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Cards steal one from Nats

Cards steal one from Nats

For five months, the Nationals have known they could lose a game because of their inability to stop opponents from stealing bases off them. When it finally came to fruition Saturday evening, there was nothing they could do but acknowledge once again this is a problem area and that they'll continue to try to address it.

That didn't make this 10-9 loss to the Cardinals sting any less. In what proved to be among their most frustrating losses of the season, the Nationals wasted an early offensive outburst, saw their presumed playoff ace get smoked for a career-high eight runs, rally to take the lead on some heads-up baserunning and then watch as the back end of their bullpen gave up the tying and winning runs before an exasperated crowd of 34,004.

There were no shortage of significant developments that took place over the course of 3 hours and 29 minutes on a muggy, 91-degree late-afternoon in the District, but the defining moment surely came when Drew Storen let Allen Craig steal second base without drawing a throw in the top of the ninth of a tie game. Moments later, Craig came around to score on David Freese's single to left, the final blow of a wild ballgame.

"I'm just concentrating on trying to get a groundball there," Storen said. "And he just took the base."

Storen is hardly the only member of the Nationals' staff to be victimized by the stolen base this season. They've now given up 97 free bases on 113 attempts -- an 85.8 percent success rate that ranks only behind the Pirates for worst in the majors -- and almost all of it is directly attributable to pitchers' inability to hold runners on.

Storen's delivery to the plate may be the slowest on the entire staff. He was timed at a whopping 2.0 seconds by the Nationals' coaching staff on Saturday, nearly three-quarters of a second slower than the MLB average.

"With that move, anybody can steal," manager Davey Johnson grumbled.

And by "anybody," Johnson certainly was describing Craig, a slow-footed outfielder who in his career has had 271 opportunities to steal either second or third base and has attempted to do it only eight times.

"It's something I need to work on," Storen said, "and just something I guess I need to make an adjustment for next time."

The crucial stolen base (and subsequent RBI single) capped a wild ballgame that featured plenty of shaky pitching by the Nationals. It began with Jordan Zimmermann's worst start of the year, a laborious outing in which the right-hander allowed eight runs in only 3 23 innings.

Making that even worse, Zimmermann was handed a 4-0 lead after the first inning, then a 6-2 lead after the second. He gave all the runs back and then some, serving up home runs to Freese and Matt Holliday and later a three-run double to Matt Carpenter.

Thus continued Zimmermann's late-summer, downward slide. After posting a league-best 2.28 ERA over his first 21 starts, he's seen that number skyrocket to 6.16 over his last six games.

"I'm trying to do the same things I've been doing all year," he said. "When it was going good, I felt like I could go out there and throw anything and it would be a strike or a groundball. ... They're just putting the ball in play and hitting the ball harder right now."

Zimmermann, who was held back a couple of days with right shoulder inflammation last month, insisted his arm feels fine. He's now thrown 164 23 innings, most of his career, but he's not concerned about fatigue down the stretch.

"I feel great," he said. "I feel strong. The velocity's there, and the pitches have got pretty good break. I'm just leaving them over the middle right now."

Despite their starter's struggles, the Nationals still put themselves in position to win this game thanks to a sixth-inning rally that saw the tying and go-ahead runs score on Ryan Zimmerman's two-out single to right. Jayson Werth scored easily from second base, but the real highlight was Zimmerman intentionally getting himself into a rundown between first and second, buying time for Bryce Harper to sprint home with the go-ahead run.

Harper, a former catcher in high school and junior college, said his experience at the position allowed him to better read the play, sensing St. Louis' Yadier Molina would leave the plate uncovered while throwing to get Zimmerman in the rundown.

"He's pretty aggressive with his arm," Harper said of Molina. "I would've done the exact same thing if I was catching. So I was just thinking to myself: 'What would I do?' and he did the exact same thing."

That heads-up move put the Nationals ahead 9-8, but it only made the ensuing bullpen collapse all the tougher to swallow.

Thanks to the Braves' loss against Philadelphia, their lead in the NL East remains 6 12 games and their magic number dropped to 24, which was some consolation at day's end.

"The important thing is we just took a game off the calendar," said right fielder Jayson Werth, who departed in the ninth inning with leg cramping but expects to play Sunday. "Atlanta lost, so nothing changes."

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Trea Turner is ready to step in and play center field for Nats if needed

Trea Turner is ready to step in and play center field for Nats if needed

With the expected return of first baseman Ryan Zimmerman on Tuesday, there will be some shuffling on the Nats roster, most notably with Trea Turner getting bumped from their infield.

Zimmerman, despite his .221/.284/.402 slash this year, is going right back into the starting lineup. He's a proven veteran, went 5-for-12 on his rehab assignment and manager Dusty Baker has already confirmed that plan, not that it needed to be done.

"I've got to get Zim back in the lineup. He’s a big part of our offense. And certainly, if I get Zim back in the lineup, that means [Daniel] Murphy is at second base," Baker said.

Turner will be out of the infield mix, but with Michael Taylor going back to Triple-A Syracuse, the door may be open for Turner to play some in the outfield. A lifelong middle infielder, Turner has been learning center field recently. He played six games there at Syracuse and has been doing outifled drills for several weeks now. 

Turner has shown in recent games the impact he can make offensively. He has 11 hits and four steals in his last nine games and in his last five outings alone has three triples and five runs. The Nats have seen the worst production of any team from their leadoff spot with a dead-last .586 OPS collectively. Taylor's now gone and Ben Revere's still hitting just .216 through 61 games.

