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Nats shuffle rotation so aces pitch vs. Mets

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Nats shuffle rotation so aces pitch vs. Mets

In perhaps their first true concession to the difficult task they now face in overtaking the Mets for the NL East title, the Nationals have reshuffled the order of their rotation, ensuring their top three starters all line up for their Labor Day series against their division rivals.

Max Scherzer, who was initially scheduled to pitch Thursday’s series finale against the Padres, has been pushed back to Friday night against the Marlins. That move, in turn, lines up Jordan Zimmermann, Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg in order and lines them up to pitch against the Mets in two weeks.

Manager Matt Williams confirmed that was the logic behind the move, acknowledging the importance of that showdown with the current NL East leaders. The Nationals entered play Tuesday trailing New York by 5 1/2 games, with six head-to-head matchups still on the schedule (including the season’s final weekend at Citi Field).

“I know that we have opportunity when we face that team,” Williams said. “There’s a lot of games in between that we have to win to have that opportunity. Lining it up, we’ve been talking about it for weeks now. Given where we’re at and what’s in front of us and what we want to accomplish, it gives us the best option.”

The Nationals came under some criticism when neither Scherzer nor Strasburg faced New York during their last two series, including the Mets’ 3-game sweep the first weekend of August that propelled them into a first-place tie and ultimately a season-high lead in the division. The Mets lined up their three best pitchers (Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard) for both series.

At the time, Williams downplayed the significance of one series against his team’s chief division rival compared to other opponents on the schedule.

“If we get to where we want to get to, it’s going to take five guys, not one,” Williams said July 17. “I know there’s a lot made of it, and I can have an opinion about it, and everybody else can too. But if we want to get to the postseason and be a contender in that postseason, we’re going to need all five of the guys.”

RELATED: Span returns to Nats; pitcher sent down to make room

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Nationals are again headliners at baseball’s Winter Meetings

Nationals are again headliners at baseball’s Winter Meetings

SAN DIEGO -- Sunday’s rain and clouds pushed temperatures down into the 60s in San Diego. Long jackets and faces were out because of the “winter” weather settling just off the harbor. Crossed arms and raised hoods identified the natives walking down the street trying to manage the rare coolness in one of America’s sunniest cities.

Inside the Manchester Grand Hyatt on the edge of San Diego’s waterfront, signage and bustle alerted everyone to what would begin Monday: Major League Baseball’s Winter Meetings were set to open. And, for the second consecutive year, the Washington Nationals are among the preeminent players.

Last year was about Bryce Harper. Loquacious agent Scott Bora stood atop a camera box and in front of a 25-foot tall Christmas tree in the middle of a Las Vegas casino to talk Harper then. The setting could not have been intentionally arranged better. Showmanship, exaggeration, out-sizedness all accompanied Boras’ address last year. He again controls the market heading into this year’s session. 

Former -- for now -- Washington Nationals players Anthony Rendon and Stephen Strasburg are among the headliners at the Winter Meetings. They, like everyone else, are waiting on Gerrit Cole. Projections have the New York Yankees checking the coffers for perhaps up to $280 million in order to sign Cole. Once that ends, the futures for Strasburg and Rendon should be hurled forward -- particularly Strasburg.

He’s met with Anaheim, Los Angeles and New York, according to reports. Mike Rizzo seemed unconcerned about those meetings when recently asked if they had talked to Rendon or Strasburg. Rizzo noted the organization has been chatting with both for the better part of a decade.

Also looming over the proceedings are recent comments by Nationals managing principal owner Mark Lerner. He stated the team can only afford Rendon or Strasburg. Not both. This puts Rizzo in a contorted position for the second consecutive season. Last year, Lerner said he thought Harper moved on. Rizzo soon followed at the Winter Meetings by saying the door remained open for a Harper return. Rizzo will again have to work his way around ownership undermining his negotiation leverage as well as putting him in a place to publicly contradict what was said.

At the least, expectations are for the market to move while baseball’s front office people assemble in San Diego. Zack Wheeler’s early deal with Philadelphia provided hope this offseason would not be the epic slog of 2018-19 free agency, one which left Harper and Manny Machado without employers until winter was thawing. The sluggish offseason made Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel simply unemployed. 

The Nationals do have business beyond the heavyweights. Second base remains open. Howie Kendrick is back, but where will he play? They need more bullpen help. What about a left-handed bench bat? Is it necessary? Could it be the 26th man next year with expanded rosters? Is Rizzo preparing for the designated hitter to be adopted in the National League? What’s Carter Kieboom’s immediate future? What’s happening with 2018 first-round pick Mason Denaburg? What’s next for the World Series champions? 

The Winter Meetings are back. Washington’s place during the offseason bonanza has never been more prominent.

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Juan Soto greets Nationals fans while dressed as Santa Claus

Juan Soto greets Nationals fans while dressed as Santa Claus

The winter can feel like one of the slowest seasons of the year, especially for baseball fans who long for the season to pick back up again.

But Nationals outfielder Juan Soto met with fans on Saturday at a Dick’s Sporting Goods in Bailey's Crossroads, Virginia, and did his best to make them feel merry by getting in the holiday spirit.

Soto already helped give D.C. the greatest gift of all in a World Series title, so maybe he really is Mr. Claus.

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