession, faster than Johnson to get right-hander Mattheus warmed up in the bullpen. So Johnson waited until the left-handed Jon Jay was at the plate before signaling for Burnett, who promptly allowed a seeing-eye single that trimmed the lead to 4-3 but rebounded by getting Matt Carpenter to fly out to center.

Mattheus finally entered after that, facing slugger Matt Holliday in a huge spot, with the tying run on second and two outs. Mattheus, who has been one of the Nationals' better relievers at escaping jams this season, delivered again. He got Holliday to fly out harmlessly to right, preserving that slimmest of leads.

As this was all playing out, though, Craig Kimbrel was putting the finishing touches on the Braves' victory. Just like that, no matter what happened on the field at Busch Stadium, there would be no celebration in the clubhouse.

The champagne stayed in those cases. The plastic locker covers stayed hidden from view. And the Nationals could do nothing but head back their hotel for the night, knowing the celebration Washington baseball fans have waited 79 years to experience can't take place for at least one more day.

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How MLB managers feeling heat, including Nationals' Davey Martinez, block it out

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How MLB managers feeling heat, including Nationals' Davey Martinez, block it out

WASHINGTON -- Davey Martinez likes to venture around town when the Nationals are home. He hunts for a quality bottle of red wine in local shops, at times takes a scooter to work and generally operates among the District denizens as if he wasn’t captaining a creaking ship.

When alone, he’s not overly recognizable but clear enough after a year-plus at the helm of the local baseball team to be noticed. The subsequent interactions, he claims, are often positive. Fans say they believe the Nationals will turn it around. They support him. They’re behind the team.

“Fans understand the game,” Martinez said Saturday. “Of course everybody wants to win. We want to win. Trust me. There’s not one guy in that clubhouse that goes out there and wants to give up a home run, wants to strikeout. We all want to win. But I hear a lot of, ‘You’re doing a great job.’ Positive. Things will turn around. I say, 'Thank you. Appreciate it.' I can tell you one thing, the guys are there to play hard.”

Anyone hurling tomatoes at him in the grocery store? Does he have bad interactions?

“If I did, I wouldn’t tell you, one,” Martinez said with a smile. “And two, you really don’t listen. I don’t even hear most of the stuff that’s going on during games. I really don’t.”

It’s that insular mentality that can help managers survive when the heat is cranked up around them. For Martinez, it’s worrying about “the boys” and not external noise. Chicago’s Joe Maddon prefers “circling the wagons” in a pressurized environment. In New York, where the subpar Nationals open a four-game series Monday night against the stumbling Mets, manager Mickey Callaway is taking shots head-on. MLB Network’s around-the-league show “Quick Pitch” showed Saturday night clips when the Mets announcers called the game “rock bottom.” The Mets were shut out the next day, and he was asked postgame about his job status on both Saturday and Sunday.

Martinez does not use social media. In his free time, he prefers to go hunting or fishing, not scroll through his phone to see any commentary about his job performance. Maddon, his mentor turned antagonist, felt waves early in Tampa Bay and even in Chicago when the Cubs careened to a 2-7 start this year, the last of his contract. He also stays away from Twitter and the radio dial.

“For me, it’s always about circling the wagons,” Maddon said. “As long as you’re pleased with what’s going on within the group, that’s all that matters. Quite frankly, talk radio, social media, that doesn’t matter. If you permit that to matter, that’s kind of your own fault. That’s there for entertainment purposes. That’s there to promote the game. Good. Barroom banter is tremendous. It’s necessary. I get it. But when it comes to running an organization, if you permit noise from the outside to impact your decisions inside, you deserve your fate.”

Rumblings around Martinez have leveled in the last week. A split in Los Angeles pushed back a miserable sweep in Milwaukee. A series win against Callaway’s Mets produced mathematical progress as opposed to any moralistic claims. A tight series against the Cubs ended with a 6-5 loss Sunday. The baseball since Los Angeles has been better.

That doesn’t remove Martinez from outside conversations about his, and the team’s, future. As things cook in New York, the Nationals remain in a desultory spot of eight games under .500 and eight games out. The coming schedule and recently increased health suggests opportunity. Tussling with the Mets is followed by Miami’s arrival at Nationals Park for four games. A quick two-game trip to Atlanta follows. 

