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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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Bryce Harper drives in 3, Nationals snap skid, beat Cardinals 5-4

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Bryce Harper drives in 3, Nationals snap skid, beat Cardinals 5-4

ST. LOUIS -- Koda Glover rewarded his manager's faith.

Bryce Harper had three hits and drove in three runs, Glover earned the save in the first opportunity since Ryan Madson was placed on the disabled list, and the Washington Nationals snapped a four-game losing streak with a 5-4 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday night.

The Nationals won for just the third time in their last 10 games and snapped the Cardinals' season-high, eight-game winning streak.

"We needed a win today," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. "Get on that plane, have a nice happy flight and come back tomorrow and be at home and be ready."

Tanner Roark (8-12) gave up four runs, three earned, in six innings.

A beleaguered bullpen that had blown two leads to start the losing streak took care of the rest. Justin Miller pitched two scoreless innings before Glover closed it out.

"There's been a lot of changes (in the bullpen)," Miller said. "It's unfortunate, a couple of injuries and stuff like that, but I don't really look at it as I've got the seventh or eighth or anything like that. I'm just going out there just trying to do my job."

Glover took the loss in the series opener on Monday, giving up a game-ending homer to Paul DeJong.

"The first game of the series didn't go as I would have liked for it to have went," Glover said. "So to get put back in that situation or even a better situation to get a save, I'm happy with that outcome."

Harper drove in the game's first run with a double in the first and knocked in two more with a bases-loaded single in the fourth to give the Nationals a 4-1 lead.

A pair of errors helped the Nationals extend their lead to 5-1 in the fifth. St. Louis committed three errors in the game after committing just four total errors during the winning streak.

"A couple plays clearly we expect to make and will make and just didn't go our way for a little bit there," Cardinals interim manager Mike Shildt said. "To the guys' credit they regrouped, settled down, and started playing back to the baseball they know they can play."

The Nationals had opportunities to pad the lead, leaving the bases loaded in the third and fifth while stranding nine runners in the first five innings.

"When you have an opportunity to put teams away you've got to do that," Martinez said. "Especially with how hot the Cardinals are playing right now. They're going to come back."

The Cardinals got within one in the sixth. After DeJong and Kolten Wong came up with back-to-back, two-out RBI hits, Harrison Bader hit a slow grounder to third. Anthony Rendon's throw to first got away from Ryan Zimmerman for an error, allowing Wong to score from second to cut the Nationals' lead to 5-4.

Just two of the four runs Luke Weaver (6-11) allowed in his 3 2/3 innings were earned. He gave up seven hits, including two to Roark, who scored both times.

Tyson Ross allowed one unearned run in 3 1/3 innings of relief.

Bader homered in the third and Matt Carpenter walked twice to extend his on-base streak to a career-high 34 games.

TRAINING ROOM

Nationals: RHP Jeremy Hellickson will have an MRI on his sore right wrist on Friday. RHP Joe Ross (right elbow surgery) threw 3 2/3 scoreless innings at Class A Potomac on Thursday and is hoping for a September return.

Cardinals: RHP Carlos Martinez (right shoulder strain) will begin a rehab Friday at Double-A Springfield. RHP Adam Wainwright (right elbow inflammation) threw two scoreless innings Thursday night at High-A Palm Beach.

UP NEXT

Nationals: RHP Max Scherzer (15-5, 2.19 ERA) will take the mound as the Nationals return home for a three-game series Friday night against the Miami Marlins and RHP Dan Straily (4-5, 4.42 ERA). Scherzer is 3-0 with a 3.43 ERA in three starts this season against the Marlins.

Cardinals: RHP Jack Flaherty (6-6, 3.22 ERA) kicks off a three-game series Friday night as the Cardinals host the Milwaukee Brewers and RHP Freddy Peralta (5-3, 4.47 ERA). Flaherty struck out a career-high 13 batters in his last start against the Brewers on June 22.

