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Rough start to 2nd half for Nationals

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Rough start to 2nd half for Nationals

The Nationals have come out of the All-Star break and gone 3-5, scoring an average of 3.5 runs per game but giving up an average of 4.75 during that same stretch.

Not exactly the kind of baseball you want to be playing at this stage of the season.

Even so, the Nats have actually gained a game on the Mets along the way, thanks to New York's 2-6 record since the All-Star break. And so they aren't in nearly as tough a predicament as might otherwise be expected.

If anything, the Nationals have been able to weather the storm and stay afloat during the latest slump in a season that seemingly has featured nothing but extreme highs and lows. But they can't keep moving along this path forever and expect to emerge where they ultimately want to be.

The good news is, they're about to get a whole lot healthier. Anthony Rendon, Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth all are within days of returning from injury. Yunel Escobar, too, should work his way back into the lineup, perhaps as soon as Saturday, after missing the first two games of this weekend's series in Pittsburgh with an injured left wrist.

So, help is on the way, especially at the plate. But that won't cure everything that ails the Nationals right now.

It's no secret this team is seeking bullpen help in advance of next week's trade deadline. It has been the club's No. 1 area of concern since Opening Day, and it remains a concern due to injuries and inconsistent performances. What that help may look like remains very much uncertain. Rumors have begun flying around the last 36 hours connecting the Nationals to Aroldis Chapman and Jonathan Papelbon, but there is legitimate question about what general manager Mike Rizzo is willing to give up, and how much more salary owner Ted Lerner is willing to take on.

A more plausible move might be for a pure setup man or middle reliever, the area of the Nationals' biggest need. They already have one of the most-effective closers in the game in Drew Storen. They just don't have enough experienced, reliable arms to bridge the gap and get the ball to Storen in the ninth inning.

Of course, reliable relievers would be less in demand if the Nationals' vaunted rotation pitched up to expectations instead of falling into the same inconsistent trap that has befallen most of the roster this season. That group was on an utterly dominant roll not long ago, posting a collective 1.84 ERA in 16 starts from mid-June through early-July. But since then, things have taken a turn for the worse, with Nats starters' ERA rising to 4.59 over the last 12 games.

Even Max Scherzer fell victim to the slump Friday night in Pittsburgh, matching a season-high with five earned runs allowed while failing to complete six innings for only the second time all year. And those three towering home runs he served up to Pedro Alvarez, Gregory Polanco and Neil Walker? That's the first time Scherzer has allowed three homers in one start since Sept. 15, 2011.

The Nationals did rally to tie the game and get Scherzer off the hook, but Sammy Solis allowed the go-ahead (and eventual winning) runs to score in the bottom of the sixth, taking the loss in the process. Make no mistake, Scherzer was more to blame for this loss than Solis or anybody else out of the bullpen. Give your ace a 2-run lead in the fifth, you expect your ace to hold it.

Scherzer couldn't do that Friday night, and so the Nats have dropped the first two games of this four-game series. And they've now dropped 5-of-8 game to begin the second half.

At 51-44, they own the worst record of any of MLB's six division leaders, on pace to win a mere 87 games by season's end.

Thankfully, from the Nationals' standpoint, the Mets are a bigger mess right now, unable to score enough runs to take advantage of their electric young rotation. But they can't count on that remaining the case forever.

New York made a couple of significant moves on Friday. First, they called up top prospect Michael Conforto and threw him right to the wolves, batting him seventh and starting him in left field against the Dodgers. Then they pulled off a trade for a pair of veteran infielders: Juan Uribe and Kelly Johnson, both upgrades over what they currently have.

When healthy, there's still no comparison between the Nationals' lineup and the Mets' lineup. We should see evidence of that in the next few days as the Nats finally start getting players back from injury instead of losing them.

But in the meantime, this team is going to have to try to keep treading water as best it can.

