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Nationals' Tanner Roark pitches 4 scoreless innings in US defeat of Japan in WBC

Nationals' Tanner Roark pitches 4 scoreless innings in US defeat of Japan in WBC

LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Luke Gregerson's final strike breezed past Nobuhiro Matsuda, and the rain-drenched American players celebrated on the field while a soaked crowd roared through the evening mist.

A daylong downpour couldn't dampen this resilient United States club or its fans, who will finally get to root for the home team in a World Baseball Classic championship game.

Brandon Crawford scored the tiebreaking run when Matsuda bobbled Adam Jones' grounder to third in the eighth inning, and the United States reached the WBC final for the first time by beating Japan 2-1 on Tuesday night at rainy Dodger Stadium.

Andrew McCutchen drove in an early run for the U.S., which will play Puerto Rico for the title Wednesday night. Puerto Rico edged the Netherlands 4-3 in 11 innings Monday.

"It means a heck of a lot," said McCutchen, the Pittsburgh Pirates slugger. "We've got a great group of guys on this team who have dedicated this time to be able to try and win some ballgames. Sacrifices had to be made, and there are no egos when that door opens. That's what's good about this team. Everybody is a superstar on this team. There are no egos."

The World Baseball Classic final has been played in the United States in each of its four editions, but the home team had never been able to play America's pastime on what has become its biggest international stage. The U.S. only reached the semifinals once before, in 2009.

While manager Jim Leyland's current roster is missing Clayton Kershaw, Mike Trout and many other American superstars, the All-Star-laden group that decided to participate has won two straight elimination games to earn a chance for the U.S.' first crown.

"Coming into this event, I didn't really want to talk about the fact that the United States has never won it (and) they've never gone to the finals," Leyland said. "I didn't think that was a big deal. I wanted this, for the players, to be a memory. I've talked a lot about it. Make a memory. Hopefully it's a real good one, regardless of the results (Wednesday). I know it is for me. It's been an absolute honor."

To reach the final, the Americans had to persevere through an uncharacteristic Los Angeles rain that drenched the playing field several hours before game time. They also had to beat a gifted Japanese team at its own game: pitching, defense and small ball.

Ryosuke Kikuchi hit a tying homer off reliever Nate Jones in the sixth inning for Japan, but the two-time WBC champions were twice let down by their normally sturdy defense.

McCutchen opened the scoring with an RBI single in the fourth moments after Kikuchi's two-base error at second. In the eighth, Crawford likely would have been out at the plate on Jones' innocent grounder, but Matsuda didn't field it cleanly and had to throw to first.

"Well, two plays," Japan manager Hiroki Kokubo said through a translator. "Honestly, there were some mistakes, and then a run was scored. ... The team that makes mistakes will lose. That's what it means. I cannot blame them, though, for doing that."

Japan won the first two WBC tournaments before losing in the 2013 semifinals, and Kokubo's current team was unbeaten in this event.

"The players really did their very best," Kokubo said. "I really appreciate it. It's do-or-die, one semifinal."

Tanner Roark pitched four scoreless innings of two-hit ball before Leyland pulled him on the instructions of the Washington Nationals, who limited Roark to 50 pitches because he hadn't faced live hitters in nine days.

"I felt good enough to stay out there," Roark said.

Gregerson, the Americans' sixth reliever, worked a perfect ninth inning after Pat Neshek escaped a two-on jam in the eighth.

Leyland is confident he'll have a capable bullpen Wednesday after receiving texts from various pitching coaches around the majors on the status of their players. Toronto's Marcus Stroman, the starter, is free to reach the WBC's 95-pitch limit, Leyland confirmed.

Although the crowd of 33,462 strongly favored the team with five California natives in the starting lineup, thousands of Japanese fans showed up early and chanted throughout the game, accompanied by the brass band in the left-field bleachers.

Tomoyuki Sugano, the Yomiuri Giants ace with a seven-pitch repertoire, tossed six innings of three-hit ball for Japan, striking out six and yielding only one unearned run.

But Sugano was matched by Roark, who gave up just two singles and a walk in his four innings, also hitting a batter with a pitch.

After Christian Yelich reached second in the fourth inning when his hard-hit grounder was mishandled by Kikuchi, the standout defensive second baseman, Eric Hosmer worked out of an 0-2 count to draw a two-out walk.

McCutchen had just two hits in his first 14 at-bats in the WBC, but he drove in Yelich with a sharp single to left.

Kikuchi made up for his mistake in the sixth, driving Jones' fastball barely over the reach of McCutchen in right field for his first homer of the tournament.

