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Nats flash some serious leather in win over Mets

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Nats flash some serious leather in win over Mets

There was Yunel Escobar's backhanded stab of John Mayberry's smash down the third-base line in the top of the first, perhaps preventing two runs from scoring. There was Michael Taylor's galloping catch of Eric Campbell's drive to deep right-center in the top of the fifth, again perhaps preventing two runs from scoring. There was Bryce Harper's shoestring snag of Wilmer Flores' sinking liner to right in the top of the eighth. And moments later, there was Jose Lobaton's sprawling grab of Mayberry's foul-pop, up against a backstop railing and just shy of the camera well.

The Nationals made so many highlight-reel plays in the field during Monday night's 7-2 victory over the Mets, one of the game's primary beneficiaries couldn't choose just one to celebrate.

"All of them," Gio Gonzalez said. "Escobar. Danny. The play Mikey T made in right-center. It's fun to watch when these guys are playing their tails off. And Bryce made some nice sliding plays. It makes it easier for a pitcher when these guys are making some great plays out there."

For a team that has been known at times to look awfully sloppy in the field, the Nationals sure looked like defensive gurus Monday night. Across the board, this might well have been their best defensive game of the season.

"It takes that to beat a good club," manager Matt Williams said.

And it might have taken all those plays Monday to beat the Mets, who were denied at least four runs via spectacular plays by Escobar and Taylor.

The game's entire tenor might have been different had Escobar not made his backhanded snare of Mayberry's first-inning hot shot to third, then made a perfect throw across the diamond to end the frame without a run scoring. If the ball gets through, New York probably hands Matt Harvey a 2-run lead before he ever takes the mound. Instead, it remained a scoreless affair heading to the bottom of the first, at which point the Nationals pounced on Harvey for two runs.

"He's been huge over there at third base," said Clint Robinson, who was the recipient of Escobar's pinpoint throw across the diamond to complete the play. "From spring training and being moved around from second to third base, he's been kind of a rock over there for us. He's been really important to our club, moving around, leading off, hitting cleanup; he's pretty much just doing it all right now."

Escobar's play might well have stood as the gem of the evening, if not for Taylor's remarkable catch to end the top of the fifth. With two on, two out and the Nationals leading 5-2, Campbell roped a drive to deep right-center. Heads immediately hung in despair.

"As soon as he hit the ball, I thought: 'Oh, that's a problem. Oh, my god,'" Lobaton said.

"I thought it was at least off the wall," Gonzalez said. "Maybe top of the wall."

Except here was Taylor gliding toward the wall in right-center like a gazelle, long strides allowing him to cover a ton of ground before he reached out and grabbed the ball moments before reaching the chain-link fence that guards the out-of-town scoreboard.

As the crowd of 31,326 roared with approval, Gonzalez raised both arms in celebration, then pointed toward his center fielder to say thanks.

"I couldn't be happier to see Mikey T making a nice play like that," the left-hander said. "It's tough to keep your emotions in check. But when a play like that happens, you gotta show love when love is due."

It didn't take more than the naked eye to appreciate Taylor's effort, but once the official numbers were revealed via MLB's Statcast system, the catch became even more impressive.

Taylor covered more than 97 feet to make the play, topping out at 19.8 mph. His route to the ball earned an efficiency rating of 98 percent. And his reaction time? Well, it might be more appropriate to refer to it as his anticipation time.

Taylor actually began breaking toward the ball .05 seconds before Campbell made contact. Yes, before. Paying attention to Gonzalez's pitch and Lobaton's positioning behind the plate, Taylor anticipated a ball hit to his left and thus took his first step a split-second before bat hit ball.

"It was a perfect read," Williams said. "Perfect angle, and he was able to run it down."

The Taylor catch probably was the biggest highlight of the game in the field, but the two plays the Nationals made in the top of the eighth were no less significant. Harper came charging in to make a sliding catch of Flores' soft liner to right. A few seconds later, Lobaton made his remarkable catch of Mayberry's popup, evading metal railings, stone walls and a drop down into the camera well next to the visitors' dugout.

"I wasn't expecting that play," Lobaton said. "I was running to the ball, saw the ball. The sky was kind of like dark, kind of weird. It wasn't easy. It was a deep flyball and I saw it and then at the last second the ball is moving that way. I reached it and I caught it and I'm like, that's cool. That was big for us at that point."

It seemed like everything the Nationals did in the field Monday night proved to be big for them.

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Nationals set to enter defining seven-game stretch

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USATSI

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.

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