1. The Nationals so need to pile up wins right now. I said that they needed to go a minimum of 5-2 over their seven games at Pittsburgh and the Mets to conclude the pre-All-Star-Break portion of the season. Well, that’s not happening, as they’re 2-3 so far. Winning three of four over Miami was nice, but getting slaughtered 10-2 by the Marlins on Sunday afternoon was disappointing, as was losing two of three at the Pirates and as now is having gone 1-1 in a four-game series at the Mets. I still very much believe that the Nats surge as this season goes on. But they’ve got to take advantage of playing bad teams like the Marlins, Pirates and Mets. Friday night’s loss coupled with Philadelphia’s 2-0 win at Miami put the Nats 6 1/2 games behind the National League East-leading Phillies. The Nats are 47-47; they would have to go 43-25 the rest of the season in order to get to 90 wins, and even that may not be enough to make the playoffs. The good news is that the Nats after the All-Star break have 12 games against the lowly Marlins, nine games against the lowly Mets and a four-game series at home against lowly Cincinnati. But none of this matters if the Nats don’t win.
2. The Nats’ offense very much remains a work in progress, and even the team’s wins are leaving a lot to be desired. The Nats in Tuesday night’s 5-1 win at Pittsburgh had 12 hits to go with four walks, but the team also struck out 13 times and went 0-for-6 with runners in scoring position over just the first two innings alone, with four of the outs coming via strikeouts and with the Nats leaving the bases loaded in the bottom of the first. Then came Wednesday afternoon’s 2-0 loss at the Pirates, who handed the Nats their ninth shutout loss in 36 games (a run that began on June 1). The 5-4 win at the Mets on Thursday night was nice, that was a game that included the Nats going just 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position. And now we have this 4-2 loss at the Mets on Friday night, during which the Nats went 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position. The Nats are 8-for-49 with runners in scoring position over the team’s last six games. The team just isn’t coming through nearly enough in the clutch, and, yes, how a team does with runners in scoring position can be a quirky and fluky thing, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. Some of this is bad luck, like what happened to end the top of the first on Friday night – Anthony Rendon hitting a ball hard up the middle but right to ex-Nat Asdrubal Cabrera for an unassisted double play, as he then stepped on second base to double-up Adam Eaton. But some of this also is just plain failing, like Bryce Harper grounding into a first-pitch inning-ending double play with runners on first and second in the top of the fifth on Friday night. Or Matt Wieters striking out with runners on first and second and no outs despite having been up in the count 3-0, as happened in the top of the sixth on Friday night. And then there are the base-running blunders – the TOOTBLANs. We had another on Friday night, as Wilmer Difo got thrown out at third on an Adam Eaton grounder to Mets shortstop Amed Rosario for the first out in a top of the third that began so promisingly with a leadoff triple by Tanner Roark and then RBI double by Difo.
3. Has Bryce Harper finally found a permanent spot in Dave Martinez’s lineup? Bryce now has batted in the no. 4 spot in each of the last 11 games (starting with the 11-4 loss to Boston on July 3), though it’s not like he has been on fire during this stretch: 7-for-37 with 11 walks. You love the 11 walks, but the seven hits, of course, are way to few. Bryce had a one-out two-run homer on a towering blast to right field off ex-Nat Jerry Blevins in the top of the seventh in Thursday night’s 5-4 win at the Mets and had a leadoff full-count solo homer to dead center in the top of the sixth in the 6-3 loss at Pittsburgh on Monday night. But he also had that hideous performance in the 5-1 win at the Pirates on Tuesday night, during which he went 0-for-5 with four strikeouts and committed a throwing error in the Pirates’ one-run seventh. Bryce’s OPS for the season has gone from 1.073 off a two-homer game in a 7-3 win over Philadelphia on May 4 to now .837 – a 197-point decline. And how about Dave Martinez after Friday night’s 4-2 loss at the Mets admitting that Bryce did not run hard enough on his first-pitch inning-ending double play with runners on first and second in the top of the fifth.
