Nats getting bullpen back in order

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Nats getting bullpen back in order

They've gone through four different closers. They've had five different guys succumb to injury. And they've been forced to readjust roles far too many times already in a season that's only 2 12 months old.

Through it all, the Nationals bullpen has managed to get the job done and enters the week third in the NL with a 3.11 ERA, second in the league with a .217 opponents' batting average and third in the league with a .655 opponents' OPS.

"I think the bullpen has performed great," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "Yeah, they've been mixing and matching, and there's been role adjustments and personnel adjustments and a lot of different things going on. But I think they've done great."

Successful or not, the Nationals have been counting down the days until they could get their full complement of relievers back together as one cohesive unit. They're almost there at last.

Ryan Mattheus' return from the disabled list yesterday helped bring some order back to the bullpen (though it cost veteran Brad Lidge his job). Henry Rodriguez is due to return from the DL himself "very soon," according to Rizzo.

And most importantly, closer Drew Storen continues to progress in his recovery from elbow surgery and remains confident he can make his season debut around next month's All-Star break.

"It feels really good. It feels a lot stronger," said Storen, who has been throwing off a mound three days a week. "I just know we're still on track for that All-Star break."

Storen's impending return will be particularly beneficial to a Nationals relief corps that has done its best to fill in for its injured closer but could certainly use some stability in the ninth-inning role ... not to mention some added depth for the seventh and eighth innings.

Though Tyler Clippard has gone a perfect 9-for-9 in save opportunities over the last three weeks, the right-hander figures to slide back into his setup role once Storen returns. Paired with left-hander Sean Burnett (who boasts a 1.17 ERA), the Nationals could boast as dominant a bullpen trio as there is in baseball.

Each reliever who returns, however, requires an open roster spot, which leads to some difficult decisions for Rizzo. He already made a tough call yesterday designating Lidge for assignment after the veteran right-hander was scored upon in three of four appearances since returning from sports hernia surgery.

And there will be more changes to come in the next few weeks.

"It's very tough, because when the music stops, someone's going to be left without a chair," Rizzo said. "You look at the number of people there, there's going to be a very talented, very successful person, whoever that is."

One such dilemma would seem to involve Rodriguez, the flame-throwing right-hander who dazzled early this season with his triple-digit fastball and knee-buckling breaking ball but who lost all ability to throw strikes before landing on the DL with a minor finger strain.

What do the Nationals do with Rodriguez, who is out of minor-league options and would almost certainly be claimed off waivers by another club that can afford to use a roster spot on a pitcher still trying to work out his issues?

As one club official put it bluntly: "Henry's not going anywhere."

Not wanting to give up on a reliever with that kind of dominant repertoire -- especially after seeing Joel Hanrahan resurrect his career in Pittsburgh after getting shipped out of Washington three years ago following a similar bout of wildness -- the Nationals are determined to keep Rodriguez and hope he discovers some semblance of consistency.

The Nationals do face a dilemma foreign to them over the last several years. In the past, when they sat well back in the NL East, they could afford to use a roster spot or two on "projects," guys who might struggle at times right now but could pay off down the road.

Does that philosophy change now that they're in first place?

"No," Rizzo said. "We're never going to forgo depth and talent over immediacy. We're never going to do that."

That approach could wind up forcing a productive pitcher who happens to still have options (ie. Mattheus or Craig Stammen) back to Class AAA at some point. It's a sacrifice the organization would be willing to make to ensure they maintain as much depth as possible over a season that could extend into October.

In the meantime, they'll just keep mixing and matching whatever group of seven relievers they currently have, hoping this unit can continue to perform despite the constant change.

"Davey's done a great job keeping guys in roles, for as much as they've been moving around," Storen said. "In the past, it's been kind of random roles even when guys were healthy. He does a great job of defining that. I think they've done a great job adjusting and hanging with them, because there's been some injuries dealt and some big changes around."

