Nats ready to fire up Hot Stove

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Nats ready to fire up Hot Stove

Technically speaking, the baseball offseason began the moment the San Francisco Giants wrapped up a four-game whitewashing of the Detroit Tigers in the World Series. That was 29 days ago.

In reality, the offseason has barely registered a blip on anyone's radar screen to this point. Yes, free agency kicked off five days after the Fall Classic ended. But do you know how many of the sport's 175 free agents have signed contracts so far? Twenty-one. That's all.

Baseball, as everyone knows, likes to take its time. This is the rare sport, of course, that doesn't feature a clock. So it's only appropriate that it always takes a while for the offseason to kick into high gear.

That time, though, has finally come. Thanksgiving has come and gone, the annual Winter Meetings begin one week from today and the Hot Stove League is ready at last to ignite.

You'll start reading more and more rumors in the days ahead, which players are in discussions with which clubs. You may see a handful of free agents sign deals before anyone arrives in Nashville on Sunday. You'll certainly see a smorgasbord of activity once those Winter Meetings commence at the massive Opryland Resort and Convention Center.

And you'll probably hear the Nationals mentioned as much as almost any franchise in the game, a clear departure from previous offseasons when they existed mostly on the periphery of all the action.

What do the Nationals need? It's been well-documented since mid-October, but let's run through it all again, in order of greatest need...

1. ADAM LAROCHE
So much of the Nats' offseason hinges upon the veteran first baseman. If he returns to D.C., the lineup is set. If he goes elsewhere, the dominoes start falling all over the place, with Michael Morse likely shifting to first base and the club then deciding if it wants to simply give left field to Tyler Moore or pursue a free agent center fielder like Michael Bourn or B.J. Upton and shift Bryce Harper to left field (or Harper to right field and Jayson Werth to left field).

Very little has come to light about the LaRoche market, but this much is certain: The Nationals would happily give their 2012 MVP two guaranteed years at a healthy sum. The question is whether they would be willing to give him three guaranteed years, and if not, whether another club (ie. the Red Sox, Orioles or Rangers) would then be able to swoop him away.

Look for more clarity in this dilemma over the next week or two, with the market perhaps defining itself better to the point LaRoche can finally make his decision and the Nationals can finally proceed with their larger offseason plan.

2. A NO. 5 STARTER
If ever there was a good winter to be in need of a reliable, veteran starter, this is it. There are no shortage of available options via free agency, only a question of how high the Nationals want to set their sets and how much money they're willing to spend to bolster what may already be the majors' best rotation.

At the top end of the spectrum are Zack Greinke and Dan Haren. In the middle of the pack are Anibal Sanchez, Kyle Lohse, Ryan Dempster and Brandon McCarthy. Further down the list are Joe Saunders, Shaun Marcum and Carl Pavano.

And then, of course, there's John Lannan (still under the Nationals' control though now out of minor-league options) and Christian Garcia (who may be converted to a starter next spring).

If the Nationals are dead-set on acquiring one of the big names, they may try to be aggressive and get something done in short order. If they're content to pick from among the rest of the litter, they could take their sweet time and find themselves a better bargain once the dust has settled.

3. A LEFT-HANDED RELIEVER (OR TWO)
Sean Burnett and Michael Gonzalez are both free agents. Either (or both) could re-sign, though Burnett may command a three-year commitment along the lines of the contract the Giants gave Jeremy Affeldt to stay in San Francisco through 2015.

Who else is out there? There aren't many other quality lefties on the open market. Veterans Randy Choate and J.P. Howell are probably the best of the bunch, which could put some added pressure on the Nationals to at least re-sign Burnett or Gonzalez.

Ben Revere starting to resemble the leadoff man the Nats hoped for

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Ben Revere starting to resemble the leadoff man the Nats hoped for

When the Nationals acquired Ben Revere from the Toronto Blue Jays last winter, they knew exactly what they were getting: a prototypical leadoff hitter that sees a lot of pitches, ropes line drives into the gaps and wreaks havoc on the base paths.

Still, every now and then Washington's centerfielder goes out of character in pregame batting practice and simulates his long ball swing, much to the dismay of manager Dusty Baker. 

"Even when I pop them in BP, he gets mad," Revere said. 

