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New week, same tight wild-card race for Nationals

New week, same tight wild-card race for Nationals

The Nationals packed slowly Sunday after blowing out Milwaukee. They were all heading to the same bus at 5:45 p.m., marooned in the clubhouse without an excuse for escape -- family, fatigue or just feeling like it.

Another laborious but fulfilling weekend was over. The team played more than nine hours of baseball in a 22-hour span. Davey Martinez said his feet hurt. The position players stood in the unrelenting sun all Sunday -- except for Adam Eaton and Anthony Rendon, recipients of an early departure during the blowout -- before finding relieve in the clubhouse air conditioning.

Next is four games in Pittsburgh and three in Chicago. The Pirates have crashed since the All-Star break. Only Miami has a worse overall record in the National League. Chicago is in the thick of the wild-card and National League Central races. The Cubs hold the second wild-card slot by two games despite being 4-6 in their last 10. They are .001 percentage points behind St. Louis for the division lead. 

Joe Ross starts things Monday for the Nationals. His ERA by month this season: 3.86, 14.85, 36.00, 8.10, 0.50. Things are better, to say the least. Ross has been able to maintain his velocity but also add movement to his two-seam fastball. He pitches up on occasion and deploys his curveball more often. 

Monday will be Ross’ final start before the Nationals have to decide who will remain in the rotation because of Max Scherzer’s “probable” return Thursday. Erick Fedde had a decent outing Sunday. If Ross pitches well again Monday, he seems to have the inside track to the fifth starter spot. That doesn’t mean Fedde is going back to Triple-A Fresno or Double-A Harrisburg. Martinez mentioned he expects the organization to find a way to keep Fedde around, which could mean being the long man in the bullpen.

Stephen Strasburg follows on Tuesday, Patrick Corbin is next, Scherzer is expected to finish the series in Pittsburgh. Which makes Ross’ outing that much more important. If he pitches well and the team wins Monday, they are set up for the remaining three games.

That’s not the case in Chicago. The Nationals will deal with a turnaround that only happens if a team is going to play the Cubs. Following a final night game in Pittsburgh, Washington flies to Chicago for a 1:20 p.m. local start. The Cubs, on the other hand, play a home day game Thursday. This is a byproduct of the city ordinance which limits the number of night games at Wrigley Field. It’s also a part of poor scheduling on the other side by Major League Baseball. 

There’s another scheduling quirk to be cognizant of: Atlanta has played 126 games, Washington 123. That three-game gap will not be closed until the final week of the season when Washington plays eight games in seven days and Atlanta is off twice. So, though, the Nationals are 5 ½ games behind the Braves in the National League East, it’s important to note they are four back in the loss column with three games in hand. The gap is more modest than it may seem.

First, off to Pittsburgh.

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This is how the Nationals and Sean Doolittle got here, and this is where they go

This is how the Nationals and Sean Doolittle got here, and this is where they go

WASHINGTON -- The first taste of all this came in late April of last year. Sean Doolittle threw three games in a row for the first time in years, only two of which were save opportunities. 

“Guess the training wheels are off,” Doolittle joked then.

His blistering usage this season followed with another heavy April and May combination born of the team’s other faults. The club was sliding or injury-filled or both, playing tight games and acting desperate in the season’s early months in order to make the later ones matter. A turnaround was even more critical this season following last year’s stumble. Davey Martinez was brought to Washington with a mandate to reach the World Series. They didn’t even make the playoffs in year one.

Look at Doolittle’s year-over-year pattern: April and May of last year, 25 total appearances. April and May of this year, 23 total appearances. By the start of July in 2018, Doolittle was on the injured list. He made it until mid-August this season, leading the league in games finished, being used relentlessly by a manager who had no one to trust at the start, then didn’t turn to those he could once they arrived. Doolittle appeared in eight of the Nationals’ 14 games since the trade deadline passed, all while enduring a home run surge and talking publicly about fatigue.

So, why was he used so often?

“Doolittle's the closer,” Martinez said Sunday. “He's the closer of this team. We've said that before and this is based on conversations with Doo. If he's available, as we talked about, then he's going to pitch the ninth inning. He's always been in the game when he said he was available to pitch.” 

The conversation Sunday morning between Martinez and Doolittle was meant to figure out what’s next for the closer and team following Saturday’s harrowing appearance. Doolittle was pummeled that evening. His failing cost the team continuance of a win streak and a pertinent victory. He knew it. It stung.

So, the decision was to put him on the 10-day injured list because of right knee tendinitis. Martinez backed the news with a declaration: “Talked to him, talked to the medical staff. It came to a head when I talked to him that his right knee's bothering him. So, we want to get it right. So we put him on the IL. Hopefully, it won't take as long, he's back in 10 days and when he does come back, he's our closer. And I reiterated that to him. He's our closer, but we got to get him right.”

Doolittle found a mechanical tweak earlier in the season which made him his most potent. His body position was higher, his release point hidden longer and his drive down the mound maximized. Of late, his fatigue has undermined those priorities. Doolittle is rolling through the load period in his windup. His arm is trying to generate power his body typically would. The ball is exposed earlier. Simply, hitters can see a slower-moving ball sooner. 

While Doolittle rests and retools, Martinez will hunt for how to operate without him. Daniel Hudson (1.08 ERA, heavy usage since arriving) and Hunter Strickland (1.29 ERA) are the logical choices. Why they weren’t being used as such to save Doolittle appearances before is moot now. They’re in. He’s out.

Roenis Elias and Greg Holland are also part of the equation. Elias (hamstring) is heading toward a mound session, perhaps in the next few days. If he didn’t absent-mindedly swing Aug. 2, much could be different. He could handle the seventh, aligning Hudson and Strickland for later outs and saving Doolittle. Instead, he’s thrown ⅔ of an inning since being acquired July 31. 

Holland has thrown two scoreless innings for Harrisburg since being signed and stashed after his release by Arizona. The Nationals are confident they can again retool Holland the way they did last year in a striking turnaround which led to a 0.84 ERA in 24 appearances. If he’s league average at the end of the bullpen, it’s a boost.

Washington has a minimum of eight more games to decipher how the new alignment will be deployed. Max Scherzer’s “probable” return Thursday will force a move in the rotation. Erick Fedde or Joe Ross (most likely Fedde) could end up back in the bullpen or in the minors.

The Nationals are 5 ½ games out of first place in the National League East. They hold a 3 ½-game lead in the wild-card race. Only the juggernaut Dodgers have a better run differential following Sunday’s homer-laden win against Milwaukee. 

Which means there is room for a breath, a reset, a rebuild of their closer. The season is going to boil down to September. Without a top-tier Doolittle, it has a limited chance of finishing where they payroll and demands expect it to.

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