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No major moves, but Nats weren't quiet at meetings

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No major moves, but Nats weren't quiet at meetings

NASHVILLE — The Nationals arrived for the Winter Meetings four days ago with plenty of uncertainty surrounding their bullpen, interest in adding a left-handed bat and questions about the potential for them to do something really dramatic.

They departed the Winter Meetings on Thursday morning with slightly less uncertainty surrounding their bullpen, the same level of interest in adding a left-handed bat and continued questions about the potential for them to do something really dramatic.

On the surface, it may appear like the Nationals accomplished very little at the Opryland Resort. They made no official transactions, aside from taking former first-round pick Zack Cox (a third baseman in the Marlins’ organization) in the Class AAA portion of the Rule 5 draft.

But they did come to terms with right-hander Yusmeiro Petit on a contract that includes a $2.5 million salary in 2016 and then a $3 million club option (with a $500,000 buyout) for 2017, a source familiar with the deal confirmed. That contract should be announced within the next few days, giving the team a new long reliever and spot starter who can fill Craig Stammen’s old role.

The Nationals also continue to work on a deal with reliever Shawn Kelley, though the source said those negotiations are not finalized. If the two sides can work it out, Kelley would join the bullpen as a right-handed middle man and possible set-up man, perhaps taking the role Aaron Barrett had before tearing his elbow ligament.

Combine those potential additions with last week’s signing of veteran lefty Oliver Perez, and the Nationals have made some significant strides toward rebuilding their relief corps.

The two biggest bullpen questions, of course, remain unresolved. The Nationals have been listening to offers for Jonathan Papelbon and Drew Storen but haven’t come close to dealing either right-hander, a source said. So much hinges on what happens with those two disgruntled relievers, and all options remain in play. Both could return in 2016, only one of the two could be retained or both could be gone. This remains general manager Mike Rizzo’s biggest — and most challenging — task of the offseason.

“I think it’s been consistent,” Rizzo said of the interest level in Papelbon and Storen. “There’s a market for relievers. As we’ve seen with the free agent signings, the reliever market is booming. There’s a lot of teams looking for relief pitching.”

In their search for another left-handed bat, the Nationals have come up empty so far. They were aggressive in pursuing Ben Zobrist, offering the prized free agent more than the $56 million he wound up taking from the Cubs according to a source familiar with the negotiation. They looked into Neil Walker before the Pirates dealt their second baseman to the Mets for left-hander Jon Niese. They could still find that bat elsewhere, whether in the form of another second baseman like Daniel Murphy, an outfielder like Gerardo Parra or someone else via trade.

“In a perfect world, the lefty bat is important, but we want to improve our club,” Rizzo said. “The balance in the lineup is an aspect, but it’s not something that’s the end all and be all. We’d like to be more balanced, but if we have a quality player that improves our lineup and improves the club, then we certainly are going to look at all avenues of it.”

As for a surprise, dramatic move … well, the fact Rizzo admitted making an offer for right-hander Mike Leake (who is projected to receive something in the realm of $80 million) provided a bit of a window into the Nationals’ thinking. They might not be serious about Leake, but it should be clear they’re open to adding another prominent starting pitcher to a rotation that doesn’t necessarily need one.

“It’s not a necessity for us right now, but we’re always in the market to improve the ballclub anyway we can,” Rizzo said. “If we have to strengthen a strength or try to refine a weakness, there’s different levels and different strategies going on at the same time.”

To use one of Rizzo’s favorite lines, the Nationals have a lot of irons in the fire. Who knows what will emerge out of all that, but if the general manager is true to his track record, the Hot Stove League won’t flame out simply because the Winter Meetings have come and gone.

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Sleep-deprived Nationals win one they probably shouldn’t have in Chicago behind Aníbal Sánchez

Sleep-deprived Nationals win one they probably shouldn’t have in Chicago behind Aníbal Sánchez

The clubhouse wears have never been packed so quickly. Washington was sprinting as a group to get out of Pittsburgh on Thursday night following another three-hour-plus game with a 1:20 p.m. local start looming in Wrigley Field on Friday.

Max Scherzer finished his postgame comments in less than four minutes, then quickly moved to get cleaned up and join the others. Most lockers were vacant by the time media members reached the clubhouse, which wasn’t long after the game ended. 

Despite the scramble for minutes saved, Friday was supposed to be a loss. Las Vegas knew. The players and management knew. It was a bad spot. Night game, onto a plane, then a day game against a team which played at home the previous afternoon, and was 44-19 there -- the second-best home record in the National League. 

And yet, Nationals 9, Cubs 3, and it wasn’t that close.

Some bloops fell, some situations turned out lucky. Though, Aníbal Sánchez dominated. No voodoo or charms were involved.