4. Dave Martinez continues to rotate Adam Eaton and Michael A. Taylor. Eaton was the starting right fielder for all three games in the series loss at Pittsburgh and was pretty good, going 6-for-11 with a double and five singles. He in the 6-3 loss at the Pirates on Monday night had a double, a first-pitch RBI single in the top of the second and another single batting in the no. 5 spot. Eaton in the 5-1 win at the Pirates on Tuesday night had two singles, including a one-out opposite-field RBI single on a 1-2 pitch in the Nats’ three-run sixth, and a hit-by-pitch batting in the no. 1 spot. And he had two singles in the 4-2 loss at the Mets on Friday night. But Eaton playing in right and Bryce Harper continuing to play quite a bit in center (he was the starting center field for all three games at the Pirates and again on Friday night at the Mets) has meant a lot less of Taylor, who has started just one of the last six games. His start in the 5-4 win at the Mets on Thursday night was his first in five games. But good for Taylor for providing a reminder for why he should be playing more – his defense. Taylor gunned down Jose Bautista at second base on his RBI single in the bottom of the first and also had a single and a stolen base. The Nats have three terrific defenders in Taylor, Anthony Rendon and Trea Turner; Turner may not have won the National League Final Vote, but he in the 6-3 loss at the Pirates on Monday night made a terrific sliding grab on the border of the infield dirt and outfield grass while running to his left and then a spinning throw from the outfield grass to first base on a Francisco Cervelli groundout that began the top of the fifth.
5. 19-year-old Juan Soto has cooled off a bit but does continue to produce. He has become a fixture as the Nats’ starting left fielder batting in the no. 2 spot. Soto in the 6-3 loss at Pittsburgh on Monday night had a two-out full-count solo homer in the top of the fifth. He in the 5-1 win at the Pirates on Tuesday night had a one-out bases-loaded walk in the Nats’ three-run sixth and three singles. He has three singles over the first two games at the Mets. Soto now has a .942 OPS over 201 major-league plate appearances.
6. It is Anthony Rendon who leads all qualified Nats in OPS (.878), slugging percentage (.530) and batting average (.284). He in the 5-4 win at the Mets on Thursday night had a one-out first-pitch two-run homer to left-center off Steven Matz in the top of the first, a one-out solo homer to left field off Matz off having been down in the count 0-2 in the top of the third and a single. Rendon in the 5-1 win at Pittsburgh on Tuesday night had a two-out first-pitch two-run homer to left-center in the top of the fifth off Joe Musgrove. Rendon’s OPS for the season has shot up 97 points since June 5.
7. We are seeing positive signs from Daniel Murphy, who has been back to starting at second base as opposed to first base with Matt Adams back. Murphy in the 4-2 loss at the Mets on Friday night had two walks and in the 5-4 win at the Mets on Thursday night had a single and two walks, making him 8-for-15 with four walks over his last five games off posting a mere .495 OPS over 78 plate appearances in 22 games this season. Murphy in the 6-3 loss at Pittsburgh on Monday night had two singles batting in the no. 6 spot. He in the 5-1 win at the Pirates on Tuesday night had two doubles and two singles batting in the no. 7 spot. Murphy did not play in the 2-0 loss at the Pirates on Wednesday afternoon, presumably to give the knee a rest.
8. Matt Wieters had a single in the 6-3 loss at Pittsbrugh on Monday night in his return from a 50-game absence caused by a left-hamstring injury that required surgery. But how about the corresponding roster move to Wieters being activated from the 10-day disabled list on Monday? Fellow catcher Pedro Severino – and not Spencer Kieboom – was optioned to Triple-A Syracuse. No doubt that Severino’s abysmal batting had a lot to do with this. But ya gotta wonder if his recent problems with Gio Gonzalez and/or Dave Martinez calling out Severino for his bat flip after his three-run homer in Saturday night’s 18-4 rout of Miami had anything to do with this. By the way, it’s not like Wieters has been some massive upgrade over Severino offensively – 2-for-15 with one walk over four games.
9. Stephen Strasburg is tracking toward making his return in the Nats’ return from the All-Star break on July 20 in Game 1 of a big three-game series against Atlanta at Nationals Park. Strasburg made a rehab start for High-A Potomac on Tuesday night, allowing one run in 3 1/3 innings on five strikeouts versus two hits and a walk in a 7-4 win at the Lynchburg Hillcats. Strasburg rejoined the Nats in New York and threw a bullpen session on Thursday in front of coaches and club officials and will make one more rehab start, this on Sunday at Potomac against the Orioles’ High-A affiliate, the Frederick Keys. Strasburg hasn’t pitched in a major-league game since June 8 due to right-shoulder inflammation. The Nats have gone from 36-25 at the start of that day to now 47-47.
