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Strasburg reminds us just how good he can be

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Strasburg reminds us just how good he can be

Nights like this, when Stephen Strasburg takes complete ownership of a baseball game and renders any opposing lineup (no matter the talent within it) helpless, can leave you with mixed emotions.

Yes, this kind of performance — 12 strikeouts, zero walks, one run allowed over seven innings — causes a crowd of 37,115 to rise as one and cheer every third strike and salute the right-hander with a lengthy ovation when he departs the mound for good. But it also causes those same people to turns wistful, to have those “what-if?” feeling crop up and lament what might’ve been had Strasburg been able to do this on a more-regular basis.

Thing is, this win over the Rockies didn’t come out of the thin-blue sky. Strasburg has done this plenty of times in his career. Actually, more often than not. Shoot, he was doing it before his season was derailed by another DL stint five weeks ago.

Bet you didn’t realize that over his last four starts — three before he strained his left oblique muscle, plus Saturday’s return in a 6-1 victory over Colorado — Strasburg is now 3-0 with a 1.19 ERA, 30 strikeouts and four walks. Bet the sight of him taking the mound for the first time since July 4 left you fearing the worst, not expecting the best.

Strasburg’s teammates know you feel that way. They just don’t understand why.

“I think for some reason, people have always been very hard on him no matter what,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “If he does well, it’s not good enough. If he does bad, then it’s kind of like the ‘I-told-you-so’ thing. This guy, he’s the worst best pitcher I’ve ever seen in my life. This guy gets no credit for what he’s done since he basically came out. To see him throw the ball like that, that was fun to watch.”

Indeed, it was. And it should offer everyone ample reason to believe there’s plenty more of it still to come.

Strasburg looked nothing like a pitcher coming off a month-long DL stint, nor one who entered with a 5.16 ERA and serious questions about his standing in the bigger picture. He looked like a guy who has been in a groove for weeks, not on the shelf.

His fastball command was spot-on, with 78 percent of those pitches thrown for strikes. His changeup was effective enough, if occasionally off-target. And his curveball was devastating, a knee-buckler that accounted for five of his 12 strikeouts.

“He’s one of the best in baseball when he’s out there doing his thing,” right fielder Bryce Harper said. “Painting 98 on the black, reaching 99 sometimes … great curveball, good changeup … he’s got four ‘plus’ pitches. He’s very good out there, and when he’s in control he’s unhittable.”

For all his struggles at times earlier this season, Strasburg was still consistently throwing the ball hard, striking batters out and limiting walks. His 9.9 strikeouts-per-nine-innings rate is right in line with his career standards. His 2.4 walks-per-nine-innings rate also falls right in line.

Strasburg just was giving up more hits than he usually does, struggling with his fastball command and perhaps his pitch selection at times.

“I feel like my feel for my pitches has always been there,” he said. “I think it’s just knowing what I want to do with it in certain spots. I’ve just been working hard and continually preparing as much as I can for these guys, and trying to have a good game plan.”

The plan worked to perfection Saturday night, not only on the mound but at the plate. A one-time Silver Slugger Award winner, Strasburg stepped up to bat for the first time with a goose egg for the season in 16 at-bats. He wound up going 3-for-3, raising his season batting average a mere 158 points.

“He can really hit!” manager Matt Williams said with a big smile when he thought about Strasburg’s outing.

It was a night that warranted plenty of smiles. The Nationals coasted to an easy victory. The Mets actually lost a game for the first time in nine days, bringing their lead in the NL East down to 1 1/2 games.

And the man who has been an enigma much of the season showed everyone once again just what he can be, and what he could mean to this club down the stretch.

“It’s definitely been an up-and-down year and it’s been a huge learning experience,” Strasburg said. “I’m excited to have another opportunity and go out tomorrow and get ready for the next one.”

You should be excited about it, too.

