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Nats 2015 biggest moments No. 10: Scherzer signs

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Nats 2015 biggest moments No. 10: Scherzer signs

We are counting down the 10 biggest moments of 2015 for the Nationals as we approach New Year's Day. In this first installment, we look back nearly a year ago when the Nats signed Max Scherzer to a record free agent contract...

The Nationals entered last winter with a clear set of goals. They had several key players who were one year away from free agency and the possibility of contract extensions or trades were on the table. The Nats had a reliever in Tyler Clippard that most expected them to trade. And they had a void at second base that provided a chance for an upgrade.

The one part of their roster that appeared to need no help at all was their starting rotation. The Nationals had the best rotation ERA in 2014 with Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann, Gio Gonzalez, Doug Fister and Tanner Roark all under contract. If it wasn't the best rotation in baseball, it was no doubt the deepest. No one else could boast a No. 5 starter in Roark who went 15-10 with a 2.85 ERA in 31 starts. 

One could argue that the Nats had needs, but starting pitching wasn't one of them. But that didn't stop them from reaching an agreement on a record contract with Max Scherzer, the biggest name available on the free agent market. Scherzer signed officially on Jan. 21 for $210 million over seven years. It was a deal that included deferred money through the year 2028 and income subject to state taxes in Florida. Despite having to wait until late in the offseason to sign, Scherzer and his agent Scott Boras got the contract they were seeking all along.

There was a domino effect with Scherzer's signing that pushed Roark to the bullpen where he struggled for much of the year. But there is no questioning Scherzer's production in his first season with the Nationals.

For years the Nationals thought they had a group of aces between Strasburg, Zimmermann and Gio, but Scherzer quickly showed Washington what a truly dominant pitcher looks like. Through the first 16 of his 33 starts he held a 1.82 ERA and opponents to a .181 batting average. He struck out 139 batters in 118 2/3 innings. He no-hit the Pirates on June 20 and came within one strike of a perfect game. In the start before that he carved up the Brewers for 16 strikeouts, one walk and just one hit in a shutout. 

Scherzer was also making strides in subtle ways. He was cutting down his pitches per inning to become more efficient and last later into games.

Somehow, Scherzer had managed to find another gear after signing his big free agent deal. That's not how it usually works, but this was Scherzer's way of showing he was as advertised, a perennial Cy Young candidate capable of absolutely demolishing an opposing lineup.

Scherzer would slow down and post a 5.05 ERA in his next 12 outings before recovering to hold a 1.63 ERA over his final five starts, including his second no-hitter of the season on Oct. 3 against the Mets. And overall, his numbers were impressive. He placed fifth in NL Cy Young voting with a 2.79 ERA and a ridiculous 276 strikeouts in 228 2/3 innings.

Scherzer has six years left on his contract with the Nationals, but so far, so good. And now with Zimmermann having left in free agency and Strasburg facing that possibility a year from now, Scherzer is the guy in Washington. His signing was one of the biggest moments of 2015 and one that will affect the franchise for years to come.

[RELATED: Appreciating Jordan Zimmermann’s Nationals career]

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The Nationals bullpen no one expected -- or probably wanted -- is here

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The Nationals bullpen no one expected -- or probably wanted -- is here

Fernando Rodney shot off an imaginary arrow June 25, 2019, in a Nationals uniform while on the infield in Miami. He had just finished the ninth inning of a game Max Scherzer dominated. Hop in a time machine, go back to the offseason, say those words over and secure your head so it does not explode.

The current eight living in Washington’s woebegone bullpen includes half of the season’s Opening Day bullpen. Closer Sean Doolittle, Matt Grace, Wander Suero, and specialist Tony Sipp are the only ones to make it from late March to late June. None have an ERA below 3.00. One (Doolittle) has an ERA below 4.00. In normal circumstances, Grace, Suero, and Sipp would not have made it this far.

But this is not a normal bullpen year for almost anyone in baseball. It’s not even normal for a Washington organization annually confounded by how to put together a top-end relief group. In the midst of a push back toward relevancy, the Nationals brought the 42-year-old Rodney and three-time Tommy John recipient Jonny Venters into the bullpen. They joined Javy Guerra, 33, who was released by Toronto before Washington snagged him, and Tanner Rainey, who came from Triple-A out of necessity. It’s an interesting bunch.

Suero and Guerra were set to be the only bullpen members needed Wednesday in Miami during the Nationals’ 7-5 win. That was before Guerra allowed four runs in the bottom of the ninth and Doolittle had to come in to finish the game -- again.

Patrick Corbin pitched seven innings and allowed a run. Washington is a game under .500 and winners of 20 of the last 29 (that’s a .690 winning percentage; a 112-win pace across a full season).

