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Nats starting pitching a weakness so far

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Nats starting pitching a weakness so far

From April through September, there was no better team in baseball than the Nationals when it came to starting pitching. Through injuries to their lineup and bullpen, it was their constant, their guarantee.

But now three games into the National League Division Series, starting pitching is all of a sudden a weakness. Nats starters have barely been able to get out of the second inning without digging a significant hole for their team to get out of. In the Nationals' 8-0 loss in Game 3, Edwin Jackson was no different.

Nats manager Davey Johnson sent Jackson to the mound after two shaky starts by his one and two starters Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann in Games 1 and 2. And despite Jacksons playoff experience, he couldnt buck the trend of starting the game with trouble early on. Jackson, in fact, missed the strike zone by about a foot on each of his first two pitches.

Johnson acknowledged that maybe Jackson and his teammates were a little jumpy after a pregame celebration of Washington, D.C.s first home MLB playoff game since 1933.

Everybody's excited about the opening ceremonies with all of the dignitaries and the flyover.Got everybody excited, Johnson said. If you get behind early, sometimes it takes the wind out of your sails.

Jackson allowed a run in the first inning off back-to-back hits to Matt Holliday and Allen Craig. Holliday scored all the way from first as left fielder Michael Morse tracked down the ball in the corner.

The second inning for Jackson began with a double by David Freese. Daniel Descalso then singled to move Freese over to third. The next batter, Pete Kozma, took the next pitch over the left field fence for a three-run homer.

Jackson was bitten early just as Gonzalez and Zimmermann were in St. Louis. After experiencing it himself he explained why the Cardinals keep finding success in the first two innings.

Theyre just coming out and being aggressive, he said. Theyre not waiting around for you to get strike one. They are coming out and jumping on pitches early in the count.

In Game 1 Gonzalez allowed two runs, including one on a wild pitch, and walked four batters in the second inning. In Game 2 Zimmermann allowed three runs in the second with four straight hits to begin the inning.

Add their outings with Jacksons day and Nationals starters have allowed 11 earned runs in 13 innings, a combined 7.62 ERA. Thats more than double their combined ERAs in the regular season.

Whatever the Cardinals lineup is doing, they are doing it right. Some of the Nationals position players feel they need to get their bats going early to help the starter in any way they can.

We need to put a couple runs up early, Ryan Zimmerman said. We can give our pitchers some leeway and attack their guys so they dont have so much pressure to make perfect pitches all the time.

Pitching his huge definitely. Having guys going out there and throw strikes and doing well is the key to winning, Bryce Harper said. And hopefully we can get some runs up on the board and really get things going early.

Through three games the Nationals have been outscored 10-2 in the first two innings. Heading to the mound for Game 4 will be Ross Detwiler who is their least experienced starter. Johnson hopes the lefty can get the pitching staff back to where it was just a few games ago, the teams backbone and biggest strength.

We have two more ballgames.Det's capable of pitching a good game tomorrow, he said.

That's been our strength all year.These young guys have pitched great all year. Need a couple more goodpitched games this series.

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Michael A. Taylor played winter ball to work on his hitting. Here's why the Nats are hoping it makes a difference

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USA TODAY SPORTS

Michael A. Taylor played winter ball to work on his hitting. Here's why the Nats are hoping it makes a difference

Michael A. Taylor went on an unusual hunt this offseason. He traded the serenity of fishing in Colorado or Florida, among his favorite pastimes, for the noise of the Dominican Winter League.

Taylor joined Gigantes del Cibao, a rare move for a player entering his age-28 season who has played the last four years in the major leagues. The visit to the Dominican Republic did not go well. Taylor hit .143, struck out nine times and walked once in 29 plate appearances. A small sample size, but also an indicator more work is necessary.

