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Eventful week for Nationals

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Eventful week for Nationals

And so I have returned from my week-long respite. Mrs. Z and I had a wonderful time on our vacation, thanks for asking. But it's time to get back to the daily grind, and I see there was plenty of Nationals news in my absence.

The manager finally has a contract for 2013. He's got a new coach on his staff, as well, not to mention a new piece of hardware for his mantel. As does the no-longer-19-year-old outfielder. The 21-game-winning left-hander, was not as fortunate.

So let's rehash the major events of the last week...

DAVEY JOHNSON GETS A NEW CONTRACT
Not that there was ever any doubt this would get done, but it's nice to finally have some resolution to this lingering issue. Johnson and the Nationals agreed late last week to a new contract that ensures he'll return as manager in 2013 ... but then ensures he won't return in 2014.

To be honest, I was a bit surprised Davey came right out and said next season will be his last. I didn't think he'd want to manage more than one year, but I suspected he'd at least leave the door open just in case. I mean, what if the Nats reach Game 7 of the World Series and then lose? Are you telling me Johnson wouldn't want to take one more shot at glory? Evidently not.

Given all that, two thoughts: 1) How motivated is Davey going to be to try to win it all in 2013? Very. 2) How many sets of eyes will be on Randy Knorr over the next year, trying to determine if the popular bench coach really is ready to ascend to the managerial position in 2014? Plenty.

BRYCE HARPER WINS NL ROOKIE OF THE YEAR
Stop for a moment and contemplate this: When Harper made his big-league debut on April 28 at Dodger Stadium, would you have predicted he'd wind up winning Rookie of the Year? Perhaps there was some thought he could achieve this, but no one really knew how the 19-year-old would perform in his first trial at this level.

What Harper did accomplish was noting short of remarkable. It wasn't just the 22 homers, 98 runs scored, 57 extra-base hits, 18 steals and eight outfield assists. It was that he took his game to an entirely new level in September while the Nationals were in the midst of a pennant race and often was the best player on the best team in baseball.

History is littered with one-hit-wonder Rookies of the Year who never amounted to much else after their award-winning debut performances. Something tells me that's not going to be the case here. Harper only scratched the surface this season, and there's really no limit to what he could do in 2013 and beyond.

DAVEY JOHNSON WINS MANAGER OF THE YEAR
This was probably the easiest selection out of all the BBWAA awards this year. (OK, aside from Mike Trout as AL Rookie of the Year.) With all due respect to Dusty Baker and Bruce Bochy (the other finalists), Johnson was unquestionably the manager of the year in the NL.

This award almost always goes to the guy who's team most exceeded expectations over the course of a season. And certainly the Nationals exceeded expectations. But Davey deserved the honor for much more than that.

Let's not forget just how many injuries devastated the lineup through most of 2012. And let's not forget what a masterful job Johnson did in helping his team overcome those injuries. He wasn't afraid to play unproven rookies, even if they were out of position. He wasn't afraid to tinker with his bullpen roles when the situation called for it. And he once again proved to be the ultimate player's manager, understanding how best to communicate and relate with everybody on his roster.

GIO GONZALEZ FINISHES 3RD IN CY YOUNG VOTE
Though he was named a finalist last week, Gonzalez didn't really seem to stand a chance against R.A. Dickey, who wound up winning the award with 27 of 32 first-place votes. That's taking nothing away from Gio, who had a fantastic season and deserved his top three finish.

I had a Cy Young vote this year, and I had Gonzalez second on my ballot behind Dickey. (I had Clayton Kershaw third, Craig Kimbrel fourth and Johnny Cueto fifth.) My reasons for selecting Dickey ahead of Gonzalez? There were many.

In addition to his 20-6 record and 2.73 ERA, Dickey led the NL in innings (233), complete games (five), strikeouts (230), quality starts (27) and a category I call "dominant starts" (two or fewer earned runs allowed over seven or more innings). Dickey had 18 of those, tops in the NL. Gio only had eight.

Dickey also had the fewest "bad" starts in the league, failing to complete five innings only twice. (Gonzalez failed to do it six times.)

Now, you can certainly make the case that Gonzalez pitched all season in the thick of a pennant race while Dickey pitched for a 74-win team. Shouldn't Gio get extra credit for pitching in far more pressure-packed games? Yes, and I did give him extra credit for that. But it wasn't enough to topple Dickey's complete resume. In the end, I would say Dickey deserved the Cy Young because of his consistent dominance over the entire season. Gonzalez was occasionally dominant, but not on nearly as regular a basis as the New York knuckleballer.

TONY TARASCO NAMED NEW FIRST BASE COACH
The Nationals had one vacancy on their coaching staff following Bo Porter's departure to Houston, where he'll get his first career shot to manage. Though the initial thought was that they'd simply hire a new third base coach, there was the potential all along to hire a first base coach instead and shift Trent Jewett to the other side of the diamond.

Jewett has plenty of experience coaching at third base. He spent three seasons there with the Pirates (2000-02), not to mention 10 seasons as a Class AAA manager (a job that includes third base coaching duties in its description).

