Postgame analysis of the Nats' 5-3 loss to the San Francisco Giants on Saturday evening at AT&T Park.
How it happened: Mark Melancon can't join the Nationals soon enough.
On the same day the Nats pulled off a big trade for an upgrade at closer, it was their bullpen that failed them. Yusmeiro Petit allowed the go-ahead run on a sacrifice fly to Joe Panik in the bottom of the seventh inning. Panik killed the Nats in the 2014 NL Division Series and on Saturday he was the hero in a 5-3 Giants win.
The trouble, though, didn't stop there. After Petit left, Blake Treinen walked Trevor Brown with the bases loaded to score another run. That gave the Giants the comfort of a two-run lead. The Nats' bullpen had made things interesting in the first two games of their series at San Francisco and they finally cracked in the third matchup.
Rookie Reynaldo Lopez allowed the Giants' first three runs and only lasted four innings. Giants starter Jake Peavy also had a short day with three runs given up in four innings of work.
Anthony Rendon launched a two-run homer in the third inning. Danny Espinosa landed an RBI double in the fourth. Trea Turner went 2-for-4 with a steal. Ryan Zimmerman continued to heat up with a single and a run. Jayson Werth extended his streak of reaching base end to 33 games on a bloop single in the eighth inning.
The Nats, though, went 0-for-7 with runners in scoring position. Three of those at-bats came in the first inning after Turner led off with a single, then stole to reach second. The Nats could not move him from there.
What it means: The Nationals had their three-game winning streak snapped with the loss and fell to 2-1 against the Giants this season. They sit 61-43 on the year.
Lopez struggles again: Lopez has all the tools to be a very good MLB pitcher, whether that's as a starter or a reliever, but through two outings he has not had much luck. In his debut against the Dodgers it was basehits that killed him. On Saturday, he couldn't command the strike zone and ended up with five walks in addition to four hits.
Lopez was better in his second start than he was in his debut, but still found trouble getting batters out. He escaped a major jam in the second inning when Eduardo Nunez popped out with the bases loaded. Lopez was not as fortunate in the bottom of the fourth when Nunez doubled with the bases juiced to score two runs. The other run off Lopez was on an Angel Pagan groundout in the same inning.
Joe Ross made another rehab start with Triple-A Syracuse on Saturday. If he is not ready to return to the Nats' rotation in five days, it will be interesting to see if they go back to Lopez or give Lucas Giolito another shot.
Caught stealing: The Nats had two runners caught stealing by Buster Posey. One was Ben Revere in the fifth inning with Hunter Strickland on the mound. The other was in the seventh with Sergio Romo pitching. Harper's was a tough one, as he led off the frame with a walk with the Nats looking to come back from a two-run deficit. The Nats right fielder had no chance against Posey, who easily threw him out on the attempt. Werth then singled two at-bats later, leaving the Nats only to wonder what could have been.
Rendon hits No. 13: Rendon has been the Nats' best hitter this month not named Daniel or Wilson, and the third baseman kept it going on Saturday with another big game. Rendon's homer was his 13th of the season and his sixth of July. Over his last 11 games, Rendon is 14-for-42 (.300) with four homers, eight RBI and six runs scored.
Up next: The Nats and Giants close out their series with another 4:05 p.m. start on Sunday. Gio Gonzalez (6-8, 4.44) will look to keep his positive momentum going opposite Matt Cain (2-6, 5.95).
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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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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.
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