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Slumping Nats already 7 games back in NL East

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Slumping Nats already 7 games back in NL East

MIAMI — It would be one thing if there was an obvious lack of effort, if players’ heads didn’t seem to be in the game. But that’s not the case right now for the Nationals. They’re simply not playing well. Which, in some ways, could cause frustration levels to rise even higher.

“The intent is there,” left fielder Jayson Werth said after Saturday’s 8-0 shellacking at the hands of the Marlins, the Nats’ fourth straight loss. “We come in here every day ready to go. It just needs to turn for us. We’re going through a bad stretch for us right now, that’s for sure. But it’ll turn. It always does.”

The track record does suggest things will get better for the Nationals. It did in 2013, though not until it was too late to reach the postseason. It did in 2014, with a sub-.500 club in late May still winding up winning 96 games.

But that doesn’t make this current stretch any easier to stomach, certainly not after a game like Saturday’s at Marlins Park, in which the Nationals were shut out for the first time this year while losing by more than three runs for only the second time.

“It’s not good,” catcher Wilson Ramos said. “I don’t feel too comfortable right now. We’ve got a better team. We need to play a better game. It’s real frustrating for the team, this game today.”

That frustration is only compounded when taking in consideration the overall picture of the NL East. The Nationals’ 7-11 start to the season is discouraging enough, but add the Mets’ 14-4 burst out of the gates and you’ve got a more significant dilemma on your hands.

The season is only three weeks old, yet the Nationals already are seven games back in the division. Yes, greater deficits have been made up in less time. But this isn’t a position this club is too familiar with.

Despite slow starts in some previous seasons, the Nationals haven’t stared up at a 7-game division deficit this early since April 2009, when they trailed the Phillies by a whopping 9 1/2 games after playing only 11. That club proceeded to lose 103 games. This club won’t do that, but there was an understanding in the visitors’ clubhouse at Marlins Park on Saturday evening that things are going to need to turn for the better sooner rather than later.

“We need to play a good game,” manager Matt Williams said. “We need to pitch well. We need to play good defense. We need to work all aspects of the game. Times like this, there’s not much to say except we need a win. We’ll try to do that tomorrow.”

The Nationals needed a win Saturday, on the heels of a 3-game losing streak and with Stephen Strasburg taking the mound against Tom Koehler. Instead, Strasburg vacillated between dominant and eminently hittable during his six innings of work.

The Marlins strung together four hits during a 2-run fourth, then another two hits and walk during a 2-run sixth. In between — and following an animated discussion in the dugout between Strasburg and pitching coach Steve McCatty — the right-hander struck out the side, adding to the all-or-nothing feel of his start.

“It’s very frustrating,” Strasburg said. “You want to go out there, especially after a loss last night, and shut ’em down. They went out there and put some good swings. They didn’t try to do too much. They came up big when they needed to.”

Regarding his in-game dugout conversation with McCatty, Strasburg said: “It’s nothing that he did. It was nothing I did. It was nothing anybody did. It was just maybe a little bit of frustration. I’m just gonna leave it at that.”

It wouldn’t have mattered how well Strasburg pitched Saturday, not with the Nationals’ lineup rendered helpless by Koehler, the 28-year-old right-hander with a career 4.22 ERA. The Nats have now scored three total runs in their last three games.

“It seems like we’re just not in sync offensively,” said Werth, hitting .189 with two RBI in his first 10 games of the season. “We’re not getting timely hits. We’re getting good at-bats and all that, but we need to sync up. Maybe not having our whole lineup together all year yet, we’re still going through it a little bit. Hopefully we’ll get [Anthony Rendon] back and it’ll make a difference. But even then, we’ve got to score more runs. We’ve got to manufacture some runs and help us out. We’re just not doing it right now.”

Put that all together and you’ve got a 7-11 team on a 4-game losing streak, facing a 7-game division deficit on April 25. As has been the case throughout these ragged three weeks, there’s no sense of panic in the Nationals’ clubhouse.

History says they’ll get on track at some point. Right now, all they can do is continue to believe that.

“First and foremost, it is early,” Strasburg said. “I think we just need to not worry about it and keep on moving in the right direction. I like the chemistry that we have in this clubhouse. We’ve just got to really stick together and keep pulling for each other. At the end of the day, whatever happens, happens. We’re gonna stick together through thick and thin.”

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Explaining my National League ROY ballot

Explaining my National League ROY ballot

This was tight. Really tight. A category for the Braves’ Ronald Acuna Jr. A category for the Nationals’ Juan Soto.

Sorting through 16 categories showed Acuna and Soto should have split the National League Rookie of the Year award. It also showed me a narrow advantage for Soto, which is why I voted him first, Acuna second and Dodgers starter Walker Buehler third. Once the votes from other members of the Baseball Writers’ Association of America were added, Acuna won, Soto was second and Buehler was third. It wasn’t close. It should have been.