"Now we've just got to try to find [Turner's] place with Zim coming back, find a place for him to play," Baker said.

If that is in center field, Turner feels ready to step in. 

"I did it in Syracuse and I'll do it here if they need me to," he said. "It's something that I've embraced, I guess. It's something that I'll do if they need me to. I'll continue to work out there whenever they give me the chance. On days I don't play, I go out there and shag some balls just to make sure I'm staying on top of it. It hasn't happened yet, but if it does I'll be ready."

Six games in Triple-A, of course, is not a lot of action at a brand new position. Whenever Turner does play in center field, there will be a learning curve and perhaps a noticeable drop-off from Revere. But Turner feels he did well in those six chances and can build off that experience.

"[I did] fine. I think I got a couple tough balls hit at me, line drives, and I made the right decisions at the time. I made all the plays that came to me. At the same time, I know it's not as easy as that. You've gotta play balls off the wall. In big league ballparks, it's going to be a lot different everywhere you go. Guys are a lot stronger, so they hit the ball a little bit farther. You've gotta take all that into account as well and learn," he said.

Baker himself has expressed confidence in Turner's ability to transition to the outfield. Earlier this month he offered a comparison to Robin Yount, a Hall of Famer who began his career as a shortstop before moving to center field. Yount won MVPs at both positions.

Zimmerman's return could simply mean Turner is heading back to the bench, ready to step in to give a Nats infielder a day off or wait for pinch-run opportunities. If that's the case, Turner believes he can still make an impact.

"Just keep it simple and do your job, whatever they ask," he said. "I'm still learning. I think you can always figure out ways to come off the bench and take advantage of those opportunities. If I have to do that, running is going to be a huge key. I think that's just a matter of stretching and paying attention by watching video on pitchers in case you get a stolen base opportunity, or whatever it may be."

[RELATED: For Giolito: 'It’s back to the drawing board']

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What Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs means for the Nationals

What Aroldis Chapman to the Cubs means for the Nationals

After a weekend full of rumors and speculation, it appears as if Yankees' flamethrower Aroldis Chapman is in fact headed to Chicago to join the Cubs.

The Yankees will reportedly send the closer to "The Windy City" in exchange for highly prized 19-year-old shortstop prospect Gleyber Torres as well as outfield prospects Billy McKinney, Rashad Crawford and reliever Adam Warren, according to multiple reports

The Nationals were one of the other two teams in the mix for Chapman's services, but the organization was not willing to give up the amount of young talent the Yankees wanted in return.

RELATED: WHO SHOULD THE NATIONALS TARGET AT THE TRADE DEADLINE?

With Chapman — and his 105 MPH fastball — off the table, there are two questions that need to be addressed: 1) Where do the nationals go from here and 2) Did the Cubs just become unstoppable?

The market for elite or even high-end pitching at the trade deadline is at an all-time low this season.

Chapman was the top prize, and after him, the drop off is quite significant.

Both of the Nationals' playoff appearances have ended with late-game pitching blunders and it has become clear that Jonathan Papelbon, while competent as a closer, is far from a shutdown reliever, and a patchwork unit of Sammy Solis, Shaun Kelly, Felipe Rivero and Oliver Perez doesn't yet appear to be stable enough to handle an entire postseason run.

The issue for the Nationals is that in order to acquire a closer like, Wade Davis of the Royals, the team will have to be willing to give up at least two of their highly prized young stars like Trea Turner, Joe Ross, Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez.. If the team was unwilling to do so for Chapman, would the do it for Davis? 

If the Nationals do think they are just "one piece away," they could give up far less for someone like Brewers' closer Jeremy Jeffress, who has a 2.23 ERA with 23 saves and 30 strikeouts this season.

But again, the playoffs.

Jeffress is in just his second full season in the big leagues and what the Nationals need isn't just a talent closer, but one who won't get rattled in big moments and can close the door when the pressure is on.

As for the Cubs, getting Chapman is expected to be the final piece to the 108-year puzzle.

If the Nationals want to make the World Series, they will — more likely than not — have to go through Wrigley Field. The Cubs made it very clear during their early Mary series that they will not let Bryce Harper beat them. They also made it very clear that opposing pitchers cannot make more than a single mistake.

Now that the Cubs solidified their bullpen with the hardest-throwing pitcher in professional baseball, no matter how good the Nationals are — and they are very good — they may need some October magic to stop the Cubs from representing the National League in the World Series.

RELATED: UPDATED MLB POWER RANKINGS

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MLB Trade Rumors: Who should the Nationals target before the deadline?

MLB Trade Rumors: Who should the Nationals target before the deadline?

BY JEREMY FIALKOW (@JeremyFialkow)

The Nationals may be good — very good — but they're not perfect, not yet. 

With the trade deadline fast approaching, GM Mike Rizzo's hunt to turn the roster he assembled into a legitimate World Series contender will grab the spotlight.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE NATIONALS' TOP TRADE DEADLINE TARGETS

There's speculation around the league that Rizzo's plans start and end with adding a commanding bullpen arm, capable of shortening each game by three outs, at least.

Nevertheless, Washington has the assets on hand and in their farm system to secure anyone they fancy, whether it's an arm, a bat ... or both.

Fortunately for baseball fans (but unfortunately for the Nats) the 2016 season has been competitive all around, leaving teams deemed surefire sellers few and far between.

Still, Rizzo's team is in a desirable position with the always appreciated ability of flexibility, so which players will the Nats target before the July 31 trade deadline.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE NATIONALS' TOP TRADE DEADLINE TARGETS