MORE NATIONALS: NATS PROMOTE GIOLITO

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Bryce Harper drives in 3, Nationals snap skid, beat Cardinals 5-4

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USA TODAY Sports

Bryce Harper drives in 3, Nationals snap skid, beat Cardinals 5-4

ST. LOUIS -- Koda Glover rewarded his manager's faith.

Bryce Harper had three hits and drove in three runs, Glover earned the save in the first opportunity since Ryan Madson was placed on the disabled list, and the Washington Nationals snapped a four-game losing streak with a 5-4 victory over the St. Louis Cardinals on Thursday night.

The Nationals won for just the third time in their last 10 games and snapped the Cardinals' season-high, eight-game winning streak.

"We needed a win today," Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. "Get on that plane, have a nice happy flight and come back tomorrow and be at home and be ready."

Tanner Roark (8-12) gave up four runs, three earned, in six innings.

A beleaguered bullpen that had blown two leads to start the losing streak took care of the rest. Justin Miller pitched two scoreless innings before Glover closed it out.

"There's been a lot of changes (in the bullpen)," Miller said. "It's unfortunate, a couple of injuries and stuff like that, but I don't really look at it as I've got the seventh or eighth or anything like that. I'm just going out there just trying to do my job."

Glover took the loss in the series opener on Monday, giving up a game-ending homer to Paul DeJong.

"The first game of the series didn't go as I would have liked for it to have went," Glover said. "So to get put back in that situation or even a better situation to get a save, I'm happy with that outcome."

Harper drove in the game's first run with a double in the first and knocked in two more with a bases-loaded single in the fourth to give the Nationals a 4-1 lead.

A pair of errors helped the Nationals extend their lead to 5-1 in the fifth. St. Louis committed three errors in the game after committing just four total errors during the winning streak.

"A couple plays clearly we expect to make and will make and just didn't go our way for a little bit there," Cardinals interim manager Mike Shildt said. "To the guys' credit they regrouped, settled down, and started playing back to the baseball they know they can play."

The Nationals had opportunities to pad the lead, leaving the bases loaded in the third and fifth while stranding nine runners in the first five innings.

"When you have an opportunity to put teams away you've got to do that," Martinez said. "Especially with how hot the Cardinals are playing right now. They're going to come back."

The Cardinals got within one in the sixth. After DeJong and Kolten Wong came up with back-to-back, two-out RBI hits, Harrison Bader hit a slow grounder to third. Anthony Rendon's throw to first got away from Ryan Zimmerman for an error, allowing Wong to score from second to cut the Nationals' lead to 5-4.

Just two of the four runs Luke Weaver (6-11) allowed in his 3 2/3 innings were earned. He gave up seven hits, including two to Roark, who scored both times.

Tyson Ross allowed one unearned run in 3 1/3 innings of relief.

Bader homered in the third and Matt Carpenter walked twice to extend his on-base streak to a career-high 34 games.

TRAINING ROOM

Nationals: RHP Jeremy Hellickson will have an MRI on his sore right wrist on Friday. RHP Joe Ross (right elbow surgery) threw 3 2/3 scoreless innings at Class A Potomac on Thursday and is hoping for a September return.

Cardinals: RHP Carlos Martinez (right shoulder strain) will begin a rehab Friday at Double-A Springfield. RHP Adam Wainwright (right elbow inflammation) threw two scoreless innings Thursday night at High-A Palm Beach.

UP NEXT

Nationals: RHP Max Scherzer (15-5, 2.19 ERA) will take the mound as the Nationals return home for a three-game series Friday night against the Miami Marlins and RHP Dan Straily (4-5, 4.42 ERA). Scherzer is 3-0 with a 3.43 ERA in three starts this season against the Marlins.

Cardinals: RHP Jack Flaherty (6-6, 3.22 ERA) kicks off a three-game series Friday night as the Cardinals host the Milwaukee Brewers and RHP Freddy Peralta (5-3, 4.47 ERA). Flaherty struck out a career-high 13 batters in his last start against the Brewers on June 22.