Asked about Martinez’s situation, Maddon turned to the space most have pointed at this season: the bullpen. His words were delivered Friday afternoon.

“Love the team on the field,” Maddon said. “Love the talent on the field. Even without [Bryce] Harper being here. Their system has been outstanding. The young players are high-end. I think before you get all weirded out about Davey, let’s get a bullpen that plays consistently well. Then, you can find out what you got. I’m telling you, man, you could do everything right in a ballgame as a manager -- whether it’s pre the game or during the game, that if you can’t get those outs in the latter part of the game, it’s extremely frustrating for everybody.”

The Nationals bullpen was clobbered that evening. It remains last in the league in ERA by a large margin. 

If a Washington turnabout is nigh, it may come from a combination of further roster bolstering (Matt Adams and Ryan Zimmerman returning), the bullpen progressing to the mean and Juan Soto looking more like the 2018 National League Rookie of the Year runner-up. The two first basemen are close to ready. It would be hard for the bullpen to be worse. Five hits in three games for the 20-year-old Soto have him appearing back on track.

In New York, Callaway has little to lean on. His team picked up three hits in two games against lowly Miami during the weekend. Sunday, outspoken starter Noah Syndergaard came to his defense.

"I respect the hell out of Mickey," Syndergaard told reporters Sunday. "Mickey has tremendous leadership values. It's kind of [expletive] what's going on right now with this speculation that there could be a change because we're so early in the season and just one very small step away from putting this all together. It's certainly not on him."

Martinez has not arrived in that territory. Yet. But on the way there -- or out -- he’ll try to use a common tactic of building walls to prevent the outside from seeping inside.

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Nationals Roundup: Nats' spirited comeback falls short in rubber match against Cubs

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Nationals Roundup: Nats' spirited comeback falls short in rubber match against Cubs

The Washington Nationals lost to the Chicago Cubs, 6-5, Sunday to drop their record to 19-27.

Consider these news and notes as Washington hits the road for New York: 

Players Notes:

NATIONALS: 

Anthony Rendon gave Washington's offense a much-needed lift in the 6th launching a 3-run homer off Kyle Hendricks. After an initial rusty patch when returning from the injured list, he is back to his normal self and one of the most dangerous hitters in the National League.

Things continue to unravel for starting pitcher Jeremy Hellickson. The veteran lasted just three innings Sunday night, allowing four hits, three runs and three walks. Just 30 of his 64 pitches were thrown for strikes. 

Howie Kendrick isn't showing any signs of slowing down. The 35-year-old blasted a laser home run to left to pull the Nats to within one run in the 7th. So far this season, Kendrick is hitting a long-ball every 15 at-bats. 

CUBS: 

Kyle Hendricks had it going up until the sixth inning when one Anthony Rendon swing made it a two-run ballgame. Hendricks pitched 5.2 innings allowing four runs on six hits. 52 of his 83 pitches were thrown for strikes. 

Anthony Rizzo blasted a 385-foot home run in the third, good for his 11th of 2019. 

Chicago's relief pitching took care of business after Hendricks' night was done. The combination of Brandon Kintzler, Xavier Cedeno, and Steve Cishek held the Nats to just three hits down the stretch. 

Injuries: 

RP Justin Miller: shoulder, expected to be out until at least May 31

SP Anibal Sanchez: hamstring, expected to be out until at least May 27

OF Andrew Stevenson: back, expected to be out until at least May 24

RP Tony Sipp: oblique, expected to be out until at least May 20

1B Matt Adams: shoulder, expected to be out until at least May 22

1B Ryan Zimmerman: foot, expected to be out until at least May 23

RP Koda Glover: elbow, expected to be out until at least May 25

RP Trevor Rosenthal: viral infection, Expected to be out until at least May 21

RP Austen Williams: shoulder, expected to be out until at least Jun 13

Coming Up:

Monday, 5/20: Nationals @ Mets, 7:10 p.m. ET, Citi Field 

Tuesday, 5/21: Nationals @ Mets, 7:10 p.m. ET, Citi Field 

Wednesday, 5/22: Nationals @ Mets, 7:10 p.m. ET, Citi Field 

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