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Still no answer for Strasburg's woes

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Still no answer for Strasburg's woes

There was a time, not terribly long ago, when the sight of Stephen Strasburg taking the mound was a confidence boost for the Nationals, not to mention a daunting prospect for the opposition. He was an intimidating presence on the mound, with a repertoire that left batters quaking in their spikes and fans on the edge of their seats.

How that version of Strasburg has morphed into this version of Strasburg — the guy who was roughed up once again Saturday by the Phillies during an 8-1 loss at Nationals Park, intimidating no one, looking like he had given up — is the greatest mystery facing this franchise right now.

"It looks like he lacks a little bit of confidence out there," shortstop Ian Desmond said. "Maybe he's fighting something mentally. But I have no doubt that he'll shake it off and come back just as good as ever."

The Nationals continue to espouse that same opinion, that Strasburg will bounce back and return to the form that defined his first five seasons in the big leagues.

"We're not concerned," manager Matt Williams said. "He's one of our guys. He been one of our guys. He will continue to be one of our guys. He's going through a rough stretch. It doesn't mean he can't come out of it his next start and be absolutely dominant. He has that capability every time he walks out on the mound."

Trouble is, Strasburg hasn't lived up to that capability in quite some time. He has reached the seventh inning only once this season (April 19). He has failed to get out of the fourth inning three times in his last four starts.

And the overall numbers are downright ghastly. Out of 110 qualifying starting pitchers in the majors as of early Saturday evening, Strasburg's 6.50 ERA ranked 109th, while his 1.69 WHIP, .321 opponents' batting average and 17.95 pitches per inning ranked dead-last.

Opponents have posted a combined .853 OPS against him this season. Three players in MLB history had a career OPS of .853: Honus Wagner, Eddie Collins and Billy Williams. All Hall of Famers.

"It's definitely something that I've never experienced before," Strasburg said. "I think it's a test. It's a test for me, and I'm gonna look at it that way and I'm not gonna quit. I'm gonna keep going."

[RELATED: Strasburg rocked again during ugly 8-1 loss to Phillies]

The Nationals hoped Strasburg had made some progress in his last outing, when he allowed three runs in five innings in San Diego while displaying his best fastball command in weeks. But Saturday's start against the Phillies was a regression, with Strasburg unable to locate pitches and unable to put away hitters in 2-strike counts.

The result were several hard-hit balls in the third and fourth innings, including doubles by Cesar Hernandez, Ryan Howard and Odubel Herrera, plus a towering homer by Maikel Franco on an 0-2 fastball that was shoulder-high and right over the plate.

"A lot of damage with two strikes in the count," Williams said. "The base hit to Howard: fastball up. The homer was a fastball up, but still with two strikes. Just couldn't put them away today."

As the outing progressed, Strasburg looked more and more demoralized on the mound. He failed to back up the plate on multiple occasions, a lack of fundamental effort that wasn't lost on his manager.

"That's worked on more than anything else," Williams said. "And he's got to be in position in case something does get away."

Strasburg wasn't alone in sleepwalking through this game. His teammates were charged with four errors — all while he was on the mound — and could've been charged with more if not for a bizarre, Little League-style play in the sixth inning that was wiped out because Hernandez missed first base after driving a ball to right-center.

Those defensive gaffes typically make Williams' skin crawl, but given the fact his team had been very clean baseball while winning 18 of its previous 22 games, the second-year manager couldn't make too big a deal out of this particular performance.

"It was clunker, but all-in-all over the past couple weeks it's been darn good," he said. "So, I'm not worried about their intensity level, or anything of that nature. It was one of those games. It happens sometimes, but we'll get back at it tomorrow."

What, though, about Strasburg? The Nationals can no longer chalk up starts like this to being "one of those games." Everyone insists his status won't change and he'll be back on the mound for his next turn in the rotation — currently scheduled for Friday in Cincinnati — but with an off-day next week they could potentially skip him and give him extra time to work on things.

Whether any of that is the cure for whatever currently ails Strasburg is anybody's guess.

"He's a great pitcher, really," Desmond said. "I mean, there's not many better in the league than him. Sometimes as players, that's hard for us to believe, in ourselves. We're so hard on ourselves all the time. But especially when you're not getting results. ... He's still got it. He's throwing 96-97. All his pitches look good. It's just hits are falling through right now and mistakes are getting hit hard. That's just a stretch he's going to go through. You'd rather go through it now than later. But like I said before, I've got all the confidence in the world in him."