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Is Juan Soto a lock for National League Rookie of the Year?

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Is Juan Soto a lock for National League Rookie of the Year?

In April, it would have been unfathomable. In May, it would have been laughable. In June, it would have been improbable. In July, it started to look possible. In August, it might even have been likely. Now, it’s a complete toss-up.

Juan Soto is the worthiest National League Rookie of the Year. So is Ronald Acuña.

It’s one of the most exciting rookie races in recent memory, not simply for the otherworldly numbers each freshman sensation is putting up, but for just how good they are at such young ages. Juan Soto is a jaw-dropping 19. Acuña, by comparison, is the wizened veteran at the old age of... 20. 

The two are preternaturally talented, and their mature-beyond-their-years games have translated perfectly well to the big leagues. The question now is: which one will actually take home the hardware?

(Before we continue, I’ll note that Jack Flaherty, Brian Anderson, and Walker Buehler are all very talented young players who would at least be in the conversation in normal years).

The first step is to look at the numbers.

On the season Acuña is slashing .287/.347/.571, and his wRC+ is 144. He’s got 19 home runs and 8 stolen bases in just 68 games and his fWAR is 2.3. bWAR has him at 2.8

Soto’s slash line is currently .293/.420/.534, to go along with 15 home runs. His wRC+ is 153, and his fWAR is 2.7. His bWAR sits at 2.2.

Obviously, the numbers are terrific for both. Acuña has been up longer, but thanks to injury Soto has actually played 8 more games. Acuña has the edge in power, both in home runs and slugging percentage, plus he’s clearly the speedier player and better defender. If you’re looking for all-around game, he’s probably your man. Plus, for those who care about such things when voting on awards, the Braves are several games ahead of the Nats in the standings.

However, Soto’s performance has a couple things going for it. First of all, as impressive as it is that Acuña is taking the league by storm as a 20-year old, Soto is nearly a full year younger. It cannot be overemphasized how wild it is what Soto is doing as a teenager. He may very well be the greatest teenage batter in baseball history.

Secondly, Soto has been incredibly consistent. He’s basically been an All-Star level hitter since the day he was called up in May, whereas Acuña’s numbers, while very legitimate, are buoyed by his recent hot streak. He’s hit 8 home runs in 8 games, and of every hitter with at least 100 plate appearances since the All-Star Game, he has the highest wRC+ in that span. He’s had plenty of valleys to his peaks, though, and Soto has been a model of consistency. Of all hitters with at 200 at-bats this entire season, Soto ranks 7th over the entire season, That’s astounding.

Another point in Soto’s favor is just how historic his numbers are. Voters love a narrative, and as mentioned above, Soto is having literally the best offensive season a teenager has ever had. The highest wRC+ by a 19-year old in baseball history is Mel Ott with a 140 exactly 90 seasons ago. Soto is beating that by 13 so far.

The true separator, though, is Soto’s on-base percentage. His .420 mark is a comfortable 4th of all players with at least 300 plate appearances, behind elite batting eyes Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Joey Votto. And, once again, we’re talking about something historic.

Soto’s .420 on-base percentage, if it holds, will be the only OBP over .400 for a teenager with 200 plate appearances in Major League history. In fact, outside of Ott’s .397 in 1928, no other teenager has ever reached base at a .360 clip, let alone Soto’s astronomical .420.

Ultimately, I believe more in Acuña’s future, but I think Soto’s been the better player this season. Acuña is more well-rounded, but Soto’s elite batting eye has made him a top 10 hitter in baseball already. If Soto had been up on Opening Day and played at this level, he’d be on pace for a 5.5 WAR, which would top even Bryce Harper’s 2012 season.

As mentioned, though, voters love a narrative. If Acuña comes back from his injury and stays as hot as he’s been all August, it’ll be tough to ignore his performance during the Braves’ stretch run. This award is not over, but for now, Soto should be considered the favorite.

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