For the second time in two weeks, the Nationals have sent top prospect Lucas Giolito back down to the minors to work on some things.
The former first round pick who many consider to be the top prospect in baseball has hit a rough patch this season. His talent has been well-documented and it's obvious on the mound. But the results at the big league level have yet to follow through three MLB starts and even Giolito will admit he is not where he wants to be.
The Nationals saw Giolito labor through 3 2/3 innings against the Padres on Sunday, then sent him to Triple-A Syracuse 90 minutes after the game was over. The kid who has the stuff to strike out anybody struck out nobody in his latest MLB turn and only got one swing-and-miss in his 66 pitches.
Something is off and they are determined to figure it out.
“I was talking to [Wilson] Ramos when I took him out and he said he just couldn’t get any of his secondary pitches over, his curveball or his changeup," manager Dusty Baker said. "He was really down to one pitch. And you have to have either tremendous gas, or you have to be able to locate to the max. It’s back to the drawing board with him.”
Baker has offered detailed critiques of Giolito since he debuted on June 28. Part of him has been impressed by the 22-year-old. But as a 21-year veteran MLB manager, he's seen countless top prospects and knows Giolito has plenty of work to do to reach his potential.
Last week when the Nats chose prospect Reynaldo Lopez to face the Dodgers instead of Giolito, Baker offered a blunt assessment.
"What we want… in the progress of certain players, it doesn't coincide sometimes," he said.
Giolito's fastball reached 95 and 96 on Sunday, but sometimes dipped to the 91-93 range. That's fine, but nowhere near the upper 90s to 100 he has thrown in the past.
But, as Baker describes, it's not so much the velocity that is hurting him. It's the inability to command his curveball and changeup. Giolito only threw four changeups on Sunday.
"I wasn't commanding my off speed pitches for strikes," Giolito said. "So when I fall behind batters instead of being able to go to changeup or curveball, I was throwing fastballs and big league hitters are able to take my offspeed pitches out of the equation if I'm not throwing it for a strike. So, they kind of jumped on that."
Giolito's offspeed repertoire has been a work in progress all season and he has had trouble walking batters as a result. On Sunday, he walked three batters and now has nine through three big league starts. In the minors this season, Giolito has walked 36 batters in 84 2/3 innings.
During spring training, his first big league camp, Giolito's curveball and changeup were sharp. But as the season has progressed, he's seen his command come and go.
"It's frustrating because my last outing at Syracuse I was commanding offspeed pitches pretty well and I had a good outing. I didn't translate that into today, obviously. I just have to keep working and try to get better at it," he said.
Along the way Giolito has made several minor mechanical adjustments. But lately, he has been working with a noticeable one, his delivery has been compacted to eliminate a full windup. Instead, Giolito almost works out of the stretch even when runners are not on base.
"I augmented my windup so that I already have my foot planted from where I start it from instead of the movement before hand, I felt like that's been a good change for me, kind of less movement going into the windup. I feel comfortable doing that," he said.
Making changes, both big and small, is part of the learning process for Giolito as a professional pitcher. The Nationals are confident he'll soon be able to tap into his immense potential, it's just going to take some time for him to figure it out.
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Less than 90 minutes after their 10-6 loss to the San Diego Padres, the Nationals wasted no time in making a pair of roster moves to pave the way for the expected returns of first baseman Ryan Zimmerman and reliever Sammy Solis from the disabled list.
The two casualties were starter Lucas Giolito, who struggled earlier in the day in his third MLB appearance, and outfielder Michael Taylor, who went 0-for-4 with two strikeouts in the loss. Both were optioned to Triple-A Syracuse.
Zimmerman and Solis are expected to return to the Nationals on Tuesday when they play at the Cleveland Indians. The Nats are off Monday before they begin an 11-day, nine-game road trip with stops also in San Francisco and Arizona.
Zimmerman will rejoin the Nats after rehabbing from a left rib cage strain. He has been on the disabled list since July 7. He went 5-for-12 with a homer and five RBI in three minor league rehab games with the Single-A Potomac Nationals.