Japan reliever Kodai Senga struck out the first four batters he faced with a 96 mph fastball and exceptional off-speed stuff, but Crawford then delivered a sharp single before Ian Kinsler doubled to deep left-center.

Neshek got cleanup hitter Yoshimoto Tsutsugoh on a fly to right to end the eighth.

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What To Watch: Nationals try to avoid a sweep in Miami

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What To Watch: Nationals try to avoid a sweep in Miami

The Nationals have dropped two games to the Marlins already. Can they salvage a win in game three? Here are three things to watch for.

1. How healthy are the Nationals? Washington has been without Trea Turner for a couple weeks, and now two other star hitters look banged up. Anthony Rendon left Saturday’s game in the third inning after being hit by a pitch on the elbow. He stayed in to run the bases, but did not come out to the field in the bottom of the inning. With his blistering start to 2019, the Nationals will be hoping for good news on his injury long term.

Victor Robles was shaken up in the game as well. The speedy center fielder was sprinting back for a ball and made a terrific snag, but lost his balance and crashed head first into the hard wall. It wasn’t clear on the replay if Robles’ head or shoulder bore the brunt of the impact, but he looked out of sorts and allowed a runner to score from second base on the sacrifice fly.

The Nationals can’t afford any more injuries than they’ve already had.

2. Can the backups stay hot? Howie Kendrick and Matt Adams aren’t slated to be regular starters in the Nationals lineup, but they’ve been the team’s two best hitters (not named Anthony Rendon) so far in 2019. Both are hitting the ball hard, and the two combined to drive in all three runs scored by Washington Saturday night.

If Rendon does end up missing any games, Kendrick’s bat will play a major role for a team looking to stay afloat in an uber-competitive National League East.

3. How will Stephen Strasburg pitch? The Nationals haven’t gotten stellar performances on the mound from Anibal Sanchez or Max Scherzer in Miami, so they’ll be hoping Strasburg can turn it around.

Strasburg has scuffled a bit this season as well, with a 5.56 ERA, though he does have 28 strikeouts in 22.2 innings pitched. With the bullpen maybe turning it around, the starting rotation will need to find more consistency moving forward.

Download the MyTeams app (https://www.nbcsports.com/washington/myteams-nbc-sports) for coverage from NBC Sports Washington of the Nationals/Marlins game on Sunday. The game broadcast will be at 1:10 PM ET on 106.7 the Fan and MASN.

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Injury and struggles highlight Nationals' frustrating Saturday night vs. Marlins

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USA TODAY SPORTS

Injury and struggles highlight Nationals' frustrating Saturday night vs. Marlins

The Washington Nationals lost to the Miami Marlins, 9-3, Saturday night to drop below .500 with a 9-10 record. Here are five observations from the game…

1. One of the biggest storylines surrounding the early part of the Nats’ season has been Anthony Rendon’s blistering start. He entered Saturday’s affair riding a 17-game hitting streak, the longest in baseball this season.

For the first time since Opening Day, Rendon did not record a hit. In a number of the previous 17 games, Rendon has had to wait until late in the game to record his streak-extending hit. Saturday, he was not given that chance.

In the third inning, Rendon was hit by a 95-mph pitch on or near his elbow, and while he stayed on to run and eventually came around to score, he did not return to the field in the bottom of the inning.

Rendon has been, by far, the Nationals’ best player in 2019. He has hit the ball as well as anybody in baseball not named Cody Bellinger or Christian Yelich, and his hot start helped cement him as maybe the best third baseman in the sport.

With Bryce Harper in Philadelphia and Trea Turner on the Injured List (also after getting hit by a pitch), Rendon has had to carry the burden of generating offense as the team’s lone remaining star position player. 

The Nationals will certainly be hoping for good news on Rendon’s long term outlook. In a tight National League East race, they can’t afford to lose anyone, let alone their best player.

Rendon was sporting a career-low strikeout rate prior to the Giants series this week, and he still has, by far, a career-high Isolated Power number. His slugging percentage and wOBA support these numbers. There’s no other way to put it: Rendon has been a stud this season.

The fact that the Nats’ third baseman stayed in the game initially bodes well, but if the news is worse than fans are hoping for, could this finally be the moment where the front office decides to call up top prospect Carter Kieboom?

2. Rendon entered Saturday’s game with the Seventh-best Barrels/PA percentage in baseball this season. It’s a Statcast stat that highlights how often a hitter, for lack of a better description, hits the ball really well (AKA barrels up the ball). It’s a good number to reference for how successful a batter is on a regular basis. 

It will surprise no one that Rendon ranks so highly. Seventh in Major League Baseball is pretty good. But it’s only good for third on the Nationals.