MORE NATIONALS: Nats win as Strasburg dominates in return to the mound

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Nationals rally, but find themselves treading water again

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Nationals rally, but find themselves treading water again

WASHINGTON -- The Washington Nationals lost to the Chicago Cubs, 6-5, Sunday to drop their record to 19-27. Here are five observations from the game…

1. A word about Anthony Rendon first.

His three-run homer dragged the Nationals to within 6-4 on Sunday night. He also walked and a soft liner off his bat was caught by a leaping Addison Russell at shortstop. He was stellar in the field. After an initial rusty patch when returning from the injured list, he is back to his normal self and one of the most dangerous hitters in the National League. He could finally be going to his first All-Star Game.

Second, a word about Howie Kendrick.

He homered -- again -- his seventh already this season. Things around the Nationals’ poor start are not great. They would be severely amplified if Kendrick wasn’t walking around with a .317 batting average and an almost 1.000 OPS.

Their work was not enough Sunday. The Cubs took a 4-0 lead early, then hung on late, spoiling the Nationals chance for a rare second consecutive series win.

2. “Little things” kicked in again Sunday.

A fourth-inning passed ball by Kurt Suzuki moved a runner to third with one out. Kyle Schwarber’s sacrifice fly drove him in.

Juan Soto’s late break from second with two outs in the sixth inning led to third base coach Bob Henley giving a rare stop sign at third base. Albert Almora Jr.’s throw for center field went soaring over bot the catcher and pitcher at home plate. If Soto broke early or Henley took his usual chance, another run would have scored.

The Nationals’ overall defense was cleaner Sunday. Rendon made multiple quality defensive plays, Brian Dozier also two slick stops. But, two smaller incidents flipped two runs in what became a 6-4 game.

3. Jeremy Hellickson is going in reverse.

He lasted just three innings Sunday, and was lucky to make it there. Hellickson opened the game by loading the bases via walks. Despite him laying the groundwork for a devastating first inning, he allowed just a run.

Runners made it to second and third to start the second inning, but just one scored. A leadoff homer for Anthony Rizzo bumped the Cubs’ lead to 3-0 in the third. Hellickson wiggled away from a double in the inning to finish his evening in arrears, 3-0.

He threw 64 pitches, just 30 strikes.

The outing was the second time this season Hellickson lasted just three innings in a start. He gave up five earned runs the last time. Four of his previous five outings delivered a Game Score of 34 or lower (50 is the starting point with potential to go up -- or down). A non-analytical measure of those outings is to simply call them uncompetitive.

The trouble for Washington is it has no clear option to replace Hellickson and his 6.23 ERA in the rotation, if it decided that was the best course of action going forward. Joe Ross could swap spots wit Hellickson, flipping Ross into the rotation and Hellickson into the bullpen. Kyle McGowin, called up from Triple-A Fresno on Friday, relieved Hellickson on Sunday. He’s not big-league ready.

Austin Voth is the only minor-league starter on the 40-man roster but not on the 25-man roster. Voth has a 3.89 ERA in Fresno this season.

4. Trevor Rosenthal continues to creep toward a return.

He threw a bullpen session in Nationals Park on Sunday after a day off Saturday. Rosenthal pitched in back-to-back games Thursday and Friday for the Double-A Harrisburg Senators.

Rosenthal is going to Harrisburg to throw another inning Monday, then be re-evaluated. He had another rough outing Friday for the Senators: ⅓ of an inning, 21 pitches, 11 strikes, a walk and hit allowed.

Nationals manager Davey Martinez said the misses were up and down in the zone. Rosenthal was previously pulling pitches to his left.

“I watched video,” Martinez said. “His mechanics are pretty good right now.”

Is he close to returning?

“I think he’s really close,” Martinez said. “We’ll see how this next outing goes for him.”

5. More progress for the injured.

Matt Adams (left shoulder strain) took 40 swings Sunday, felt good afterward, and is nearing a pre-game stint on the field, possibly Monday with the team in New York.

Ryan Zimmerman (plantar fasciitis) continues to swing and play defense. He was expected to run Sunday, the final step in his rehabilitation. He could be ready “very soon” according to Martinez.

Tony Sipp (oblique) took Sunday off after pitching an inning Saturday for Single-A Potomac.