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Nats prospect update: Three minor-leaguers sent to Kansas City for Kelvin Herrera

Nats prospect update: Three minor-leaguers sent to Kansas City for Kelvin Herrera

The biggest story in Nationals prospects this week is the three Washington lost to the Royals in return for closer Kelvin Herrera. Here’s a look at what the Nationals gave up to add more depth to the bullpen.

Kelvin Gutierrez, AA 3B

The infielder, formerly on the Nationals’ 40-man roster, has posted a .285/.344/.388 line through his six-season minor league tenure. One of his greatest strengths is his speed, with 55 career stolen bases and 14 extra-base hits this season. His other notable tool is his powerful arm strength, which may help explain his transition from shortstop to the hot corner.

Blake Perkins, High A OF

The Nationals chose outfielder Blake Perkins in the second round of the 2015 draft. He has quite a bit of room to improve at the plate, batting .234/.344/.290 this season in Hagerstown. However, what he lacks offensively, he makes up for in the outfield. According to Baseball America’s Kyle Glaser, Perkins has “plus speed, mature instincts, excellent routes and an above-average arm.”

Yohanse Morel, RHP

The biggest wild card of the group, Morel is a 17-year-old outfielder-turned-pitcher from the Dominican Republic. His fastball reaches 95 mph and he certainly has huge potential for growth. He has not yet pitched in the U.S. since making his professional debut in the Dominican Summer League in early June.

So, what did the Nationals gain?

Right-handed closer Kelvin Herrera is a two-time All-Star who is currently in the midst of a stellar season. In his Nats debut, he needed just six pitches to shut down the Orioles in the eight. The team is reportedly (and understandably) thrilled to have Herrera joining the roster. Adam Eaton said, "I'm so happy he's here and he's on my team and I don't have to face him anytime in the near future."

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Orioles weather long rain delay in 3-0 win over Nationals

Orioles weather long rain delay in 3-0 win over Nationals

WASHINGTON -- The rain was heavy and relentless. As the puddles grew deeper on the tarp at Nationals Park, the Baltimore Orioles were left to wonder if their bid for a rare road victory would be thwarted by, of all things, the weather.

During a season in which very little has worked in their favor, the Orioles withstood a long rain delay to beat the Washington Nationals 3-0 Wednesday night.

Baltimore led 2-0 after four innings when play was stopped. After a wait of 2 hours, 43 minutes, the game resumed with a few hundred fans from the announced crowd of 32,153 sprinkled around the lower seating bowl.

Mark Trumbo homered for Baltimore, and Andrew Cashner and four relievers combined on a five-hitter in a game that ended long after midnight.

"It was nice," Trumbo said. "I'm glad that we actually kept the game going. Had we not been able to, it might have been a wash. But it ended up being pretty big for us."

Baltimore ended a six-game losing streak to Washington that began last May, won for only the fourth time in 20 games and improved the majors' worst road record to 10-28.

This one was worth the wait.

"It's never easy, especially when you get over the hour mark, two-hour mark," Trumbo said. "Then you have to restart. It's almost two games in one, so, great job by our guys tonight."

The Nationals managed only two hits following the delay, both in the ninth inning.

"It happens. You can't do anything about the rain," manager Dave Martinez said. "You've got to come out and get yourself ready to play. I'm not going to make any excuses."

The rain delay cut short a solid pitching performance by Cashner, who allowed three hits and no walks over four innings in his return from an 11-day stay on the disabled list with back spasms.

Miguel Castro (2-2) followed with two hitless innings, Darren O'Day pitched a perfect seventh and Zach Britton got four outs.

Brad Brach allowed the Nationals to load the bases with two outs in the ninth before striking out Mark Reynolds .

Trumbo hit a two-run homer in the second inning off Gio Gonzalez (6-4), and for a while it appeared the drive would be washed out by the rain.

"One pitch. That was the whole game," Gonzalez lamented. "That was it."

Indeed, it all ended well for the Orioles, who added a run in the sixth when Adam Jones doubled off Shawn Kelley and scored on a sacrifice fly by Danny Valencia .

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