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Inconsistent night for Strasburg

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Inconsistent night for Strasburg

Stephen Strasburg wasn't thinking about the after-effects of Tommy John surgery as he slogged his way through a ragged, four-inning start Tuesday night in an 8-0 loss to the Phillies. He paid no attention to his right elbow as he served up a two-run homer to the little-known Kevin Frandsen in the top of the second, nor did it cross his mind as he watched Jimmy Rollins sprint around the bases for an inside-the-park home run in the top of the fourth.

And after matching his career high with six earned runs allowed during the third-shortest start of his 38 big-league appearances, Strasburg wasn't going to accept any links to the ligament replacement procedure he underwent in Sept. 2010.

"I'm not blaming it on having Tommy John," he said. "It happens to everybody. I'm just going to forget about it and make the adjustments. It has nothing to do with coming off Tommy John. That's over two years now."

Maybe so. Maybe this was just an off-night for the young Nationals ace. Off-nights, though, are nothing out of the ordinary for pitchers coming back from that major arm surgery, even two years after the fact. Actually, they're quite common.

Pitchers who have returned from Tommy John often talk about the inconsistency they experience during their first full season back on the mound. Pinpoint control may be there one night, then completely disappear five nights later.

This is especially true during the latter stages of that first season back, when the physical toll starts to catch up with pitchers who haven't thrown this many innings since suffering the injury.

Strasburg needs only look a couple of lockers down from his at Jordan Zimmermann, who experienced this very same phenomenon one year ago. After missing most of 2010 while recovering from Tommy John surgery, Zimmermann burst out of the gates early in 2011, posting a 2.66 ERA prior to the All-Star break. Then his command started to betray him and that ERA rose to 4.14 after the All-Star break.

Strasburg made only his fourth start since the break Tuesday night, and he's still got another six or seven to go before the Nationals shut him down for precautionary reasons (just as they did with Zimmermann last fall). But the trend is holding true so far. After posting a 2.82 ERA during the season's first half, Strasburg has seen that number rise to 4.43 since the Midsummer Classic.

"It's just a long grind, and you can't be totally dominant every time you go out there," manager Davey Johnson said. "He expects it of himself, and when he makes a bad pitch and a guy hits it out of the ballpark, it makes him try harder. It's part of learning."

Indeed, there is a mental side to this whole process, and it's one Strasburg still battles on a regular basis. He struggles at times to overcome adversity and lets one bad development snowball into something worse.

Witness a couple of key moments during Tuesday's game:

-- Shortly after serving up the second-inning homer to Frandsen (who last cleared the fences in a big-league ballpark in 2007), Strasburg let Juan Pierre steal both second and third bases and ultimately score when catcher Jesus Flores' throw sailed into left field.

-- In the fourth inning, Strasburg gave up a two-out single to Cliff Lee, then paid no attention to the opposing hurler and let him steal second base. Strasburg's very next pitch was tattooed by Rollins off the right-field fence, turning into an inside-the-park home run.

"He's been always an emotional guy," Flores said. "After the Frandsen homer, he kind of started forcing himself to make perfect pitches, but it seemed like it didn't work out."

The stolen bases -- all of them more a product of Strasburg's inability to hold the runner on than Flores' inability to throw them out -- were particularly troublesome. Not that Strasburg is alone on the Nationals' pitching staff in this regard.

Opponents have now been successful on 34 of their last 35 stolen-base attempts against the Nationals, with managers more and more giving their guys the green light to take advantage of this glaring weakness.

"That's one of the things that we haven't done well the whole season," said Flores, who overall has thrown out only four of 45 basestealers.

"Obviously I'm pretty upset with myself for letting guys steal on me," said Strasburg, who has let 12-of-14 runners steal off him this year. "It's something where things aren't going right, you still have to remember when there's guys on base. You've got to keep them close."

Nothing about Tuesday night's game was close from the Nationals' perspective. Entering this homestand on a high note following a 6-1 road trip that saw them enter the day owning baseball's best record -- the Cincinnati Reds now hold that title -- they put up little fight against a Phillies club that waved the symbolic white flag earlier in the afternoon by trading away outfielders Shane Victorino and Hunter Pence.

"Once you do that and there's not expectations on them, then they're free-wheeling it," Johnson said. "Got a pretty good pitcher going against us who has been down that road. Seasoned. Doesn't make many mistakes. Pitched out of a couple jams. Made good pitches. Happens."

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Bryce Harper sends 'Wow' tweet after Nationals trade for Adam Eaton

Bryce Harper sends 'Wow' tweet after Nationals trade for Adam Eaton

Nationals star Bryce Harper has had an eventful week, which included finding out that he might not be the Nationals star much longer. 

An anonymous club executive said that the Nationals won't meet Harper's demands for a 10-year, $400 million contract, and are prepared to let him walk when he becomes a free agent after the 2018 season. 

That happened on Monday, then on Tuesday Washington missed out on trading from White Sox ace Chris Sale, who ended up going to Boston. 

And then on Wednesday, the Nats ended up trading their pile of top pitching prospects to the White Sox anyway, but instead of getting Sale, they got centerfielder Adam Eaton

Eaton, 28, has never been an All-Star. But he finished last season with a .284 batting average, .362 slugging percentage, 59 RBIs and 14 home runs. He's also an asset defensively in the outfield. 

But the pitching prospects Washington gave up – Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and Dane Dunning – amounted to a steep price for Eaton. So steep that the Nats reportedly offered almost the same package of prospects for Sale. 

Within minutes of the Eaton trade news breaking, Harper tweeted this. 

He followed it up with a message of welcome a few minutes later.

Obviously, the initial tweet is what grabbed peoples' attention. But who can really say if Harper meant it as a positive or negative reaction to the Eaton trade? Frankly, it might not have anything to do with the trade at all. 

Plenty of other "wow" things happened this week. 

MORE NATIONALS: Dusty Baker takes part in “Play Ball” clinics in D.C.

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Nationals deal top prospects Giolito, Lopez and Dunning to White Sox for Adam Eaton

Nationals deal top prospects Giolito, Lopez and Dunning to White Sox for Adam Eaton

The Washington Nationals were unable to trade the farm to the Chicago White Sox in exchange for former Cy Young winner Chris Sale. But still looking to make a splash, the Nationals went back to the White Sox, and have made a deal.

Multiple sources have confirmed that the Nationals will trade Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez and 2016 first-round pick Dane Dunning to the White Sox for outfielder Adam Eaton, pending physicals.

Eaton, 28 years old, will be entering his sixth season, having played two seasons with the Diamondbacks and two season with the White Sox.

Eaton has never made an All-Star team, but has a solid OBP of .357 and has back-to-back seasons of 14 home runs and at least 50 RBIs. He also has a very friendly contract, having recently signed a five-year, $23.5 million contract.

In return, the White Sox get a treasure trove of prospects.

Giolito is the top prospect in the Nationals' organization and one of the top prospects in all of MLB. He appeared in six games for the nationals in 2016, finishing with a 6.75 ERA and 11 strikeouts. Lopez, the No. 4 prospect in the organization, appeared in 11 games in 2016, finishing with a 4.91 ERA and 42 strikeouts.

Dunning, one of the ace of the Florida Gators' staff, was selected by the Nationals with the 29th pick of the 2016 MLB Draft.

But considering the Nationals were willing to give up numerous top prospects for Chris Sale or Andrew McCutchen, it's puzzling that the Nationals would receive just Eaton in return.

Heading into the 2016 winter meetings, it was well known that the Nationals were interested in making a big splash and shaking things up.

It looks like they're doing just that.