Tarasco's addition to the big-league staff certainly makes sense. He had been serving as the organization's roving outfield instructor and was influential in helping Harper learn his new position. He'll continue to work with Harper on a daily basis now, as well as take over the Nationals' baserunning duties.

ADAM LAROCHE TIES FOR 6TH IN MVP VOTE
Nobody expected the veteran first baseman to win the whole thing -- that honor went to Buster Posey, and deservedly so -- but it was nice to see the rest of the baseball-writing world recognize just how much LaRoche meant to the Nats this year. He actually received more fifth-place votes (six) than any other, but wound up settling for a sixth-place tie with David Wright (behind Posey, Ryan Braun, Andrew McCutchen, Yadier Molina and Chase Headley).

Can't find fault with the way the top five shook out, nor with the fact three other Nationals received top-10 MVP votes. Ian Desmond finished tied for 16th, named on six of the 32 ballots. Gonzalez actually finished tied for 20th despite appearing on only two ballots (one voter had him fifth). Ryan Zimmerman finished tied for 24th (also received one fifth-place vote). And Harper finished tied for 30th, receiving one ninth-place vote.

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Nats say Orioles' Dylan Bundy among best pitchers they've seen in 2016

Nats say Orioles' Dylan Bundy among best pitchers they've seen in 2016

The Nationals got their first look at Orioles starter Dylan Bundy on Monday night and, well, let's just say they were impressed.

The superlatives were bountiful in the Nats' postgame clubhouse, including manager Dusty Baker's opinion that Bundy is one of the best pitchers they have seen all season. Baker didn't stop there, he brought up a Hall of Famer to offer a comparison.

 “Well, No. 1, we had never seen him. No. 2, he has an electric fastball," Baker said when asked what made Bundy so tough. 

"He reminds me of the old Mets: Tom Seaver and Gary Gentry and those guys, the drop-and-drive guys. Scientists say a ball can’t rise, but those balls were rising. And then he probably has one of the best curveballs we’ve seen. We heard he had great stuff. It was just a matter of his command."

Bundy, 23, was the fourth overall pick in 2011. He debuted in 2012, but then had Tommy John surgery and didn't make it back to the majors until this season. Since returning, he's held a 3.33 ERA across 81 innings, including eight starts.

Bundy was lethal on Monday against the first-place Nationals with six innings of two-run ball. Despite allowing four walks, he limited the damage and held the Nats to just three hits, one of them a solo homer. That was enough to outduel rookie A.J. Cole, who pitched above expectations for the Nats with seven innings and four runs allowed.

As far as what made him difficult to hit, several Nationals players added some insight to Baker's initial description.

"I feel like he's a little sneaky," Anthony Rendon, who hit the solo homer off of him, said. "He's a big kid up there. He hides the ball really well and it comes out of his hand pretty hot."

“I think he threw kind of that fastball that had a good second half. He was throwing it sort of right at the top of the zone, tough to lay off," Ryan Zimmerman said. "Mixing in that curveball and that changeup. Good fastball."

"He rode it a little more in the first time through the lineup, then he started running it later on," Daniel Murphy said of the fastball. "He went from about 94, 95 first time through the order to about 90, 92 the second time. He'd geek it up a little bit when he got in a spot… he went away from what seemed like a four-seamer and started running it a little bit. I didn't see him do that a ton on the film, so to kinda switch up on the fly right there was impressive."

It's unlikely the Nats will see Bundy any time soon. Next time they do, their odds should be better to find success against him. But as far as first impressions go, he couldn't have done much better on Monday night.

[RELATED: Ross still far from returning, may pitch out of Nats' bullpen]

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Despite loss, Cole's spot start helps alleviate tired Nats bullpen

Despite loss, Cole's spot start helps alleviate tired Nats bullpen

BALTIMORE — The box score may say A.J. Cole couldn’t help the Nationals defeat the Orioles on Monday night at Camden Yards. But that doesn’t mean his outing didn’t provide a big boost to his team.

The 24-year-old right hander, who made his 2016 debut in an emergency start after Stephen Strasburg was placed on the disabled list, came through with a career-high seven innings of work to alleviate the Nats’ exhausted bullpen.  

That might seem pale compared the ultimate objective of winning, but Washington is in the midst of 20 games in as many days, so it needs as many rested arms as it can get. Over the past week, Nats relievers have thrown 27 2/3 frames, desperately needing a starter to carry the load. Going against the powerful Orioles lineup on short notice, Cole did just that.  

“He saved our bullpen,” manager Dusty Baker said. “He pitched a heck of a game. He had great poise, great command against a very good offense.”

Cole allowed four runs on five hits over seven innings while collecting a career-high eight strikeouts. On its face, that’s somewhat of a pedestrian stat line. But consider his only other big-league start was in April of 2015, where he allowed nine runs (four earned) in just two innings. Sixteen months later, the Nats got what they needed from him in his second go-round in the majors. 