Ahead of Rendon? A couple of backups in Matt Adams and Howie Kendrick, who rank second and third in baseball, respectively.

Kendrick replaced Rendon Saturday and stayed stayed hot at the plate with an RBI single in his first at-bat. Adams had a multi-hit outing in place of Ryan Zimmerman and drove in two runs.

With the injuries the Nationals have suffered to their lineup this season, bench bats like Kendrick and Adams are more important than ever, and may end up playing more regular roles than anticipated. If Brian Dozier continues to struggle, Kendrick could find himself starting at some point, even when Trea Turner and Rendon are both healthy.

The Nats will be able to weather their early-season storm more easily if the two can stay hot for a while longer.

3. It would have been completely reasonable to expect a vintage Max Scherzer shutdown outing against the Marlins. Miami’s lineup isn’t going to scare anybody, and Scherzer felt due for a dominant performance.

Instead, it was a frustrating outing for the Nationals’ ace as he failed to complete six innings. Scherzer allowed 11 hits in 5.1 innings, striking out nine and walking none while giving up seven runs (six earned). 

He had swing-and-miss stuff, as he induced 18 swinging strikes on 108 pitches, 16 of which came from his fastball and slider.

Where he really struggled was with his changeup, an offering that resulted in zero strikes, swinging or called, on 13 pitches. The lack of an effective changeup meant hitters were able to stay balanced in the box, and as a result, they teed off on pitches they were able to put in play.

Nine of the 20 balls in play off Scherzer were hit 95+ mph. He has allowed hard-hit balls at a career-high rate this season, and that was already true before Saturday’s outing. In fact, he’s in just the 34th-percentile in all of baseball in hard-hit rate, a surprising mark for someone with Scherzer’s track record.

Even when the Nats would tie up the game, time and time again Scherzer gave the lead right back. Neither time the Nationals scored was Scherzer able to deliver a shutdown inning in the bottom half.

If Washington is going to make a run in the National League East, they need Scherzer to be his usual great self. Saturday was a step in the wrong direction.

Scherzer wasn’t his usual sharp self Saturday, but he wasn’t helped by his defense, either.

4. The Nats had a comedy of errors with their gloves in the first series of the season, but had settled down a bit in the field since then. They entered today’s game with 11 errors on the season, middle of the pack across the league, though Baseball Reference has them in the bottom ten in most advanced defensive metrics (here’s where I mention that fielding metrics take much longer than three weeks to stabilize).

Against the Marlins, the defense was only charged with two official errors, but there were plenty of miscues.

Multiple botched relay throws from the outfield helped lead to two runs scoring in the bottom of the first. Yan Gomes had a throwing error while trying to throw out a base stealer. Victor Robles dropped a ball that hit the heel of his glove, albeit on a difficult play near the wall. Later, he made a terrific catch on a similar ball to center, but lost his balance and crashed into the wall, allowing the runner to score from second base on a sacrifice fly.

Even Scherzer himself was unable to make a big play in the field, coming in to pick up a slow dribbler in front of the plate. He tried to make a sliding throw to Gomes covering home plate, but his toss was off target and scooted to the wall, allowing another run to score.

The Nationals are hitting well, averaging more than five runs per game. The reason they’ve hovered around .500 all season long is they’re also allowing more than five runs per game, which is untenable if they want to be legitimate contenders. Some of that is the pitching, specifically the bullpen. But the defense could, and should, be better as well.

5. Is Victor Robles the team’s leadoff hitter of the future? If his 2019 stats when leading off an inning are any indication, he’ll do just fine in that role.

The MASN broadcast of today’s game highlighted the success of Robles, Adam Eaton, and Anthony Rendon leading off innings this season. With Eaton currently entrenched atop the order, Robles doesn’t need to worry about a permanent move just yet, but hitting behind the pitcher’s spot, he’ll have to lead off more often than not.

Robles entered Saturday’s game 10-for-18 in these scenarios, with two doubles and two home runs to boot. Against the Marlins he improved that number, going 2-for-3 with another double to pair with a perfectly executed bunt down the third base line for a hit.

It’s the second night in a row Robles has bunted for a base hit, showing off his elite speed. Statcast has his average sprint speed 39th in Major League Baseball, but he has the 9th-most Bolts (any run reaching 30ft/second) in the league. He has an extra gear that very few players in baseball can match, and he uses it as necessary to get on base before the team’s big bats come to the plate.

That top end speed, along with his contact abilities, will go a long way in helping him succeed at the top of a lineup some day. For now, the Nationals will be happy to keep having him lead off innings in front of the heart of the order.

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