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Nats bats go cold, defense makes key mistakes in loss to Giants

Nats bats go cold, defense makes key mistakes in loss to Giants

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 3-1 loss to the San Francisco Giants on Sunday evening at AT&T Park.

How it happened: Pitchers came through for the San Francisco Giants in more ways than one on Sunday.

On the mound, it started with Matt Cain, who tossed five no-hit innings before he was relieved. The Giants' bullpen then combined to pitch four scoreless frames from there. 

At the plate, it was Madison Bumgarner, who pinch-hit for Cain to lead off the bottom of the fifth and roped a double off the brick wall in right-center field. And on the base paths, it was Jeff Samardzija, a former Notre Dame wide receiver who scored from second on a throwing error.

Nationals starter Gio Gonzalez put in another solid outing himself to continue his recent surge, but it wasn't enough on a day their lineup went cold and their defense made uncharacteristic mistakes behind him. Gonzalez went six innings with two runs allowed - one of them earned - but took a hard-luck loss in part due to errors by Trea Turner and Anthony Rendon.

Turner botched a flip to second base on an Angel Pagan groundball in the third that could have been an inning-ending double play. Instead, Conor Gillaspie scored following his leadoff triple.

Rendon's was also a throwing error. In the fifth inning he bounced a throw to first on a Hunter Pence groundball. That scored Samardzija, when Rendon's throw could have made the third out and prevented the run.

Those blunders were magnified on a day the Nats' offense just didn't have it. Turner and Ben Revere combined to go 0-for-8 at the top of the order. Wilson Ramos went 0-for-4. The Nats had just three hits, went 2-for-9 with runners in scoring position and left eight men on base.

The Nats lost for the second straight game and split their four-game series at the Giants despite taking the first two matchups. The Nats are 3-3 on their current road trip. They finished the month of July with a 13-12 record despite outscoring their opponents 108-89.

What it means: The Nats dropped to 61-44 on the season, the same record as the Giants. Both the Marlins and Mets won their games, which means Miami is only four games back in the NL East and the Mets trail by 6 1/2.

Gio strong again: Gonzalez continued moving in the right direction with his outing on Sunday with six innings and one earned run allowed on six hits, two walks and one strikeout. He threw 89 pitches, 53 of them strikes. The Nats lefty closed the month of July with a 2.70 ERA (9 ER, 30 IP) in five starts. 

Gonzalez appears to have turned a corner after a disastrous stretch of eight starts from May 23 to June 30 when he gave up 39 earned runs in 43 1/3 innings. Gonzalez is still allowing a few too many base runners, but he's not allowing things to unravel from there. His resurgence is an excellent development for the Nats.

Belisle allows an insurance run: Matt Belisle only worked one inning, but it was a rough one for the veteran right-hander. He took over for Gonzalez in the seventh and gave up a run on three hits, including a leadoff triple to former Nats outfielder Denard Span. Span came home on a one-out single by Pagan. That run Belisle allowed broke a streak of six straight scoreless outing for the Nats reliever. And even with that blemish, he boasts a 1.98 ERA on the year.

Rendon redeems himself: Rendon may have screwed up in the bottom of the fifth, but he wasted no time making up for it with an RBI double in the very next frame. Rendon laced line drive to right-center off Giants reliever George Kontos to score Bryce Harper and finally put the Nats on the board with their first run. Rendon also added a walk and is now 15-for-46 (.326) with four homers, eight RBI, six runs, three steals and four walks in his last 12 games.

Injury scares: Both Harper and Ryan Zimmerman had moments where it appeared like they could have seriously hurt themselves. Harper's was on a catch to end the first inning. It was in foul territory where the bullpen mounds are located at AT&T Park. Harper tripped and tumbled over them face-first, but was fine. Zimmerman later took a 93 mile per hour fastball off his left wrist in the top of the ninth. He dropped to the ground writhing in pain, but stayed in to take first. He even doffed his helmet sarcastically at Giants fans who jeered him as he walked to take the base.

Speaking of injuries, Daniel Murphy pinch-hit in the top of the ninth after being held out of the starting lineup for two straight days with leg tightness. He struck out swinging with Zimmerman on second for the final out.

