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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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Nationals on periphery at Winter Meetings this week as they appear all but out on Bryce Harper

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Nationals on periphery at Winter Meetings this week as they appear all but out on Bryce Harper

LAS VEGAS -- Marlins Man walked into a modest eatery Sunday here in Las Vegas to look over the options. His bright orange jersey stood out among the cowboy hats and zombie-like Sunday exodus inside the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino.

While another Las Vegas weekend closed, sending an army of roller bags across the casino floor toward the exit and airport, baseball started to creep into the home of the 2018 Winter Meetings. Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo wandered across the marble floor. Media members from cities across the country became situated. Television stations raised their studios and radio talkers began to ramble. Everyone is wondering if the show in Vegas will be filled with drama or just another stall along the way to the offseason’s biggest news.

We know Rizzo turned in his homework early. Patrick Corbin’s money and introduction arrived late last week. Corbin, presumably, is the Nationals’ largest offseason expenditure. Surprising comments from Nationals principal owner Mark Lerner to 106.7 The Fan on Friday made that seem to be the case. He described Bryce Harper as all but gone, speaking wistfully, if not definitively.

Which means Rizzo is here for smaller shopping and the rest of baseball waits on Harper and Manny Machado.

A look through the Nationals shows few remaining gaps. Rizzo publicly contends he feels all right about starting the season with a Wilmer Difo/Howie Kendrick platoon at second base. The outfield is clear without Harper. Joe Ross and Erick Fedde will fight for the final rotation spot. Two new catchers have arrived. The bullpen was upgraded. Rizzo didn’t wait and watch what other teams were doing.

“We like the club we have at present,” Rizzo told NBC Sports Washington last week. “But, we’re never satisfied. There’s tweaks and combinations we can go after. We’ll be looking for values out there. What works for us, how do we construct the periphery of the roster. You can never have enough pitching and we’re always on the look for good starting and relief pitching. That could be something we attack either via the free agent market or trade market.”

One thing the market remains full of is left-handed relievers. The Nationals currently have three. One of which is Sammy Solis.

Washington decided to tender him a contract and the sides reached a one-year deal. There was consideration not to tender him a contract, which would have ended Solis’ time with Nationals. Instead, he’s back despite two back-to-back poor seasons following a strong 2016. Last season was a wreck. Solis finished with a 6.41 ERA. The other two lefties, Sean Doolittle and Matt Grace, were excellent. So, are the Nationals in the market for one more left-handed reliever to be sure?

“We’ve got right now on the roster three really competent left-handed pitchers,” Rizzo said, “in Doolittle, Grace who had a magnificent season last year and Sammy Solis, who we feel is a bounceback candidate. We feel good about the left-handed spot. We feel good about our bullpen as a whole.”

The Nationals were mid-pack last season in relievers’ ERA in both the National League and Major League Baseball. Their bullpen does appear close to done: Doolittle, Trevor Rosenthal, Kyle Barraclough, Koda Glover, Grace, Solis, Justin Miller and Wander Suero are eight quick spots down there.

One upside here for Rizzo is he can wait. He doesn’t need to jump at the flush reliever market, which includes several decent left-handed options, because of the team’s prompt signings. A discount may arrive later. A factor to remember in regard to Solis is the Nationals would only be on the hook for 1/6th of his salary if they cut him in spring training. That’s a small penalty if someone in West Palm Beach appears more capable.

Washington also needs a left-handed bat off the bench that can play first base. Matt Adams, Justin Bour and Lucas Duda are names that could fill that slot. None will rattle the meetings.

This is life on the periphery, as Rizzo puts it. Will they talk to a lot of agents here? Yes. Will they consider an upgrade at second base? Of course. Are they part of the gigantic Harper and Machado storylines unlikely to conclude in Las Vegas but en route to dominate the conversation? Not really. At least not if Lerner’s public declaration is filled with flat facts. They offered Harper, he can do better elsewhere, and now life is quieter, even in Las Vegas.

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Nationals double-down on starting pitching by signing Patrick Corbin

Nationals double-down on starting pitching by signing Patrick Corbin

NATIONALS PARK -- A small break in the midst of the hoopla brought together $525 million in starting pitcher salary when Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin said hello for the first time Friday.

Scherzer and Strasburg sat in the front row during Corbin’s press conference. Scherzer shuffled a few seats down from his original landing spot to make more space. New catcher Yan Gomes filled in to his left, Ryan Zimmerman next to him and Strasburg on his side. 

Those top three in the rotation represent Mike Rizzo’s steadfast belief. Winning in the major leagues starts with foundational pitching. Every year. All year. And in the playoffs. 

“I think bullpenning in the playoffs is much different than bullpenning in the regular season,” Rizzo told NBC Sports Washington.

“The marathon that is the 162 is, I think, dependent and driven on starting pitching. Our philosophy is, how we built what we built so far is pitching, athleticism and defense. I think being strong up the middle and being able to catch the ball as you pitch it not only improves your pitching staff but limits the outs of the other team. Pitching has always been important to us. Starting pitching I think is our key and will continue to be so and developing them and signing them is important to us.”

The Nationals view Corbin as an ascending player. Three consecutive years of ERA reduction, helped by a new breaking pitch that is sort of a curveball, vaulted Corbin to a 3.15 ERA last season and a six-year, $140 million deal with a contender this offseason. That contender is the Nationals, who have more than a half-a-billion dollars tethered to three pitchers, who will be together a minimum of the next three years.

“The payroll's the payroll,” Rizzo said. “We all have budget restrictions and payroll restrictions. We've allocated a lot of resources to our front of the rotation and I think that elite starters, middle-lineup bats and back-end relievers is where I think you spend your money and you try to get values along the periphery of your roster.”

Corbin’s second off-speed pitch pushed him toward elite status. He talked with former Arizona slugger Paul Goldschmidt about what gave him trouble. He watched Clayton Kershaw round off and drastically drop speeds with his curveball. Both made Corbin think another layer would benefit him after years of mediocre results with his changeup, which has been shelved.

Enter the curveball. In essence, it’s just a slower slider. The speed gap -- about nine mph -- couples with an arm angle and release point that directly mimics his slider. He doesn’t even change the grip. Corbin just twists his wrist ever so slightly to slow the pitch and change its shape to the plate, providing a heftier vertical break.

“The slider has always been my pitch coming up from the minor leagues,” Corbin told NBC Sports Washington.

“It was a grip that my father showed me when I was really young. It’s kind of neat I was able to keep that up to this point in time. I have a great feel for it. Able to change speeds and location on the slider. Then adding a slower breaking ball helped just keeping some hitters off-balance.”

The length of the deal gave him assurance and critics pause. The Nationals believe Corbin’s 2018 uptick is closer to who he is as opposed to the prior two years following Tommy John surgery when he struggled.

Corbin was impressed with multiple things from the Nationals: that someone from the ownership level came to dinner with them (principal owner Mark Lerner); that they were willing to annually invest to be competitive; and, despite being an upstate New York native, Washington appealed to him and his wife, Jen, as place to be for several years.

Corbin’s presence takes a rotation that plummeted to 13th in starter ERA among National League teams last season and puts it back toward the top. Tanner Roark will slot in behind the uber-rich trio. Joe Ross and Erick Fedde are among the contenders for the final spot. Rizzo took the organization’s cash and dumped it into his annual priority. He hopes it pays them back. 

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