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Nats can't shine on big stage

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Nats can't shine on big stage

For nearly five hours, Bryce Harper had flailed away at pitches out of the zone, taken borderline strikes and glared at plate umpire Tim Timmons and otherwise looked exactly like a 19-year-old overwhelmed to be in the big leagues.

Yet when the Nationals' rookie stepped to the plate in the bottom of the 14th inning late Saturday afternoon, every remaining soul among the once-sellout crowd of 41,287 couldn't help but dream about how Harper's otherwise awful game might end in dramatic fashion.

Even the players wearing the road uniforms admitted the thought crossed their minds.

"It's like one of those kind of storybook endings; you're hoping it wasn't going to be," Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira said. "That would've just been too good to be true, for Harper to hit a walk-off right there. The place might've fallen down."

Harper didn't hit a walk-off, and the place did not fall down. With a routine groundball to second on the first pitch he saw from New York closer Rafael Soriano, Harper completed a miserable, 0-for-7, five-strikeout day and officially sealed the Nationals' frustrating 5-3, extra-inning loss.

There were plenty of defining moments in this game, countless opportunities for the Nationals to push across the one run they needed to pull out a victory and some controversial calls that cost them along the way. But it was Harper's performance -- by far his worst in seven weeks as a big leaguer -- that left everyone shaking their heads by day's end.

It wasn't just that Harper struck out five times. It was the surprising manner in which he consistently chased pitches out of the strike zone from Andy Pettitte and three Yankees relievers. It was the disgusted look and words he directed toward Timmons after questionable calls. And it was the uncharacteristic lack of composure from a player who to date has relished every opportunity to star on the big stage.

"I thought he probably was really amped up," manager Davey Johnson said. "He came in there against Pettitte, and I've never seen him swing at balls out of the zone. He was chasing balls. Got in that mode where (he was) trying to make something happen. That's part of the youth."

Harper declined to comment after the game, saying "I don't want to talk." Teammates tried to offer the rookie reassurance.

"Shake it off," first baseman Adam LaRoche told him. "It's not the last time you're going to have a bad game. If you're lucky, you'll have lots of bad games because you're playing for a long time. Shake it off and hurt them tomorrow."

This will be a tough game for the entire Nationals roster to shake off, a second straight loss to the American League's best team and one that was eminently winnable.

The Nationals gave the Yankees an unearned run during a sloppy fourth inning that featured one official error (by shortstop Ian Desmond) and two other miscues (a blooper to shallow left field that fell untouched, a missed scoop at first base by Tyler Moore on what should have been an inning-ending double play).

Jordan Zimmermann gave the Yankees two runs in the sixth, turning a slim lead into a slim deficit.

For a moment in the bottom of the eighth, though, the Nationals thought they had retaken the lead and were three outs from victory. Desmond's homer off reliever Cory Wade tied the game 3-3, and shortly after Moore came scampering around the bases on LaRoche's pinch-hit single to right.

As catcher Russell Martin hauled in the throw from DeWayne Wise, Moore attempted a headfirst slide, brushing his left hand across the plate. Timmons, though, called Moore out on the bang-bang play, and it wasn't clear until after the fact that Moore's hand had narrowly beaten Martin's tag.

"I thought I got in there," Moore said. "But you know, I haven't seen the replay yet. It's just unfortunate it didn't go our way."

"We had other opportunities to win that ballgame," Desmond said.

Indeed they did, thanks in large part to some brilliant relief work from Ross Detwiler, Tyler Clippard, Sean Burnett and Craig Stammen, who combined to toss seven scoreless, hitless innings against one of the most-feared lineups in baseball.

But through it all, the Nationals lineup was unable to push across the winning run, going a collective 0-for-15 with five strikeouts from the ninth through the 13th innings.

So the game entered the 14th, at which point Johnson handed the ball to Brad Lidge, less than 24 hours removed from a shaky outing that contributed to a series-opening, 7-2 loss. The veteran right-hander was plagued Friday night by a seeing-eye, infield single, and he couldn't believe his misfortune when the same thing happened again Saturday. Jayson Nix led off with a single to deep shortstop. Derek Jeter then added a grounder through the left-side hole.

"I'm in a bit of bad luck right know where they're kind of hitting them where they ain't," Lidge said. "They're the groundballs you want, but they're hit perfectly between guys. It's tough, but you just try to do the best you can to get out of it."

