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Confident Nats can't lose

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Confident Nats can't lose

PHOENIX -- They trailed early by three runs, facing perhaps the NL Rookie of the Year frontrunner. Their two best setup men were shelved for the evening due to overuse. The relievers who replaced them wound up putting the tying runner in scoring position in three consecutive innings.

Yet, not one uniformed member of the Nationals appeared to break a sweat during Saturday night's 6-5 victory over the Diamondbacks. (And, no, that had nothing to do with the 108-degree dry heat outside Chase Field.)

What gives? Do the Nationals ever worry about losing a ballgame? Evidently not.

"The confidence is at an all-time high right now," right-hander Ryan Mattheus said.

And why wouldn't it be the way things are going for the best team in baseball? This nailbiter resulted in the Nationals' eighth consecutive win, the last six of them coming on the road. They're now 71-43, a full 28 games over .500, knowing they can go 24-24 the rest of the way and still finish with 95 wins.

And maybe most importantly, they've managed to play their very best ball of the year precisely while the team chasing them in the NL East has played its very best ball.

On July 24, the Braves sat 4 12 games behind the Nationals. They've since gone 14-3, a roll that should have catapulted them to the top of the division. Instead, they remain those same 4 12 games back because the Nats have gone 15-4 over the same time frame.

"It's impressive that they're not falling behind at all," said first baseman Adam LaRoche, a former Brave himself. "They're a really good team. They had some streaks earlier in the year where they were struggling. Like you said, they're playing just as good as we are right now, but that doesn't affect us."

Nor does a shaky start from Edwin Jackson, who dug his teammates into an early 4-1 hole, only to watch as they climbed their way out of it during a five-run fifth against Diamondbacks rookie left-hander Wade Miley.

Clutch hits were aplenty during that rally, from Jayson Werth's RBI double to Ryan Zimmerman's two-run single to Michael Morse's RBI double to Jesus Flores' RBI single. This is the norm right now for a Nationals lineup that has transformed from one of the sport's least-productive groups to one of its most-dangerous assemblages of hitters.

On the morning of June 24, the Nationals as a team were hitting .238 with a .304 on-base percentage and .389 slugging percentage. In 45 games sine then, they're hitting a collective .283 with a .339 on-base percentage and a .453 slugging percentage.

Obviously, the return of Morse and Werth from injuries and the reemergence of Zimmerman as a premier offensive player after receiving a cortisone shot in his ailing shoulder has made a huge difference. But manager Davey Johnson believes it's about more than personnel. It's about approach.

"The makeup of this lineup is totally different: It's in attack mode," Johnson said. "They're not up there defending like a goalie. We're out there trying to do some damage, and it's fun to watch. I tip my hat to Rick Eckstein. He's done a great job with the offense and getting a little more aggressive. I know he's been on the gun here in years past, but he's one of the best hitting instructors I've ever met."

That revamped lineup managed to give the Nationals a lead, but a reconfigured bullpen still needed to preserve that lead to ensure this victory. Johnson didn't have Drew Storen or Sean Burnett available after excessive work over the last week, but the manager calmly called upon other relievers to come through with some big outs.

Tom Gorzelanny replace Jackson with two outs and a man on second in the bottom of the sixth and immediately struck out Stephen Drew looking at a 3-2 fastball at the knees. Mattheus then got two important groundballs with another man in scoring position to escape a seventh-inning jam. And Michael Gonzalez pitched around his own wildness to strike out Drew and yet again strand the tying run on second in the bottom of the eighth.

"I just think that speaks about the talent that's down there," Mattheus said. "Sean Burnett got a night off tonight, and Mike Gonzalez threw a perfect eighth inning and got us out of there and got the ball to closer Tyler Clippard. That's big that someone can step in and do that job when Burnie needs a day off. And Drew can close games when Clip's not here. It just speaks volumes for the talent."

And speaks volumes about the confidence oozing out of the Nationals' clubhouse these days. They've held the top spot in their division for 82 consecutive days now. And they're showing no signs of giving it up.

"It's a calm confidence," Clippard said. "Nobody gets too high or too low. Nothing changes. We're not walking around like: 'Oh, we're the best.' We're just keeping our heads down and going about our business, playing each game like it's a must-win game.

"It's a lot of fun, man."

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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

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Nats' Giolito returns to minors: 'It’s back to the drawing board'

Nats' Giolito returns to minors: 'It’s back to the drawing board'

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.

[RELATED: Nats option Giolito, Taylor to make room on roster]

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