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Pool of available relievers for Nats keeps thinning

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Pool of available relievers for Nats keeps thinning

NASHVILLE — Here’s the biggest dilemma facing the Nationals at the Winter Meetings, which officially began this morning: They desperately need to acquire quality, late-inning relievers while at the same time they desperately need to deal away a couple of quality, late-inning relievers.

Does this meet the definition of irony?

Mike Rizzo and Co. are juggling a bunch of different balls in the air right now. They’re trying to gauge what interest there could be in Drew Storen and Jonathan Papelbon, fully recognizing the challenges involved in moving either disgruntled closer. They’re also talking to just about every available late-inning reliever, both via free agency and trade.

So far, they’ve come up short on both ends. There should be some legitimate interest in Storen, though it’s tough to say how much the Nationals can reasonably expect to receive in exchange for a reliever entering his walk year and due to earn close to $9 million in 2016 via arbitration. It’s hard to imagine there’s much of any interest, however, in Papelbon, who in addition to making $11 million in 2016 comes with all sorts of baggage, the latest being the grievance he reportedly has filed against the Nats for withholding his pay during their team-imposed 4-game suspension at season’s end.

As far as the search for new relievers goes, the challenge is only getting tougher by the hour. Darren O’Day’s 4-yeal deal with the Orioles isn’t official yet, but it’s expected to be finalized soon. Ryan Madson signed a 3-year deal with the Athletics. Joakim Soria just signed a 3-year deal with the Royals.

And on the trade front, the big shoe just dropped this morning: The Reds are sending Aroldis Chapman to the Dodgers, according to FoxSports.com’s Ken Rosenthal. The Nationals have long been interested in Chapman, including at the July trade deadline, but could not come up with a package of prospects to meet Cincinnati’s demands.

So where exactly does that leave the Nats at this point? It’s not a pretty picture.

The best remaining available free-agent relievers include old pal Tyler Clippard, veteran right-hander Mark Lowe and lefties Tony Sipp and Antonio Bastardo. No closers in that bunch (with all due respect to Clippard).

There are a few remaining trade candidates. Mark Melancon of the Pirates would be intriguing, though he’s entering his walk year. The Rays’ Brad Boxberger (who saved 41 games this season) may be available, and he has four years of control remaining. There are rumblings that the Yankees could be willing to move Andrew Miller (who is signed for three more years and $27 million). And perhaps Kenley Jansen (suddenly in position to get “Storen-ed” with today’s acquisition of Chapman) could force the Dodgers to trade him.

None of those names, of course, are sure things or easily acquired. And so the Nationals find themselves exactly where they were at season’s end: They desperately want to acquire quality, late-inning relievers while at the same time desperately wanting to trade away a couple of quality, late-inning relievers.

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Yan Gomes’ workload will continue to increase for the Nationals

Yan Gomes’ workload will continue to increase for the Nationals

WASHINGTON -- Friday afternoon grousing centered on what time the plane arrived. The Nationals’ charter returned to Dulles International Airport around 6 a.m. From there, players and staff scurried to their houses, some being caught in the morning commute.

Yan Gomes made it home in about 27 minutes. He needed to get to sleep. Friday night he would be catching his seventh consecutive game, a grind he had been through other times in his career, but complicated Friday by the late (or early) landing following a pre-dawn departure from Minneapolis.

Gomes figures he was asleep by 6:45 a.m., roughly 15-20 minutes after he walked through the door of his home. He woke up around 12:30 p.m. Then, he took the step so many do after first arising: the coffee was brewed, prompting midday to act as morning. Next was arriving at the park, where food and hydration were the priorities. Gomes, 32, needed to prepare his body for baseball’s hardest position and his brain for Max Scherzer’s outing.

“I don’t think people realize how much adrenaline we’re using [Friday],” Gomes said. “Just try to get through today. But the main thing is nobody is feeling bad for us we had a late night. Everyone’s kind of doing that. Scheduling this year has been kind of weird.”

Gomes crouching behind the plate again Friday was running him into an uncommon level of usage during his eight-year career -- and a level of work which is going to continue. Gomes, even when the primary catcher in Cleveland, caught seven or more games in a row (and never more than eight) six times. He had not handled such a stretch since 2016. Only once did such a streak occur in September, and that happened in 2014, Gomes’ second full season in the league.

“I’ve done scheduling like this before where I’ve had to catch night and day games a lot of times,” Gomes said. “I think when you get a certain age, you just have to pay more attention with the pregame stuff, postgame stuff. Body doesn’t recover as well. It’s one of those things where got to sack up and use some caffeine to get you through the day [Friday]. Drink as much as you can, as much as you can tolerate. Everyone’s tired. You just got to make sure you’re loose and ready to go so injuries don’t happen.”

Saturday he received a break. Rookie Raudy Read caught Austin Voth. However, the respite will be temporary.

Kurt Suzuki still has not thrown a baseball since injuring his right elbow Sept. 6. Inflammation continues to be an issue. He swung a bat in the batting cage Friday. Saturday, Suzuki pulled on his catching gear and went to the bullpen to practice blocking balls with bullpen coach Henry Blanco. Sprints followed. Throwing did not.

“Said he felt OK,” Davey Martinez said. “If he continues to do that, try to get him to hit on the field by early next week and we'll go from there. We miss him. We hope we can get him back soon. He's doing everything he can to try to get ready and play again as soon as possible.”

