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Nationals now have backs against the wall

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Nationals now have backs against the wall

For six months, they could stake claim to the title of "Best Team in Baseball." And after they won their first-ever postseason game Sunday afternoon, the Nationals had every reason to continue crowing about themselves.

Then they got beat up in St. Louis on Monday. Then they got beat up again on Wednesday, this time in front of a record-setting home crowd that gave the first playoff game in Washington in eight decades into a true playoff atmosphere.

And now, in the span of 72 hours, the "Best Team in Baseball" finds itself 27 outs from elimination before many on the roster have even had a chance to process what is going on.

"This isn't the situation we wanted to be in," shortstop Ian Desmond said following an 8-0 drubbing at the hands of the Cardinals in Game 3 of the NLDS. "But we're here and we're going to deal with it, just like we've been dealing with wins and losses all year long."

That was the prevalent theme throughout a somber Nationals clubhouse at the end of one of the more frustrating afternoons in team history. Just because they're facing a do-or-die scenario Thursday in Game 4, players don't believe it's necessary to change the dynamic all of a sudden.

"Our formula has worked pretty well," third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. "I think it would be kind of bad to change it now."

Perhaps that philosophy works. There's enough talent on the Nationals' roster -- in the lineup, in the rotation, in the bullpen and on the bench -- to win two games in two days, no matter the opponent.

But there's also no proof that success from April through September guarantees success in October. The postseason, plain and simple, is a different animal.

Over the course of a 162-game schedule, there's always ample opportunity to snap out of funks, always another game to play and put yesterday's events in the rear-view mirror.

In a five-game Division Series, that's not the case. Every at-bat, every pitch is magnified. One clutch hit becomes the stuff of legend. One squandered opportunity becomes something that lingers all winter.

"That's how the playoffs are," Zimmerman said. "I think that's why all you have to do is get in. It's whomever's hot. These first series are obviously a little bit more leaning toward that, because it's such a short series. You get hot for a couple games, you have a commanding lead.

"But we've put ourselves in a good position by playing the way we did in the regular season, and now we have to win one game. If we win one game, we have a good chance with our guy on the mound."

Before they can get to their guy, Gio Gonzalez, in a decisive Game 5, the Nationals first need Ross Detwiler to lead them to victory in Game 4. That's easier said than done. The left-hander has enjoyed a breakthrough season in many ways, but he's still battle-untested, and the freshest memory of him with a ball in hand is the trouncing he took 10 days ago in St. Louis against the same lineup he'll face on Thursday.

"Det's capable of pitching a good game tomorrow," manager Davey Johnson said, shooting down any possibility of Gonzalez returning on short rest. "That's been our strength all year. These young guys have pitched great all year."

Great pitching is only one-half of the equation. It wouldn't matter who toed the rubber on Wednesday, because he couldn't have won a game when his teammates didn't score once.

A Nationals lineup that was among the most productive in the majors during the season's second half hasn't exactly gone ice-cold in the postseason. This team has put 36 men on base in the first three games of the series.

The problem, though, hasn't been putting men on base. It's been driving them in. After an 0-for-8 showing in Game 3, the Nationals are now a paltry 3-for-24 with runners in scoring position, stranding 30 total men on base.

The only three players who have come through in those situations: Kurt Suzuki, Tyler Moore and Jordan Zimmermann. Yes, the No. 8 hitter, a rookie off the bench and a pitcher.

Is that lack of playoff experience finally starting to show, with young hitters pressing at the plate in key spots?

"When you're down a few runs, you want to drive something in," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "You can get a little anxious then and try to take more than they give you. Probably later in the game, that was more the case, guys trying to do a little extra to spark something."

It's a natural tendency to try to do too much when the pressure is ramped up. How could anyone in a Nationals uniform not feel that when standing in the box on Wednesday with two men on base and two out, the crowd of 45,017 imploring him to do something special?

That, of course, is the last thing anyone wants to do in that situation. Yet there's no escaping the fact the Nationals have arrived at a moment of desperation.

After mostly cruising through their regular season with few hints of true adversity -- ie. facing a must-win situation -- they'll now arrive at the park on Thursday knowing this could be their final game of the year.

"I believe in this team, I believe in these guys," right fielder Jayson Werth said. "We've been here all year. Over a 162-game season, we were the best team in baseball. And I still feel that way."

The best team in baseball over 162 games, though, isn't always the best team in baseball over a five-game playoff series.

That's a lesson the Nationals hope not to learn over the next 48 hours.

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3 Up, 3 Down: Allow Juan Soto to distract you from Bryce Harper

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USA TODAY

3 Up, 3 Down: Allow Juan Soto to distract you from Bryce Harper

Nationals fans are teetering on the edge. 

On one hand, the Nats are 3.5 games out of first place after a 10-week span full of injuries and underperformance. The team just acquired All-Star closer Kelvin Herrera, and their 19-year-old left fielder looks like an All-Star already. 

On the other hand, doom is imminent. The Monstars stole Bryce Harper's abilities at some point over the last three weeks, Steven Strasburg can't stay healthy, and the offense is pushing everyone's patience to the limit. 

So who's overperforming? Who's underperforming? Who's out there just trying their very best? LET'S LIST. 

Three Up

1. Juan Soto

Our large young son Juan continues to impress. He's now hitting .325/.411/.602 with a 1.013 OPS in 95 plate appearances over 25 games. That means we're mercifully starting to leave the 'fluky start' narrative behind. He's been the best hitter on the Nationals by a wide margain since he got called up - although that's perhaps more of an indicitment on the rest of the lineup than it is on Soto. Still, in less than a month he's probably earned the starting left field spot for the rest of the summer. Not bad. 

