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Nats reward Zimmermann

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Nats reward Zimmermann

If there are still any detractors out there for the Nationals' plan to shut down Stephen Strasburg in September, perhaps these words from Jordan Zimmermann following another stellar pitching performance Wednesday night will help change their minds.

"I definitely feel stronger another year after surgery," said Zimmermann, now nearly three full years removed from Tommy John surgery. "Last year was hit-or-miss. I didn't know how I was going to feel. But this whole year I've been feeling great. I haven't had any aches or pains. So, knock on wood, I hope that keeps going."

The Nationals certainly hope Zimmermann keeps this up, because what he's doing right now is out-pitching everyone else from their star-studded rotation, not to mention out-pitching just about every other hurler in the big leagues.

With six more scoreless innings -- helping pave the way for a 4-3 victory over the Mets -- Zimmermann continued both his streak of consistent quality work as well as his recent streak of sheer excellence on the mound.

That's now 17 quality starts for Zimmermann in 19 games overall, every single start lasting at least six innings. And over his last five outings, he's now 4-0 with an 0.84 ERA.

In short, the right-hander is getting stronger and better each time he toes the rubber, earning more and more praise from his teammates and manager.

"I mean, he's a man out there," Davey Johnson said. "No doubt about it. He has a great presence. He knows what he wants to do. There's no muss, no fuss. He says: 'Here, hit it.'"

What the Nationals are witnessing right now is the ascension of a top prospect into an elite major-league pitcher. Zimmermann now owns the sixth-best ERA in the majors at 2.35, not to mention the most quality starts.

The Nationals always knew Zimmermann had this in him; the timeline was just delayed by his 2009 elbow ligament replacement surgery.

Zimmermann wound up missing most of 2010 while rehabbing the injury. He returned strong last season but as he pointed out was "hit-or-miss" from start to start, then was shut down at the end of August with his innings count at 161 13.

These days, the 26-year-old is healthy, experienced and strong. And as his numbers start looking better and better, the rest of the sport is beginning to recognize the top of the Nationals' rotation doesn't include only All-Stars Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez.

"I can't say enough about him," first baseman Adam LaRoche said. "He's quiet and goes about his business, but he's turning into a No. 1 for anybody."

The only knock on Zimmermann this season has been something completely out of his control: A lack of run support, leading to a dearth of wins. That has finally begun to change over the last month, with the Nationals scoring an average of 6.4 runs during each of his last five starts.

LaRoche provided the key support on Wednesday, turning a scoreless game in the sixth into a 2-0 advantage when he launched an opposite-field blast into the Red Porch seats. That put Zimmermann in line to earn his seventh win and get his record over .500 for the first time since -- get this -- he was 2-1 during his rookie season.

"I'll buy him whatever he wants, a steak or something," Zimmermann said of LaRoche.

Informed of his teammate's offer, the veteran first baseman replied: "I'll take him up on that steak."

It appeared for a while that 2-0 lead would hold up, but as it turned out Zimmermann and the Nationals needed Steve Lombardozzi's two-run double in the seventh at night's end.

That's because closer Tyler Clippard, one night after blowing a two-run lead to the Mets in the ninth inning, nearly did it again. Entrusted with a 4-1 lead this time, he served up a homer to David Wright on his very first pitch, then another solo shot to Jason Bay with two outs.

Up came Jordany Valdespin, the man whose three-run bomb Tuesday night cost Clippard his first blown save since he took over closer duties, but there was nothing for the crowd of 31,660 to worry about. Clippard calmly struck out the pinch-hitter, and the Nationals' 18th one-run win of the season was in the books.

They now lead the Mets by a full 8 games in the NL East, with a chance for a sweep Thursday afternoon. And after a wild, extra-inning finish in Atlanta, they now lead the Braves by 4 12 games with a big, four-game weekend series between the two clubs looming.

Not that the Nationals were focused on the standings late Wednesday night. They were just happy to get their unsung right-hander a much-deserved victory.

