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Nats bullpen finishes the job

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Nats bullpen finishes the job

BOSTON -- As well as they seemed to be playing all afternoon -- with Gio Gonzalez dealing and the heart of their lineup scoring four early runs off Daisuke Matsuzaka -- there was a point late in Saturday's game at Fenway Park when it looked like the wheels might fall off for the Nationals.

Over a four-batter stretch in the bottom of the seventh, the Nationals saw a four-run lead turn into a two-run lead, with the go-ahead run suddenly stepping to the plate.

And then? Well, a bullpen that has been reconfigured more times in 10 weeks than Davey Johnson would like to remember bore down and finished off a 4-2 win over the Red Sox that ensured yet another series victory for the team with baseball's second-best record.

"Any time you get a performance like that out of your starter, you come in and go into the seventh inning with a four-run lead, you gotta finish games like that out," closer Tyler Clippard said. "You lose games like that throughout the course of the year, they can be big games. So it was huge."

Clippard was the last of four relievers Johnson used to get through the game's final three innings. It wasn't always pretty; Craig Stammen walked the only batter he faced and Michael Gonzalez served up a two-run single to Jarrod Saltalamacchia on the very first pitch he threw.

As Daniel Nava stepped to the plate with a chance to tie the game or put Boston ahead, the armchair managers were already questioning the situation. Should Johnson have just stuck with Gio Gonzalez, who was dominant for six innings but then was yanked three batters into the seventh with his pitch count at a still-manageable 98?

"I knew I left myself wide open to be second-guessed," Johnson said. "I just don't like it when Gonzalez starts rushing and starts getting a little wild. ... I've seen him get in those situations where it's like he's trying to get to the finish line. I've stayed with him numerous times, but I didn't have that good feeling in this ballpark."

Gonzalez had pitched brilliantly most of the day, scattering two hits and a walk over six innings and putting himself in position to reach the eighth inning for the first time this season. But as has been the case for the entire Nationals rotation this year, the finish line wasn't within reach. (The staff is averaging a modest 6.04 innings per start.)

"My job was to try to maintain as much as possible," Gonzalez said. "I wanted to go the distance, but that's a situation where I trust my bullpen 100 percent."

Though Stammen and Michael Gonzalez initially poured more fuel on the fire, the latter managed to wriggle his way out of the jam -- striking out Nava looking at an inside fastball and getting Dustin Pedroia to pop out -- and preserve the two-run lead.

"That was kind of a turning point," Clippard said.

Indeed, the Nationals seized back control of the situation after that. Sean Burnett pitched a 1-2-3 eighth, the latest dominant inning from the left-hander who rarely gets mentioned among the game's best relievers but certainly deserves the recognition.

Burnett has now surrendered only two earned runs in 24 appearances this season, and one of those runs was a direct result of Bryce Harper losing a routine flyball in the sky in Cincinnati. Go all the way back to July 19, 2011, and Burnett's composite numbers are staggeringly good: a 1.09 ERA, 1.113 WHIP and 7.5 strikeouts per nine innings.

"He doesn't flash up the gaudy miles per hour on the gun, and I think that's probably a lot of the reason he gets overlooked," Clippard said. "But at the end of the day, you talk to these hitters, there's no way they're comfortable in the box facing a guy like that."

Nor are many hitters comfortable facing Clippard, who has managed to translate his devastating fastball-changeup repertoire into the kind of stuff that shuts down the opposition in the ninth inning. Though he surrendered a two-out double to Ryan Sweeney, Clippard otherwise finished this game off without incident, earning his seventh save in as many tries since taking over closer duties three weeks ago.

As a result, Gio Gonzalez improved to 8-2 with a 2.35 ERA. And with five more strikeouts on the afternoon, his season total of 89 now ranks behind only one other pitcher in the majors: Stephen Strasburg, who racked up 13 K's Friday night to bring his season total to 92.

Not a bad 1-2 punch for the Nationals to throw at opposing teams.

"And it's no picnic tomorrow with Jordan Zimmermann," Johnson said.

No, it's not. Though the Nationals have been in this position plenty of times before; they've had 11 previous opportunities to sweep a series and have pulled it off just once.

"We've been really good at winning series, and we haven't really swept a lot of teams," Clippard said. "It would be really nice to do that tomorrow."

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With trade deadline creeping, Nationals’ needs and situation remains the same

With trade deadline creeping, Nationals’ needs and situation remains the same

The Nationals left Atlanta on Sunday in the same place as they entered: 6 ½ games behind the first-place Braves.

A four-game split without Max Scherzer is palatable. A 5-4 overall road run since showing up in Philadelphia after the All-Star break is acceptable, though an easy argument could be made the results should have been better. Chances to sweep both in Philadelphia and Baltimore slipped.

What changed in the first nine games since the break? Nothing for the Nationals. They need bullpen help -- still. They remain in a solid position to make the playoffs -- still. Their health -- outside of a new heel flareup for Ryan Zimmerman -- remains decent. Scherzer’s lobbying to pitch Sunday night failed. However, he’s expected back on the mound Thursday against Colorado, which would put him on turn to face the Braves on July 30.

That Scherzer start would arrive a day before the trade deadline. This year, July 31 is it. No more post-deadline deals, no more scrapping pieces after a couple more weeks of testing the waters for a truer read on outcomes. It’s get it done by July 31.

