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Nats encouragingdiscouraging

PHOENIX -- It's been a while since we compiled one of these things, looking alternatively at some of the more encouraging and discouraging developments involving the Nationals.

So as the Nats head west following a four-game sweep of the Astros and prepare for a weekend series with the Diamondbacks in advance of a big, three-game showdown with the Giants, let's take a look where certain players on this roster currently stand.

ENCOURAGING: Jordan Zimmermann continues to develop not only into a front-line pitcher for the Nationals but into one of the best pitchers in the National League. With last night's demolition of Houston's lineup -- six scoreless innings, 11 strikeouts -- Zimmermann improved to 9-6 with a 2.35 ERA (second-best in the NL). Most impressively, he's getting better as the season progresses. Yes, there was a little hiccup last weekend against the Marlins. But even with that one included, Zimmermann is now 6-0 with a 1.47 ERA over his last nine starts. During that span, he's walked only eight batters while striking out 46.

DISCOURAGING: Bryce Harper's slump has become a significant development, and it's been dragging on for quite a while now. The 19-year-old is batting .176 with a paltry .541 OPS in 26 games since the All-Star break and has seen his season average plummet to .251. Let's forget about any Rookie of the Year talk for now and simply wait to see if Harper can get himself back on track. Davey Johnson gave the rookie last night's game off, and though he'll be back tonight in Arizona, it wouldn't be a shock if Harper takes a seat on the bench with a little more regularity moving forward. That's because...

ENCOURAGING: Roger Bernadina has been playing brilliant baseball now that his role has been reduced. The Nationals gave Bernadina plenty of opportunities to earn an everyday job over the last three seasons, but it looks like they've finally come to realize he can do more damage as a part-timer. Between his speed on the bases and in the field, not to mention a streaky bat at the plate, Bernadina is hitting .367 with a .435 on-base percentage over his last 23 games (14 of them starts). Some guys just seem to perform better when they come off the bench, and Bernadina certainly seems to fit that description.

DISCOURAGING: The Nationals have paid Chien-Ming Wang 7.2 million over the last three seasons. To do what? Well, the veteran right-hander has made 15 big-league stats in a curly W cap. He's made 17 rehab starts in the minor leagues. Wang was once again pitching at Class AA Harrisburg the last few weeks when his injured hip started acting up again. It probably was no coincidence Wang's 30-day rehab assignment was due to end this weekend, leaving the club with no choice but to put him back on the big-league roster ... unless he remained hurt. The Nats will string this thing out a few more weeks, at which point they can put Wang on the expanded September roster without costing someone else a job. But really, at this point, who has any confidence in the guy being able to pitch effectively against a big-league lineup in the middle of a pennant race? It's a shame how much time and energy and money they've invested in Wang over three seasons. But at some point, the Nationals just need to admit it ain't gonna happen with this guy.

ENCOURAGING: MLB released its postseason schedule yesterday, and for the first time in a really long time, baseball fans in Washington have reason to pay close attention. Here are the important dates to remember: The one-game wild-card "series" will both be played Friday, Oct. 5, two days after the regular season ends. The Division Series begin either Saturday, Oct. 6 or Sunday, Oct. 7. The League Championship Series begin either Saturday, Oct. 13 or Sunday, Oct. 14. And the World Series opens (in a National League city) on Wednesday, Oct. 24.

DISCOURAGING: Two aspects of this new postseason format are particularly troubling: 1) The teams with better records won't get to host Games 1 and 2 of the Division Series. They'll instead have to open on the road before returning home for Games 3, 4 and 5 (if necessary). Still, that seems to give an unfair advantage to the wild-card winners and the division champs with the third-best record in their league. (For what it's worth, this format will only exist in 2012. MLB has vowed to finagle the schedule in 2013 to allow for the traditional 2-2-1 format in the Division Series. 2) A potential Game 7 of the World Series (again, in a National League city) won't be played until Thursday, Nov. 1. Again, baseball says it wants to make sure the season doesn't extend into November in the future. But at least this year, we may very well get it.