Lidge did strike out Curtis Granderson, but he then left a 2-1 slider over the plate and watched as Teixeira laced it down the right-field line for the two-run double that gave the Yankees the lead for good and raised Lidge's ERA to an unsightly 9.64.

The Nationals nearly bailed him out in the bottom of the 14th thanks to one-out singles from Jesus Flores and Steve Lombardozzi. But Danny Espinosa flied out to right and Harper couldn't summon any magic to erase his dreadful afternoon and lift his team to an inspiring victory.

Suddenly, the Nationals' six-game winning streak has morphed into a two-game losing streak. And the most-anticipated series in the team's brief history has already been won by the Yankees, who will go for the sweep Sunday afternoon against a young ballclub that has to learn how to brush off a pair of demoralizing losses.

"Right now, obviously they seem bad," Lidge said. "These games are magnified. But at the end of the season, these are two of 162 games we play. They're regular-season games. And hopefully, if nothing else, we can learn from whatever we take from these two games and get better from it."

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What went right in Dave Martinez’s first season with the Nationals?

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What went right in Dave Martinez’s first season with the Nationals?

After spending a decade as a Major League bench coach and managerial interviews with seven other ballclubs over the course of six years, Dave Martinez was hired to manage the Washington Nationals in 2018. The team had averaged 93 wins over the previous four years, winning 95-plus in three of the four seasons, but in 2018 they won just 82, barely reaching an above-.500 record in the first season under Martinez’s tutelage.

Based on the managerial turnover, Martinez drew the ire of many Nats fans. After all, if the Nats were going to move on from the proven success of Dusty Baker, shouldn’t the next manager be even better?

While the frustration surrounding a disappointing season was entirely understandable, Martinez shouldn’t be given as much of the blame as he has. We’ll have a piece coming later in the offseason about some of the things that went wrong in his debut season, so for the folks out there who want to point out his flaws, don’t worry. Your time will come, and we’re not saying he should be absolved of all blame this year.

This post, however, will highlight some of the successes Martinez had this season, and why he may very well still have a bright future ahead of him in Washington.

There are a few key reasons why I maintained all season long that Dusty Baker wouldn’t have had much more success than Martinez in 2018. First off, the litany of injuries the Nats dealt with were pretty astounding, and while they didn’t have any one major obvious injury, the sheer volume added up to cost the team a lot of games from proven veterans.

Those injuries led to probably the single biggest bright spot from the 2018 season: the emergence of 19-year old wunderkind Juan Soto.

It’s difficult to evaluate what Martinez’s patterns will be going forward in regards to young players vs proven veterans, but Dusty Baker had a well-earned reputation for favoring high-floor vets over high-ceiling rookies. It’s a fine philosophy to have, but it likely would have kept Soto in the minor leagues in 2018, robbing Nats fans of maybe the most entertaining part of their summer.

Martinez showed trust in Soto early, recognizing his preternatural ability to get on base and show in-game power, and Soto ended up with the 4th-highest Wins Above Replacement on the teams, to go along with the highest wRC+. Allowing Soto to grow and prove himself in high-pressure situations was maybe Martinez’s shrewdest move all season long. 

Now, instead of another highly-rated prospect who may or may not pan out, the Nats find themselves in the enviable position of being able to let Bryce Harper walk if he asks for too much money while knowing they have a capable replacement already on the roster. After one of the single greatest teenage seasons for a hitter in Major League history, the Nats now have one of the most valuable assets in the game in Soto.

Obviously, most of the credit for Soto’s incredible rookie season goes to Soto himself, but it’s partially thanks to Martinez as well that he got the opportunity.

The actual, strategic role of a baseball manager is relatively limited. Yes, setting the lineup each day matters to a degree, and National League managers of course have more moves to worry about over the course of the game. Still, in a game without the X’s and O’s of football, basketball, and hockey, the most obvious strategy managers employ is in bullpen manipulation.

The Nats had a bounceback season with their bullpen in 2018, and Martinez certainly played a role in that. It wasn’t the elite bullpen season of years past, but as a unit the bullpen shave nearly half a run off their collective ERA compared to 2017, and they moved up from 23rd in baseball to 15th.

In this current era of bullpening and shortened starts, a strong bullpen has literally never been more important, and at the very least, Martinez proved himself capable of running one. In fact, given how the team’s remarkable injury misfortune extended to Sean Doolittle and the bullpen as well, it makes the manager’s performance even more impressive.