Revere makes his return to the lineup as Nats hope to rebound vs. Cubs

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Revere makes his return to the lineup as Nats hope to rebound vs. Cubs

Nationals (19-9) vs. Cubs (21-6) at Wrigley Field 

On Thursday night, the Nationals found out the hard way what makes the Cubs the best team in baseball. Despite a quality outing by Joe Ross, Cubs second baseman Ben Zobrist drove in four of Chicago's five runs en route to a 5-2 series-opening win for the home team. 

But the Nats will head into Friday's game with what they hope is a big boost to their offense: Centerfielder Ben Revere makes his return to the lineup for the first time since his Opening Day oblique injury, replacing Michael Taylor atop the batting order. How long will it take him to get in a groove? 

As for the pitching matchup, the Nats will send out their ace Max Scherzer (3-1, 3.55 ERA) to oppose John Lackey (3-1, 4.32 ERA), who was one of the Cubs' big offseason acquisitions. 

First pitch: 2:20 p.m.
TV: MASN
Radio: 106.7 The Fan
Starting pitchers: Nats - Max Scherzer vs. Cubs - John Lackey

NATS

CF Ben Revere 

3B Anthony Rendon

RF Bryce Harper 

1B Ryan Zimmerman 

2B Daniel Murphy

LF Jayson Werth 

C Wilson Ramos

SS Danny Espinosa 

P Max Scherzer

 

CUBS

CF Dexter Fowler 

RF Jayson Heyward 

LF Kris Bryant 

1B Anthony Rizzo 

2B Ben Zobrist 

3B Tommy La Stella 

SS Javy Baez 

C David Ross

P John Lackey 

 

Follow along with GameView here.

Nationals' bats can't come up with enough late in loss to Cubs

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Nationals' bats can't come up with enough late in loss to Cubs

By JAY COHEN, AP Sports Writer

CHICAGO (AP) -- Kyle Hendricks pitched six scoreless innings, Ben Zobrist drove in four runs and the Chicago Cubs beat the Washington Nationals 5-2 on Thursday night in the opener of a four-game series between two of baseball's hottest teams.

Hendricks (2-2) allowed two hits, struck out four and walked two as Chicago began a 10-game homestand with its fourth consecutive win and eighth in nine games.

Zobrist hit a two-run single in the fourth and a two-run homer in the eighth, helping the Cubs improve their major league-best record to 21-6 for their best start since they were 23-4 in 1907.

Reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper singled and walked twice against Hendricks, but the right-hander shut down the rest of Washington's lineup. Michael Taylor was stranded at second after a two-out double in the third for the Nationals' first hit.

Jayson Werth hit a long two-run homer in the ninth for Washington, which had won five of six, including a 13-2 victory at World Series champion Kansas City on Wednesday. The Nationals began the day with baseball's second-best record at 19-8.

Joe Ross (3-1) matched Hendricks for much of the chilly night, striking out nine in 6 2/3 innings. The 22-year-old right-hander allowed five hits and walked two.

One rough stretch was enough to send Ross to his first loss since Aug. 16 at San Francisco.

Chicago's first four batters in the fourth reached safely, producing two runs. Tommy La Stella singled, Kris Bryant had a ground-rule double and Anthony Rizzo was walked intentionally before Zobrist's single to right gave the Cubs a 2-0 lead.

Rizzo was thrown out trying to advance to third on Zobrist's hit, and Ross retired the next two hitters to get out of the inning. But the damage was done.

Clayton Richard and Justin Grimm combined for a perfect seventh for Chicago before Pedro Strop wriggled out of a jam in the eighth.

Zobrist connected for his third homer and Addison Russell added an RBI double in the bottom half, providing some valuable breathing room.

After Werth went deep against Travis Wood with two down, Hector Rondon retired Wilson Ramos on a liner to first for the final out.

Washington second baseman Daniel Murphy was greeted with a round of boos when he came to the plate in the second inning. It was Murphy's first game at Wrigley Field since he hit four homers while helping the New York Mets sweep the Cubs in the NL Championship Series last year.

CHANGE OF PLANS

Cubs outfielder Jason Heyward tested his sore right wrist in batting practice and was planning to return to the lineup on Friday if he felt OK. But he ended up playing center in the series opener after Dexter Fowler was ejected for arguing with home plate umpire Vic Carpazza after he struck out looking to end the third.

