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Strasburg looks to stop Nats' losing streak

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Strasburg looks to stop Nats' losing streak

PITTSBURGH -- One of the responsibilities that comes with the title of "staff ace" is the task of stopping a losing streak. Such is the position Stephen Strasburg finds himself in tonight, taking the mound at PNC Park with the Nationals mired in a three-game losing streak and in danger of getting swept by the Pirates.

Strasburg, of course, can only control how many runs he gives up. He can't control how many runs the Nationals score. Or how many balls they put into play. So plenty of the onus will be on Davey Johnson's lineup, which tonight includes only one minor tweak.

Roger Bernadina will bat second, with Bryce Harper moved down to the 5-hole. The logic, I assume, is that the Pirates won't be able to pitch around cleanup hitter Adam LaRoche like they did last night. But the downside is that Harper may not see a whole lot of pitches to hit himself with the ice-cold Danny Espinosa hitting behind him.

Should make for some interesting discussion. Please check back for updates and analysis throughout...

WASHINGTON NATIONALS at PITTSBURGH PIRATES
Where: PNC Park
Gametime: 7:05 p.m. EDT
TV: MASN2, MLB.tv
Radio: WJFK (106.7 FM), WFED (1500 AM), XM 183
Weather: Partly cloudy, 58 degrees, Wind 13 mph out to CF

NATIONALS (18-12)
SS Ian Desmond
LF Roger Bernadina
3B Ryan Zimmerman
1B Adam LaRoche
RF Bryce Harper
2B Danny Espinosa
CF Rick Ankiel
C Jesus Flores
RHP Stephen Strasburg

PIRATES (14-16)
RF Jose Tabata
LF Alex Presley
CF Andrew McCutchen
3B Pedro Alvarez
2B Neil Walker
1B Garrett Jones
SS Clint Barmes
C Michael McKenry
RHP Kevin Correia

UMPIRES
HP Phil Cuzzi, 1B Greg Gibson, 2B Vic Carapazza, 3B Gerry Davis (cc)

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Nationals double-down on starting pitching by signing Patrick Corbin

Nationals double-down on starting pitching by signing Patrick Corbin

NATIONALS PARK -- A small break in the midst of the hoopla brought together $525 million in starting pitcher salary when Stephen Strasburg, Max Scherzer and Patrick Corbin said hello for the first time Friday.

Scherzer and Strasburg sat in the front row during Corbin’s press conference. Scherzer shuffled a few seats down from his original landing spot to make more space. New catcher Yan Gomes filled in to his left, Ryan Zimmerman next to him and Strasburg on his side. 

Those top three in the rotation represent Mike Rizzo’s steadfast belief. Winning in the major leagues starts with foundational pitching. Every year. All year. And in the playoffs. 

“I think bullpenning in the playoffs is much different than bullpenning in the regular season,” Rizzo told NBC Sports Washington.

“The marathon that is the 162 is, I think, dependent and driven on starting pitching. Our philosophy is, how we built what we built so far is pitching, athleticism and defense. I think being strong up the middle and being able to catch the ball as you pitch it not only improves your pitching staff but limits the outs of the other team. Pitching has always been important to us. Starting pitching I think is our key and will continue to be so and developing them and signing them is important to us.”

The Nationals view Corbin as an ascending player. Three consecutive years of ERA reduction, helped by a new breaking pitch that is sort of a curveball, vaulted Corbin to a 3.15 ERA last season and a six-year, $140 million deal with a contender this offseason. That contender is the Nationals, who have more than a half-a-billion dollars tethered to three pitchers, who will be together a minimum of the next three years.

“The payroll's the payroll,” Rizzo said. “We all have budget restrictions and payroll restrictions. We've allocated a lot of resources to our front of the rotation and I think that elite starters, middle-lineup bats and back-end relievers is where I think you spend your money and you try to get values along the periphery of your roster.”

Corbin’s second off-speed pitch pushed him toward elite status. He talked with former Arizona slugger Paul Goldschmidt about what gave him trouble. He watched Clayton Kershaw round off and drastically drop speeds with his curveball. Both made Corbin think another layer would benefit him after years of mediocre results with his changeup, which has been shelved.

Enter the curveball. In essence, it’s just a slower slider. The speed gap -- about nine mph -- couples with an arm angle and release point that directly mimics his slider. He doesn’t even change the grip. Corbin just twists his wrist ever so slightly to slow the pitch and change its shape to the plate, providing a heftier vertical break.

“The slider has always been my pitch coming up from the minor leagues,” Corbin told NBC Sports Washington.

