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Thoughts on Saturday's loss in Cincinnati

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Thoughts on Saturday's loss in Cincinnati

It had been a month since the Nationals last dropped two games in a row, not to mention a series, so the events of the last 48 hours have come as a bit of a shock. A Nats club that was sky-high just lost two straight to the Reds, who had lost 10 of their previous 11 games, and now needs a win Sunday to avoid a series sweep.

Back-to-back losses, of course, do not spoil what has otherwise been a brilliant May for the Nationals. Saturday's game did feature plenty of drama and moments of significance, so let's recap some of it...

GIO GONZALEZ GOT HIT BY 2 PITCHES, THEN FALTERED IN 6TH
Only nine previous times in MLB history, and not since 2001, had a pitcher been plunked twice in the same game. So add Gonzalez to that illustrious list after his 2-HBP performance Saturday.

Reds starter Raisel Iglesias got Gonzalez with a glancing blow in the top of the fifth, but one inning later he caught the right-handed-hitting pitcher square in the left elbow with a fastball. Gonzalez appeared in some obvious pain, though he made his way to first base and then returned to the mound for the bottom of the sixth.

That's when things began to fall apart for him. Holding a 5-2 lead at the time, Gonzalez immediately walked Joey Votto to begin the inning, then gave up a ground-rule double to Todd Frazier. Jay Bruce's RBI grounder brought one runner home. Then, as Blake Treinen warmed in the pen, Gonzalez surrendered an RBI single to Brayan Peña, ending his afternoon in unceremonious fashion.

Did the second plunking affect Gonzalez's ability to pitch? Perhaps, though there were no telltale signs of that, aside from the poor results. Regardless, the lefty's inability to deliver a shutdown inning after his teammates had taken a 3-run lead left a bitter taste after what had to that point been a solid start.

Of course, that would not have mattered much if not for...

CASEY JANSSEN BLEW AN 8TH-INNING LEAD IN UNSIGHTLY FASHION
We've only seen a little bit of Janssen since he made his delayed season debut last week, and most of what we had seen had been impressive (including a brilliant escape act at Wrigley Field on Wednesday night).

This, though, was not pretty. Handed a 5-4 lead in the eighth, the veteran right-hander proceeded to give up four runs on four hits and two walks. It didn't help matters that he was late to cover first base on Peña's grounder to the right side of the infield. Had Janssen broke immediately for the bag, he would've beaten Peña there and recorded the second out of the inning and possibly escaped without any damage in the end.

Then again, it may not have mattered the way Janssen pitched. He was eminently hittable on this afternoon, leaving his fastball and slider up in the zone and paying the price for it.

Janssen doesn't have blow-you-away stuff; his fastball sits in the 86-88 mph range. But he has a track record for success because he's always been able to locate those pitches down in the zone and on the corners. He knows that's what he needs to do to be successful. And he knows what happens when he doesn't do that, as we all found out Saturday.

Janssen's ragged eighth cost the Nats a win and made a footnote out of...

MICHAEL TAYLOR'S 3-RUN HOMER IN THE 6TH
A late addition to the lineup after Bryce Harper was scratched with a sore back, Taylor did it again, more than making up for the loss of the current best hitter on the planet.

With two on and two on in what was then a 2-2 game, Taylor crushed an 0-1 slider from Iglesias to left field to give the Nats the lead. This was the rookie's fourth homer, leaving him tied for fifth on the roster. That's fairly remarkable, considering he has far fewer at-bats (102) than everybody else higher than him on the list.

Taylor remains a work-in-progress. He's striking out in a ridiculous 40 percent of his at-bats, which isn't going to work long-term. But he has shown his ability to deliver big hits in big spots on more than one occasion. And with Jayson Werth likely out til August, Taylor is going to continue to get opportunities to prove he belongs here.

Speaking of playing short-handed...

YUNEL ESCOBAR GOT EJECTED ARGUING BALLS AND STRIKES
Escobar's argument with Andy Fletcher didn't last long, and the plate umpire probably should have afforded him some more leeway. But that doesn't excuse Escobar from failing to recognize the sitaution and the fact the Nats simply couldn't afford for him to get tossed in this game.

With Harper, Werth and Anthony Rendon all out of the lineup Saturday (not to mention Wilson Ramos as well), Escobar was one of the Nationals' most-accomplished hitters. He needed to keep himself in the game, especially for the ninth inning.

Aroldis Chapman is among the toughest at-bats in baseball, and who knows whether Escobar would've had any luck against the flame-throwing Cincinnati closer. But you would have to have liked his chances better than Dan Uggla, who while representing the tying run struck out on three pitches. Sure, Uggla was more likely to get a hold of one and tie the game with one swing, but Escobar was far more likely to make contact and potentially keep the Nats' rally going.

Escobar has been mighty important to the Nationals so far this season, but he and the rest of the team may be getting a huge boost very soon, because...

ANTHONY RENDON APPEARS CLOSE TO READY TO MAKE HIS SEASON DEBUT
Rendon played in his second rehab game for Class AA Harrisburg on Saturday, and this time he played the full nine innings. He went 0-for-3 with a walk and played the entire game at second base, offering further evidence that's the position he'll man when he comes off the disabled list.

When will that be? Well, it's probably going to be soon. It's possible the Nats could decide Rendon is good to go now, giving him Sunday off and then activating him Monday when they open a home interleague series against the Blue Jays. A more likely scenario would probably have Rendon playing another couple of full games on rehab, then joining the Nationals mid-week.

Either way, it appears the time has finally come for the Nats to get their best player from 2014 in the lineup for the first time in 2015.

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Dozier and Long a match made in launch angle heaven

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USA Today Sports

Dozier and Long a match made in launch angle heaven

Brian Dozier came to a realization following his rookie season in 2012. Why not hit the ball more often in the air and accentuate a strength? Instead of drilling to fix a weakness -- like opposite-field hitting or even ground ball rate -- choose to club away, in the air, to the pull side, as often as possible.

No en vogue terminology explained Dozier’s pursuit of six years ago. Omnipotent terms like “launch angle” remained shrouded and in development. Dozier didn’t need a phrase. He just needed to do what worked more often.

The idea took with career-altering results. Dozier hit 18 home runs, then 23, then 28, then 42. Pull-side fly balls turned him into an All-Star and commodity at second base. His new one-year deal with the Nationals brings him a hitting coach who is elated by the idea of hitting up and over.

Nationals hitting coach Kevin Long is the effervescent patriarch of launch angle. “We want to hit it over the shift,” Long will tell anyone willing to listen. Do damage, hit bombs, whatever slang term is preferred. Just hit the ball in the air. On the ground equals outs. In the air produces runs.

Melding a second baseman in search of a reboot after a down year with a hitting coach who is going to trumpet a cause the infielder already backed could be a powerful formula.

“When I changed my approach at the end of 2012 going into 2013, there was no launch angle, any of that stuff, but looking back at it now that’s kind of exactly what it was,” Dozier said Tuesday on a conference call. “We just didn’t have a name for it. “[It’s] recognizing your strength and doing everything you can to be really good at your strength rather than try to tweak weaknesses and stuff. And one of those strengths for me is hitting the ball in the air to left field, left-center field. Once I kind of got that part of it, I really enjoyed doing that. It’s going to be a fun year with a hitting coach that kind of sees the same thing, whether your strength is hitting the ball in the air or hitting the ball the other way, I believe in really honing into your strength and really running with that. Some guys’ strengths aren’t hitting the ball in the air, which is fine.”

The numbers coinciding with Dozier’s rise from eighth-round pick to among the league leaders in homers from 2014-2017 are stark. His fly ball rate increased year after year until peaking in 2016 at 47.7 percent, the same season he hit 42 home runs. His 120 OPS-plus in that span showed what kind of work he performed in Minnesota’s cool and spacious Target Field.

However, 2018 brought a significant recession when an April bone bruise in his left knee hindered him throughout the season. Tuesday, Dozier explained the importance of load bearing and stability from his front leg in order to execute his upward swing. Instead of landing on the front of his foot, the knee bruise pushed him back to his heel, opening his hips early. Grisly results followed: 21 homers, a .215 average, sub-.700 OPS.

Dozier said Tuesday his knee is healed. Finally receiving a break from baseball following the World Series allowed him to recover. That’s also when he had to decide his future. Dozier wasn’t sure how the market would react to his down season following years of being one of the heaviest second base bats in baseball. He said he received multiple offers -- some providing more years and money than the Nationals’ one-year, $9 million deal he settled on -- before selecting Washington. Conversations with his ex-Minnesota teammate Kurt Suzuki, in his second stint with the Nationals, and former Washington outfielder Josh Willingham, who played with Dozier in Minnesota, too, helped sway his decision.

“It just seemed like a really good fit,” Dozier said.

That is applicable to this coming partnership between Dozier and Long. In the air, often and to the pull side. It’s a subtle pairing that could help Dozier return to the 30-home run mark, and the Nationals to receive inexpensive bop from an infield spot.

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Twists and turns keep coming in Harper sweepstakes

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USA TODAY SPORTS

Twists and turns keep coming in Harper sweepstakes

No better soap opera has graced Major League Baseball than Bryce Harper’s journey into free agency. Each spring training opened with questions about what would happen down the line for Harper, who turned from teenager to drinking age to his mid-20s fielding the same queries about his pending freedom. Harper promptly smacked those questions away at the start of spring training in 2018. That was when he delivered a threat to walk out if asked what had become a standard question on the first day he spoke each spring in Florida.

A snow-filled January Sunday in the DMV delivered another twist -- sort of. Bob Nightengale of USA Today, who has been adamant throughout the offseason Harper would sign with the Philadelphia Phillies, reported the Phillies are now the “clear-cut favorite” to sign Harper following a five-hour meeting Saturday in Las Vegas, though no offer has been made.

Nightengale went on to say the Nationals are, in essence, receding into the background.

What we know is Harper’s market is small. We also knew that from the start. Philadelphia’s spending following the 2017 offseason suggested it was in a mood to distribute cash. It took on Jake Arrieta and Carlos Santana, the latter move shoving slugger Rhys Hoskins into the outfield, forcing an expensive square-peg, round-hole situation. But they chose to pay for it, hinting future expenditures were to come.

So, Philadelphia’s desire to chase Harper and/or Manny Machado this offseason makes baseline sense. A key to recall here is whether Harper would actually want to play for these teams who are pursuing him. That’s unclear and will remain so until he chooses one.

Strange in Sunday’s report is the suggestion Harper would have taken a discount to return to Washington.

“Nats officials privately say Harper no longer is in their plans, and unless Lerner changes his mind or Harper accepts a contract that pays him less than $25 million a year, they anticipate life without him.”

The team already offered an average annual value of $30 million over 10 years -- likely with a chunk of the money deferred. While that deal could have been rescinded, the logic of doing so then backtracking to $25 million doesn’t make sense. Why offer $30 million per, be declined, then come back with a push for $25 million?

These machinations were expected. No easy path toward a conclusion seemed imminent from the start, not with so much money on the line, so much grandeur at stake and such length of commitment necessary. Max Scherzer, having gone through this process following the 2014 season, had a prediction of what would come.

“Stay patient,” Scherzer told me of what he would advise Harper about the process. “There’s going to be, if I had to guess, there’s going to be a lot of -- lot of -- hoopla and negative press trying to tear you down. There will probably be a lot more teams saying, no, they don’t want to sign you than you ever could possibly believe.

“They will find every little thing to critique you over and you can’t let that affect you. You have to have a business mind. You have to stay patient. You have to know the value you create and basically stick to your guns. Just know it’s going to be a fight.”

Harper last played in Nationals Park 14 weeks ago. He closed the season Sept. 30 in Colorado. He’s since been prominent, an every-few-days presence in the news cycle, without uttering a word. He was perhaps most on display -- though not present -- when Scott Boras rambled through an hour-long visit with reporters in Las Vegas.

Pitchers, catchers, and all types are a month away from walking into spring training. That leaves a few more weeks for Harper maneuvering, and perhaps, finally, a decision. An easy path has not materialized. That’s the one thing in all of this known to be true.

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