ENCOURAGING: Thanks to their current six-game winning streak, the Nationals now own baseball's best record by a full three games. They're also on pace to finish 100-62.

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Lucas Giolito's velocity remains down, but he and Nats aren't worried

Lucas Giolito's velocity remains down, but he and Nats aren't worried

Through Lucas Giolito's first four big league starts, there has been something noticeably off from what we've seen and heard over the years about what makes him one of the top prospects in all of baseball. His fastball is supposed to sit comfortably in the high-90s and occasionally touch triple digits. From his arm angle at 6-foot-6, and countered with his hooking curveball, his fastball was a big reason scouts say he has superstar potential.

He could very well still become one of the game's best pitchers, but the Nats' rookie remains a work in progress and his fastball is currently nowhere near as fast as it once was. On Sunday against the Colorado Rockies, Giolito sat consistently around 93 miles per hour. That's not bad at all, but it's a far cry from the prodigious speed he used to have.

We've heard manager Dusty Baker offer his theories and so far he's downplayed it as not being a concern. On Sunday, we heard for the first time from Giolito himself on the subject, as well as from his opponents.

Here is what Giolito had to say:

"I can pitch at 93 if I’m hitting my spots and mixing up well. I think I left way too many fastballs up over the middle of the plate. Those are the ones that got hit pretty hard. So, the velocity I don’t think is a huge deal as long as I’m pitching the way I should be pitching."

Rockies star third baseman Nolan Arenado, who homered and landed an RBI single off Giolito, offered his take on the velocity dip.

"The reports you read about him say he throws about 95, 97. Those are the reports we saw and on video. It wasn't that," he said. "It doesn't matter. His length, the ball kind of gets on you, has a little jump to it. He's so tall, so big. It's not a comfortable at-bat," Arenado said.

Rockies manager Walt Weiss said that despite the results and the velocity, he can see why there was so much hype around Giolito.

“The future is bright, for sure,” Weiss said. “Big kid, big time arm. He showed a really good breaking ball and threw some good changeups to go with a power fastball. I have heard a lot about him, going back to when he was in high school, and for good reason."

Giolito remains a big part of the Nats' future plans, but at this point in his career he is a raw talent. He's still building confidence with his changeup and working on the command of his curveball. And now he's trying to learn how to pitch with a fastball that's not as lethal as it once was.

That's a tough situation for a young pitcher who doesn't have the experience a veteran would have to draw from.

"I’ve been pitching a lot better [at Triple-A] and figuring some stuff out. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to execute on a few pitches today," Giolito said after Sunday's 5-3 loss. "The only thing I can do is continue to work and try to get better about living down the zone, getting ahead of guys, and then throwing all my pitches for strikes and putting guys away."

Giolito still showed promise on Sunday with a career-high five innings pitched. But the swing-and-miss stuff that he's shown over the years as a prospect has yet to follow him to the majors.

"We haven't seen it yet at the major league level," Baker said. "His fastball is relatively straight, so you've gotta locate it well. Hopefully it will get better."

[RELATED: Giolito decent, but Nats offense falls short in loss to Colorado Rockies]

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Giolito decent, but Nats offense falls short in loss to Colorado Rockies

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Giolito decent, but Nats offense falls short in loss to Colorado Rockies

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 5-3 loss to the Colorado Rockies on Sunday afternoon at Nationals Park.

How it happened: Given the circumstances of his start and the lineup he was facing, the Nationals couldn't have asked for much more than they got from 22-year-old rookie Lucas Giolito on Sunday against the Rockies. It wasn't his fault their offense couldn't manage much of anything against Chad Bettis, who took the mound with a 5.29 ERA.

Giolito stared down the best lineup in the National League and made it a career-high five innings with four runs allowed. He gave up six hits and two walks, including a pair of home runs. One was by Charlie Blackmon, the other by Nolan Arenado, who also tripled.

It wasn't the greatest outing, of course, but the Nats have certainly seen worse both lately and against the Rockies. They didn't give him nearly enough support and only scored three runs on the day, all on solo homers.