He went through 8 ⅓ innings before being removed after 112 pitches. He was provided a shot to finish the game -- just 15 National League pitchers have a complete game this season -- but couldn’t. A rare Anthony Rendon throwing error cost him an out, then his opportunity for a solo close to the afternoon in Chicago.

Sánchez threw 31 four-seam fastballs, 31 cutters and 28 “splitters” among his 112 pitches. He worked as a marionettist, pulling strings to change positions and outcomes throughout the day. Matt Grace finished the game. No high-end reliever was used, resetting a bullpen which had to cover five innings in Pittsburgh on Thursday.

The offense beat up Jon Lester. He didn’t make it out of the fifth inning. Everyone in the lineup -- including Sánchez -- picked up a hit. Trea Turner’s single extended his on-base streak to 30 games.

Sánchez’s work piggybacked on what the other starters did against woeful Pittsburgh. Nationals starters have allowed two earned runs in the first five games of this seven-game road trip. The offense has averaged 8.2 runs in that span. It’s hard to fathom they lost once with both sides operating in such fashion.

All of this is just a continuation of a massive turnaround. Washington is 52-26 since its nadir May 24. Only the Dodgers -- who host the Yankees on Friday night -- have a better record in that span, and by just a half-game. They have won 10 of 12 and 13 of 17. Fivethirtyeight.com now gives the Nationals a 90 percent chance to make the postseason (this includes the wild-card game).

Wins like Friday emphatically move that needle. The Cubs are trying to wind their way into the postseason. They were also set up for a clear advantage thanks to the schedule. Instead, Sánchez, throwing as slow as 68 mph and as fast as 91, controlled the day, the offense rolled through the afternoon and everyone was ready for bed after a surprise win.

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Nationals players on the stressful process of choosing a nickname for Players' Weekend

Nationals players on the stressful process of choosing a nickname for Players' Weekend

Zimm, Brown Eye and T3 will all take the field against the Cubs in the annual Players' Weekend series August 23-25.

Some Nationals players got creative when choosing nicknames, and others (yes you, Javy Guerra aka Javy) could use some inspiration. 

Other nicknames just made sense.

Fernando Rodney's nickname, "La Flecha", translates from Spanish to "the arrow". If you had the opportunity to watch the Fernando Rodney experience, you know that he celebrates a save by shooting an imaginary bow and arrow to the sky. 

He described the routine just like pitching: "you know where it is going exactly, you got a good shot."

When asked if he had any other nickname ideas he joked that he thought about using "Plátano Power". A joke dating back to 2017. 

Patrick Corbin is using his Players' Weekend jersey to honor his late friend and Angels pitcher, Tyler Skaggs. His nickname will say "Forty Five", Skaggs' number which Corbin wore days after his death. 

Other nicknames were no brainers, almost decided for the players. 

Wander Suero will go by "The Animal", the nickname given to him in the minor leagues that stuck with him. One of his coaches, Donald Ray "Spin" Williams, would tell him all the time, "you're an animal" because of the way he hustled. It caught on with his teammates and Spin still calls him that. 

Sean Doolittle's nickname was teased for a long time, Obi Sean. His Star Wars-themed bobblehead was a giveaway earlier in the season, featured the relief pitcher as Obi-Wan Kenobi from the popular franchise. The nickname is also his Twitter name though no one calls him that.

Doolittle has changed his nickname for the past three years. "It gives you an opportunity to show a little personality and have some fun with it." He said he can show that he is "a Star Wars nerd." 

These nicknames are chosen in Spring Training, and Doolittle remembers this happening early in the morning. "It's 6 or 7 am and they are walking around the clubhouse with a clipboard asking what you want your players weekend nickname to be at the end of August." He joked, "it's not the most creative time, you're not really awake yet." 

Tanner Rainey was one of those players who may not have been awake yet. When asked if he would answer a few questions about his nickname he laughed and said, "I don't even know my nickname." (For those wondering, it's Rainman).

He said he never really had a nickname but a few guys started calling him Rainman.

"If there's not one I would have went with Rainey on the back of the jersey," he said.

This choice is not because he doesn't like the idea. Rather, he is just focused on baseball during Spring Training.

"Alright that's in late August, this is February," said Rainey. "Let's worry about tomorrow first." 

Doolittle had the perfect way to describe making such an important decision.  "You know-how like the month leading up to Halloween you are like 'I have no idea what I want to dress up as.' You scramble for a costume and you're like 'yeah this works, whatever, at least I dressed up'. That day and the week after it feels like you have all these great ideas and you are like 'aw I should write these down'." 

"So maybe I will do that this year," Doolittle joked. "Maybe I need to start a notes app on my phone."

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