"Zim was outstanding," Johnson said. "He just continues to go out there and put zeroes up. Glad we scored in the bottom of that inning, get him the win. He's pitched well enough to be 12-2 or something."

For now, 7-6 will have to suffice.

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State of the Nats: Turner's pickoff steal, Indians next, Ross close?

State of the Nats: Turner's pickoff steal, Indians next, Ross close?

Team Record: 58-41

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Inside Trea Turner's pickoff steal - It's a good thing Monday was an off-day because Sunday's 10-6 Nats loss to the Padres featured plenty of moments worth highlighting. One of them was Trea Turner's fourth steal of the season.

It happened in the bottom of the seventh after Turner reached on a fielding error by shortstop Alexei Ramirez. Ramirez bobbled a ball that was hit right to him, perhaps a result of Turner's blinding speed. Once on first, Turner took a big lead with former Nats reliever Matt Thornton on the mound and with Jayson Werth at the plate. Thornton threw to first for a pickoff attempt and Turner took off. He reached second with a head first slide, but Wil Myers' throw didn't even make it a close call.

After the game Turner described the sequence and how he was able to pull off a play many could not accomplish.

"I figured [Thornton's move] would be somewhat slow. Wil is really athletic over there, but it's also I think his first or second year playing first base. So, he's still fairly new. I wanted to take a chance and try to get into scoring position. I did and it worked out. You have to account for all of those things. How quickly the first baseman throws and how quick the pickoff move is," Turner said.

Turner was given intel on Thornton's pickoff move and time to the plate. But Myers' inexperience at first base may have been the biggest factor.

"I may think twice if Adrian Gonzalez is over there. He's a lefty and a Gold Glover. Not to say that Wil is bad, but you've gotta take all of that into account," Turner said.

Will Ross be ready to face the Giants? - We know the Nats are likely to have Ryan Zimmerman and Sammy Solis back on Tuesday when they face the Indians, but what about starter Joe Ross? The right-hander remains on the disabled list with right shoulder inflammation and hasn't started since July 2. But after making a rehab start with the Single-A Hagerstown Suns on Sunday, Ross looks close to returning. And given Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez didn't exactly dominate in their most recent showings, perhaps the Nats have some extra motivation to get Ross back into the mix.

Ross pitched three scoreless innings with Hagerstown and gave up only two hits with no walks. He struck out three and threw a total of 43 pitches, 29 of them strikes. The big question for him is whether the Nats think he has built enough arm strength to return to big league action. He threw 35 pitches in a bullpen session before throwing just 43 in them minors. That's a far cry from the 90-100 he may need to go in an MLB start. In an ideal scenario, they would probably like Ross to get one more rehab outing under his belt, one in which he works up to 75 or so pitches. But given their recent luck with spot starters, perhaps they decide to just roll with Ross instead.

Indians up next - Before the Nats go to San Francisco, they have a two-game series at the Cleveland Indians, the current owners of first place in the AL Central. It should be a good test of interleague play against a team that, despite having just been swept by the Orioles, has the best run differential in the American League.

Cleveland has been good at just about everything this season. They are sixth in the majors in run production and fifth in ERA. They are ninth in team OPS and sixth in OPS against. 

And though they are only playing two games in this series, the Nats will see both of the Indians' best pitchers. Danny Salazar will take the opener Tuesday night with his 2.75 ERA and 125 strikeouts in 111 1/3 innings. And Carlos Carrasco, who has a 2.31 ERA through 14 starts, will go in the second game. Gio Gonzalez and Stephen Strasburg will pitch in those matchups for Washington.

On offense, watch out for Francisco Lindor. At just 22 years old, he's one of the best players in baseball. A defensive mastermind, he also hits .303 and has 12 homers, 49 RBI and 68 runs this season. 

Familiar names Carlos Santana (21 HR, .838 OPS), Jason Kipnis (16 HR, .827 OPS), Mike Napoli (22 HR, 68 RBI) and Lonnie Chisenhall (.303 BA, .819 OPS) are also having very good years. And then there's former first round pick and AL Rookie of the Year candidate Tyler Naquin, who has a .321 batting average and 1.006 OPS in his first major league season.

