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The Nats' stopper does it again

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The Nats' stopper does it again

He's all of 23 years old, with only 31 big-league starts to his name. The Nationals don't care. They've anointed Stephen Strasburg their ace, and there's no one they'd rather have on the mound when they really need to win a ballgame.

"He's a true No. 1," manager Davey Johnson said. "And he's still learning. I think the best is yet to come with him."

A scary thought, indeed, because even at this relatively novice stage of his career, Strasburg is already establishing himself as one of the true stoppers in the sport.

Take Wednesday night's 3-2 victory over the Rays. The Nationals entered this one on a four-game losing streak, perhaps starting to question their ability to beat the elite competition they're currently facing from the AL East.

There may be no better pitcher in such a situation, though, than Strasburg. Four times this season he's started with the Nationals mired in a losing streak of at least three games. And all four times he's earned a win.

"With him on the mound, you have a lot of confidence in winning that game that day," rookie outfielder Bryce Harper said. "Stras is unbelievable on the bump. He's a specimen out there."

And more and more, he's resembling the man who currently holds the title of "Baseball's Best Pitcher." Yes, Strasburg is beginning to compare favorably to Justin Verlander.

Begin with the pure numbers. Through 14 starts this season, Strasburg is now 9-1 with a 2.46 ERA, leading the majors with 110 strikeouts in only 84 innings. Verlander's stats through the first 14 starts of his MVP 2011 campaign with the Tigers: 7-3, 2.89 ERA, 93 strikeouts in 102 23 innings.

Lest anyone get carried away, this isn't to suggest Strasburg's 2012 numbers are going to surpass Verlander's 2011 numbers by season's end. Verlander did, after all, go 17-2 with a 2.06 ERA over his final 20 starts. Strasburg, meanwhile, is expected to be shut down once he reaches 160 or so innings and won't be making any appearances during the late-September stretch drive.

Point is, Strasburg is dominating as thoroughly as any pitcher could given the strict limitations the Nationals have placed on him.

"He's very good," Tampa Bay manager Joe Maddon said. "I had never seen it in person. ... He is very, very exciting."

Perhaps the most favorable comparison between Strasburg and Verlander is each pitcher's ability to get stronger the more he throws, peaking not on his first pitch but on his last.

Strasburg certainly put that trait on display Wednesday night during his dominant seventh inning. With his pitch count already in triple digits, he struck out the final two batters he faced: Will Rhymes on an 89 mph changeup, then Desmond Jennings on back-to-back 98 mph fastballs (the hardest pitches he'd thrown since the first inning).

"They kind of say when you see the finish line, you get a little bit more adrenaline going," Strasburg said. "So I'd say maybe that's a little bit what happens. But I don't think I'm going out there with a mindset I'm just going to let everything go."

Each pitch Strasburg threw during his final innings carried plenty of added pressure, because with the Nationals clinging to a one-run lead, one mistake could have made all the difference in the world.

Not that he didn't get a little bit of help behind him, most notably from Steve Lombardozzi in the top of the sixth. With two outs and the potential tying run on second, the Nationals' rookie left fielder came charging in to make a diving catch of Jose Molina's sinking liner, quash the rally and bring the crowd of 27,485 to its feet.

Lombardozzi, a career second baseman who never played the outfield until this season, actually broke backward upon seeing Molina strike the ball but quickly recovered.

"At first I took a step back and I realized it was going to be short," he said. "So I just was hauling my butt in and I was able to make the catch."

Each defensive play late loomed large because a Nationals lineup that pounced on Rays right-hander Chris Archer in his big-league debut for three first-inning runs went silent the rest of the night. Lombardozzi's double, Harper's RBI single and Ian Desmond's RBI single proved to be their club's only hits of the game.

"I'm glad we did it in the first," Johnson said as he opened his postgame news conference.

The manager also was glad to be able to hand the ball to his ace, the 23-year-old who seems to get better as each start progresses, with a limitless future in front of him.

"He does like to use a lot of his pitches early in the game to get the feel for it," Johnson said. "And then as he gets into the game, where he has confidence in all of his pitches, he gets the feeling he can locate all the pitches where he wants them and he can step it up a notch if he needs it.

