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Nats at odds after Machado homer, plunking

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Nats at odds after Machado homer, plunking

On yet another night when the Mets tried their best to make the NL East race interesting, the Nationals lost yet another critical game on a home run following a difficult pitching decision made by their manager. Then, once a 4-3 loss to the Orioles was in the books, they found themselves at odds with each other after their closer was ejected for plunking the guy who hit that critical home run earlier, leaving their own star player worried for his own well-being.

Talk about a game that might as well encapsulate a late-season collapse that has nearly reached its inevitable finish line.

Officially, it was Manny Machado’s 2-run homer off Max Scherzer’s 122nd pitch of the night (a 98-mph fastball) that decided this game and ruined the Nationals’ golden opportunity to pick up a game on a Mets club that lost its second straight to the foundering Braves. That should’ve been the one and only storyline to this contest, with Matt Williams once again done in by a no-win decision to either leave a tiring starter on the mound or instead summon an unreliable reliever.

“When I challenged him with my best, he beat me,” Scherzer said. “I’ve got to tip my hat to him. He put a great swing on it. Sometimes you get beat. Tonight’s one of those nights.”

Except that wasn’t the end of the story, because of what happened two innings later when Machado stepped to the plate again, this time against Jonathan Papelbon.

Brought in for a rare appearance with his team trailing in the ninth, Papelbon retired the first two batters he faced, then threw his first pitch high and tight to Machado, who took his time rounding the bases after homering off Scherzer. There was no contact with the batter, but eyebrows immediately were raised.

Papelbon’s next pitch was a slider on the outside corner, called a strike to even the count. But then he came right back up and in with a fastball, this one drilling Machado in the left shoulder. The Orioles’ All-Star third baseman threw his bat away in disgust. Plate umpire Mark Ripperger wasted little time before ejecting Papelbon, a move that drew players and coaches from both dugouts onto the field, though neither side ever truly encountered the other.

“He thought it was intentional,” crew chief Brian O’Nora said of Ripperger, in his first season as a full-time MLB umpire. “That’s why he ejected him. That’s how it is.”

Machado didn’t mince words when asked about the incident afterward.

“It’s something that’s uncalled for,” he said. “It’s [garbage]. It’s something that you don’t do. I expect more from a guy like that, with the past that he has. You’ve just got to go out there and keep playing baseball. It’s part of the game. If you can’t take the heat, just stay out of the kitchen and just go on from it. You don’t throw at somebody’s head. I think that’s [garbage]. I think we’ve just got to keep playing baseball.”

Papelbon intimated that the plunking wasn’t intentional, though he didn’t deny the accusation, either.

“They just said they deemed it intentional. They didn’t give me any reason,” he said. “I don’t know if they have to give me a reason or not. But perception is reality. If Manny thinks I hit him, then that’s what he thinks. I’m not going to sit here and go back and forth whether I did or whether I didn’t, cause it doesn’t matter. If he thinks I did, that’s what he thinks.”

Perception indeed is reality, which is why Bryce Harper found himself speculating whether he’d be the victim of retaliation during Thursday’s series finale.

“I mean, Manny freaking hit a homer and walked it off, and somebody drilled him,” Harper said. “It’s pretty tired. It’s one of those situations where it happens. I don’t know. I’ll probably get drilled tomorrow. We’ll see what happens.”

Even Papelbon acknowledged the potential for something more to happen Thursday, though he made it clear he doesn’t think retaliation would be warranted.

“Whether they want to get somebody tomorrow, that’s up to them,” he said. “I think that’s today’s game, there’s no more. If you think that I get you, then I’m out there, come get me … and it’s done. It don’t carry on till the next day. That’s baseball.”

Whether the emotions between these two clubs carry over to the series finale remains to be seen. This much is certain: At a time when they should be fighting with a vulnerable division leader trying like crazy to provide a last-ditch opening in the season’s final two weeks, the Nationals now find themselves fighting with an interleague rival.

