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As always, Strasburg all business

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As always, Strasburg all business

Perhaps one of these days -- when he throws a no-hitter or throws the final pitch of a pennant-clinching victory for the Nationals -- Stephen Strasburg will offer up the kind of display of emotion few have ever seen from him.

For now, there's very little that can happen on the field to break through the stone-faced visage of a 23-year-old right-hander who expects the very best from himself and isn't about to publicly celebrate his accomplishments.

Strike out seven of 10 batters over a four-inning stretch? Nothing. Club the first home run of your career and be summoned by an overflow crowd of 41,918 for a curtain call? Just give a quick tip of the cap. Find out your manager revealed you were were dealing with some kind of arm trouble? The exterior expression still doesn't change.

"I just think that's his thing," teammate Danny Espinosa said. "He doesn't show emotion, and that's good. If things are going good or bad, there's no emotion shown, which to me is an even-keeled guy."

There were other important developments during the Nats' 9-3 victory over the Orioles Sunday afternoon in the finale of this series. Bryce Harper overcame an early error to deliver the two-run triple that ignited a sleeping lineup. Jesus Flores mashed only his second big-league homer in three years. Espinosa produced two of his biggest hits in weeks.

At the end of the day, though, the spotlight once again shined brightest on the pitcher who has been under the brightest spotlight since the day the Nationals drafted him three summers ago. For plenty of reasons, some positive, some potentially negative.

Through it all, Strasburg stayed calm and determined. He wasn't fazed by a shaky couple of innings to begin his afternoon, when the Orioles scored three runs (two unearned) and jumped out to an early lead that left many wondering whether Strasburg was about to endure through another outing too similar to his previous laborious appearance five days earlier against the Padres.

He simply retired 10 straight batters, striking out seven to silence the Orioles' potent lineup.

"It was almost like deja vu, especially after what happened the previous game," he said. "I wanted to go out there and do a better job of not letting that affect how I attack hitters. It was nice to be able to go out there and adjust from it and keep the team in the ballgame long enough for us to put some runs on the board."

Unlike that game against San Diego, the Nationals stormed back and got Strasburg off the hook. Though he was just as influential in making that happen as anyone in the lineup.

It was Strasburg's leadoff single in the third that set in motion a three-run rally. And then one inning later, he pulled off his most extraordinary feat yet.

Behind in the count 0-2 to Baltimore left-hander Wei-Yin Chen, Strasburg decided to sit on a curveball. He got one, and the force of his swing sent shockwaves throughout the park.

The ball sailed toward left field, sending Xavier Avery back to the fence. Eventually, the Orioles outfielder ran out of real estate and could only watch as the ball landed in the visitors bullpen, then as Strasburg strolled around the bases on a 26-second victory lap following the first home run of his career.

"Shocking," Strasburg admitted. "That's for sure."

He, of course, was being modest. Those who watch Strasburg hit on a regular basis knew this might happen some day.

"Oh, we watch him all the time; it's a display," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "I think Ryan Zimmerman was joking: He needs to start in the All-Star Game and hit in the Home Run Derby. It's pretty impressive."

Throughout his stroll around the bases, Strasburg never showed any out-of-the-ordinary emotion. He didn't pump his fist. He didn't even appear to smile until he finally returned to the dugout and a few teammates began to rib him.

"I think Strasburg just expects to hit," Espinosa said. "He's a good hitter. He's a good athlete. I don't know, I don't think too much really affects him."

Perhaps not even some arm soreness that may or may not have been significant. Manager Davey Johnson surprisingly volunteered that Strasburg told him following the fifth inning that his right biceps muscle was tight. His pitch count already at 90, Johnson just decided to shut him down for the day.

"His tightness was in his bicep, and he said it was bothering him," the manager said. "Early on, he thought he could get it loose and keep going, but it seemed to get tighter on him. And as soon as I heard that, I said that was it."

Strasburg insisted he had no such issue in his biceps, only the typical kind of fatigue he feels after pitching.

"I wouldn't say it was just my arm," he said. "I think it was just my body."

Strasburg attributed the issue to his having overworked himself in the days since his last start. Perhaps wanting too much to bounce back from a four-inning loss, he did more extensive weight-lifting and throwing in the days since and paid the price for it Sunday when he took the mound.

"Nothing different than any other outing," he reiterated. "It's something that it's going to be like this for probably the rest of the year. It's just part of coming back from Tommy John surgery, building up the innings, getting the stamina and everything. It's something I've just got to be smart about."

Red flags might be waving across town now, but both Johnson and Strasburg insisted he'll make his next start -- currently scheduled for Saturday in Atlanta -- and that there is nothing to be concerned about moving forward. Given Strasburg's history and the manner in which the Nationals have taken extreme precautions with their former No. 1 pick, few would be surprised if the plan changes.

If this is actually something serious, Strasburg certainly wasn't letting on Sunday. He remained his usual self in the postgame clubhouse, chatting with teammates, watching highlights of his performance on MLB Network and eventually showering and dressing for the team's short bus ride to Philadelphia.

For now, he was concerned only with the job he did to help his team snap a three-game losing streak and avoid a sweep at the hands of the Orioles.

That's Strasburg's job, and he's very serious about it.

"To be completely honest, I'm the type of person I want to take ownership," he said. "I want to take charge. I want to be that guy they can rely on to get the job done. At times, I feel like I have to do more to go out there and get the team back on track. And a lot of it's out of my control. I have to go out there and try to do my job. And if everybody does their job, we're going to be OK."

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With Melancon in store, what do Nats do with Papelbon?