But for just the fifth time in his career 2569 at-bats, that power stroke came in handy. Revere enjoyed a rare jog around the bases after his seventh-inning solo home run in Tuesday night's 7-4 win over the New York Mets. The 384-foot blast to right field was his first since joining the Nats — and based on his track record, it's anyone's guess when his second one will be. 

"At least I get my one [home run]," Revere said. "I just gotta get one."

"I'm just hoping he doesn't get that dreadful disease of home-run-itis," Baker added. "So just get back to yourself, Ben."

Luckily for the Nats, Revere has finally started to look like himself after getting off to a slow start, one which included a post-disabled list slump following his Opening Day oblique injury. In the last week, he's hitting .360 with three extra-base hits, five RBI, six runs scored and a pair of stolen bases. 

"He's really been swinging the bat well since that last game in New York [last week]," Daniel Murphy said. "He looks good in there and it's really nice to have him at the top of the lineup setting the table for us."

With Revere rounding into form and other members of the lineup getting hot, the Nats offense finally has a chance to be a more balanced outfit that doesn't solely rely on Murphy and Bryce Harper to do all the heavy lifting. 

That said, don't hold your breath waiting for Revere to be leaving the yard again anytime soon. 

"If I try to hit it in the air, I’ll probably be .250 or Mendoza line .200 hitter," he quipped. "But if I hit the ball on the ground or line drives, I’ll be .300 for a long time."

Harvey struggling, Murphy thriving as Nats-Mets rivalry heats up

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Harvey struggling, Murphy thriving as Nats-Mets rivalry heats up

The NL East division will not be decided in the month of May, but the contrast in fortunes for the Nats and Mets was dramatic on Tuesday night at Nationals Park.

Yes, the Nats only lead the Mets by 1 1/2 games in the division after homering them to death in a 7-4 series-tying victory. But they beat them once again with a huge contribution from ex-Met Daniel Murphy and once again at the expense of beleaguered super hero Matt Harvey.

From the moment Murphy left the Mets to sign a three-year deal with the Nationals, it became part of the fabric of one of baseball's best contemporary rivalries. And the way he's played not just overall this season, but in head-to-head matchups with the Mets, has only stoked that fire.

Murphy went 2-for-4 with his seventh homer of the year on Tuesday night and now has two homers in four at-bats against Harvey. He has two RBI in each of his last three games against his former team and has quickly become a pest for the organization he spent 10 distinguished years with.

Harvey, on the other hand, has allowed 11 earned runs combined in his last two starts, both against the Nationals. He is in the midst of a shocking downfall and the Nats are playing a hands-on role.

Only four times did a Nationals hitter swing and miss at a pitch Harvey threw on Tuesday. That matched a season-low. The three homers he surrendered matched a career-high. This is all just one start after the Nats scored nine runs (6 ER) on Harvey, which set a new career mark.

“His velocity started out good," manager Dusty Baker said. "He was 95, 96 miles per hour, then his velocity dropped to 92, 93. His slider wasn’t as sharp as it usually is. You gotta get them when they’re down.”

Murphy, on the other hand, is carrying over the power surge the Mets themselves witnessed last fall. After hitting seven homers in 14 postseason games, Murphy has seven in 45 outings this season. That puts him on pace for 25 homers, nearly double his career-best of 14 set just last year.

Having spent five years around Harvey in New York, Murphy has a unique perspective of his former teammate now facing him from the other side.

"It's tough to tell," Murphy said. "I have all the confidence in the world that he's gonna throw the ball well... I hope it's not against us, or me personally. But we know how good he is, we saw it all year last year. And again, as a pitcher or a hitter, we're never as far away as we think."

Murphy isn't the only player on the Nats who wishes Harvey well, despite his presence in the NL East.

"I know he’s still going to be their go-to guy coming down the stretch and coming down the stretch these guys are going to be right there," center fielder Ben Revere said. 

"Fastball seems the same. He’s throwing strikes. It’s baseball. We’ve been getting the key knocks. Nothing we can do about it. Just goes to show that every pitcher in the big leagues is going to have some rough stretches."

"His stuff is electric. To me he's still the same pitcher that comes after you," third baseman Anthony Rendon said. "Like anybody else, you go through a rough patch, and I'm pretty sure he'll find his way out like every other good pitcher does."