10. Tanner Roark in the 4-3 loss at the Mets on Friday night struggled for an eighth time in 10 games, allowing four runs in five innings on eight hits and two walks versus five strikeouts. Roark again got singled to death, as seven of the eight hits that he allowed were singles. He now has allowed 18 hits over his last two starts; 17 of the 18 hits have been singles. So, yes, there is an element of bad luck with what’s going on with Tanner. But the problem when you’re not a strikeout pitcher is that you are subject to the variance of the batted ball, and this is what is going on with Tanner, and by the way, it’s not like his BABIP allowed this season is some ridiculous number (.310 per MLB.com). Tanner on Friday night allowed three runs in the bottom of the first on four singles and an RBI sac fly; the first three singles came in succession to begin that bottom of the first, including a single by ex-Nat Asdrubal Cabrera on a 1-2 pitch. Roark allowed a run in the bottom of the second on a leadoff triple by Amed Rosario and then a first-pitch RBI single by the opposing pitcher, Noah Syndergaard. Roark after the one-run second did then toss three scoreless innings, but the bottom line is that his ERA for the season has gone from 3.17 to 4.87 over his last 10 games.
11. Max Scherzer was good though not dominant in the 5-4 win at the Mets on Thursday night. He allowed three runs in seven innings on two homers, a double, two singles and two walks. The two homers were a leadoff homer by Jose Bautista (who has killed Max over the years) to left-center in the bottom of the fourth and a two-out solo homer by Kevin Plawecki to left field in the bottom of the seventh. Max now has allowed five homers over his last two starts. He also now has been underwhelming from a strikeout perspective in three of his last four starts; he had just five strikeouts in seven innings on Thursday night. That’s not terrible or anything, but it is far from the strikeout-plus-per-inning Max that we’ve become accustomed to if not spoiled by. Max has 21 strikeouts in 27 innings over his last four starts. The other run that he allowed on Thursday night came on a one-out RBI single by Bautista in the bottom of the first, plating ex-Nat Asdrubal Cabrera off his one-out double on a 1-2 pitch.
12. Very nice to see Gio Gonzalez do as he did in the 2-0 loss at Pittsburgh on Wednesday afternoon. Off having struggled in some form in five of his previous six starts, he allowed two runs in six innings. The runs came on a two-out two-run homer by Starling Marte to dead center in the bottom of the third off a leadoff double by Jordy Mercer. But otherwise Gio was quite good, and as encouraging as maybe anything was him issuing just one walk. He had issued a jaw-dropping 13 walks in 10 innings over his last three starts. How much of all of this had to do with Gio throwing to Matt Wieters? Gio had had obvious problems with Pedro Severino, especially during the 4-3 13-inning loss at Philadelphia on July 1, during which a three-run Phillies fifth off Gio included him becoming visibly agitated with his Severino, motioning him to pick up the pace and get back to giving signals. Well, Severino was demoted to Triple-A Syracuse on Monday. It is worth noting that Gio had a 2.25 ERA in five starts with Wieters catching earlier this season as opposed to a 4.39 ERA over 13 starts with Severino, Spencer Kieboom and Miguel Montero. Who Gio was facing in these games has something to do with all of this, but you can’t just dismiss the possibility that Wieters from a game-calling standpoint is the Nats’ best catcher.
13. Now that was more like it from Jeremy Hellickson in Tuesday night’s 5-1 win at Pittsburgh. Off having struggled big time (12 runs (11 earned) in 8 1/3 innings) in two starts since not having pitched in a major-league game since June 3 due to a right-hamstring strain, he got back to what had become the norm prior to the injury: five scoreless innings on just two singles, a walk and a balk versus three strikeouts. This was the Hellickson who had been on display so often over his first nine starts, during which he had a 2.28 ERA and 0.92 WHIP. Hellickson was a strike-throwing machine during that stretch and was again on Tuesday night, tossing 45 of his 67 pitches for strikes. And as also was the case during that stretch, Dave Martinez pulled Hellickson essentially once he began facing the opposing lineup for a third time; Hellickson, in fact, was removed in this game on Tuesday night once he had precisely faced the Pirates’ lineup twice.