Like their standing in the National League East, nothing changed over the weekend for the Nationals when it comes to need. They need another reliever. Probably two. And, they need to get in line.

Sunday night, reports began to percolate about Boston being interested in San Diego closer Kirby Yates and Toronto closer Ken Giles. The Red Sox are 11 games out of first place and three games out of the wild card. They, of course, are traditionally a go-for-it organization in such instances. As are the Nationals. The questions will be who else is joining them to drive prices and who will be willing to pay them.

Take Yates. He’s the National League’s best closer this season. He is ultra-low-cost. The salary-tracking site Spotrac pegs him as the best relief bargain in baseball. San Diego has another year of control and expects to improve next year. Is he someone it really trades? If so, how epic is the cost? Would the Nationals ever meet it with a higher-end prospect out of a sagging farm system?

What is San Francisco thinking now? It’s 2 ½ games out of a wild-card spot. It is suddenly -- somehow -- a .500 baseball team with 50 wins. The Giants are 22-10 in one-run games. That typically represents two things: a good bullpen and unsustainable results. The Giants’ bullpen has the seventh-best ERA in baseball. Three of the teams ahead of them currently hold a playoff spot. None of the other three are more than a game out of a playoff spot. The group is legit and seemed to be the basis of a pending sell-off from San Francisco (along with, possibly, Madison Bumgarner). But, now? They have to decide, and everyone waits.

Among the Giants’ would-be trade pieces is closer Will Smith. He has moved from a decent reliever to an excellent one the last two seasons. He knew at the All-Star break what might be ahead for him. Smith was the Giants’ lone member of the National League All-Star team.

“I don’t really pay attention to [trade rumors],” Smith told NBC Sports Washington. “I think that’s a distraction, kind of.... I don’t try to think too much into it, really. I play for the Giants right now. I’m going to play as hard as I can for as long as they want me to. If it happens, it happens. If it doesn’t, oh well, I still get to play baseball. It’s kind of a win-win for me.”

Smith has been traded four times. The first time was as a 21-year-old minor-leaguer. He was stunned and disappointed. 

“I thought I was in trouble,” Smith said. “I didn’t know what was going on.”

By now, he’s moved to a more Zen approach.

“Now -- the whole control what you can control, it really applies to this,” Smith said. “There’s nothing you can do about this, so why even try to drive yourself crazy.”

The potential playoff pile has tempered movement. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo acquired reliever Kelvin Herrera on June 18 last year. Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson arrived on July 16, 2017. If he can, Rizzo has shown a willingness to pull in problem-solvers well before the deadline. If pushed to the edge, like he was for Mark Melancon on July 30, 2016, he’ll move then, too. He’s yet to find a bullpen solution this year -- just like everyone else.

Yates, Smith, Giles and Detroit’s Shane Greene are assumed to be destined for new teams.  Four teams are within 2 1/2 games of the National League’s second wild-card spot. Washington holds the top spot by a mere half-game. Demand is high. Stock is low. Going for may get you in. Holding may send you home. In those ways, nothing has changed for the Nationals.

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Washington Nationals Roundup: Ryan Zimmerman re-injures right foot in loss to Braves

Washington Nationals Roundup: Ryan Zimmerman re-injures right foot in loss to Braves

Though the Washington Nationals lost to the Atlanta Braves on Sunday night, Washington took home the series 2-1 and remains atop the NL Wild Card race. 

Check out the latest news and notes surrounding the Nationals.

Player Notes: 

SP Max Scherzer, who had been out of the rotation since July 13 with a back strain, is on track to return to the mound later this week. The right-hander is set to throw a full bullpen Monday, and baring any setbacks is likely to be cleared to start Thursday. 

Though the Nationals fell 7-1 to the Braves on Sunday, catcher Kurt Suzuki amounted for a third of Washington's offense (which only put up six hits). Suzuki went 2-for-3 with a pair of singles, the only player to have a multi-hit game.

SP Joe Ross suffered his second loss of the season Sunday night, when he went 5 1/3 innings and gave up three runs on eight hits, though he struck out six. Washignton recalled the right-hander from Triple-A Fresno to start in place of RHP Austin Voth, who was placed on the 10-day inured list with right biceps tendinitis retroactive to Thursday, July 18. 

1B Ryan Zimmerman exited the game early on Sunday, after he re-injured his right foot. Throughout this season Zimmerman has battled plantar fasciitis in his right foot, which caused him to miss two months of play earlier this year. 

Injuries: 

SP Austin Voth: Shoulder, 10-Day IL, status uncertain

1B Ryan Zimmerman: Foot, sidelined, status uncertain

SP Max Scherzer: Back, 10-Day IL, out until late July

RP Jonny Venters: Shoulder, 10-Day IL, out indefinitely 

SP Jeremy Hellickson: Shoulder, 60-Day IL, out indefinitely 

RP Justin Miller: Shoulder, 10-Day IL, out until mid-July 

RP Koda Glover: Elbow, 60-Day IL, out indefinitely 

RP Austen Williams: Shoulder, 10-Day IL, out indefinitely 

Coming Up:

Monday 7/22:  Nationals vs. Rockies, 7:05 p.m., Nationals Park

Tuesday 7/23:  Nationals vs. Rockies, 7:05 p.m., Nationals Park

Wednesday 7/24: Nationals vs. Rockies, 7:05 p.m., Nationals Park

Source: Rotoworld

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