Up next: The Nats move on to Arizona for three games at the Diamondbacks to close out their lengthy road trip. Stephen Strasburg (14-1, 2.68) will get the start in the opener opposite former seventh overall pick Archie Bradley (4-6, 4.17).

[RELATED: Nats may have gotten a steal with Melancon]

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Scherzer finishes second in Cy Young voting

Scherzer finishes second in Cy Young voting

History stalled Wednesday when New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom won the National League Cy Young Award. Washington’s Max Scherzer finished second. Philadelphia’s Aaron Nola was third.

There’s no controversy or debate attached to this award. deGrom was phenomenal for the woebegone Mets. His 1.70 ERA led the league and was enough for the award. His easy victory also showed we continue to make progress toward discounting pitcher wins in totality.

For Scherzer, finishing second means he remains on the outside of one of baseball’s most elite groups. Only four pitchers in MLB history have four or more Cy Young Awards. Scherzer remains with his three. Two of which came in back-to-back seasons. He quickly congratulated deGrom. There was no champagne celebration while on a boat like two years ago.

Scherzer does hold an appreciation for how his fellow National League East pitchers operate. The three are distinct from delivery, to pitch movement, to pitch reliance. For instance, only Nola uses a curveball as his wipeout pitch. Scherzer throws a curveball 7.7 percent of the time in 2018, deGrom 7.9 percent. Nola? He used it 30.9 percent of the time.

So, we present two scouting reports on the three finalists. First, Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman, speaking at the All-Star Game:

“[Nola’s] a lot of two-seam, front-hip guy,” Freeman said. “deGrom is all downhill with everything and Scherzer just knows how to pitch. I feel like they’re all different. Nola’s curveball is something special. You feel like you’re going to hit it, then you don’t, every single time. Then he can front hip you with two strikes. You give up on it. Scherzer’s got that cutter. deGrom is just power, power, power.”

And, Scherzer:

“deGrom, what he does so well, is his fastball has so much life he can pitch up in the zone so well,” Scherzer told me at the All-Star Break. “Everything plays off of his fastball. And the way he can get down the mound and use that length to create that ride, that makes him literally one of the best pitchers in the game.

“Nola, he does a great job of using his two-seamer and [sinking] the ball. It’s kind of the opposite. The way he can pitch with his curveball. He can change speeds throughout the at-bat between sinking the ball, his curveball and his changeup, that’s what allows him to be such a talented pitcher.

“I think my stuff lines up closer to deGrom than Nola simply from the fact that deGrom is more of a four-seam, ride the ball, that’s what I do. Nola’s breaking ball is a curveball, whereas my main breaking ball is a slider. That’s where we’re actually very different. I can probably gain more from watching deGrom starts on how he attacks hitters.”

Scherzer has three seasons remaining on his seven-year, $210 million with the Nationals. He was astonished when he entered free agency that teams did not want to give him seven years. He had never been injured for an extended period. He worked diligently to maintain his health. Once he found a suitor in the Nationals, a decision ultimately green-lighted by ownership, he came to the National League and delivered.

Nola is one of the league’s best deals at $573,000 last season to finish third in Cy Young voting. He’s into arbitration for a raise, but will remain one of the reasons the Phillies can compete and spend this offseason.

The Mets and deGrom have a relationship so strange it seems it could only exist in Flushing. deGrom’s former agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, distributed a mid-summer statement that said the Mets should trade deGrom if they were not going to provide him an extension. Van Wagenen is now the Mets general manager. DeGrom is going to arbitration each of the next two years before becoming a free agent.

At a minimum, the three will be back in the division next season and poised to challenge for this award again.

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Nationals can afford to lose Bryce Harper, the Orioles will just lose with or without Manny Machado

Nationals can afford to lose Bryce Harper, the Orioles will just lose with or without Manny Machado

The non-Bryce Harper worst-case scenario for the Washington Nationals’ outfield could look like this: Juan Soto in left, Michael A. Taylor in center, Adam Eaton in right. That’s the bottom.

How do they get there? They don’t re-sign Harper and flip Victor Robles for a major void fill, say Miami catcher J.T. Realmuto or Seattle left-hander James Paxton.

