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Instant analysis: Nats 3, Dodgers 1

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Instant analysis: Nats 3, Dodgers 1

Game in a nutshell: The Nationals' 2012 season will extend to at least a 163rd game. And if you don't think that's significant, you don't fully appreciate the mostly sad history of Washington baseball. With a victory in the first half of today's doubleheader against the Dodgers, the Nats secured their 90th win of the season and lowered their magic number for clinching a playoff berth to 1. Another win tonight would officially secure at least the Wild Card, but even in the absolute, worst-case scenario, the Nationals know they could do no worse than tie for the final Wild Card berth and thus guarantee at least a tiebreaker game the day after the regular season ends. How did they pull off this victory? They got a quality start out of Jordan Zimmermann, even though the right-hander labored through much of his six innings. They scored three runs, even though none was plated via a base hit. And they got some shutdown work out of their bullpen, with Sean Burnett, Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard recording some big outs down the stretch to secure the win that put the Nationals within one step of the postseason.

Hitting highlight: Who says you need to come through with clutch hits to produce runs? The Nationals disproved that theory in this game, scoring all three of their runs on outs. Kurt Suzuki lofted a sacrifice fly to bring home Michael Morse in the bottom of the second. Ryan Zimmerman scored Bryce Harper with a fifth-inning groundout to second base. And Tyler Moore tapped a slow roller to the right side in the sixth, bringing Ian Desmond home. The Nationals don't usually play "small ball," but in this case they showed some nice ability to produce productive outs, a skill that absolutely helped them earn their 90th win of the season.

Pitching highlight: He was by no means in peak form, but Zimmermann did manage to get the job done. The right-hander put eight of the first 16 batters he faced on base yet allowed only one run. He got better as his start progressed, and made some big pitches when he needed them, ultimately throwing 106 of them over his six innings. Zimmermann has struggled sometimes when working on extra rest, actually feeling too strong and thus losing the sink on his sinker. That might well have been the case today, because he was actually pitching on seven days' rest instead of the usual four, thanks to two off-days and last night's rainout. In the end, the Nationals happily took the quality start they got out of Zimmermann, who certainly needed one.

Key stat: Harper's fifth-inning triple represented his 49th extra-base hit of the season. That's now the most ever hit in a major-league season by a teenager.

Up next: Don't go anywhere, folks. Game 2 begins in 30 minutes. John Lannan takes the mound trying to improve to 4-0, with Josh Beckett hurling for the Dodgers.

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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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