Everyone involved with trying to unmask Taylor’s clear talent knew change was necessary. Taylor is quiet, supremely athletic and has delivered eye-popping glimpses of what he can do on the baseball field. Whether that is running down a fly ball in the gap or driving an opposite field postseason home run in a chilled Wrigley Field, he has performed at a level which displays a high ceiling. Taylor has also regularly entered disturbing droughts where he looks overmatched and uncorrectable. Fixing him at the plate, to any degree, gives the Nationals options. They could deploy him or find a future trade partner.

Initially, he was reluctant to go to the Winter League. He previously planned to work with hitting coach Kevin Long in Florida. All parties knew that would happen. The idea to fly south took further development and convincing. Eventually, Taylor agreed. Among the driving forces for the visit -- from the team’s perspective -- was Taylor’s truncated playing time in the second half of the 2018 season.

“Because of the lack of at-bats he had toward the end of the season, it’s always important to see live pitching,” President of Baseball Operations Mike Rizzo said in December. “We thought it was important to get him one-on-one work with Kevin and really break down his swing and kind of give Michael a fresh start going into spring training.”

Reworking Taylor’s swing began when his appearances on the field all but stopped. Juan Soto’s emergence paired with Adam Eaton’s healthy return to jettison Taylor to the bench. The timing was difficult. Taylor hit poorly in April and May when Eaton was out and an opportunity was available. His .626 OPS and 65 strikeouts in 210 plate appearances showed what happens when things are dismal for him at the plate. His .864 OPS -- despite 15 more strikeouts in just 68 plate appearances -- in June was yet another pop of what could be. Taylor stole 10 bases in 10 tries during the month, meaning he stole a base 39 percent of the time he reached safely.

Then his playing time shriveled: 48 plate appearances, 43 plate appearances, 16 plate appearances in the final three months. His OPS declined each month, too. Taylor quietly walked around the Nationals clubhouse as the season dissolved.

Long started working with him once he was off the field. They tried to shorten everything Taylor did at the plate. The priority is contact. If Rizzo is to be believed, and Taylor’s past performances have shown this to be true to an extent, Taylor is a modest dose of consistency from being a versatile weapon in the major leagues.

“I believe, seeing him as much as I have, you’re talking about a dynamic player,” Rizzo said. “With adjustments, he could be a special type of big-league player. Gold Glove-caliber defender. He’s got a plus-plus arm that’s accurate. He throws a lot of guys out. He’s a terrific base runner, he’s a great base stealer, he’s got big power. If he figures out the contact portion of it a little bit better, you’re talking about a guy who could have five tools. He’s had flashes of it in the past and he just needs to be more consistent in his approach at the plate.”

Where he fits now is unclear. Taylor, presumably, is the fourth outfielder to be deployed as a base stealing and defensive replacement late in games. Perhaps he splits time with Victor Robles in center field. If Bryce Harper returns, Taylor’s future becomes even more clouded.

What he does have is another chance and big backer in manager Davey Martinez. The Nationals made an around-the-calendar investment in Taylor in pursuit of unlocking what they believe still has a chance to exist.

What Taylor doesn’t have is much more time. He’s entering his age-28 season, fifth full year in the major leagues and closing in on the end of low-cost team control. A warm winter trip doesn’t change those facts.

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Philadelphia and DC are both likely to get a dose of Harper - the winter storm - this weekend

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USA TODAY SPORTS

Philadelphia and DC are both likely to get a dose of Harper - the winter storm - this weekend

At least one Harper is on its way to Philly. 

But despite the hopes of Phillies fans, it's not the baseball player - at least yet.

For the second time in less than two weeks, parts of the Midwest and the Northeast is set to get hit with a major winter storm - which thanks to someone with a great sense of humor or baseball knowledge or just pure coincidence - is named Winter Storm Harper.

While this storm is no way related to Bryce Harper' s free agency (officially, at least), it does have some impeccable timing. And, it is set to hit a few of the places he's reportedly considering - including Philadelphia and DC (though it may just miss Chicago according to forecasts).

On Twitter, fans - and even Harper himself - took note:

 

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