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Nats lose painfully after winning more than usual

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Nats lose painfully after winning more than usual

WASHINGTON (AP) For their first seven years, filled with on-field losses and off-field gaffes, the Washington Nationals merely existed, barely mattered.

That's why so much that happened in 2012 felt new and significant to them. All the regular-season wins - a best-in-baseball 98 - and the NL East title, the postseason highs and lows, the intense attention to the decision to shut down Stephen Strasburg in September.

And when it ended, in as difficult-to-digest a way as possible, the soft voices in the quiet Nationals clubhouse kept repeating the same word in the wee hours of Saturday, saying they would ``learn'' from what happened.

Learn from what for nearly every member of a young roster was a debut trip to the playoffs.

Learn from a 9-7 loss to the defending World Series champion St. Louis Cardinals in Game 5 of their NL division series - a game Washington led 6-0 early, then 7-5 with two outs in the ninth inning. So close, yet so far. No team in baseball history had blown a lead of more than four runs en route losing a winner-take-all postseason game.

Manager Davey Johnson: ``We proved our worth and we just need to let this be a lesson and ... learn from it, have more resolve, come back and carry it a lot farther.''

Closer Drew Storen, who five times threw a pitch while one strike from a victory but each was called a ball: ``It's the best job when you're good at it. It's the worst job when you fail. Just got to learn from it.''

General manager Mike Rizzo: ``Just knowing the character and the makeup of the core guys in this clubhouse, I think we'll use it as a learning tool, as a learning experience, and have a burning desire for it never to happen again. I think in the long run it'll be something that we look back on and say, `It was an experience, it was a tough experience, but it's one that makes you grow.'''

It was Rizzo who made perhaps the most talked-about personnel move in all of baseball this year, leaving Strasburg off the NLDS roster after making the prized right-hander stop pitching with about 3 1/2 weeks left in the regular season. This was Strasburg's first full season following reconstructive surgery on his right elbow, and Washington wanted to protect him for the future.

``I stand by my decision, and we'll take the criticism as it comes,'' Rizzo said, ``but we have to do what's best for the Washington Nationals, and we think we did.''

The feeling around the club is its best days are on the horizon, that winning will now become a regular occurrence. Those 100-loss seasons and worst-in-the-majors finishes in 2008 and 2009? Long in the past, the thinking goes.

With a core of All-Stars Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez, plus Jordan Zimmermann, in the rotation, and Bryce Harper, Jayson Werth, Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond in the everyday lineup, the Nationals like the way they've set themselves up.

``Somebody once said to me, `When you look back at years of losing, you just smile, because when it gets to the winning, it's awful sweet.' I think we've reached that stage,'' said Mark Lerner, son of Nationals principal owner Ted Lerner, ``and we'll be good for a long, long time to come.''

That very well may be.

In the interim, though, there are a string of questions facing the Nationals as they head into the offseason:

-How will Strasburg react to the way his season ended and what kind of numbers can he produce with no restrictions at all?

-Will Adam LaRoche, the first baseman who led Washington with 33 homers and 100 RBIs, leave as a free agent?

-How much longer will the 69-year-old Johnson, whose contract as the skipper is done, manage?

-How much better can Harper get? He turns 20 on Tuesday; in Game 5, he became the only teen in baseball history with a postseason triple and one of two with a postseason homer.

-What will it take for Storen and the rest of the group to put the meltdown against the Cardinals behind them?

``Come spring training next year, we'll be more battle-tested. Our young players will have grown up and they'll be veterans,'' Rizzo said. ``And we'll know how to react to the playoff atmosphere.''

His team arrived in the playoffs a year earlier than anyone really expected. After never finishing better than third in the NL East, the Nationals took over first place for good in May and eventually gave the nation's capital its first taste of postseason baseball since 1933.

Pretty much everyone associated with the Nationals expect the wait for the next October journey to last 12 months, not 79 years.

``We were right there. We were one out, one strike, away a couple of times. We've come a long ways, and I think that's why it hurts even more - because of what we've been through,'' said Zimmerman, the third baseman who was the club's first draft pick after it moved from Montreal to Washington in 2005. ``We're the first team in this organization ever to be to this level, and its hurts. We put ourselves in a great position and had a chance to do something special, but we all should be proud of what we did this year.''

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Follow Howard Fendrich on Twitter athttp://twitter.com/HowardFendrich

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

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USA TODAY Sports

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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USA Today Sports Images

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 Acuna.

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. Acuna, 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 Acuna 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. Acuna has been up longer, but thanks to injury Soto has actually played 8 more games. Acuna 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 Acuna 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 Acuna’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 in 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 Acuna’s future, but I think Soto’s been the better player this season. Acuna 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, voters love a narrative though, and if Acuna 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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