Murphy's two hits on Tuesday - the second against reliever Antonio Bastardo - gave him his 23rd multi-hit game of the season. That means more than half of his games this year have featured multiple hits. He's now batting an MLB-best .392. Only one batter (Yoenis Cespedes) on the Mets is hitting better than .283 at this point in the season.

“I've seen some pretty good hitters, George Brett, Tony Gwynn, Paul Molitor," Baker said. "[Murphy] hasn’t had a down time the entire year. He’s concentrating. He’s at a very high concentration level. When he’s getting his pitch he’s not missing many. Murph’s been the acquisition of the year in baseball. I’m just glad that we have him.”

Harvey's matchups with the Nats over his last two starts have put his career at a momentary crossroads. After his last outing, Tuesday's start was in question. The Mets ultimately decided to keep him in the rotation, but what about his next start? Will he take the mound?

His previous outing was so bad it convinced Mets fans - who booed him at home five days ago - to organize a social media campaign to bus droves of New Yorkers down to D.C. for Tuesday's game. About a hundred of them gathered in right field and were heard loudly before the game and through the first several innings with chants in support of Harvey.

By the fifth inning there were chants of 'Harrrr-veyyy' coming from the crowd, but not from Mets fans. Nationals fans turned the tables and made for yet another embarrassing moment for the Dark Knight of Gotham.

Harvey, for what it's worth, declined to speak to reporters after his latest disaster. Not facing the New York media who are ready to pounce all over you? That may feel good for a night, but it won't go over well in the coming days. Might be wise to avoid the tabloids, Matt.

Strasburg notches another win as Nats rough up Harvey again

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USA TODAY Sports

Strasburg notches another win as Nats rough up Harvey again

Postgame analysis of the Nationals' 7-4 victory over the Mets on Tuesday night: 

How it happened: With both Stephen Strasburg and Matt Harvey looking sharp through the game's first three innings, this looked every bit like the pitchers duel we were expecting to see last week when the two aces faced off in New York. 

But like last Thursday's game, the Nats eventually pounced on Harvey and ended his night earlier than he would have liked. Their home run barrage started in the fourth inning, when Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon delivered back-to-back solo shots to give Washington a 2-1 lead. The next inning, after Bryce Harper hit a sac fly to make it 3-1, Daniel Murphy (who else?) delivered the big blow with a a two-run shot to give the Nats a 5-1 cushion and essentially yank Harvey from the game. 

After the Mets gone a run back in the seventh, Ben Revere hit his first home run as a member of the Nats to extend the lead to 6-2. The long ball parade continued in the eighth as Wilson Ramos got into the act with a solo shot. 

What it means: The Nats were able to bounce back after Monday night's blowout loss. At 28-18, they're 1 1/2 games up on the Mets for first place in the NL East. While it's clear that these are the two best teams in the division, there's plenty of season left before it can be determined which club is truly superior.  

Strasburg extends winning streak: It's pretty simple at this point: if Strasburg takes the mound, the Nats win. That's been the case now for 14 consecutive starts — extending a franchise record. Once again, Strasburg was solid against the Mets, allowing two earned runs on four hits over 6 2/3 innings. His 11 strikeouts on the night marked the fifth time this season that he has registered double digit punch outs in a start. Strasburg is now 8-0 on the year with a 2.79 ERA and 86 strikeouts. Not too shabby. 

Nats rough up Harvey again: For the second time in less than a week, Washington's offense put up a few crooked numbers on the scoreboard to chase Harvey early in the game. Including Tuesday's outing, the Mets struggling ace has allowed 14 runs on 16 hits over 7 2/3 innings against the Nats in two starts. Ouch. If Harvey winds up temporarily removed from New York's rotation, Mets fans can thank their division rivals from D.C. 

Murphy keeps hurting his old club: With yet another solid performance, the Nats second baseman might be making the Mets wish they would have kept him around a little while longer. In five games against his former team, Murphy is hitting 8-for-21 (.380) with two home runs — both coming off Harvey — and 6 RBI. 

Up next: The rubber match in this series will be a matinee tilt on Wednesday at 1:05 p.m. The Nats will send Tanner Roark (3-3, 2.89 ERA) to oppose Mets rookie Steven Matz (6-1, 2.81 ERA).