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Nats come up short in taut loss to Braves


Nats come up short in taut loss to Braves

ATLANTA -- There were 41,000 in the stands, scoring opportunities were at a premium, the managers were trying to out-think each other in a late-game chess match and ultimately the outcome was decided by one key moment.

The calendar read Sept. 14. The vibe inside Turner Field felt more like October.

The Nationals can only be thankful the result -- a 2-1 heartbreaking loss to the Braves -- doesn't count as much as some potential future ones might.

"This is playoff baseball," said right fielder Jayson Werth, who certainly has experienced his share over the years. "Every team we play for the rest of the way is in the hunt and hungry, so these are the types of games we're going to play for the
next six weeks. We're going to have some tests, and I think we're up to the
challenge. More times than not, I think we're going to win that game."

The Nationals had every opportunity to win Friday night's taut series opener, getting six strong innings out of Ross Detwiler, Bryce Harper's 19th homer as a 19-year-old and some sterling defensive play from a variety of sources.

But they simply couldn't push across another run against a dominant Atlanta pitching staff that tallied 17 strikeouts, and then with the game tied in the bottom of the ninth they couldn't prevent the winning run from sliding across the plate.

That run scored as a result of an errant throw by Ian Desmond, who after fielding Tyler Pastornicky's bouncer to short made a desperate attempt to nab speedy rookie Andrelton Simmons at the plate. With his infield playing in and runners on the corners, reliever Sean Burnett got exactly what he wanted: a two-hopper to short. Desmond might have used a split-second more to set himself before making the throw but the margin for error was slim from the start.

"If I set, he's already sliding in celebrating," said Desmond, who was charged with an error on the play. "There was a probably 1-in-10 chance, and I didn't get him."

With that do-or-die play, the Nationals dropped the opener of this key series against their lone remaining division rival and saw their lead drop to 7 12 games. There was, however, no sense of dread inside the losing clubhouse, just an acknowledgment that the other guys played a little better and that there will be plenty more games like this before the 2012 season ends.

"You can't really hang your head too much," Werth said. "It was a tight game. Both teams battled, and they were able to push one across at the end. Seemed like they just kinda bled us to death at the end there and got us in a tough spot. ... We got a lot of big games coming the rest of the way. Nothing to be discouraged about."

If anything, the Nationals came out of this one encouraged by the performance of a young pitcher they're going to have to count on down the stretch. With six innings of one-run ball, Detwiler gave him team a chance and lowered his season ERA to 3.16.

That's the exact same ERA Stephen Strasburg had when his season came to an end, having thrown only 8 13 more innings than Detwiler (who ultimately would take Strasburg's spot in the Nationals' playoff rotation).

"Det showed me something," manager Davey Johnson said. "Going out there, he had some hard innings and went back out for the sixth and threw a great game."

The 26-year-old lefty seemed to find himself in trouble just about the entire night, giving up at least one hit in each of his first five innings. But aside from Freddie Freeman's leadoff double in the fourth, none of them came around to score.

It didn't hurt that Detwiler was helped out by his defense, especially Roger Bernadina, who in the fifth slammed into the left-field wall to rob Jason Heyward of what probably would have been an RBI double. Bernadina grabbed his right shoulder afterward and appeared to be in pain, but he remained in the game and said afterward he was fine after sacrificing his body to make one of the best catches of the year.

"You don't think about it," Bernadina said. "You just go on instinct. I know I was pretty close. The only play I could make was to jump to get it. I had to keep us in the game."

At the time of the play, the Nationals trailed 1-0, barely able to put the ball in play against Braves starter Kris Medlen, who struck out a career-high over seven dominant innings. Only Harper enjoyed any real success against him, singling in the first, drawing a walk in the third and then mashing a first-pitch curveball to left in the top of the sixth for the 19th homer of his rookie season.

The Nationals would record only one more hit the rest of the night, a two-out single by Kurt Suzuki in the seventh. They went down in order against lefty Eric O'Flaherty in the eighth, then were blown away by Craig Kimbrel in the ninth, with the Atlanta closer striking out Adam LaRoche, Desmond and Danny Espinosa in succession on only 10 pitches.

All told, the Nationals struck out 17 times. Of the 33 batters they sent to the plate, only 15 managed to put the ball in play.

"Good pitching beats good hitting every day of the week, and Medlen was good
tonight," Werth said. "Hit his spots, kept the ball down, pitched backwards at times and was aggressive in the zone, got strike one and pitched tough."

They may not be overwhelmed by an opposing pitcher quite this much come October, but the Nationals should expect more games like this. Playoff baseball almost always comes down to dominant pitching and the ability to take advantage of what few scoring opportunities you get.

The Nationals didn't have many opportunities Friday night, and they certainly didn't take advantage when they did. They couldn't find fault with much they did over the course of nine innings, yet they didn't win the game.

"No one in here is hanging their head," Desmond said. "More scratching their head than hanging their head, I guess."

Expect plenty more head-scratchers before this whole thing is over.

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Nationals set to enter defining seven-game stretch


Nationals set to enter defining seven-game stretch

WASHINGTON -- Most baseball managers try to operate in monochromatic fashion. They see one goal each day, and it only rests in those 24 hours. Some -- like Davey Martinez -- claim they don’t look at the standings in June. His standard message is to “win today” then move to tomorrow.

Human nature often runs interference on compartmentalization. It even crept up on Martinez on Sunday morning when in the midst of an answer about Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner playing daily. 

“For me, this is a big week,” Martinez said. “We have a chance to make up some ground here. I want these guys readily available to play.”

He’s right. The claim of significance is valid for once in mid-June, not a concept drummed up by overzealous television promos or interminable Internet space. 

