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Stars shine in Nats' 9th straight series win

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Stars shine in Nats' 9th straight series win

It has turned into a broken record, but never has a broken record sounded so sweet to Washington baseball fans. The Nationals won another series Wednesday night, their ninth straight series won, matching a franchise record.

And what a series it was, a tense, compelling, 3-day event at Wrigley Field that saw the Nats win 2-1, the Cubs win 3-2 and then the Nats finish it off with a 3-0 win that felt much closer than the final score appeared.

It's rare that a baseball series sees all the big-name stars rise to the occasion, but it happened in this one. Kris Bryant homered twice. So did Bryce Harper. Max Scherzer and Jon Lester engaged in a fantastic pitchers' duel. Addison Russell provided a walk-off hit for Chicago.

Here's what stood out from Wednesday night's Nationals victory...

MAX SCHERZER IS EVEN BETTER THAN YOU THOUGHT HE'D BE
You knew the Nationals were getting one of the better pitchers in baseball when they gave him $210 million in January, a hard-throwing strikeout artist with a Cy Young Award on his mantel. But you probably didn't appreciate just how good of a pitcher he was.

You do now. Scherzer has exceeded the loftiest expectations, and Wednesday night's performance was among his best to date. Over seven brilliant, scoreless innings, he scattered four singles, a double and a walk while striking out 13.

Only two other pitchers in Nationals history have struck out 13 batters in a game: Stephen Strasburg (who fanned 14 in his MLB debut, then notched 13 K's on two other occasions) and John Patterson (who did it in 2005 and again in 2006).

Overall, Scherzer is now 6-3 with a 1.51 ERA, 85 strikeouts and 10 walks in 10 starts. How good is that? Well, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, only three pitchers in modern history have ever posted an ERA that low with that many strikeouts in their first 10 starts of a season: Pedro Martinez (1997 and 2000) and Randy Johnson (2000). That's some elite company.

And yet the numbers only tell part of the story, because Scherzer has stood out not only for the end results he has produced but the manner in which he has produced those results. Plain and simple, the guy knows how to pitch. Wednesday was a fantastic example of that, with Scherzer throwing 93-94 mph early on, then suddenly ramping it up to 97-98 mph to notch several of his strikeouts.

BRYCE HARPER HIT ANOTHER OPPOSITE-FIELD HOMER (HO-HUM)
Yeah, yeah, we've seen plenty of these now. What's the big deal anymore? The big deal is that he continues to do it.

The overall power numbers are bordering on the insane. Harper now has 18 homers in 47 games (that's a 62-homer pace, for the arithmetically challenged) and 13 homers in May. How good is that? Well, Harper how out-homered both the Phillies and Braves so far this month, and he only trails the White Sox, Royals and Padres by three.

Not a large enough sample for you? OK, let's go back a ways, all the way back to Aug. 25, 2014. That's 81 games ago, counting the postseason. Harper's totals during those 81 games: 27 homers, 54 RBI, 53 walks, a .314 batting average, .423 on-base percentage, .657 slugging percentage and 1.080 OPS.

But let's get back to Wednesday's homer, an opposite-field shot off Lester. That was Harper's seventh opposite-field homer of the season. How many is that? Well, among the proven, major-league sluggers who haven't hit seven total homers this year (to all sides of the field) are David Ortiz, Adam Jones, Adrian Beltre, Evan Longoria and Matt Holliday.

Mercy.

CASEY JANSSEN PROVED HE KNOWS HOW TO PITCH
If you had been wondered why the Nationals went out and got Janssen over the winter, this was your first real opportunity to find out.

Given the ball with two on, nobody out and Bryant at the plate in the eighth inning of a 2-run game, the veteran reliever took the mound and put on a clinic. Janssen got Bryant to popup, made a fantastic play on Dexter Fowler's bunt to the right of the mound and got Starlin Castro to ground out to short.

Janssen did all this with an 88-mph fastball. How? By locating it. He threw eight of his 12 pitches for strikes, but more importantly he threw 10 of those 12 pitches below the belt.

That's called pitching, and that's why the Nationals have been anticipating Janssen's delayed debut for some time.

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Why controversy surrounds Adam Eaton and the Minor League Pay Problem

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Why controversy surrounds Adam Eaton and the Minor League Pay Problem

Washington Nationals outfielder Adam Eaton found himself at the center of the Minor League pay problem issue this past weekend.

On Thursday, Washington City Paper published an article describing the living and working conditions of a handful of the Class A-Advanced Potomac Nationals, one of Washington's minor-league affiliates. The article, which credited Eaton with saying that he doesn't believe minor leaguers should be paid "big time," but they could be paid slightly more. 

Additionally, Eaton said that he believes the MLB shouldn't make conditions in the minor leagues "more hospitable," because otherwise players could get complacent and, supposedly, have less of an incentive or drive to make the majors. 

Eaton's argument is more nuanced than those few quotes, and on Monday City Paper published an article with the entirety of Eaton's interview available online. 

WHAT IS THE PROBLEM WITH MINOR-LEAGUE PAY?

Four players sued MLB in 2014, alleging that its policies “artificially and illegally depressing” minor league salaries. The case was dismissed, but it elevated the concerns of minor league players and the disparity between the support for them and MLB players (here's a good place to start if you want to learn more about this fight). 

Many have had to live with host families or share small apartments with upwards of five teammates while in a major league team's farm system. Some, including Eaton, recall the abysmal food options provided to players by the teams, often including peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches. 