Read and Tres Barrera -- both rookies -- now comprise the backup catchers. The good news for Gomes is his prior experience as the full-time catcher and that he split time much of this season. Suzuki and Gomes were running close to a clean workload split before Suzuki’s injury. Gomes caught 71 games, Suzuki 68. So, he’s done this before and received rest earlier this season to position him well to do it again.

And, a hard decision was going to come in the postseason for Martinez. Suzuki’s offense is a clear plus over Gomes. However, his ability to throw out baserunners is almost non-existent this season, when Suzuki has thrown out five of 50 base-stealers. The 10 percent caught stealing rate is the lowest of his career and well below the 23 percent average during his 13 seasons in the major leagues. Those numbers are also influenced by pitchers, situations and official scorer rulings. However, Suzuki’s 10 percent is a stunningly low number and directly reflective of his struggles.

Martinez previously said an MRI of Suzuki’s elbow showed no structural damage. Inflammation remains the issue. Resolution of the inflammation remains tricky.

“Listening to the medical staff and listening to him, the biggest thing is getting the inflammation out of his elbow,” Martinez said. “Then we'll see how far we can push him to get him ready. But a lot is going to be determined on him, what he feels and how he feels.”

Washington’s system is without a top-tier catching prospect. Read is considered more of a hitter. He could well become a first baseman in the future. Barrera played this season at Double-A Harrisburg. He was a sixth-round pick in 2016. A preseason list of the organization’s top 30 prospects placed Barrera 18th despite turning 25 years old on Sunday.

The complication of limited options popped up Saturday. Washington put two runners with one out. Read was due up. The situation was primed for Suzuki to pinch-hit, then take over as catcher, if he was able. Or even giving Gomes a chance -- if he hadn’t caught for seven consecutive days. Read hit for himself and grounded into a double play.

The final month’s workload rests with Gomes. Of the 15 remaining games, he will likely catch up to 14 if Suzuki remains injured. There is one built-in off-day. A split day-night doubleheader against Philadelphia will require Read to make another appearance. Otherwise, it’s time to sleep, eat, stay hydrated and ride it out.

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Scary scene at Nationals Park after Charlie Culberson is struck in the face by a pitch

Scary scene at Nationals Park after Charlie Culberson is struck in the face by a pitch

WASHINGTON -- A high, 91-mph fastball from Fernando Rodney rode up and in on Braves pinch-hitter Charlie Culberson, who had squared to bunt with two runners on and nobody out in the top of the seventh inning Saturday, before hitting him in the face.

Culberson never moved to clear his head as the pitch tailed toward him. It hit him square, dropping him to the ground and creating a frightening scene at Nationals Park in a 1-1 game between Atlanta and Washington, which Atlanta went on to win 10-1.

Home plate umpire Tim Timmons immediately signaled for medical help from the Atlanta dugout. Culberson remained down for a couple minutes. Several Nationals players knelt in the field while he was tended to.

Eventually, Culberson sat up, then stood with a towel pressed to his face. He walked to a medical vehicle just behind home plate before being driven off the field.

Atlanta manager Brian Snitker was ejected shortly afterward, appearing upset the pitch was called a strike after umpires ruled Culberson never took his bat back before the ball struck him. Timmons, also the crew chief, explained to a pool reporter why the pitch was called a strike:

“When the ball came in I had one sound,” Timmons said. “I had the ball hitting him obviously. The very first concern was clearly for [Culberson]. In the process of asking him to stay on the ground and not move and the trainer getting out there and them starting to look at him. After we got into that a little bit, Dave Martinez was saying something to me. I couldn’t hear him. So, I walked over and I said, ‘What’s going  on?’ He said, ‘We’d like you to check on whether or not he offered at the pitch.’ I said, ‘Okay, I understand. I’ll do that.’ At which point, I went to first base umpire Bill Welke and asked him if he had him offering at the pitch. He said, ‘Yes, he did.’ So, that’s the situation. Brian [Snitker] got upset given he had gotten hit in the face. He was obviously upset.”

Culberson was taken to a local hospital for further examination. The Braves remained upset after the game the pitch was called a strike.

“You can't do anything,” Braves catcher Brian McCann said. “That's a ridiculous call. You can't move, you can't do anything. He didn't make an attempt at it. He just squared around and tried to get out of the way. It's just bad all the way around." 

Rodney struck out Culberson’s replacement, Adam Duvall, before Ronald Acuña Jr. doubled, Ozzie Albies doubled, Freddie Freeman was intentionally walked, Josh Donaldson lined out, Nick Markakis singled, and Matt Joyce walked. Tyler Flowers struck out to end the inning.

Rodney walked slowly off the mound while looking into left field. He was not in the clubhouse when reporters entered following a significant delay while waiting for manager Davey Martinez to arrive for his postgame press conference.

“It was awful,” Martinez said. “You never wish that upon anybody. You don't. I hope he's all right and my plan is to talk to Snik either [Friday] or tomorrow and make sure he's all right. And I know they get it, it stinks, but it's part of it. I know Rodney feels awful. I just hope Culberson's all right.”

Did Martinez think Rodney was in the right frame of mind to handle the rest of the inning?

“Ball gets away and hits a guy in the face, that's tough,” Martinez said. “It was tough and he had to regroup. I thought he threw the ball well. Albies stuck the bat out, got a hit, but he knows he's got to pitch in those big moments like that and just wasn't his day either today. He's just got to come back and regroup.”

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