“I got some [experience] under my belt,” Cole said afterward. “Comfort zone, yeah, might be a little better. I have a great team behind me, so I know I can go out, make pitches and they're going to make plays behind me. So yeah, a little more comfortable this year.”

Perhaps Cole's most impressive trait he displayed was the ability to shake off a bad inning. After the Orioles three-run fourth — including a loud two-run home run from Mark Trumbo — the Birds were held scoreless the rest of the way. 

“He seemed unfazed by the home runs, which is a sign of maturity,” Baker said. “You can’t do anything about the home run that just happened. All you can do is concentrate on the batter at hand." 

“Tonight was the best I’ve seen him throw,” Ryan Zimmerman said. ”…He was attacking the guys tonight. It was good to see. It was a huge spot for us for him to come up and pitch seven innings like that. Our bullpen has been kind of worked pretty tough over Colorado trip and then down in Atlanta. So for him to give us seven strong innings and give them a rest tonight was huge for us even in a loss.”

Though Cole acquitted himself well in spot duty, there's no guarantee he'll be asked to start again soon. Though Baker admitted the performance earned the young right hander another chance down the road, he said the Nats are preparing Lucas Giolito to make Strasburg’s next start if necessary.

But with the rotation in flux for the foreseeable future, the Nats have to feel good knowing they have yet another capable arm to call upon in a pinch. 

“This is what the game is, gotta be ready," Cole said, "and that's what I've been getting ready for.”

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Bundy, Orioles bullpen too much as Nats drop series opener

Bundy, Orioles bullpen too much as Nats drop series opener

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 4-3 loss to the Baltimore Orioles on Monday night at Camden Yards.

How it happened: Nationals right-hander A.J. Cole was given a heck of an assignment on Monday night.

With Stephen Strasburg unexpectedly back on the disabled list with a right elbow injury, the Nats turned to Cole - he of just three career MLB outings - to face the homer-mashing Orioles at Camden Yards in the series opener in Baltimore. Stepping in last minute like that is not an ideal situation for any pitcher, no matter the experience level, day, opponent or ballpark. Throw in all the factors listed above and you've got a time-tested recipe for disaster.

It wasn't quite a disaster, but Cole struggled against the Orioles, as many would expect him to do. He gave up four earned runs on five hits and two walks.

The good news, however, was that Cole went seven innings. That helped save the Nats' bullpen, which had been weathered by rain delays and short outings from their starters in recent days.

Cole wasn't bad, but Orioles starter Dylan Bundy was better. He went six innings with just two earned runs allowed on three hits. He walked four batters, but did well to limit the damage throughout his night.

Anthony Rendon and Danny Espinosa each hit solo homers for the Nationals. Daniel Murphy drove in another run on a single to score Trea Turner. For Murphy, it was his 90th RBI of the season. Turner scored after notching his 14 steal of the season, which puts him in second on the Nats only behind Bryce Harper, who has 17. Turner has played 35 games, while Harper has appeared in 114.

The Orioles also got two homers, both off Cole. Jonathan Schoop hit a solo bomb in the third, while Mark Trumbo launched a two-run shot in the fourth. It was Trumbo's MLB-leading 38th home run of the season.

Espinosa's homer cut the Orioles lead to one run in the seventh. But star relievers Brad Brach and Zach Britton sealed the deal for Baltimore in the eighth and ninth innings.

The Nationals have lost two consecutive games this season and four straight to the Orioles dating back to last year.

What it means: The Nats fell to 73-51 on the season. Both the Marlins and Mets were off Monday, so the Nationals now hold an eight-game lead in the NL East over Miami. They lead the Mets by 11 games.

Cole goes seven: By saving the Nats' bullpen with seven innings, Cole did all the Nats could ask for, despite the fact he gave up four runs. The Nationals' relief corps is now in much better shape, which is a small victory for them in what amounted to a loss in the standings. Cole struck out eight batters, which set a new career-high. He struck out seven in a relief appearance on May 23 of last year, his last MLB outing.

Rendon hits No. 16: Rendon put the Nationals up a run in the fourth inning with his solo homer. It was Rendon's 16th home run of the season and his third in his last 10 games. His career-high for one season is 21, set back in 2014. In order to match that, Rendon would need five homers by the end of the season and the Nats have 38 games left on their schedule. 

Espinosa hits No. 19: It was just this morning that I wrote about how long it had been since Espinosa had hit a homer, how his power outage had taken away one of the skills you can usually point to when defending his value to the Nationals. On Monday, he broke through with a solo homer to center field off reliever Mychal Givens in the seventh inning. It was Espinosa's first home run since July 3, a stretch of 38 games. That's a good sign for a player who has struggled mightily in recent weeks.

Up next: The Nats and Orioles play one more in Baltimore before heading south for two more games at Nationals Park. Rookie Reynaldo Lopez (2-1, 4.37) will square off with O's right-hander Kevin Gausman (4-10, 4.11).

[RELATED: Ross still far from returning, may pitch out of Nats' bullpen]

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