2. Justin Miller

Miller is 31, on his third team in four years, and owns a career ERA north of 4.50. Despite all of this, Miller's been the best reliever in baseball since coming up for the Nats. Of relief pitchers with at least 10 innings pitched (we hear your sample size comment and are not going to acknolwdge it), no one has a better FIP than Miller (0.64). He's striking out over half of the batters he sees and has yet to walk a single person this year. All the elite relief pitchers are already at 30-40 innings pitched, so Miller has a while to go before these stats mean a whole lot. If he stays even 75 percent as good as he's started, the Nats' bullpen looks scary. 

3. Michael A. Taylor

Have yourself a week or two, Michael A.! The centerfielder is slashing .500/.556/.583 over the last 14 days, the first of many "Maybe He Put It Together?!" runs we'll see from him this year. He also has six stolen bases during that span, more than anyone else on the team. His plate discipline has been better over the last two weeks, with a BB% a shade over 11 percent - only behind Juan Soto for highest on the team. Juan Soto, man. 

Three Down

1. Bryce Harper

A couple things here. We'll start with the admission that Bryce Harper is obviously not having a superb year. We've already briefly touched on why looking at only his batting average is a lazy way of judging his season, and we stand by that. With that said - Harper's had a bad season. The last month has been particularly painful. There's no way of dressing up a .189/.278/.400 slashline over the last 30 days. Still, his contact has been as great as his luck terrible - there's a positive regression coming, we promise. 

2. Pedro Severino 

And you think Harper's been slumping?? Over the same 30 days, Severino has hit .098/.179/.115 with a .294 OPS. He's essentially daring the Nats to put together a trade package for JT Realmuto at this point. He has six hits over his last 68 plate appearances and five of them are singles. 

3. Shawn Kelley

Kelley owns a 6.09 FIP and a 4.32 ERA over the last month (10 games, 8.1 innings pitched). He's walking close to nine percent of the hitters he's faced during that time. He has a 12.5 HR/FB over the last month. With the trade for Kelvin Herrera and the sudden emergence of Justin Miller, Kelley's role going forward isn't quite as clear anymore. 

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National League All-Star Game Roster Projection: How it will all break down

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USA Today Sports

National League All-Star Game Roster Projection: How it will all break down

In less than a month, the 2018 MLB All-Star game will take place at Nationals Park.

There are plenty of details that still need ironing out, but none are more important than the 64 players that will be taking the field at the Midsummer Classic.

Surely the Washington Nationals are hoping that many of their hometown stars will make the cut.

So, lets clear the air. How are the MLB All-Star rosters created? Well it is a combination of the fan vote, the player ballots, and the MLB Commissioners Office. No, it is not a 33-33-33 split, but rather a political (yet fair) process. Here is how it shakes out for there to be 32 players on each team:

  • Fan vote: eight position players in NL/ nine in AL (DH); plus final vote for each league
  • Player’s ballots: next 16 players in NL; 17 players in AL (five starting pitchers, three relievers must be chosen)
  • MLB Commissioner’s Office: seven NL players (four pitchers, three position players) and five AL players (four pitchers, one position player)

Keep in mind, the MLB Commissioner’s Office merely is just there to ensure that there is one representative from all 30 MLB teams. Additionally, the player’s ballots are generally in-line with statistics and name recognition.

So let’s see how this shakes out for the National League All-Star Game roster. This factors in the latest fan vote returns:

National League All-Star Roster Projection:

C – Buster Posey, Giants (Fan Vote), Wilson Contreras, Cubs (Player Ballot)
1B – Freddie Freeman, Braves (Fan Vote), Jose Martinez, Cardinals (Player Ballot), Justin Bour, Marlins (Commissioner’s Office)
2B – Ozzie Albies, Braves (Fan Vote), Scooter Gennett, Reds (Player Ballot)
3B – Nolan Arenado, Rockies (Fan Vote), Kris Bryant, Cubs (Player Ballot)
SS – Brandon Crawford, Giants (Fan Vote), Chris Taylor, Dodgers (Player Ballot)
OF – Nick Markakis, Braves (Fan Vote), Bryce Harper, Nationals (Fan Vote), Matt Kemp (Fan Vote), Albert Almora Jr., Cubs (Player Ballot), Charlie Blackmon, Rockies (Player Ballot), Corey Dickerson, Pirates (Player Ballot), David Peralta, Diamondbacks (Commissioner’s Office), Christian Yelich (Commissioner’s Office)

SP – Max Scherzer, Nationals (Player Ballot), Sean Newcomb, Braves (Player Ballot), Jon Lester, Cubs (Player Ballot), Aaron Nola, Phillies (Player Ballot), Jacob deGrom, Mets (Player Ballot), Mike Foltynewicz, Braves (Commissioner’s Office)

RP – Brad Hand, Padres (Player Ballot), Sean Doolittle, Nationals (Player Ballot), Josh Hader Brewers (Player Ballot), Wade Davis, Rockies (Commissioner’s Office), Kenley Jansen (Commissioner’s Office), Jeremy Jeffress (Commissioner’s Office)

Manager: Dave Roberts, Dodgers

After this, there will be one more player chosen by another fan vote. The MLB Commissioner’s Office, along with the manager, choses five players to be selected in the penultimate vote. 

This puts three Nationals on the All-Star team with the Braves leading the charge with five selections.

Now of course nothing ever goes to plan, but heck its baseball, not everyone will be happy.

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