First, a thought about the general process here: Writers take this seriously. Once assignments for the awards are distributed, we start to talk about them in the Nationals Park press box. Even non-voters hop in on the conversation. Sympathies are relayed to those who have an extremely tight choice, as I did this season and last when I voted for MVP (I’m big in Cincinnati thanks to my Joey Votto selection).

I outline specific categories, talk to opposing players and managers and watch as much as possible in order to come to a conclusion. The only thing easy about voting for ROY this season was the chance to see the leading candidates often since one played here and the other is in the division.

I used 16 categories to largely determine my vote. They were as follows: OPS, OPS+, Baseball Reference WAR, Fangraphs WAR, Baseball Prospectus WARP, OBP, WRC+, SB, HR, late-and-close OPS, 2 outs RISP OPS, BB:K ratio, WPA, “Clutch”, WOBA, and an overall defensive mark.

There’s no perfect formula here. But, when looking through those, Soto took nine, Acuna six and one, Fangraphs WAR, was even. That, coupled with Soto doing this in his age-19 season as the league’s youngest player (Acuna was just 20, so, like everything else the leader’s advantage here is slight), and talking to others in the league, prompted me to vote for Soto.

Again, the gaps were minute. Baseball Reference’s WAR formula favored Acuna. Fangraphs had them even. Baseball Prospectus put Soto clearly ahead. Soto was significantly better in late-and-close situations. Acuna was better with two outs and runners in scoring position.

If Soto had a distinct lead anywhere, it was via command of the strike zone, which is currently his premier talent. His walk and strikeout rates were both superior to Acuna. When asked about Soto, opponents and teammates alike brought it up.

However, Acuna is the better defender and baserunner. Points back to his favor.

Soto was intentionally walked 10 times signifying what opponents thought of dealing with him. Acuna was intentionally walked just twice (though his spot in the order has some influence there).

This ping-ponging of qualifications could go on.

What the National League East has is two of the best players in baseball. Not just young players at this stunningly low age, but two of the best. Soto was fourth in on-base percentage and seventh in OPS in the National League when adjusted to be among the qualified leaders (an explanation from Baseball Reference: In order to rank the player, the necessary number of hitless at bats were added to the player's season total.). Acuna was eighth in slugging under the same adjustment.

The 2019 All-Star Game is in Cleveland. Expect both to be there and this to be just the beginning of them being measured against each other.

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Nationals' phenom Juan Soto finishes as NL Rookie of the Year runner-up to Braves' Ronald Acuña Jr.

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Nationals' phenom Juan Soto finishes as NL Rookie of the Year runner-up to Braves' Ronald Acuña Jr.

Despite a surprising, impressive and historic start to Juan Soto's career in Major League Baseball, the Washington Nationals' young star finished as the runner-up in the National League Rookie of the Year voting behind winner Ronald Acuña Jr. and ahead of finalist Walker Buehler, the league announced Monday.

For the Nationals' rising star who didn't shed his teenager status until after Washington's season ended, finishing second behind another similarly impressive player doesn't diminish his record-breaking accomplishments throughout the 2018 season -- so many of them related to being a 19-year-old rookie.

After the Nats called Soto up in the spring, he made his debut in the majors on May 20, quickly becoming famous for both his power and consistency and drawing countless comparisons to teammate Bryce Harper. He broke or tied too many records to list here -- but you can find them on NBC Sports Washington -- so we're highlighting the biggest.

He finished his rookie year with a .292 batting average, slugging at .517 and racking up 22 home runs, 70 RBI and 79 walks -- the most by a teenager in MLB history which also made him the only teenager with more than 60 walks in a single season.

Both the highest for a teenager in MLB history, Soto finished with a .406 OBP -- he's also the only teenager to break .400 -- and a .923 OPS, which put him second and third, respectively, among all NL hitters. He became the first teenager to finish with a slash line of at least .290/.400/.500 and the first rookie since Albert Pujols in 2001 to do it, according to MLB.com.

His three multi-home run games are the most by a teenager in MLB history, as are his multi-walk games (16). Soto also racked up 22 home runs this season, which tied Harper for second by a teenager, behind Tony Conigliaro with 24.

Soto started the 2018 season with the Class A Hagerstown Suns before getting bumped up to the Potomac Nationals (Class A-Advanced) and the Harrisburg Senators (Double-A) on his way to the majors.

With the Braves playing in the postseason before losing to the Los Angeles Dodgers in the NLDS, 20-year-old Acuña finished his rookie year with a slash line of .293/.366/.552, having a slight advantage over Soto in both batting average and slugging percentage. He also had the edge over the Nats rookie in home runs (26) and hits (127 vs. 121).

Winning the NLCS with the Dodgers before falling the World Series to the Boston Red Sox, Buehler was the lone pitcher in the NL Rookie of the Year race. The 24-year-old right-hander finished his first season with a 2.62 ERA on an 8-5 record. He struck out 151 batters and gave up 12 home runs.

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