And, even worse, perhaps with themselves.

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Bullpen’s first tight night without closer Sean Doolittle does not go well

Bullpen’s first tight night without closer Sean Doolittle does not go well

Tuesday was the first night that mattered without Sean Doolittle. Sunday and Monday blowouts made being without the closer moot. Stephen Strasburg’s dominance -- seven innings, four hits, six strikeouts, no earned runs -- paired with the offense’s sudden dormancy to produce a 1-0 game going into the eighth inning Tuesday. It was time to take a look at the Nationals’ bullpen without Doolittle. 

Fluctuating Wander Suero was brought in for the eighth. He loaded the bases without recording an out. Daniel Hudson was called in to fix the mess. He allowed a sacrifice fly and three-run homer. Nationals lose, 4-1. 

This is not a panic-in-the-streets loss by any means. The offensive numbers were bound to level -- for a night and beyond. It was, however, a reminder things don’t automatically improve after the struggling closer is extracted from the equation. Washington did not bring in high-end closers with extensive track records at the trade deadline. It acquired three arms which were improvements over the in-house options. All had closed before. None were paid to do so for a competitive team.

Davey Martinez faced a wrinkle when deciding how to deploy his relievers in Pittsburgh. Hunter Strickland’s weight-lifting accident broke his nose. He tweeted about the incident, said he was ready to pitch, however, the manager likely preferred to leave Strickland resting his readjusted schnoz in the bullpen. Which meant Suero came in.

Suero has become a split personality on the mound. He either uses his cutter to saw through an inning with surprising effectiveness or is a mess instantly endangering the game’s outcome. Of his 58 appearances, 42 have been scoreless. Doesn’t feel like it. Why? Because Suero has allowed two runs or more in eight of them. That’s plenty to skew a reliever’s ERA. His is back up to 4.97 after Hudson’s failure to limit inherited baserunners from scoring, which he had done expertly this season. Just two of 32 inherited runners (six percent) had scored against Hudson this year. Three came in Tuesday.

There is one other aspect here to note: When Doolittle went on the injured list Sunday, Martinez was asked repeatedly about his usage. His most common answer referenced the simplistic fact “Doolittle is the closer” with little explanation beyond that. Doolittle pitched more than an inning in seven of his 54 appearances this season. He was rarely brought into the situation Hudson was Tuesday.

That usage showed more flexibility. The best pitcher available was brought in at the most crucial point to face the toughest part of a light-hitting lineup. This was done on occasion, and partly, with Doolittle. Tuesday, it was sent out the best arm to try and hold the situation, then figure out the rest. This strategy pervades baseball. It just caught up in Washington.

It also didn’t work. 

So, night one without Doolittle was a failure. Recent nights with him had run a similar course, too. There are at least seven more to go.

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Hunter Strickland gave Nationals a scare with weight room mishap

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Hunter Strickland gave Nationals a scare with weight room mishap

The Nationals bullpen got a little thinner on Sunday when closer Sean Doolittle was placed on the Injured List with right knee tendinitis.

On Tuesday, the unit almost had another pitcher endure an IL-needing injury, as recently-acquired relief pitcher Hunter Strickland nearly injured himself in a weight room accident in Pittsburgh just hours prior to the Nationals matchup with the Pirates.

Strickland had a bar strike the right side of his face, according to manager Dave Martinez, the Washington Post reported. When seen walking in the clubhouse, the reliever had a stripped band-aid on his nose to couple with a very red face.

He underwent X-rays at PNC Park, and they confirmed that Strickland suffered a broken nose. Strickland confirmed the news via his Twitter account.

Just an hour later, Strickland was playing catch with teammates, and later signing autographs for fans. He is still available to pitch tonight, according to Mark Zuckerman.

For a unit that has had their troubles on the field in 2019, Strickland has been a much-needed addition. He's been close to lights out in seven innings of work, allowing just one run on four hits to go with five strikeouts.

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