Individually, you can see the success as well, most prominently with the aforementioned Doolittle, who had a career year with a 1.60 ERA and a 36.8 strikeout rate. There were disappointments too, as there are in every bullpen every season, but it was still a good year for the group compared to last season.

Ultimately, the role of the manager in baseball is pretty overrated. Coaching schemes matter in football, X’s and O’s are critical in basketball and hockey, and substitutions matter in soccer. With baseball, the most important hat the manager wears is really a glorified babysitter.

I don’t use that phrase to diminish either the manager or the players he oversees, but rather to really emphasize that a manager’s most important job is handling personalities, not strategy decisions. This can be especially crucial on a team with as many big names and stars as the Nationals have on the roster.

It’s obviously not an area in which fans can truly evaluate a manager, since 98% of these actions take place behind closed doors. One way we can gauge how a manager is handling the team off the field is in their comments about him. A lot of times, a player’s positive thoughts on their manager falls into the “well, what else is he going to say?” category, but they can still be informative, especially when the praise is unprompted.

Even players no longer with the team, who have no obvious incentive to defend Dave Martinez, have gone out of their way to endorse him for the job.

The tweet is a quote from Daniel Murphy on the day he’d been traded away to the Cubs. Murphy, a player who has made it to the World Series under a heralded manager, in addition to playing for Baker and Martinez, knows what it takes to succeed in the role, and he clarified without being asked that Martinez would succeed.

In April, then-Nationals starting pitcher Gio Gonzalez and Martinez got into a dust-up over Gonzalez being pulled from a start when he felt he had more left in the tank. Tempers flared, and clearly neither side was happy with the other.

The next day, the two “had an animated conversation” at Gonzalez’ locker, according to The Washington Post. Afterwards, the pitcher had some thoughts on Martinez.

“It’s beautiful that our skipper speaks to us. It makes a huge difference knowing what’s going on. That was a situation that if people keep to themselves, it’d be a different story. Communication. That’s all we want. Once we have communication, everything is nice and calm and everything plays out the way it should play out.”

Having learned under the master Joe Maddon, Martinez is already developing a reputation as a superb communicator, a highly valued skill in a winning clubhouse. Even the team’s biggest star, and impending free agent, has nothing but kind words for his skipper.

In the video, Harper says, “He’s one of the best managers I’ve ever played for. His door is open every single day. He’s got a heart that — I haven’t really played for a manager like this guy. I look forward to hopefully playing with him for the next 10, 12 years. He’s one of the best, so hopefully, we’ll see what happens.”

Harper has doubled down on those sentiments multiple times. After his epic Home Run Derby performance at Nats Park earlier this summer, he brought up Martinez again.

“I’ve got one of the best managers in all of baseball. I’m very happy to have him at our helm. He’s a guy I’d run through a fricking brick wall for, and I was trying to do that for him tonight.”

If a first-year manager can get his most famous player to run through a brick wall for him three months into the job, that’s a pretty good sign for the connections he makes and relationships he builds.

It’s entirely possible, if not likely, that the Nats made a mistake in letting go of Dusty Baker last offseason, but that doesn’t make Martinez a bad hire. Rather, his willingness to rely on unproven talent in this era of baseball, improvements at managing a bullpen, undeniable communication skills and abilities earning the trust of the players all point to a bright future in Washington with Martinez at the helm.

It wasn’t a perfect debut debut season, but he still managed to get a few things right.

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2018 Nationals Position Review: The Nationals outfield is built to succeed

2018 Nationals Position Review: The Nationals outfield is built to succeed

The Washington Nationals outfield was one of the most intriguing position groups of the 2018 season. Two of the team's star figures, Bryce Harper and Juan Soto, resided out there more than 200 feet from home plate.

Fittingly, we'll start our position review series taking a look at the most talented group of players on the Nationals. 

Overall, they were outstanding. Each of the nine players brought something different to the team. Whether it was Harper doing Harper things, Soto continuing to break teenager records, or Michael A. Taylor filling in nearly every other day, there was versatility each night.

Good news for the Nationals is most of these guys will be back. Of all the outfielders still on the roster, only Harper is set to become a free agent. 

The unit is young and has strong depth. Potentially it also has Howie Kendrick, who missed a majority of the season and is still under contract for a year. 

Honestly this could be a position group that has some of their bench pieces on the trading block during the offseason. There are holes spattered around the rest of the roster and there are outfielders to spare with or without Harper coming back.

Without further ado, here is a look at each of the outfielders this past season. 