"That's basically his gameplan. Pretty good one."

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Fantasy Baseball Outlook: Week 12

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Fantasy Baseball Outlook: Week 12

We're just a couple of weeks away from the midway point of the 2018 Major League Baseball season, which means many casual fantasy baseball players have collectively turned their attention to the gridiron. This is good news for those of you still interested, because outside of the truly competitive leagues, it's about to get much easier to navigate the waiver wire and make winning trades.

That said, we'll still be here all season long, providing advice for anyone looking to gain a competitive edge in their fantasy leagues. There's a lot to digest in the upcoming week, as many teams (including the Washington Nationals) will play a full seven game slate. It's an especially great time for stars in baseball, as a whopping six players are on pace to record seasons with 8.7 Wins Above Replacement or higher, but there's still plenty of great options beyond the obvious guys.

NOTE: Don’t expect to see guys like Bryce Harper or Trea Turner mentioned too often. They are clear must-starts every week. Don’t overthink it.

Week 12 (6/18-6/24)

One Nationals pitcher to start: Max Scherzer

We won't often include a guy on the level of Mad Max in our recommendations, but consider this a statement against the other pitchers. With Stephen Strasburg on the DL, Gio Gonzalez is really the only other startable option in the rotation, and while he's a fine play against the Orioles, he's not a sure thing. Scherzer is the best pitcher in baseball, so when in doubt, it's easy to fall back on his name. For now, feel free to use Gonzalez if needed, but the only clear, recommendable one this week is Scherzer.

One Nationals position player to start: Adam Eaton, OF

Consider this your reminder to not get cute and just start Adam Eaton whenever he's healthy. When he can manage to avoid time on the disabled list, he's consistenly been one of the best players in Washington, and an absolute must-start in fantasy. Yes, he's hitting "just" .286 in five games since returning from the DL, but there's no reason to believe he won't bounce back to one of the top hitters in the National League once he gets back in the swing of things. As long as he's hitting at the top of the Washington lineup, he'll be one of the top run producers in baseball.

One Nationals pitcher to sit: Erick Fedde

We likely would have advised against starting Fedde regardless of matchup, given his relative struggles in his two starts with the Nats this season. He's got a nice 9:2 strikeout-to-walk rate, but the ERA sits at an unsightly 5.91. What makes matters worse is the matchup; Fedde is once again slated to face the vaunted New York Yankees lineup. In New York, he allowed two home runs in just five innings, and while Nats park isn't the hitter's haven that Yankee Stadium is, the sluggers in their lineup make for a daunting matchup in any city.

Fedde probably isn't owned in most leagues, and there's no reason for that to change, even with his spot in the rotation likely secure as long as Strasburg isn't throwing.. 

One Nationals player to sit: Daniel Murphy, 2B

Nats fans were understandably rejoicing when Daniel Murphy returned to the lineup last week. It's always fun when one of your stars is back on the field after missing so much time. Still, like most players who haven't face in-game pitching in several months, Murphy has been slow to re-adjust at the plate. He's recorded just two hits in 15 at-bats, has only walked once, and has yet to notch an extra-base hit of any kind. His OPS is below-.200, and while no one should expect that to last, there's no need to rush him back into your lineups either.

It would be pretty tempting to slot Murphy into your 2B or middle infield spot now that he's healthy, since you likely drafted him to be one of your studs, but given his lengthy absence, the nature of his original injury, and his slow start since returning, it's probably a good idea to leave him on your bench for a week or two. Once he starts driving the ball again, he can start to return value for you, but there's no reason to let him drag you down in the meantime.

Any 2-start pitchers for the Nationals this week?

Given that the rotation is currently in a state of flux, we can't confidently say any starter will get two starts. Fedde looks like the most likely candidate, but as we outlined above, he's still a pitcher you want to avoid for now.

Any 2-start pitchers worth streaming around MLB this week?