Solis has been on the DL since July 8 with right knee inflammation. He pitched two rehab games, one with Potomac and one with Single-A Hagerstown. Solis gave up one run on a homer in his two total innings of work.
Giolito goes back down to Triple-A after making one start with the Nats. He allowed four runs, two of them earned, in 3 2/3 innings against San Diego. Giolito has given up six earned runs in 11 total big league innings this season.
Taylor also returns to Syracuse. He was called up on July 8 when Zimmerman was placed on the DL. Taylor is hitting .222 with seven homers and 14 RBI in 66 games this season.
With Zimmerman back in the infield, Trea Turner is expected to be the odd man out. That could mean a return to the Nats' bench, or an experiment with him in center field. Turner began learning the position several weeks ago by playing six games at center in Triple-A. With Taylor now out of the mix, he could be at the very least the team's backup option at the position.
Whether they will start him there soon, though, is hard to tell.
"I got to get Zim back in the lineup. He’s a big part of our offense," manager Dusty Baker said. "We just got to try to find a place with Zim coming back, find a place for [Turner] to play."
"I did it in Syracuse and I'll do it here if they need me to," Turner said of playing center.
"It's something that I've embraced. It's something that I'll do if they need me to."
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Sunday was not a banner day for a Nationals bullpen that has for the most part exceeded expectations this season.
First, setup man Shawn Kelley - who has been reliable for most of this year - allowed two solo home runs in the top of the eighth. That vanished a two-run lead for the Nats, allowing the Padres to tie it at 6-6.
Then, in the ninth inning it was Jonathan Papelbon, who hadn't allowed a run in eight straight outings since returning from the DL. His luck run out with a four-run frame, one that sunk the Nats with a 10-6 deficit.
That Kelley-Papelbon combination looked mighty good just one night before against the same team. But they couldn't close the deal in a game the Nationals held a two-run advantage entering the eighth inning.
Both pitchers blamed location for their problems. Manager Dusty Baker, though, offered one theory for Papelbon.
"I don’t like to make excuses, but I don’t like to use my closer three days in a row. And this was three days in a row for Pap," he said. "But we didn’t have a choice. The ball wasn’t coming out today the way it had been since he came back from the injury."
Papelbon shot down the premise that he was running out of gas.
"No, I was not tired," he said matter of factly.
It was, to be fair, just the second time this season he's been used for three straight days.
For Papelbon, his trouble started with a one-out walk to Wil Myers. From there, Yangervis Solarte landed an RBI single, and Alex Dickerson and Ryan Schimpf then singled to load the bases. That set up a bases-clearing double by Alexei Ramirez to end Papelbon's day.
The closer, soaked in sweat on a 96-degree day, walked slowly off the mound and to the dugout to a cascade of boos from Nationals fans. It was his first uneven outing in a while, but it was an ugly one and the crowd let him hear all about it.
"It boiled down to location. Coming in there in a situation where we've gotta preserve everything we can, every pitch matters in that situation," Papelbon said.
Kelley's homers were hit by Dickerson and Schimpf. Both players took advantage of similar mistakes.
"Just two pitches that weren't up enough," Kelley said. "Both balls were on the corners in the right direction, I just wanted them a few balls higher. I just didn't get them there. I was just looking at them and talking to some people. They were not bad pitches, but to those two guys, they like the ball in those spots. Just gotta be better right off the bat and execute better with the heater."
Kelley and Papelbon have both enjoyed solid seasons and have formed an above average late-innings duo. But that may not stop the Nationals from pulling off an aggressive move before the trade deadline. They have already shown strong interest in Yankees closer Aroldis Chapman and seem intent on adding at least something to their relief corps.
How Kelley and Papelbon will be affected is unclear. It will depend, of course, on what caliber pitcher they acquire, if they choose to bring one in.
For now, however, the Nats bullpen is focused on bouncing back Tuesday when the team travels to Cleveland to play the first-place Indians.
"We come out and whip their butts. That's what we do," Kelley said. This is a great team. We've got a resilient bullpen. A little blip today, but we'll be right back out there on Tuesday."
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