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Nats take another step backward in blowout loss

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Nats take another step backward in blowout loss

If the Nationals were hoping the start of a long homestead would present an opportunity to bolster any optimism still out there for a late-season surge, they sure did little Friday night to back up the sentiment.

Slogging their way through an ugly ballgame against an uninspired opponent, the Nationals were clobbered 10-3 by the Brewers, a loss that dropped them back under the .500 mark for the season and left many in the crowd of 29,916 booing a club universally expected to win its division five months ago.

The Nationals may yet realize those expectations, but with each passing day they’re digging themselves into a deeper and deeper hole, leaving themselves with virtually no margin for error. Friday night’s blowout loss, combined with the Mets’ 14-9 win at Colorado, leaves them a season-high 5 games back in the NL East with 41 to play.

When, exactly, does this team expect to make its long-awaited run?

“I think we have an opportunity to do that at home this week,” right fielder Bryce Harper said. “Just a tough outing tonight. Sometimes baseball plays that way. We’ve just got to come in tomorrow with a good attitude and do what we can and just kind of ride it out until we get going for a couple more games.”

The Nationals (and their fans) have been waiting for the tide to turn, but every time it appears they’re headed in the right direction, they slam on the brakes and reverse course.

They won two straight at Coors Field to begin the week, offering some signs of life, with a chance to reduce their deficit in the division to 3 games with another win Thursday. Then then dropped that series finale to the Rockies, took a red-eye flight that got them back in D.C. at 6 a.m. Friday and proceeded to sleepwalk their way through this loss to Milwaukee.

They gave up 10 runs. They were charged with three errors (though one was later changed to a base hit). They let a run score on catcher’s interference. They misplayed other balls into extra-base hits.

“It’s important for us to be competitive in all aspects,” manager Matt Williams said. “Tonight, it wasn’t that way. I’ll preach it again. We think this way: Tonight’s over, we have to get them tomorrow. Certainly you want to be out there playing clean and getting the outs we should get and not giving them extras. You pay for it eventually.”

[RELATED: Ugly start to homestand as Nats fall to last-place Brewers 10-3]

The Nationals have been paying for it for quite some time. They’re now 6-15 since July 31, the opener of what would become a 3-game sweep at the hands of the Mets at Citi Field. In that time, they’ve seen a 3-game lead morph into a 5-game deficit.

“Getting on a run for us is just a matter of getting a couple of balls to fall our way, whether it means bleeders or great plays on defense,” said Doug Fister, who surrendered four runs in relief of Gio Gonzalez during Friday’s loss. “We need some momentum, something just to keep us going. Guys are playing hard, they’re putting together good at-bats. Pitchers are grinding it out. We just haven’t had it go our way consistently yet. All it takes is one day of some good stuff followed by the next one. We’ve just gotta start that tomorrow.”

Perhaps they will. Perhaps the Nationals will beat Brewers rookie Taylor Jungmann (owner of a 2.23 ERA) on Saturday. And perhaps they’ll get a win out of Jordan Zimmermann on Sunday, giving them a series victory and giving everyone reason to resume hope of a sustained, positive run.

But they haven’t exactly seized any opportunity for weeks now. And one of these days, they may run out of time to do it.

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5 things you should know about new Nationals pitcher Kelvin Herrera

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5 things you should know about new Nationals pitcher Kelvin Herrera

The Nationals traded for Royals' pitcher Kelvin Herrera this evening. 

Not only did the Nationals trade for Kelvin Herrera, but they did so without losing Juan Soto, Victor Robles, or Andrew Stevenson. The first two were never in any real danger of being traded for a relief pitcher who will be a free agent at year's end, but the Nats escaped only giving up their 10th and 11th ranked prospects:

On the surface, this deal looks exceptional for the Nationals. Herrera is another back-of-the-bullpen type that only further deepens the Nats' options in that department. Here are a handful of things you should know about the Nationals' newest pitcher:

1. Herrera's strikeout "issue" is complicated 

Herrera, like many other closers over the last half-decade, has made his name in strikeouts. He topped out at a 30.4 percent strikeout rate in 2016, and has a 23.4 percent clip for his career. His K% this season sits at 23.2 percent, which is both higher than last season and lower than his career average. 

People will look at his dramatic K/9 drop as a red flag, but "per/9" stats are flawed and not generally a worthwhile stat to build an argument around. A pitcher who gets knocked around for five runs in an inning -- but gets three strikeouts -- can have the same K/9 of a different (much more efficient) pitcher who strikes out the side in order. 

2. Herrera has basically stopped walking batters 

His career BB% sits at 7.1 percent. His highest clip is nine percent (2014, 2015) and his lowest was a shade over four percent (2016). 

This season, he's walking batters at a two percent  rate. In 27 games this season, he's walked two batters. Two! 

3. The jury seems to still be out on how good of a year he's had so far

Analytics are frustrating. On one hand, they can serve wonderfully as tools to help peel back the curtains and tell a deeper story - or dispel lazy narratives. On the other hand, they can be contradictory, confusing, and at times downright misleading. 

Take, for instance, Herrera's baseline pitching stats. His ERA sits at 1.05, while his FIP sits at 2.62. On their own, both numbers are impressive. On their own, both numbers are All-Star level stats. 

When you stack them against each other, however, the picture turns negative. While ERA is the more common stat, it's widely accepted that FIP more accurately represents a pitcher's true value (ERA's calculation makes the same per/9 mistakes that were mentioned above). 

More often than not, when a pitcher's ERA is lower than his FIP, that indicates said pitcher has benefited from luck. 

Throw in a 3.51 xFIP (which is the same as FIP, but park-adjusted) and we suddenly have a real mess on our hands. Is he the pitcher with the great ERA, the pitcher with the Very Good FIP, or the pitcher with the medicore xFIP? 

4. He was a fastball pitcher, and then he wasn't, and now he is again

Take a look at Herrera's pitch usage over his career in Kansas City:

In only three years, he's gone from throwing a sinker 31 percent of the time to completely giving up on the pitch. That's pretty wild. 

Since 2014, he's gone to the slider more and more in every year. 

His current fastball usage would be the highest of his career. He only appeared in two games during the 2011 season, so those numbers aren't reliable. Going away from the sinker probably helps explain why his Ground Ball rate has dropped 10 percentage points, too. 

5. The Nats finally have the bullpen they've been dreaming about for years

Doolittle, Herrera, Kintzler, and Madson is about as deep and talented as any bullpen in baseball.

Justin Miller, Sammy Solis, and Wander Suero all have flashed serious potential at points throughout the year. Austin Voth is waiting for roster expansion in September. 

The Nats have been trying to build this type of bullpen for the better part of the last decade. Health obviously remains an important factor, but Rizzo's got the deepest pen of his time in D.C. 

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Nationals trade for Royals' closer Kelvin Herrera

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Nationals trade for Royals' closer Kelvin Herrera

The Nationals made the first major trade of the season this evening. 

Midway through their Monday night game against the Yankees, the team announced that they had completed a trade for Royals' relief pitcher Kelvin Herrera:

Herrera's a major acquisition for the Nationals, as the pitcher is in the middle of a career year. He's currently pitched 25 innings so far, posting a 1.05 FIP, 2.62 ERA and 0.82 WHIP. His 2.1 percent walk rate this season is a career low. 

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