14. Jeffry Rodriguez should not be making starts at the major-league level, and the fact that he now has made three is a major indictment of the Nats’ lack of organizational depth at starting pitcher. There aren’t many things that you can ciriticize the man who I call The Ninja, Mike Rizzo, for, but this is one of them. Rodriguez got shellacked in Monday night’s 6-3 loss at the Pirates: six runs in five innings on a homer, a triple, three doubles, three singles and four walks (one of which was intentional). He allowed three runs in the bottom of the first by giving up four consecutive hits: leadoff single by Corey Dickerson on an 0-2 pitch, double by Starling Marte, two-run single by Gregory Polanco (who had been down in the count 1-2) and an RBI double by Colin Moran. Rodriguez then allowed three more runs in the bottom of the second on a full-count leadoff walk of Max Moroff (who had been down in the count 0-2), a one-out RBI triple by Dickerson on a 1-2 pitch and a two-out first-pitch two-run homer by Polanco. Rodriguez did then toss three scoreless innings, but they were not at all clean innings. The outing left him with an ERA of 6.86 over five games, including three starts. Rodriguez was signed out of the Dominican Republic and looks the part, being listed as being 6-6 and 232 pounds and possessing a live arm. But he has no business starting games at the major-league level right now, especially for a win-now team like the Nats. He has pitched mostly for Double-A Harrisburg this season, and it’s not like he was super dominant there. The Nats on Tuesday sent Rodriguez back down to Triple-A Syracuse and called up Austin Voth from Syracuse for the fourth time this season. Voth has yet to actually make his major-league debut, but he will start Saturday’s Game 3 at the Mets at 4:10 p.m. Voth was taken by the Nats in the fifth round of the 2013 draft and has a 3.55 ERA over 15 games for Triple-A Syracuse this season.
15. The Nats’ bullpen for the most part continues to be solid, allowing just one run in nine innings in losing two of three at Pittsburgh and one run in five innings over these first two games at the Mets. Matt Grace, Shawn Kelley and Justin Miller each tossed a scoreless inning in Monday night’s 6-3 loss at the Pirates. Kelley and Miller each tossed a scoreless inning in the 2-0 loss at the Pirates on Wednesday afternoon. Miller, Grace and Kelley each tossed a scoreless inning in Friday night’s 4-2 loss at the Mets. But you tell me – are you impressed with Kelvin Herrera so far? He gave up a one-out solo homer to ex-Nat Asdrubal Cabrera in the bottom of the eighth in the 5-4 win at the Mets on Thursday night, leaving Herrera with a 4.66 ERA and 1.55 WHIP so far with the Nats, for whom he has allowed five runs in 9 2/3 innings with three homers. And by the way, Herrera followed that homer by Cabrera on Thursday night by issuing back-to-back full-count walks of Jose Bautista and Michael Conforto. Also, Herrera got in trouble in the bottom of the ninth of in Tuesday night’s 5-1 win at the Pirates, loading the bases with two outs off a first-pitch leadoff single by Elias Diaz followed by a two-out full-count walk of Moroff (who had been down in the count 1-2) and then a single by Austin Meadows. But Herrera then struck out a pinch-hitting Francisco Cervelli on three pitches. Herrera, who had just two walks in 25 2/3 innings this season when the Nats acquired him via trade with Kansas City, now has six walks in 9 2/3 innings with the Nats.
16. It was Ryan Madson who recorded the save in the 5-4 win at the Mets on Thursday night, and this was because the Nats on Tuesday placed Sean Doolittle on the 10-day disabled list with what the team called left-toe inflammation but what he called a pinched nerve between his big toe and second toe. This hurt on several levels: 1) the Nats will not have their best reliever until after the All-Star break 2) it’s not a given that Doolittle will be ready as soon as the 10 days are up; he on Tuesday couldn’t say for certain that he would be ready when the break is over and 3) Doolittle, an All-Star closer, will not pitch in the All-Star Game at Nationals Park this Tuesday night. In a season in which the other two-thirds (Ryan Madson and Brandon Kintzler) of The Law Firm has struggled, Doolittle has been terrific, registering a 1.45 ERA and 11.8 K/9 in 37 1/3 innings and going 22-for-23 on saves.
17. I mentioned the minor injury confusion with Sean Doolittle; how bout what emerged with Ryan Zimmerman on Thursday? Zimmerman, who hasn’t played since May 9 due to a right-oblique strain that feels like it’s never gonna heal, had to shoot down continued talk of him also having a calf problem that he has been rumored to have had since spring training, potentially explaing why he barely played during spring training. MLB insider Jon Heyman of Fancred Sports reported on Thursday that “according to an N.L. executive, there was a calf injury in spring, and also a recurrence recently (though, the Nats continue to call it only an oblique). While it was written that the Nats weren’t using Zimmerman in games this spring as a grand experiment to preserve older veterans, and at the least the Nats never corrected the record, the reality is that Zimmerman missed almost all spring training with a calf injury. He got at-bats on the back field in simulated games, but in those at-bats, he just got at-bats and didn’t run to first base, or certainly run the bases. It’s a little unusual this went undetected as some other teams began to wonder whether the Nats’ grand experiment – which wasn’t really an experiment at all – might be worth trying for their own players.” Why is it that the Nats seem to have more of these injury confusions/mysteries/concealments/mishaps than any other team?