Bryce Harper

There are multiple ways to look at Harper's production this season. In some ways he was productive, in others it was one of his worst years on record. 

He took care of the important stats. With 34 home runs it was his second-highest dinger output of his career (only behind his MVP season in 2015) and tied for the seventh-most in the National League. Although a slightly irrelevant stat, he did have a career-high 100 RBIs as well. 

As a whole his batting average was .249. But if you take into account how poor his start to the season was, and a .214 batting average with that, the just turned 26-year-old finished nicely. 

Spin it as you will, his OPS was .889 with a MLB-leading 130 walks. 

Harper is still the best position player with a Curly W on his chest. If he returns, that title will not exchange hands next season. 

Juan Soto

Call him a kid. Call him our son. Call him a phenom.

Whatever you call him, he is the future of the Nationals. With Soto in the outfield it makes the idea of the team not wanting to sign Harper sound a little less crazy. 

For your convenience, here is a list of all of the accomplishments he had this past season.

What makes it all even more impressive is that he did not even play the full season. He was called up in the middle of May.

His 22 home runs, 70 RBIs, 121 hits, .292 batting average, .923 OPS all came with him only playing three-quarters of a season.

Oh and he turns 20 in less than a week. 

Adam Eaton

A stint on the 60-day disabled list did not prevent Adam Eaton from having the best hitting season of his career. He had career-highs in batting average (.301) and OBP (.394) only playing in 95 games. 

He's never been a long ball hitter, but getting him on-base is his strongest asset. In nearly every contest the seven-year veteran batted lead-off for the Nats. However, the Nationals were unable to take advantage of him getting on base. Eaton only came around to score 55 runs. 

With Harper, Anthony Rendon, Trea Turner, and Juan Soto typically batting behind him, that is a total that should be much higher. 

Of note, 2019 will be his final season under contract for the Nationals. This season, perhaps even the offseason, Washington will need to decide if he is one of the right pieces going forward. Re-signing Harper is sure to be a big factor in that decision. 

Michael A. Taylor

Initially filling in for the injured Eaton, Taylor had a formidable 2018 season. Performing on the field and at the plate earned him a start in the regular rotation. 

Of the regular contributors he did have the lowest batting average in the outfield. His speed however is what he brings to this squad. 

Holding the fort at center field, alongside whichever pair of Nationals at his side, he makes it difficult for balls to get behind him. 

Defensively he is a huge asset to Washington. Offensively he does need to pick it up. 

Andrew Stevenson

This season was the most action that Andrew Stevenson has seen since being drafted by the Nationals in 2015.

At 24 with 75 at-bats, he mustered a .253 average for a decent year as a call-up.

The jury is still out for Stevenson, but the Nats have plenty of time to decide what move to make with him. The next two years he is under team control and is likely a tradable piece.

Victor Robles

Everyone was waiting to see Victor Robles, the Nationals top prospect, get some consistent playing time with the Nats. 

This season he got that time in September, with the team pretty much out of postseason contention.

There was nothing too staggering about Robles during that month, but he did piece together a .288 batting average. The big highlight was this monster homer he hit.

He'll get more time in 2019. Without Harper he'll likely be on the team's daily roster.

Moises Sierra

Probably the only National on this list that you haven't heard of but the Nats took a chance on Moises Sierra in the minor leagues.

In the lineup for 27 games in Washington, Sierra did not do much on the offensive end, batting .217. He's still a fringe major leaguer and has a lot to prove to get extra time with this group of players.

Howie Kendrick

At the time the loss of Kendrick was considered detrimental for the Nationals. He was the team's primary second baseman to start the season and his injury led to Daniel Murphy seeing significant time.

Still, he did play in the outfield, although he has lost the speed from his youth in Los Angeles. 

He had a phenomenal offensive start to the season no matter what spot he was at in the batting order. 

Likely he will not be an option in the outfield, given the new crop of players that proved themselves this season. But, do not be surprised if Kendrick has to spend some time in the grass if Harper is not on the roster next season.

Kendrick is guy that the Nationals cannot afford to not be in the batting order. 

The Other Guys:

There are two other outfielders that saw action in 2018, Brian Goodwin and Rafael Bautista. 

Goodwin was traded to the Kansas City Royals before the trade deadline. He had limited production with the Nats over the past three seasons. With Soto, Taylor, and

Robles now in a position to step in, the organization simply did not have room for him. 

Bautista got sent back to the minor leagues and will likely stay there unless there are some unforeseen injuries. 

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