Heyward, who signed a $184 million, eight-year contract with Chicago during free agency, went 0 for 2 with a strikeout.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Nationals: OF Ben Revere, who is on the disabled list with a right oblique strain, rejoined the team and could be activated soon. "I'd rather wait an extra day, especially because I've seen too many guys say I'm ready and they come back and they do it again," manager Dusty Baker said. "Hopefully he doesn't injure himself again the rest of the year."

Cubs: C Miguel Montero, on the DL with lower back tightness, hit before the game and manager Joe Maddon said trainer P.J. Mainville was encouraged with his progress.

UP NEXT

Washington ace Max Scherzer (3-1, 3.35 ERA) takes on John Lackey (3-1, 4.32 ERA) in a matchup of veteran right-handers on Friday afternoon. Scherzer is 1-0 with a 1.42 ERA in three career starts at Wrigley. Lackey needs six strikeouts to become the fifth active pitcher with at least 2,000 Ks, joining CC Sabathia, Bartolo Colon, Felix Hernandez and Jake Peavy.

Ross' 9 Ks not enough to overcome Zobrist and Hendricks' big night

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Ross' 9 Ks not enough to overcome Zobrist and Hendricks' big night

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 5-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs on Thursday night at Wrigley Field:

How it happened: Ben Zobrist came to play. The highly prized free agent signed during the offseason to round out the Cubs infield started things off early, driving in Tommy La Stella and Kris Bryant in the fourth inning on a single to put the Cubs.

Four innings later, with the Nationals unable to make good contact off Kyle Hendricks (2-2, 6 IP, 2 H, 0 ER, 2 BB, 4 SO), Zobrist tacked on two more thanks to a big, two-out home run to left field off reliever Felipe Rivero.

Two batters later, Addison Russell drove in Ryan Kallish on a double off Joe Kelley to put the Cubs up 5-0.

Bryce Harper reached on a walk in the top of the ninth and Jayson Werth cleared the bases on a home run off Travis Wood, but Carlos Rodon shut the door on Wilson Ramos and the Nats, procuring the final out.

What it means: The 5-1 win moves the Cubs' run differential to an absurd +96. It's still an early-season series, but four games in Chicago will help fuel the narrative heading toward the All-Star break. The Nats' bats were cold, but Bryce Harper reaching base four times is a good sign that maybe brief slump is coming to an end.

Ross' standout start: Despite suffering his first loss of the year, Joe Ross tossed perhaps his best game of the 2016 campaign. Although he gave up a season-high two runs, he also recorded a season-high nine strikeouts and allowed just five hits and two balls.

His slider was working early, recording his first three punchouts using his go-to pitch. The 22-year-old hurler continues to dazzle early in the year and his been a pleasant surprise.

He faced his biggest test to date and while he took the loss, his performance certainly wasn't anything to scoff at.

With a 1.23 ERA, he ranks behind just Gio Gonzalez and Jake Arrieta for the league lead. That's good company to keep.

Murphy comes up empty: Daniel Murphy did not record a hit. That may sound a bit odd and with good reason. Thursday night was just the fourth time all season Murphy has failed to get a hit this season. His two strikeouts was also a rareity, just the second-time he's been sent down twice in one outing in 2016. But fear not. Each of Murphy's hitless games have been followed up by multi-hit games with at least one RBI. Friday will be different for sure.

Revere waits again: There was speculation that Ben Revere would make his return to the lineup on Thursday after spending a month on the DL due to a strained oblique he suffered during the first week of the season. But after giving it a go in pregame warmups it was determined that one more day of rest would get Revere back to 100%, and he is expected to be back on the field on Friday, 

What's next: Max Scherzer (3-1, 3.31 ERA) takes on John Lackey (3-1, 4.32 ERA) on Friday afternoon with Lackey needing just six strikeouts to become the fifth active starter with at least 2,000 Ks, joining the likes of Bartolo Colon, Felix Hernandez, Jake Peavy and CC Sabathia.