One of my favorite sleepers this week is Domingo German. One of the most surprising stats in all of baseball right now is that among starting pitchers with at least 40 innings pitched, German has the second best swinging strike rate, behind only Max Scherzer. Swinging strike rate is a great stat to use when projecting future strikeout potential, and German's 15.9% is mighty impressive. German has a start at home against the Mariners and on the road against the Rays, so while it's not a cakewalk week, it's not especially daunting either. As an added bonus for those in points leagues, German is RP-eligible, giving you some extra roster flexibility.

The walks are a little high (21 in 53.3 innings) which has let to an elevated WHIP and ERA, but it's a good rule of thumb to follow the strikeouts when identifiying quality fantasy pitchers, and considering most of the two-start guys this week are obvious studs who are certainly already owned in your league, German is the exact type of option you should be looking to stream.

One player you might not realize you should pick up: John Hicks, C/1B (Tigers) 

This is a sneaky move, the kind that could easily get overlooked in most fantasy leagues but could provide a great return on investment. With Miguel Cabrera's unfortunate season-ending biceps injury providing an opening in the everyday lineup in Detroit, Hicks (who is catcher elgibile) will be taking most of the team's at-bats at first base going forward. While he's probably not worth rostering as a first baseman in most leagues, catcher is a notorious black hole in fantasy baseball in recent years, and this season might be the wost yet.

Hicks will maintain catcher eligibility all season long, yet he'll play the far less demanding first base every day, giving him less wear and tear on his legs, less concern with running the pitching staff, and most importantly, regular at-bats in a surprisingly not-atrocious lineup. Hicks isn't the type of guy you'd refer to as a league-winner prior to Opening Day, but he could make a real impact on a championship roster in the second half of the season.

One player you might not realize you should drop: Jake Junis, SP (Royals) 

Junis isn't the type of pitcher that I'd classify as a must-drop, but you shouldn't hesitate to move on if there's a clear better option on the waiver wire. Junis started the season strong and looked like a legitimate breakout player, but he's allowed six earned runs in each of his last two starts. A poor two-start stretch isn't the end of the world, which is why I'm not suggest that everyone jump ship regardless of team context. That said, he doesn't have the pedigree of a top pitching prospect, and he plays for one of the five worst teams in baseball, meaning you can't expect many wins even when Junis is throwing well.

At the very least, you prbably should leave Junis on the bench for the time being, and again, if there's an option you've been eyeing on the waiver wire, now is the time to strike. Don't feel bad if that means leaving Junis behind to free up a roster spot for your team.

MORE NATS NEWS:

- Nice Threads: MLB reveals All-Star jerseys
- Rankings Update: Where did the Nats fall?
- On the Farm: Latest Nats prospect report

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Nationals' offense remains quiet in 2-0 loss to Toronto

Nationals' offense remains quiet in 2-0 loss to Toronto

TORONTO  -- Max Scherzer lost his second straight start for the first time since 2015 when Marco Estrada pitched 6 2-3 shutout innings and Devon Travis homered Saturday for the Toronto Blue Jays in a 2-0 win over the Washington Nationals.

Scherzer (10-3) gave up four hits, including the two-run homer by Travis, in six innings. The two-time NL Cy Young Award winner struck out 10, increasing his major league-leading total to 152.

The right-hander, who lost to San Francisco in his previous outing, last lost two straight starts in a three-game skid in August 2015. Travis homered for the second game in a row when he connected in the fifth, right after Scherzer hit Luke Maile with a pitch.

Estrada (4-6) allowed three hits, one a bunt single, to win back-to-back starts for the first time this season. Toronto has won six straight at home after losing 10 of its previous 11 at Rogers Centre.

Trea Turner hit a two-out double in the sixth, but Estrada struck out Bryce Harper looking. An exasperated Harper was caught looking again to end the eighth, stranding a runner at first. Harper went 0 for 4 with two strikeouts, dropping his average to .221.

Estrada left after Michael A. Taylor's two-out single put runners at first and second in the seventh. Danny Barnes came on and needed two pitches to retire Wilmer Difo on a groundout.

Barnes and Aaron Loup each got two outs and former Nationals closer Tyler Clippard finished the three-hitter for his third save in six opportunities.

MORE NATIONALS NEWS: