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What's wrong with Fister and Roark? Plus, Desmond's heating up

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What's wrong with Fister and Roark? Plus, Desmond's heating up

The Nationals' starting rotation hasn't been nearly as good collectively as many predicted it would be this year, and part of the reason has been the disappointing season of Doug Fister.

The Nats' starting staff was one of the best in baseball in 2014 and Fister was their most consistent guy. He went 16-6 with a 2.41 ERA in what was the best year of his career. He finished eighth in NL Cy Young voting and beat now-playoff legend Madison Bumgarner in Game 3 of the NLDS.

Whether it be injuries or something else, 2015 just hasn't been the same for the 6-foot-8 right-hander. Fister got rocked again on Thursday night in the Nationals' 7-3 loss the Pirates, allowing four earned runs on nine hits and a walk in just five innings of work. It was the eighth time in his 13 starts this season that Fister has allowed seven hits or more.

Fister has now surrendered four earned runs or more in seven of his last 11 outings. For a comparison, he did that just four times in 25 starts in 2014. His ERA after Thursday is 4.50, nearly double his mark from last year. He hasn't finished a season with an ERA above 4.00 since 2010.

Fister missed a month of this season with forearm tightness and returned from the DL on June 18 against the Tampa Bay Rays. In his five starts since coming back, he has allowed 18 earned runs in 29 1/3 innings (4.72 ERA).

Fister's fastball velocity has in some outings been down from what it was last year, but his problems seem to run much deeper. Whatever is holding him back is a mystery the Nats would like to solve and soon.

Roark struggles again

Tanner Roark relieved Fister in the sixth inning on Thursday and had yet another poor outing in a long string of them. Roark allowed two runs through two innings - including a two-run homer to Andrew McCutchen - to put the game out of reach.

Roark has now allowed earned runs in five straight relief appearances. He has a 5.10 ERA on the season and has surrendered homers in three of his last four outings.

Up until about two months ago, nothing seemed to faze Roark. He was brought to the majors in 2013 to pitch out of the bullpen and he was excellent. He was converted to a starter and was brilliant for all of 2014. Then he returned to the bullpen for the 2015 season and, at first, thrived.

Whatever the reason, Roark is finally starting to show cracks for the first time in his career, and it certainly isn't helping a Nats bullpen that has already been through its fair share of issues this season.

Desmond continues to heat up

Ian Desmond went 2-for-4 and hit is 100th career home run in a losing effort on Thursday night, a small positive in an otherwise ugly series opener for the Nationals. Desmond is now 7-for-13 with two home runs, 4 RBI and two walks in his last four games. He now has more hits in his last four games than he did in his previous 16.

At several points during this season Desmond has appeared to break out of his months-long slump, so whether he is finally in the clear or not is hard to tell. However, the fact it coincides with a pep talk from Cal Ripken, Jr. has made for a pretty good story.

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Nathan Eovaldi represents the versatile type of pitcher the Nationals need

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Nathan Eovaldi represents the versatile type of pitcher the Nationals need

Editor's note: This week across the NBC Sports Regional Networks, we'll be taking an in-depth look at some of the top free agents in baseball. Thursday is dedicated to Nathan Eovaldi.

Trivia: Who was the key piece in a 2012 trade between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Miami Marlins that sent Hanley Ramirez to L.A.? Yes, Nathan Eovaldi. You, of course, knew that.

Eovaldi later went from Miami to New York to obscurity in Tampa Bay. The Red Sox sent left-handed pitcher Jalen Beeks, a 12th-round pick, to the Rays last season so Eovaldi could help in the stretch run. That changed his world.

He dominated in the postseason. Eovaldi allowed a run in a seven-inning start against the New York Yankees in the ALDS. He came out of the bullpen late in Games 1 and 2 of the World Series. He lost Game 3 of the World Series but was lauded by his teammates for the 97 pitches he threw in relief during the longest game in series history. Eovaldi finished with a 1.61 ERA after 22 ⅓ postseason innings on the mound. He has a World Series ring, and a flood of offseason suitors, to show for it.

He's about to cash in after becoming what is more en vogue: a valued hybrid pitcher. Multiple innings? He can do that. Set up for the closer? He can do that. Spot start? He can do that. Previously, pitchers were banished from the rotation to the bullpen as punishment. Now, being able to do both is a way to previously unavailable contracts, a path which Eovaldi will take this winter as he heads into his age-29 season, representing the kind of versatile pitcher the Nationals currently lack.

Washington was more than aware of Eovaldi before he was traded to Boston. Nationals manager Davey Martinez mentioned being impressed with Eovaldi during a casual conversation with reporters in the dugout in July. Eovaldi had recently thrown six scoreless innings, allowed a hit and struck out nine against the Nationals. The liveliness of his stuff was not in doubt. Eovaldi has always thrown hard. Even his “off-speed” stuff is thrown at an above average pace; he throws 93-mph cutters. However, location was an issue.

In the postseason, Eovaldi’s walks per nine innings dropped drastically from his career average. Though, it appears his October work is an outlier for someone who has long possessed blistering stuff. Overall, the focal point here is when he was dispatched. It was in line with changes the league is making, and the Nationals are behind on.

The organization debated what to do with raw Jefry Rodriguez last season. Martinez hinted at bullpen consideration for the 6-foot-6 Rodriguez, then often added a thought about how well he felt Rodriguez was doing in the rotation. It was a strange assessment of a pitcher who finished with a 5.71 ERA.

How unrefined was Rodriguez? He worked on developing a changeup in-season after reaching the big leagues. It’s not unusual for pitchers to tinker throughout the year. It’s even less so for them to try harnessing a new pitch in spring training. But to basically work from scratch after leaping from Double-A Harrisburg to the National League East showed just how much progress was still ahead.

Which is why Rodriguez likely would have been better off as a 4- to 6-out pitcher as opposed to a rotation member. Less things to worry about. Less variety necessary to gain outs. Less overall exposure.

A run through those likely to be in the 2019 Nationals bullpen shows two prime options to pitch multiple innings: Justin Miller and Wander Suero.

Suero pitched multiple innings in 14 of his 40 appearances last season. That was the highest percentage on the team. Miller did it eight times. Most came earlier in the season. He was torched by the end of it.

“[Miller] comes in and for a long period of time he was really good,” Martinez told me late in the season. “When things went bad, this guy pitched the fourth, the fifth inning. The fifth, the sixth inning. Did everything imaginable and did really well. In the course of the year, you get the fact, he’s pretty tired. Here’s a guy who wasn’t doing anything, came back, is pitching, now he’s in the big leagues and he’s asked to do all these things. I appreciate him very much for doing that. He gets it. He understands it. 

“Moving forward, these are the things we really need to pay attention to because if you want to keep these guys throughout the year and keep them fresh and really actually play for something in October, those are your guys. The Doolittles, the Hollands, the Millers, the Sueros. And Suero is going to be outstanding. Can he pitch for two innings? I don’t know. Can he pitch for one inning? Yeah. But these are things we need to find out moving forward because here’s a guy who can get four outs and be very effective. We need a guy like that.”

The Nationals are acutely aware of their bullpen shortage when it comes to relievers who can throw multiple innings and even provide a spot start. Martinez harped on the idea throughout his first season. Eovaldi’s postseason showed how valuable that flexibility can be. His next contract will show how costly it’s becoming.

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Scherzer finishes second in Cy Young voting

Scherzer finishes second in Cy Young voting

History stalled Wednesday when New York Mets ace Jacob deGrom won the National League Cy Young Award. Washington’s Max Scherzer finished second. Philadelphia’s Aaron Nola was third.

There’s no controversy or debate attached to this award. deGrom was phenomenal for the woebegone Mets. His 1.70 ERA led the league and was enough for the award. His easy victory also showed we continue to make progress toward discounting pitcher wins in totality.

For Scherzer, finishing second means he remains on the outside of one of baseball’s most elite groups. Only four pitchers in MLB history have four or more Cy Young Awards. Scherzer remains with his three. Two of which came in back-to-back seasons. He quickly congratulated deGrom. There was no champagne celebration while on a boat like two years ago.

Scherzer does hold an appreciation for how his fellow National League East pitchers operate. The three are distinct from delivery, to pitch movement, to pitch reliance. For instance, only Nola uses a curveball as his wipeout pitch. Scherzer throws a curveball 7.7 percent of the time in 2018, deGrom 7.9 percent. Nola? He used it 30.9 percent of the time.

So, we present two scouting reports on the three finalists. First, Atlanta first baseman Freddie Freeman, speaking at the All-Star Game:

“[Nola’s] a lot of two-seam, front-hip guy,” Freeman said. “deGrom is all downhill with everything and Scherzer just knows how to pitch. I feel like they’re all different. Nola’s curveball is something special. You feel like you’re going to hit it, then you don’t, every single time. Then he can front hip you with two strikes. You give up on it. Scherzer’s got that cutter. deGrom is just power, power, power.”

And, Scherzer:

“deGrom, what he does so well, is his fastball has so much life he can pitch up in the zone so well,” Scherzer told me at the All-Star Break. “Everything plays off of his fastball. And the way he can get down the mound and use that length to create that ride, that makes him literally one of the best pitchers in the game.

“Nola, he does a great job of using his two-seamer and [sinking] the ball. It’s kind of the opposite. The way he can pitch with his curveball. He can change speeds throughout the at-bat between sinking the ball, his curveball and his changeup, that’s what allows him to be such a talented pitcher.

“I think my stuff lines up closer to deGrom than Nola simply from the fact that deGrom is more of a four-seam, ride the ball, that’s what I do. Nola’s breaking ball is a curveball, whereas my main breaking ball is a slider. That’s where we’re actually very different. I can probably gain more from watching deGrom starts on how he attacks hitters.”

Scherzer has three seasons remaining on his seven-year, $210 million with the Nationals. He was astonished when he entered free agency that teams did not want to give him seven years. He had never been injured for an extended period. He worked diligently to maintain his health. Once he found a suitor in the Nationals, a decision ultimately green-lighted by ownership, he came to the National League and delivered.

Nola is one of the league’s best deals at $573,000 last season to finish third in Cy Young voting. He’s into arbitration for a raise, but will remain one of the reasons the Phillies can compete and spend this offseason.

The Mets and deGrom have a relationship so strange it seems it could only exist in Flushing. deGrom’s former agent, Brodie Van Wagenen, distributed a mid-summer statement that said the Mets should trade deGrom if they were not going to provide him an extension. Van Wagenen is now the Mets general manager. DeGrom is going to arbitration each of the next two years before becoming a free agent.

At a minimum, the three will be back in the division next season and poised to challenge for this award again.

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