Outfielder Andrew Stevenson (back spasms) was sent back to Triple-A Fresno on Sunday. He will begin playing games with the Grizzlies on Monday.

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Cubs drop protest, but not stance about Sean Doolittle's delivery

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Cubs drop protest, but not stance about Sean Doolittle's delivery

WASHINGTON -- Sunday afternoon’s discussions still revolved around Saturday night’s close, which Washington manager Davey Martinez referred to as a “fiasco” on Sunday.

Chicago manager Joe Maddon started a chaotic situation when he popped out of the dugout following Sean Doolittle’s first pitch in the ninth inning Saturday. Maddon contended Doolittle’s “toe-tap” was an illegal delivery, akin to when Chicago reliever Carl Edwards Jr. tried to add a pause in spring training, but was told the move was illegal.

The umpires told him, and Doolittle, the delivery was legal. Chicago filed a protest with the league. After consulting with Major League Baseball and MLB’s Chief Baseball Officer, Joe Torre, the Cubs dropped their protest Sunday morning.

A point of differentiation is whether the pitcher is taking a second step. Umpires previously determined Edwards was taking a second step. They determined Doolittle was not. This is a judgment call for the umpires and is not reviewable.

Official Baseball Rule 5.07(a) states in part: “The pitcher may not take a second step toward home plate with either foot or otherwise reset his pivot foot in his delivery of the pitch. If there is a runner, or runners, on base it is a balk under Rule 6.02(a); if the bases are unoccupied it is an illegal pitch under Rule 6.02(b).”

The league, according to Maddon, said there is a difference between Edwards placing his full foot on the ground and Doolittle grazing the mound with a cleat when he delivered. Maddon continued to not agree with the interpretation.

“We went through the whole process,” Maddon said. “Our guys in the office spoke to MLB and I talked to Mr. Torre. The whole thing I wanted to really get done was protect Carl. I really didn’t anticipate a whole lot to be done with it. Even though I still don’t agree with the conclusion, because I think it’s exactly what Carl did, only a different version of it. But the point was, I would not be a good parent if I had not spoken up for my guy. And that’s what I was doing last night and, again, it’s just to eliminate any gray area there just for future because it’s going to happen again down the road somewhere and you’re just trying to delineate what is right and what is wrong. In my mind, it wasn’t a judgment call, I thought it was black-and-white. It wasn’t gray.”

Maddon said multiple times that Doolittle tapped with his toe in addition to grazing the mound, both of which, he contended, were not legal or different than Edwards' attempt at deception.

The congenial Doolittle was steamed postgame Saturday and remained irritated Sunday. Saturday, he took multiple shots at Maddon during his postgame commentary. He also taunted the idea when throwing warmup pitches while Maddon argued with umpires by making exaggerated kicks with his leg and multiple stops with his foot. Doolittle switched to a delivery without any stops -- one he often uses -- after the protest as a way to show Maddon he didn’t need the tweak to be successful.

“In that moment, he's not trying to do anything other than rattle me and it was kind of tired,” Doolittle said Saturday. “I don't know. Sometimes he has to remind people how smart he is and how much he pays attention to the game and stuff like that. He put his stamp on it for sure.

"I actually have to thank him. After they came out the second, the [Kyle] Schwarber at-bat, I threw two fastballs and a slider and a fastball to [Kris] Bryant and those were probably the best ones I've thrown in a while. I don't do the tap when there's somebody on base so I can keep my pickoff move available if I need it. I've had a lot of traffic recently, so I've had practice doing it, so it wasn't like a huge adjustment to me. I don't know. In a way, I kind of need to thank him."

Asked Sunday if Doolittle’s comments were relayed to him, Maddon smiled and said yes.

“Listen, I have no issue with that whatsoever,” Maddon said. “We’re all emotional. I’ve said a lot of things I didn’t want to say years ago -- even in this ballpark. I think if he understood the entire context, he might have had a different opinion. Even if he was the manager himself -- if he was me -- or if he was being protected by his manager under similar circumstances, I think his stance may be different.”

No one -- the league, Maddon or Doolittle -- changed their perspective a day later.

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