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Nats swing and miss again

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Nats swing and miss again

PITTSBURGH -- Rarely in his 10-plus months on the job has Davey Johnson expressed the kind of frustration that came pouring out of the Nationals manager's office at PNC Park Wednesday night following a 4-2 loss to the Pirates.

"You've got to make contact," he said. "You can't drive a run in without making contact."

Generally upbeat and positive throughout his tenure with the Nationals, and always the first to give public and private votes of confidence to his players during good times and bad times, Johnson was as upset with his team's performance in this game as he's been on any previous occasion.

Can you blame the 69-year-old skipper after watching his lineup strike out 11 times -- all swings and misses, no called third strikes -- against a quintet of Pirates relievers pressed into service when starter Erik Bedard departed after throwing only eight pitches due to back spasms?

"Sometimes we expand and chase balls early in the count, and we just can't do that," Johnson said. "That's not being a good hitter. We had so many chances. I thought, two or three times, just a little bloop here and we'll win this ballgame. It's just not coming."

There was no singular corner of the clubhouse to place blame on for this one. Poor at-bats came from just about everyone in the lineup. But the final two innings perhaps best exemplified the problem.

Cut to the top of the eighth, with the Nationals trailing 3-2 but threatening after loading the bases with one out. Up stepped Danny Espinosa, the slumping second baseman who did come through the previous inning with a double to left, ultimately scoring on Chad Tracy's sacrifice fly.

This time, Espinosa swung and missed at a 3-2 fastball from right-hander Jason Grilli, stranded the bases loaded on his NL-leading 39th strikeout of the season.

Moments later, Rick Ankiel swung and missed at a 1-2 fastball at his eyelids, killing the potential rally in a pattern that has become all too familiar for the Nationals.

"I wouldn't necessarily say it's a pattern," hitting coach Rick Eckstein said. "I'd say at times it manifests itself. The pressure builds because I believe in a lineup that's best when each guy knows that the guy behind him can do the job. So then you can be patient and be a little more aggressive in your zones, not expanding. And if they want to walk you, pitch around you, whatever, the next guy picks up the load. And at times when that's happened, we just haven't taken advantage of the next guy picking up that load."

Similar events unfolded in the ninth, with closer Joel Hanrahan putting himself in a jam after hitting Steve Lombardozzi in the foot and then serving up a one-out double to Ian Desmond. That left the tying run in scoring position for two of the Nationals' best hitters (Bryce Harper and Ryan Zimmerman) but neither was able to produce with the game on the line.

Harper, who did draw a fourth-inning walk to reach base for the ninth time in 10 big-league games, fell behind to Hanrahan 0-2 and then popped out to the shortstop. Zimmerman, who did double in the eighth, then whiffed at a 3-2 fastball for his third strikeout of the night.

"I worked the count," Zimmerman said. "I got a pitch I could hit. I just didn't hit it."

Though Johnson and Eckstein both preach an aggressive approach at the plate and encourage their hitters to swing with force, both acknowledge more players need to shorten their strokes in certain situations, especially with two strikes.

When it comes down to it, I think we have to get better with two strikes," Zimmerman said. "No matter who it is, we've got to shorten up a little bit maybe, especially in those situations with one out and runners in scoring position. I'm not saying anyone in particular. We've all been, unfortunately, guilty of it sometimes this year."

Johnson said he wasn't prepared to talk about any possible lineup changes -- "I'm getting over this one before I think about tomorrow" -- but it wouldn't be surprising if Espinosa is given Thursday's series finale off and Lombardozzi is given a chance to make only his second start of the season at second base.

If nothing else, Johnson could justify the swap as an attempt to get his team to put more balls in play. Espinosa is striking out in 31.7 percent of his plate appearances this season, the highest rate among all qualifying NL hitters. The two players on the Nationals' roster with the lowest strikeout rate: Harper (9.5 percent) and Lombardozzi (7.0 percent).

Of course, the Nationals' offensive woes aren't confined solely to strikeouts. They've now totaled five or fewer hits in an astounding 11 of 30 games this season.

"I don't know if guys are feeling too much pressure because we're having trouble generating runs but, boy," Johnson said. "Guys, the pitcher's in a jam. Just relax, and if he throws it over, hit it.

"But tonight was especially frustrating. No doubt about it."

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2018 MLB Home Run Derby: Bracket, time, odds and how to watch

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USA TODAY Sports

2018 MLB Home Run Derby: Bracket, time, odds and how to watch

The Home Run Derby is officially here! Monday night, Nationals Park will host one of the most anticipated events of the All-Star Week, where the best sluggers in baseball will see how many dingers they can rack up as they face off against each other.

Everyone loves a good home-run show, so before the derby kicks off, here's what you need to know about it, from the start time to the TV channel to the lineup – which, of course, includes Bryce Harper in his second Home Run Derby with a slight home-field advantage.

Eight players have been seeded against each other, and despite the unusual lack of star power in this year's lineup — including missing Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge — this should still be a good show.