“It was a grip that my father showed me when I was really young. It’s kind of neat I was able to keep that up to this point in time. I have a great feel for it. Able to change speeds and location on the slider. Then adding a slower breaking ball helped just keeping some hitters off-balance.”

The length of the deal gave him assurance and critics pause. The Nationals believe Corbin’s 2018 uptick is closer to who he is as opposed to the prior two years following Tommy John surgery when he struggled.

Corbin was impressed with multiple things from the Nationals: that someone from the ownership level came to dinner with them (principal owner Mark Lerner); that they were willing to annually invest to be competitive; and, despite being an upstate New York native, Washington appealed to him and his wife, Jen, as place to be for several years.

Corbin’s presence takes a rotation that plummeted to 13th in starter ERA among National League teams last season and puts it back toward the top. Tanner Roark will slot in behind the uber-rich trio. Joe Ross and Erick Fedde are among the contenders for the final spot. Rizzo took the organization’s cash and dumped it into his annual priority. He hopes it pays them back. 

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The National League arms race began even before the Winter Meetings this offseason

The National League arms race began even before the Winter Meetings this offseason

The Winter Meetings have not yet arrived, and already the Nationals have made major improvements to their roster. In a typical year, this would be somewhat abnormal, but already in the last month they’ve seen their strongest competitors make plenty of additions of their own.

The Dodgers, two-time defending NL pennant winners, have re-signed their ace in Clayton Kershaw

The Mets, in an effort to shake things up and re-enter the conversation in the NL East, traded for Robinson Cano and Edwin Diaz in a blockbuster deal with the Mariners

The Braves, defending NL East champs, added a former MVP in Josh Donaldson to solidify their lineup and bring a veteran presence. 

The Phillies, who are perhaps better positioned than any other team to make a big splash this offseason, have already added a great young shortstop on a terrific, team-friendly contract in Jean Segura

The Cardinals traded from their glut of talented young pitchers to acquire Paul Goldschmidt, one of the most underrated superstars in baseball. 

The Nationals, of course, signed one catcher and traded for another, and bolstered their bullpen, in addition to adding a third $100+ million pitcher to their rotation.

A league that as recently as a month ago looked like it was falling behind the American League in terms of "superteams" and elite talent level now has as many as eight potentially great teams. More than half of the rosters in the National League look like postseason squads, at the very least, and that’s all with baseball’s biggest offseason event still to come next week.

By maintaining their core, the Dodgers are already set up well to take another NL West crown. Their biggest competition, the Rockies, are one of the only contending NL teams not to make a splash yet this offseason.

In the Central, the Cubs are still the favorites on paper, but the Brewers jump started their rebuild last season to win the most games in the NL, and now the Cardinals look like a major threat. Goldschmidt will be a truly perfect fit in St. Louis, both within the community and in the middle of their lineup, and after a few “down” years, they appear ready to compete with the elite teams again. At worst, this is a division that should see multiple teams make the postseason.

The same can be said for the NL East. The Mets probably haven’t done enough to compete with the Nationals and Braves on pure talent, but a rotation with multiple potential Cy Young winners in deGrom and Syndergaard, plus proven hitters like Cano and Michael Conforto, and an elite closer in Diaz, will be a much harder out this season.

The Braves are only going to get better as their absurdly young core grows together, and if a now-healthy Josh Donaldson can bounce back to his former numbers, he could be one of the most impactful signings of the offseason. It wouldn’t surprise anyone to see him become the second player ever to win an MVP in both leagues.

As their new shortstop, Segura fills the biggest hole on the Phillies roster. The second and third biggest holes could easily be filled by Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, respectively. Philadelphia likely has the most splashes left to make this offseason, and they’ve still managed to keep pace so far.

And, of course, the Nationals have already solidified the catcher position, which has been a struggle recently. On top of that, they’ve now established baseball’s newest Big Three in the rotation, as they now employ three pitchers who rank in the top 13 all-time in terms of MLB pitcher contracts. It may not be the deepest rotation in baseball, as the Indians probably still hold that belt, but it certainly looks like the best in the National League.

The Winter Meetings will still be hectic, as they always are. And National League contenders certainly still have plenty of moves to make. But teams aren't waiting for the major dominos to fall to start trying to improve their chances. Contenders got started earlier than usual this season, and the landscape of the National League looks drastically different today than it did at the end of the season. 

A lot more is still to come, but what already looked like a dogfight in the NL East for the Nationals now looks like a dogfight throughout all of the National League.

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