The above is not prediction, assumption or otherwise. It’s merely a path to what would be considered the least-potent outfield the Nationals could put together if Harper went elsewhere, Robles was moved and they did not pay a replacement.

If Manny Machado does not return to the Baltimore Orioles (all but guaranteed)? They will be bad. With him? They would be bad. There’s a lot of bad in Baltimore, at the moment. Attendance, bad. Front office situation, bad. On-field performance, bad. What can make it worse? Machado playing in New York, battering them for the next decade to top things off.

Back to the Nationals. The outfield is clogged. Soto, Robles, Eaton, Harper and Taylor are all in play there. Let’s look at possible alignments with and without Harper.

With him, he drops back to right field, ideally. The center field work last season was not productive. Though, his right field work, and emphatic aversion to walls, did not yield quality results either. Baseball’s advanced defensive metrics aren’t great. However, they can help confirm the eye test, which this list from Sports Info Solutions does:

Fewest defensive runs saved, 2018 season:

Bryce Harper -27
Charlie Blackmon -26
Adam Jones -26
Rhys Hoskins -25
Miguel Andujar -25

Being on a defensive list with rookie third baseman Andujar, who committed 15 errors, or the plodding Hoskins, whom the Phillies tried to hide out there all season, is damning. When it comes to defensive range, the Nationals would be better without Harper in the field considering the four other options.

Taylor’s situation is interesting. He would be a quality fourth outfielder because of superior defensive skill and the plug-and-play ability should someone be injured. The question is who would manager Davey Martinez pull off the field late to put Taylor on it? In a Soto-Robles-Harper outfield, Soto is the weakest defender. Taylor could go to center. Robles to left. That, of course, costs the Nationals Soto’s bat. The Nationals also lost a window to sell high on Taylor last offseason before Martinez buried him on the bench this regular season. Taylor received an early chance when Eaton was shut down. He failed, then excelled, then was benched. He had a strange year.

Which is why it’s fair to wonder if he ends up part of a trade package this offseason. His speed and defense could help any team, especially a contending one (which is the same argument for him to stay in Washington). Recall that Taylor was the Nationals’ best hitter in the 2017 NLDS against the Chicago Cubs. He can also be weaponized in a part-time postseason role.

This all hinges on Harper, as does everything else. If the Nationals finalize the sport’s most expensive contract, they can decide which other outfield parts are expendable, and how to distribute them. This also speaks to timing. Harper’s situation needs to be resolved in order to have clarity for other parts, from the outfield on. Being held hostage by dragged-out negotiations could be a two-fold negative effect for the Nationals: They could lose Harper, and lose a window to have moved an extra outfielder to help cure an ill elsewhere. Regardless, they have options and a quality baseline to work from.

Baltimore is another matter. Cornered by the rest of the league knowing they were stuck, the Orioles sent Machado to the Dodgers for a large numbers of names. It’s the quality received back among the five minor leaguers that’s in question.

Cuban outfielder Yusniel Diaz, the Dodgers’ No. 4 prospect at the time, is the star attraction.

Right-handed pitchers Dean Kremer and Zach Pop, third baseman Rylan Bannon and infielder Breyvic Valera also came along. Diaz, 22, is now the Orioles’ top prospect, according to MLB pipeline. He finished the year hitting .239 for Double-A Bowie and .285 overall in 2018. None of the other four are ranked in the organization’s top 10 prospects.

Which leaves the 115-loss Orioles with only bleakness in their future, rocks in their shoes, and Murphy’s Law as the prevailing operating procedure at the moment. They remain chained to Chris Davis’ contract for four more seasons as well as the deferred money Davis is due until 2037. Their theoretical No. 1 starter, Dylan Bundy, had a 5.45 ERA last season. They are searching for Buck Showalter’s replacement in the dugout. They are reportedly close to hiring Houston Astros assistant general manager Mike Elias to become general manager, according to USA Today.

The Orioles flipped their last malaise when 2012 produced 93 wins after 93 losses in 2011. They are not positioned to do that now. They are looking at a Machado-less slog for years to come. The Nationals won’t be victimized by such a plight if their star starts swinging elsewhere.

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