Drag your brain back to the March 28 opener against the New York Mets. Justin Miller was back for a second season after surprising most with an effective 2018. Kyle Barraclough was lined up to be the seventh-inning reliever. Trevor Rosenthal was throwing 98 mph. 

All premises around the trio have since collapsed. Which is part of the reason Rodney and Venters are now in the mix.

From Mike Rizzo’s perspective, bringing Rodney and Venters up now makes sense. It’s low-risk. Putting them on the mound while the team is trending in the right direction -- and dealing with a soft schedule -- enables him to take a look at assets already in-house. Rizzo likely has three plans here: Give Rodney and Venters a shot. If they work, he is able to bolster the bullpen while holding onto assets. If they don’t, cutting them is a low-cost move and space opens for Fresno closer Dakota Bacus, who was named to the Triple-A All-Star Game on Wednesday. Maybe even another dice roll with one of the remaining veterans in Fresno. If none of that works, hop into the fray for a reliever via trade.

Acquiring another reliever this season will be more of a challenge than in the past. The second wild-card spot is having the kind of influence Major League Baseball hoped it would. Coming into the night, the Nationals were three games out of the wild card. Six other teams were within 4 1/2 games of the second National League wild-card position. They need bullpen help as well, creating a competitive mish-mash. 

It’s less cramped in the American League. Four teams are within four games of the second wild-card.

Expect to hear these relief names attached to trade rumors: Ken Giles, Will Smith, Felipe Vazquez, Ty Buttrey, Hansel Robles, Shane Greene, Trevor Gott, Nick Anderson, Cam Bedrosian, and Reyes Moronta. All could be on the move before the July 31 trade deadline. The Nationals would be pleased with any of them. 

For now, they have the bullpen no one expected. Rodney has the imaginary arrows. Suero and Grace have bloated ERAs. Guerra made his 13th appearance Wednesday. Barraclough remains sidelined. Rosenthal is looking for work. 

Rizzo has overhauled half of the group. Further work remains.

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Once again, Congressional Baseball Game brings bi-partisanship to D.C.

Once again, Congressional Baseball Game brings bi-partisanship to D.C.

WASHINGTON – There’s one day a year where members of Congress put down their pens, hang up their ties and travel a mile south of Capitol Hill to pick up a bat and a glove. No, it is not debate night, rather the annual Congressional Baseball Game between Republicans and Democrats.

A June staple for politicians and government employees alike, the game represents rare bi-partisan cooperation in Washington D.C. In the event, which has taken place nearly every year since 1909 and has been at Nationals Park since 2008, Republican Congress members take on Democratic Congress members in a once-a-year celebration and raise money for charity.

In the 2019 edition the Republicans were prim and proper, all wearing the same red-and-white uniforms––red shirts with white numbers and white pants––to match their party’s colors. In the opposite dugout, the Democrats all paid homage to their local communities. Each wore a unique jersey from a semi-professional baseball team in or near their district.

Like in the Capitol, those donning red sat on the right of home plate and those sporting blue were on the left, fans and players alike. Although it was billed as bi-partisan, the cheers were far from it, as was the final score of the ball game. The Democrats ran away with it for the third year in a row 14-7, tying the all-time record between the two parties.

Each top halves of innings saw the right side of the park roar and the bottom half witnessed several waves from blue flags and celebratory whoops.

There was one time the cheers were unified across Nationals Park. When Steve Scalise (R-La.) stepped into the batter’s box to lead off the ball game the crowd collectively rose for a standing ovation.

Scalise, who was shot two years ago at a practice for the 2017 event, has become the focus of the game for the past two years. In 2018 he made an emotional return to the field in the midst of his recovery and was able to record an early out before being replaced on the field.

This year the right-handed batter proudly started the game off swinging on a dropped strike three. A runner playing in his spot made it to first before the throw.

“I’ve come a long way since last year. I could barely move, I literally had no lateral movement,” Scalise said to a pool of reporters pregame. “I’m here to help win the game; hopefully they don’t need me to be a pinch-runner. That probably wouldn’t be a good sign.”

Sending a teammate to first base allowed the Republicans to start the game off with three runs in the first frame. It was the only lead the red-wearing team would have.

And in an uncommon fashion, all members of Congress were able to leave a joint session feeling accomplished. No matter the result, together they raised $1.3 million for local charities. Fathers and mothers were able to play games of catch on a baseball diamond. Any frustrations from prior weeks in the House were able to be safely displayed in an appropriate manner.

But like Republican Andy Biggs (Az.) said, it is a “one-game season,” and despite a spirited sixth inning comeback attempt, this season was won by the Democrats.

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