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Nats look for four-game sweep vs. Astros - 8:05 p.m.

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Nats look for four-game sweep vs. Astros - 8:05 p.m.

GO TO THE LIVE GAME THREAD ON NATSINSIDER.COM RIGHT HERE

Jordan Zimmermann tries to pitch the Nats to a sweep at Minute Maid Park.
It hasn't come as easy as they would have liked, but the Nationals have done just enough to win the first three games of this series in Houston and put themselves in position for a four-game sweep tonight. Really, you can't ask for anything more than that.

Jordan Zimmermann gets the ball for the finale at Minute Maid Park, hoping to create a new streak of six-inning starts after he went only five last week for the first time this season. He'll be opposed by Lucas Harrell, a pretty good right-hander who has a chance to earn his 10th win tonight -- fairly impressive considering the team he plays for has only won 36 total games in 2012.

After a rough game last night that included a couple of confrontations with plate umpire Angel Hernandez and an ill-advised throw from center field in the bottom of the ninth, Bryce Harper is not expected to be in the Nationals' lineup. Probably a good time for the 19-year-old to take a physical and mental break.

I'm not in Houston, but I am en route to Phoenix as we speak for this weekend's series against the Diamondbacks. Enjoy tonight's game and the conversation...

WASHINGTON NATIONALS at HOUSTON ASTROS
Where: Minute Maid Park
Gametime: 8:05 p.m. EDT
TV: MASN2, MLB.tv
Radio: WJFK (106.7 FM), WFED (1500 AM), XM 184
Weather: Indoors

NATIONALS (68-43)

2B Steve Lombardozzi
CF Roger Bernadina
3B Ryan Zimmerman
1B Adam LaRoche
LF Michael Morse
RF Jayson Werth
SS Danny Espinosa
C Kurt Suzuki
RHP Jordan Zimmermann

ASTROS (36-76)

2B Jose Altuve
SS Marwin Gonzalez
RF Steve Pearce
CF Justin Maxwell
3B Brett Wallace
LF J.D. Martinez
1B Scott Moore
C Chris Snyder
RHP Lucas Harrell

UMPIRES

HP Ed Hickox
1B Chris Conroy
2B Mark Carlson
3B Angel Hernandez

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Nationals face dilemma as Sean Doolittle's usage mounts, velocity drops

Nationals face dilemma as Sean Doolittle's usage mounts, velocity drops

Davey Martinez had no hesitation in his answer or decision on Friday in Philadelphia. First game out of the break, facing a team right next to the Nationals in the standings, a 4-0 lead. Closer Sean Doolittle was coming in to end it, though it was a non-save situation and he is being used at an extreme level.

“Here’s my thoughts: It took me about three seconds,” Martinez said Friday. “Playing at Citizens [Bank] Park. Four runs. That ain’t much here. Those guys can hit. Doolittle’s coming in the game. It’s a big moment. And, he’s my guy. To me, that game right there, it’s huge coming off a four-day break.”

So, Doolittle made his 40th appearance of the season. Saturday brought his 41st appearance. He did not pitch Sunday, a day game after a late night.

Trends are emerging through his high usage rate. Doolittle’s velocity is down for the fourth consecutive season. The dip is slight year over year, from 93.9 mph average fastball velocity to 93.6. His velocity was distinctly down in Philadelphia over the weekend despite four days off. Doolittle threw 12 fastballs Friday, 10 of which were slower than his average fastball velocity this season. He threw 19 fastballs Saturday; 13 were below his average velocity (two others matched it). 

“I’m not exactly sure why it’s down,” Doolittle said Saturday. “I know from past experience, not to panic if I see the 91, 92. I feel pretty good -- everybody gets a little tired around this point of the season, but if I stay in my mechanics and don’t try to overthrow, I can still get that life and deception on my fastball. I can still, like [Saturday], I can still navigate innings and get guys out. These last two nights I’ve been really pleased with how I’ve been able to manage my energy level without maybe my best fastball.”

He is on pace for a career-high 72 appearances and 1,214 pitches. The latter would exceed his career mark of 1,019 by almost 200 pitches. One of the most telling numbers around Doolittle is his games finished vs. saves. He leads the league with 37 games finished but has just 20 saves, which is tied for fourth with three others. National League saves leader Kirby Yates has finished 35 games, but has 30 saves. Kenley Jansen: 33 games finished, 23 saves. Will Smith: 35 games finished, 23 saves. No other closer has appeared in more non-save situations.

Doolittle’s velocity also dropped earlier in the season before a mechanical adjustment kicked it back up to the 94- and 95-mph range for a spell. He did turn loose a 95-mph fastball Saturday. He half-joked about it.

“See it’s in there,” Doolittle said. “I just got to pick and choose, I guess, when to use it.”

His manager is using a more straight-ahead approach. Doolittle is out there, so he is using him. A lot.

And all this is more for recognition of the situation as opposed to blame assessment, When the bullpen was at its worst, Doolittle was summoned at times because his teammates were in the process of blowing a game or couldn’t be trusted in the first place. The Nationals were also rapidly losing ground, so Martinez had to be sure he was sure whenever possible. But, also, there have been times when Doolittle’s appearance in a non-save situation appeared unnecessary.

Piled together, the Nationals have an ongoing conundrum: they need to manage Doolittle’s appearances while in the middle of a push up the standings and without a definitive backup. Fernando Rodney has helped. An acquisition before the trade deadline could help further. And the coming week we’ll clarify if two games in Philadelphia were a blip or more foreboding.

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Nationals broadcaster F.P Santangelo: Team never panicked in slow start

Nationals broadcaster F.P Santangelo: Team never panicked in slow start

The Washington Nationals early start may have had fans and pundits writing off the team for the season, but no one inside the Nationals organization was panicking, said one insider. 

“I know there was a while there where everybody wanted Davey gone and people were questioning Mike," Nationals broadcaster F.P. Santangelo said on The Sports Junkies Monday, "but they were the calming forces in all this."

From bullpen woes to injuries, the Nationals had a rough start to their season and then suddenly, as if it had never happened, they turned it around.

“We were all scratching our heads like what in the world is going on? This team is way too good to be doing this and it was happening nightly,” Santangelo said.

As pressure mounted on the team to keep winning, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo reiterated time and time again during his Wednesday morning spot on The Sports Junkies that their goal was to play good baseball and to not worry about wins or losses, which Santangelo echoed.

"They were calm the whole time," Santangelo said. "They had veteran presence in the clubhouse and nobody panicked."

Suddenly, with a 12-10 win over the Miami Marlins on May 24, the Nats turned it around. Rizzo and the Lerners made the decision to cut their losses on Trevor Rosenthal's contract, the bullpen started to pitch well and adjustments were made accordingly, says Santangelo.

The Nationals open their two-game series against the Baltimore Orioles Tuesday at 7:05 p.m.

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