Trea Turner led off the game with his fifth home run of the season. Wilson Ramos smacked his 20th to lead off the seventh. That gave Ramos a career-high 69 RBI on the year. And Bryce Harper hit his 23rd in the bottom of the ninth. For Harper, he has now reached base in all 15 games since coming back from his neck injury.

The Rockies got another run off reliever Koda Glover. He allowed a one-out double to Daniel Descalso in the top of the eighth. Descalso then scored from second on a wild pitch that drilled home plate umpire Mike Muchlinski in the left shoulder. The ball bounced off the backstop and Ramos turned to check on the ump. That, in part, allowed Descalso to score on what was an all-around bizarre sequence.

The Nats' offense got six hits and a walk off Rockies pitchers. Ben Revere, Daniel Murphy, Anthony Rendon and Ryan Zimmerman went a combined 0-for-14.

Washington lost their second straight game and have now dropped six of their last eight overall.

What it means: The Nationals fell to 75-55 on the season and lost their first home series since July 22-24 against the Padres. The Marlins lost on Sunday, so the Nats' division lead remains at eight games. The Mets are just behind them at 8 1/2 back after pummeling the Phillies.

Giolito okay, but questions remain: Giolito again saw his fastball top out at around 93-94, which is fine but nowhere near the high-90s and triple-digit heat that helped make him the top prospect in all of baseball. Manager Dusty Baker has been asked about this several times this season and has yet to give a full explanation as to why the team thinks he has lost so much velocity. Baker doesn't seem concerned about it one bit, but it does seem like at least somewhat of a big deal if he's lost, say, five or six ticks off his most oft-used pitch.

Turner sets franchise record: In the same week Turner tied the franchise mark for hits in consecutive plate appearances, he became the sole owner of first in Nats/Expos history with 27 runs in one month as a rookie. His 27th came on his solo homer, which was one of two hits for him on the day. He now has 20 multi-hit games this season in 41 total outings. 

Turner, in fact, has six multi-hit games in a row, which ties the longest streak in MLB this season. Six other players have done that this year. Turner's homer, though, gave him just his first RBI during that stretch, which goes to show how much the bottom of their lineup has struggled in recent games. 

Zimmerman keeps struggling: After looking good initially when he returned from the disabled list on Aug. 20, Zimmerman has fallen back into a major slump. He went 0-for-3 with three strikeouts on Sunday and is now just 1-for-20 with seven strikeouts in his last five games. That one hit was a single and he has no walks during that span. Zimmerman's season OBP has dropped to .276, the lowest it's been since Opening Day.

Up next: The Nats hit the road to play at the Philadelphia Phillies on Monday night. First pitch is at 7:05 p.m. with Tanner Roark (13-7, 2.99) and rookie Jake Thompson (1-3, 9.78) set to square off.

[RELATED: Harper explains ejection vs. Rockies: 'It's not a strike']

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Nats' Joe Ross pitches just one inning in 1st minor league rehab game

Nats' Joe Ross pitches just one inning in 1st minor league rehab game

Nationals pitcher Joe Ross made his first minor league rehab assignment appearance on Sunday afternoon with Triple-A Syracuse and it was a brief one.

Ross tossed just 21 pitches in one inning of work against the Pawtucket Red Sox. He allowed one run on three hits and also recorded a strikeout. The three hits Ross allowed were all singles and the run was scored on a fielder's choice groundout.

Ross, 23, threw more pitches in a bullpen session this week. He threw two bullpens total, one on Tuesday and one on Wednesday, before going to Syracuse. Ross said he threw 25 to 30 pitches in the first session.

Ross is likely to return to the Nationals in their bullpen, with the minor league season nearing its end. He has said his goal is to be starting for the Nationals in mid-September.

Him pitching just one inning could be a part of that plan, and the Nats do have incentive to take it slow with Ross, who is returning from right shoulder inflammation. He previously pitched two minor league games - on July 24 and July 30 - before a setback made the Nats shut him down altogether.

Ross has a 3.49 ERA in 16 MLB starts this season. He last pitched on July 3 against the Reds.

[RELATED: Harper explains ejection vs. Rockies: 'It's not a strike']

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