The issue of whether minor leaguers are paid a "livable wage" has become a more prominent issue since the suit was filed.  In 2018 President Donald Trump signed the "Save America's Pastime Act," which enables MLB to exclude most professional baseball players from the Fair Labor Standards Act and thus insulates the current system of pay between the major and minor leagues. 

While those drafted in the earlier rounds may receive signing bonuses upwards of $8 million, those who do receive signing bonuses make up only a small percentage of those in the minor leagues. 

Last year, the monthly minimum salaries for minor league players were: $1,100 in rookie ball and Single-A, $1,500 in Double-A and $2,150 in Triple-A, according to an article from the Associated Press

WHAT DID ADAM EATON SAY?

Eaton's argument is complicated and mainly based on personal experience. (The Nationals outfielder spent time in the Arizona Diamondbacks' minor league system after he was drafted in the 19th round of the 2010 MLB Draft. Since then he's also spent time in the Chicago White Sox and the Nationals' minor-league systems, mainly on rehab assignments.)

It's unfair to lay out Eaton's claim as one claiming that nothing should change and minor league players should continue to be exploited. Eaton explicitly said that he "doesn't disagree [minor leaguers are] being exploited," but added that "it's for the betterment of everybody."

The outfielder credited his experience in the "dog-eat-dog world" of the minor leagues as helping him appreciate the majors all the more, because it kept him from getting complacent and made him focus on baseball.

But Eaton also admitted that there is what he calls "wiggle room" in the minor-league salaries; the minor league teams could increase salaries a little bit (but not too much, according to Eaton). 

WHY IS THERE CONTROVERSY?

The problem stems from the fact that Eaton's argument is complex, and he repeatedly backtracked in his interview with City Paper. Plus, words are extremely subjective. So while Eaton said that if MLB made the minor league life "more livable," then players would get complacent, he also said that minor league players shouldn't be exploited and should make slightly more money. 

Many articles published have used headlines that amount to "click-bait," which shave Eaton's argument down to "minor-leaguers should be exploited because it's a good thing." That isn't Eaton's whole argument, though. 

Understanding where Eaton's argument fits into the entire pay problem is important in understanding why Eaton is under scrutiny right now. And to do that, what amounts to a "liveable wage" and "liveable conditions" must be better defined. Eaton argues that minor league players should make enough so that they're "literally not eating crumbs," but not so much that they grow comfortable. As he claims, it's those minor-leaguers who are "milled by pressure," the 30th and 40th round draft picks with no signing bonus and no guarantee they'll ever reach the majors, who ensure a "longevity in the big league." 

HAS EATON SAID ANYTHING ELSE?

Well, yes. Eaton took to Instagram Monday, after the City Paper article with the complete interview transcript was published, essentially cleaning up his argument and apologizing for offending anyone. 

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Max Scherzer to the Yankees? Probably not

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Max Scherzer to the Yankees? Probably not

Bryce Harper held a State of Bryce Harper press conference every spring. It occurred inside the cramped clubhouse in Viera, Florida, outside in the sunshine of a new facility in West Palm Beach, Florida, then, for the final time in 2018, in the bland press conference of the Ballpark of the Palm Beaches. Harper threatened to walk out that day if asked about his pending free agency.

No matter the location, New York reporters showed. Year after year, they asked Harper about the prospect of playing for the Yankees -- he, apparently, was the only person to ever like Mickey Mantle -- in order to produce new churn about the possibility of Harper to New York. It happened so frequently, and irked him so much, Harper managed his time accordingly when a New York team was in Washington or he was in New York. He was not around during those times, if he could help it.

This is how it goes with the Yankees, a truth earned by decades of titles and lore, as the preeminent franchise in baseball. Big-name player A is attached to the Yankees by thread or whim because they are the Yankees. This process was kickstarted last weekend for Max Scherzer via a report which said New York would do “whatever it takes” to acquire Scherzer. Ignore it. He’s not being traded.

Scherzer crept back into the National League Cy Young race by pitching with a damaged face last week and showing supreme command his last six starts: 0.88 ERA, 41 innings pitched, 27 hits, .179 batting average against, 59 strikeouts, eight walks and 70 percent of his pitches thrown for strikes. He leads the National League in strikeouts and FIP. He’s third in walk-to-strikeout ratio, fourth in ERA, sixth in WHIP and 11th in batting average against. Like the Nationals, Scherzer recently turned into something to take further notice of.

And even if the recent team surge is a mirage, Scherzer is unlikely to be traded. He’s the black-and-blue face of the team. Multiple other parts -- an unextended Anthony Rendon, Howie Kendrick, Brian Dozier, Matt Adams, Yan Gomes, even Michael A. Taylor -- could be moved out for several prospects. Trading those players does not necessitate a rebuild or rule out Rendon’s return. Trading Scherzer with two years remaining on his deal means the spine of the team is removed when his contract cost is about to modestly recede as the competitive balance tax threshold goes up.

The lone wrinkle is Scherzer’s current service time status: At the close of 2019, he will hold 10 and five rights -- meaning he has been in the league at least 10 years and five with the same team -- enabling him to veto any trade. He can’t do that now. However, it’s hard to envision that has enough onus to send him anywhere this season.

So, believe the Yankees would want to acquire Scherzer. Then envision a line with 28 other teams, scoff and move on.

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