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Is Juan Soto a lock for National League Rookie of the Year?

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Is Juan Soto a lock for National League Rookie of the Year?

In April, it would have been unfathomable. In May, it would have been laughable. In June, it would have been improbable. In July, it started to look possible. In August, it might even have been likely. Now, it’s a complete toss-up.

Juan Soto is the worthiest National League Rookie of the Year. So is Ronald Acuña.

It’s one of the most exciting rookie races in recent memory, not simply for the otherworldly numbers each freshman sensation is putting up, but for just how good they are at such young ages. Juan Soto is a jaw-dropping 19. Acuña, by comparison, is the wizened veteran at the old age of... 20. 

The two are preternaturally talented, and their mature-beyond-their-years games have translated perfectly well to the big leagues. The question now is: which one will actually take home the hardware?

(Before we continue, I’ll note that Jack Flaherty, Brian Anderson, and Walker Buehler are all very talented young players who would at least be in the conversation in normal years).

The first step is to look at the numbers.

On the season Acuña is slashing .287/.347/.571, and his wRC+ is 144. He’s got 19 home runs and 8 stolen bases in just 68 games and his fWAR is 2.3. bWAR has him at 2.8

Soto’s slash line is currently .293/.420/.534, to go along with 15 home runs. His wRC+ is 153, and his fWAR is 2.7. His bWAR sits at 2.2.

Obviously, the numbers are terrific for both. Acuña has been up longer, but thanks to injury Soto has actually played 8 more games. Acuña has the edge in power, both in home runs and slugging percentage, plus he’s clearly the speedier player and better defender. If you’re looking for all-around game, he’s probably your man. Plus, for those who care about such things when voting on awards, the Braves are several games ahead of the Nats in the standings.

However, Soto’s performance has a couple things going for it. First of all, as impressive as it is that Acuña is taking the league by storm as a 20-year old, Soto is nearly a full year younger. It cannot be overemphasized how wild it is what Soto is doing as a teenager. He may very well be the greatest teenage batter in baseball history.

Secondly, Soto has been incredibly consistent. He’s basically been an All-Star level hitter since the day he was called up in May, whereas Acuña’s numbers, while very legitimate, are buoyed by his recent hot streak. He’s hit 8 home runs in 8 games, and of every hitter with at least 100 plate appearances since the All-Star Game, he has the highest wRC+ in that span. He’s had plenty of valleys to his peaks, though, and Soto has been a model of consistency. Of all hitters with at 200 at-bats this entire season, Soto ranks 7th over the entire season, That’s astounding.

Another point in Soto’s favor is just how historic his numbers are. Voters love a narrative, and as mentioned above, Soto is having literally the best offensive season a teenager has ever had. The highest wRC+ by a 19-year old in baseball history is Mel Ott with a 140 exactly 90 seasons ago. Soto is beating that by 13 so far.

The true separator, though, is Soto’s on-base percentage. His .420 mark is a comfortable 4th of all players with at least 300 plate appearances, behind elite batting eyes Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Joey Votto. And, once again, we’re talking about something historic.

Soto’s .420 on-base percentage, if it holds, will be the only OBP over .400 for a teenager with 200 plate appearances in Major League history. In fact, outside of Ott’s .397 in 1928, no other teenager has ever reached base at a .360 clip, let alone Soto’s astronomical .420.

Ultimately, I believe more in Acuña’s future, but I think Soto’s been the better player this season. Acuña is more well-rounded, but Soto’s elite batting eye has made him a top 10 hitter in baseball already. If Soto had been up on Opening Day and played at this level, he’d be on pace for a 5.5 WAR, which would top even Bryce Harper’s 2012 season.

As mentioned, though, voters love a narrative. If Acuña comes back from his injury and stays as hot as he’s been all August, it’ll be tough to ignore his performance during the Braves’ stretch run. This award is not over, but for now, Soto should be considered the favorite.

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