The Nationals have seven games in seven days against two teams near the top of the division. Damaged Philadelphia arrives Monday. The Phillies’ bullpen is hurting and ineffective. Bryce Harper could miss the All-Star Game for just the second time in his career. Philadelphia is 6-8 in June. Meanwhile, Atlanta is rolling along. Its lineup remains deep, the pitching functional and Dallas Keuchel set to make his debut here in D.C. next weekend. The Braves hold a 2 ½-game lead in the not-so-great National League East. 

“Not thinking too big picture,” Adam Eaton said. “But knowing we have an in-division rivalry, we’ve got to win those games. It’s important. We’re trying to chase at this point. Not to put too much emphasis on it, but we need to play some really competitive baseball. And we shouldn’t beat ourselves these next four games. Play good baseball and not beat ourselves. If we play the brand of baseball we know how to play, and play clean, we have a good chance.”

Washington is five games under .500. Days are clicking off the calendar. Departing along with them are opportunities to chop at an 8 1/2-game deficit in the division. Following this week, only seven games against Philadelphia remain. However, 13 with Atlanta remain on the schedule, including seven in 10 days in September. The question is if those will matter. Sink this week and they won’t. Pull off a deficit-halving six of seven and everything changes. 

This week’s ramifications will first be felt on the phone lines in a month. The non-waiver trade deadline arrives July 31. Drag back to a double-digit deficit this week and plunk down the “for sale” sign. Rocket through the week and perhaps reinforcements will be found.

Monday brings a dreaded series opener. The Nationals are 6-17 in the first games of series this season. No one knows why. It doesn’t make sense. But, here they are, incapable of winning a first game and constantly playing from behind.

Patrick Corbin will be on the mound attempting to counter the trend. He, like the team when a new opponent shows up, has been in arrears the last three games. Corbin’s ERA dipped to 2.85 following a 116-pitch shutout of Miami on May 25. He’s been bludgeoned since. His ERA is up to 4.11, he will start twice this week, and the Nationals need him to right his ills.

Friday, Corbin threw a bullpen session focused on his line to the plate. Pitching coach Paul Menhart describes what they are trying to accomplish to get Corbin back to the version he was earlier this season:

“His lines and his east-west motion have made it very difficult for him to get the ball to where he wants it to be,” Menhart said. “He needs to be more direct to the plate and have more of a north-south rotation with his upper body and being more stable lower-half wise will allow him to do that and have his deception and hide the ball better and keep that tunnel.”

Corbin agreed. He doesn’t watch much video to cure ruts. He also doesn’t want too much information. The team’s analytics trackers have informed him his arm slot remains in a good place. He thinks his body is still in a running at a high level, dismissing any correlation between his struggles and the workload against Miami. He’s also going through the most common element of reduced success: trying not to chew on it too much.

“I think when I’m away from the field, you think about it more,” Corbin told NBC Sports Washington. “You’re frustrated about it a little bit -- what the heck is going on? But when you get here, you just try to work, try to do things to get better. That’s how I approach it. I’m just looking forward to my next start on Monday going out there and trying to get back to how I know I can pitch.”

Philadelphia arrives after being thumped in Atlanta on Sunday, 15-1. Washington had the opposite day in a 15-5 win. Monday night starts a reckoning of sorts for both. The Nationals will send out their three high-end starters during the four games. Philadelphia is trying to right itself and not let the Braves get out of touch at the top of the division. So, even for the one-day-at-a-time crew, the coming seven carry significant weight, and they’re finally admitting it.



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Nationals call up Adrian Sanchez, place Kyle Barraclough on 10-day injured list

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Nationals call up Adrian Sanchez, place Kyle Barraclough on 10-day injured list

WASHINGTON -- Manager Davey Martinez wasn’t sure postgame Saturday what’s wrong with reliever Kyle Barraclough.

The right-hander’s velocity is down, his slider flat and too true, his results poor. Barraclough left the mound Saturday at dusk with a 6.39 ERA. He’s allowed seven home runs in 25 ⅓ innings this season. Little he has tried has worked. And his time on the team may be short.

Utility infielder Adrian Sanchez will join the team Sunday. Sanchez’s departure from Double-A Harrisburg was reported Saturday night by Mick Reinhard, who covers the Senators, and noted Sanchez’s early removal from the game.

Barraclough will be the one leaving to make room for Sanchez on the roster, the Nationals placing him on the 10-day injured list with radial nerve irritation Sunday. Barraclough could be sent on an extended rehabilitation in the minor leagues, as the Nationals did with Trevor Rosenthal. At a minimum, Washington goes from an eight-man bullpen to a five-man bench, finally delivering Martinez more versatility at the plate and in the field.

Barraclough and left-hander Tony Sipp were rarely used in the last three weeks. A week passed between appearances for Barraclough from the end of May to the start of June. Sipp pitched Sunday for just the fifth time since May 24.

Removing Barraclough from the roster is another layer of indictment for the Nationals' offseason bullpen plan. They acquired Barraclough via trade with Miami for international slot money. He was supposed to pitch the seventh inning on a regular basis, Rosenthal the eighth and Sean Doolittle the ninth. That lineup has been disastrous outside of Doolittle, compromising the entire season.

Rosenthal’s travails are well-documented. He pitched again Saturday, walked the first batter on four pitches, walked the second batter, then allowing a single to load the bases with no outs. He eventually allowed just a run. His ERA is 19.50 following the outing. It’s the first time this season Rosenthal’s ERA is under 20.00.

While trying to fix Rosenthal, and trying to hang on with Barraclough, the Nationals have turned to Wander Suero and Tanner Rainey to handle the seventh and eighth innings ahead of Doolittle. Few would have predicted that combination before the season began. Despite the relative concern, no one would have predicted the Nationals’ bullpen to be among the worst in the league for much of the season, but has turned out to be just that.