There are seven players from the National League and just one from the American League, and the Nats' home-town hero could reasonably win. Harper is the only player participating this year who has previously played in a Home Run Derby, after finishing second in 2013 to Yoenis Cespedes.

So before the Derby starts, here's what you need to know.

HOW TO WATCH

What: 2018 MLB Home Run Derby

Where: Nationals Park, Washington, D.C.

Time: 8 p.m. ET

TV: ESPN

Stream online: Watch ESPN

LINEUP AND SEEDS ( *NL, #AL)

The seeding for this year's bracket was determined based on the number of home runs each player had accumulated by the end of last Tuesday's games, and any ties were broken by the number of total home runs dating back to June 15. Anyone whose home run total going into the derby is different from that at the deadline is noted.

1. Jesus Aguilar, Milwaukee Brewers*

Batting average: .298

2018 HRs: 24 (23 at deadline)

2. Bryce Harper, Washington Nationals*

Batting average: .214

2018 HRs: 23 (22 at deadline)

3. Max Muncy, Los Angeles Dodgers*

Batting average: .271

2018 HRs: 22 (21 at deadline)

4. Alex Bregman, Houston Astros#

Batting average: .288

2018 HRs: 20 (19 at deadline)

5. Kyle Schwarber, Chicago Cubs*

Batting average: .249

2018 HRs: 18 (17 at deadline)

6. Javier Baez, Chicago Cubs*

Batting average: .292

2018 HRs: 19 (17 at deadline)

7. Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves*

Batting average: .315

2018 HRs: 16 

8. Rhys Hoskins, Philadelphia Phillies*

Batting average: .252

2018 HRs: 14

THE BRACKET


THE FORMAT

There are three rounds through the bracket with a single-elimination one-on-one format, with the lower seed batting first.

Each player will have four minutes per round, and each batter is allowed one 45-second timeout in the first round and semifinals, plus two timeouts in the final round of 45 seconds and 30 seconds. If a player hits a home run that equals or exceeds 440 feet, an additional 30 seconds will be added to the clock.

However, if the second batter passes the first batter's total, the round ends, and he will be declared the winner. 

Should there be a tie, players will compete in a 60-second swing-off with no timeouts allowed. If that ends and there is still a tie, they will have three-swing swing-offs until there is a winner.

ODDS

Per OddsShark.com, Mr. Bryce Harper has the best odds to win the 2018 MLB Home Run Derby, followed by Kyle Schwarder,  Javier Baez and Jesus Aguilar. Here's the breakdown.

Harper +225

Schwarber +350

Baez +500

Aguilar +500

Muncy +650

Freeman +750

Hoskins +900

Bregman +1000

LAST YEAR'S RESULTS

New York Yankees' slugger Aaron Judge is the defending Home Run Derby champ, but he opted not to participate this year.

MORE ALL-STAR GAME NEWS

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Murphy's big hit helps Nats beat Mets 6-1

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Murphy's big hit helps Nats beat Mets 6-1

Daniel Murphy and Trea Turner each hit a two-run single in Washington's five-run seventh inning, helping the Nationals beat the New York Mets 6-1 on Sunday.

Matt Adams added two hits and scored a run as Washington salvaged a split of its four-game set against New York. A preseason favorite to win the NL East and contend for a World Series championship, the disappointing Nationals hit the All-Star break with a 48-48 record, good for third in the division.

Jeremy Hellickson (4-1) pitched six crisp innings in his second straight win. The veteran right-hander allowed one run and two hits, struck out six and walked two.

Jose Reyes drove in Michael Conforto with a fielder's choice in the second, tying it at 1, but Washington grabbed control in the seventh.

Juan Soto and Anthony Rendon opened the inning with walks against Anthony Swarzak (0-2). Tim Peterson then came in and surrendered singles to Adams and Murphy, who came off the bench to hit for Michael A. Taylor.

Jerry Blevins replaced Peterson with two out and runners on second and third. But he hit Wilmer Difo and Adam Eaton before Turner's single gave Washington a 6-1 lead.

New York wasted a solid start by Corey Oswalt, who allowed two hits in five innings. The Mets got off to a fast start this year, but hit the break last in the division with a 39-55 record, a percentage point behind fourth-place Miami.

WAITING

A steady drizzle delayed the start by 47 minutes.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Nationals: RHP Stephen Strasburg (right shoulder inflammation) pitched 5 2/3 innings in a rehab start for Class A Potomac. He allowed three runs, struck out seven and walked one. Strasburg has been on the disabled list since June 10.

Mets: Yoenis Cespedes is scheduled to play five simulated innings in left field at the team's facility in Florida on Monday. Mets manager Mickey Callaway said the 32-year-old outfielder, who has been sidelined by a right hip flexor and strained quadriceps, could return as the designated hitter next weekend against the Yankees If he is able to play on consecutive days.

MAKING MOVES

The Nationals recalled right-hander Trevor Gott from Triple-A Syracuse. Right-hander Austin Voth, who took the loss in his big league debut Saturday, was sent back to Syracuse.

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