With Melancon in store, what do Nats do with Papelbon?

For the Nationals to bring in Jonathan Papelbon last July in a trade with the Phillies, he had to first waive the no-trade clause in his contract. He accepted the move to leave Philadelphia with the understanding he would be the closer in Washington. Drew Storen was moved to the eighth inning and, for a variety of reasons, the trade blew up in the Nationals' faces.

Now they have done the same to Papelbon. They traded for All-Star closer Mark Melancon on Saturday in order to solidify the ninth inning and Papelbon has been replaced.

The question now becomes not only what the Nats do with their embattled reliever, but also how he reacts. As evidenced by his comments last July right after he was traded to the Nationals, being a closer means a lot to him:

''For me I'm getting up there on the all-time closing list and that's important to me. When Theo (Epstein) had me as a young kid in Boston and he wanted to start to me and I said, `No, I'm a closer, that's what I want to be, and that's who I am.' This is what I envisioned. I envisioned chasing Mariano. I've told Mariano that at many All-Star games, `I'm coming after you.' So that's part of it," Papelbon said.

''Ego may be a part of it or whatever you want to say, but for me it's a path that I started 11 years ago and now I'm trying to do everything I can to continue that and win championships as a closer."

Until Papelbon speaks on the subject himself, there's no reason to believe he won't accept the demotion. And truthfully, there are plenty of reasons why he shouldn't have a problem with it.

For one, it is just for a few months. He is an impending free agent and will be able to seek a closer role with another team. If Papelbon turns his season around and becomes an effective setup man or seventh inning guy, he could be paid handsomely this winter.

Papelbon does also kind of owe the Nationals one, doesn't he? For all they put up with last year with the Bryce Harper incident and the suspension and contract grievance that followed, the Nationals have treated Papelbon much better than many teams would if presented the same circumstances. They brought him back this season as a reclamation project and until Saturday had shown plenty of patience with his actions both on and off the field.

Exactly how they will use Papelbon is unclear. Whether the Nats trust Papelbon more than other options like Shawn Kelley, Blake Treinen and Sammy Solis is hard to tell. And whatever their plans are, the Nats may not outline them publicly, as manager Dusty Baker has been reluctant to discuss specific bullpen roles this season. 

A Papelbon-Melancon combination doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but the potential is there for a lethal eighth and ninth inning duo, if they choose to go that route. Both would bring experience and toughness to the pennant race and beyond.

Papelbon still provides value and the Nats can very much still use him. What they do and how he feels about it, though, are real questions at this point.

[RELATED: Nats may have gotten a steal with Melancon]

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Nats pull off impressive trade to land closer Melancon from Pirates

Nats pull off impressive trade to land closer Melancon from Pirates

The Nationals addressed their most pressing need in a big way on Saturday and they didn't have to give up one of their top prospects to make it happen.

The Nats acquired All-Star closer Mark Melancon from the Pittsburgh Pirates for lefty reliever Felipe Rivero and prospect Taylor Hearn, CSN Mid-Atlantic has confirmed. FOX Sports was first to break the news.

Melancon, 31, joins the Nationals for the remainder of this season as an upcoming free agent. The right-hander holds a 1.51 ERA and has 30 saves in 33 chances. 

Melancon has been an excellent closer for years with a 1.80 ERA and 130 saves since he joined the Pirates before the 2013 season. Three times during that stretch he made the NL All-Star team and he finished eighth in Cy Young voting in 2015.

Melancon will close for the Nationals, which begs the question of what to do with Jonathan Papelbon. Papelbon joined the Nats last summer with the understanding he would be their closer and has spoken before about his quest to challenge Mariano Rivera's all-time saves record. Regardless of how Papelbon reacts, the Nationals have found a better option for the ninth inning in Melancon.

Melancon has three years of postseason experience, as well. He has appeared in six playoff games with four earned runs across 5 2/3 total innings allowed.

Rivero, 25, leaves for the Pirates with a 4.53 ERA in 47 appearances this season. He is under team control through 2021. Rivero throws 100 miles per hour and has flashed potential through his two years in Washington, but remains a raw talent.

Hearn was a fifth round pick out of Oklahoma Baptist in 2015. He posted a 3.18 ERA in eight games at Single-A Hagerstown this season.

Both Rivero and Hearn are intriguing young pitchers, but overall this trade looks like a steal for the Nationals, especially considering what the Cubs gave up for Aroldis Chapman and what the Yankees have reportedly been asking for with Andrew Miller.

The Nats did not have to part with any of their top prospects to land Melancon, who leaves a Pirates team that is only three games out of a playoff spot. That last detail could be something to keep in mind down the stretch of this season.

Why did the Pirates let Melancon go? It is not often you see a team in their position trade their lockdown closer and strengthen another team in their league at the same time. It's a strange decision, but the Nats will take it.

[RELATED: Scherzer, Werth shine in Nats' thrilling win at Giants]

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Report: Nats make deadline trade for All-Star closer Melancon

Report: Nats make deadline trade for All-Star closer Melancon

The Nationals have found their new closer.

According to a report by FOX Sports' Ken Rosenthal, the Nats agreed on a trade with the Pittsburgh Pirates on Friday afternoon for All-Star closer Mark Melancon.

The Nats sent lefty reliever Felipe Rivero to Pittsburgh along with prospect Taylor Hearn, another lefty.

Melancon has a 1.51 ERA and 30 saves this season. He saved 51 games last year and finished eighth in NL Cy Young voting.

More to come...

[RELATED: Scherzer, Werth shine in Nats' thrilling win at Giants]

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