The Indians look like World Series contenders and should prove a great barometer for where the Nats are right now. The series will also pit two of the game's best managers - Dusty Baker and Terry Francona - against each other.

NL East Standings

Offensive game of the week: Wilson Ramos 7/24 vs. Padres - 3-for-4, HR, 3 RBI, R

Pitching line of the week: Gio Gonzalez 7/20 vs. Dodgers - 6.0 IP, R, 3 H, 6 SO, 2 BB, 97 pitches (56 strikes)

Quote of the Week 

“My grandpa has a wooden leg and he'll tell you I got my speed from him. My mom will say the same thing. My dad says he was faster when he was younger, but I don't know if I believe that. Everyone likes to claim it, but I don't have any proof."

- Trea Turner to CSN on where he got his speed from

Tweet (or Instagram) of the Week

As the @therealdomingo would say, "this is how you impress the scouts" I love this game! #CurlyW

A photo posted by Bryce Harper (@bharper3407) on

Road Ahead

Mon. - OFF
Tue. - 7:10 p.m. at Cleveland Indians (Gonzalez vs. Salazar)
Wed. - 12:10 p.m. at Cleveland Indians (Strasburg vs. Carrasco)
Thu. - 10:15 p.m. at San Francisco Giants (Roark vs. Cueto)
Fri. - 10:15 p.m. at San Francisco Giants (Scherzer vs. Samardzija)
Sat. - 4:05 p.m. at San Francisco Giants (TBA vs. Peavy)
Sun. - 4:05 p.m. at San Francisco Giants (Gonzalez vs. Cain)

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Trea Turner is ready to step in and play center field for Nats if needed

Trea Turner is ready to step in and play center field for Nats if needed

With the expected return of first baseman Ryan Zimmerman on Tuesday, there will be some shuffling on the Nats roster, most notably with Trea Turner getting bumped from their infield.

Zimmerman, despite his .221/.284/.402 slash this year, is going right back into the starting lineup. He's a proven veteran, went 5-for-12 on his rehab assignment and manager Dusty Baker has already confirmed that plan, not that it needed to be done.

"I've got to get Zim back in the lineup. He’s a big part of our offense. And certainly, if I get Zim back in the lineup, that means [Daniel] Murphy is at second base," Baker said.

Turner will be out of the infield mix, but with Michael Taylor going back to Triple-A Syracuse, the door may be open for Turner to play some in the outfield. A lifelong middle infielder, Turner has been learning center field recently. He played six games there at Syracuse and has been doing outifled drills for several weeks now. 

Turner has shown in recent games the impact he can make offensively. He has 11 hits and four steals in his last nine games and in his last five outings alone has three triples and five runs. The Nats have seen the worst production of any team from their leadoff spot with a dead-last .586 OPS collectively. Taylor's now gone and Ben Revere's still hitting just .216 through 61 games.

"Now we've just got to try to find [Turner's] place with Zim coming back, find a place for him to play," Baker said.

If that is in center field, Turner feels ready to step in. 

"I did it in Syracuse and I'll do it here if they need me to," he said. "It's something that I've embraced, I guess. It's something that I'll do if they need me to. I'll continue to work out there whenever they give me the chance. On days I don't play, I go out there and shag some balls just to make sure I'm staying on top of it. It hasn't happened yet, but if it does I'll be ready."

Six games in Triple-A, of course, is not a lot of action at a brand new position. Whenever Turner does play in center field, there will be a learning curve and perhaps a noticeable drop-off from Revere. But Turner feels he did well in those six chances and can build off that experience.

"[I did] fine. I think I got a couple tough balls hit at me, line drives, and I made the right decisions at the time. I made all the plays that came to me. At the same time, I know it's not as easy as that. You've gotta play balls off the wall. In big league ballparks, it's going to be a lot different everywhere you go. Guys are a lot stronger, so they hit the ball a little bit farther. You've gotta take all that into account as well and learn," he said.

Baker himself has expressed confidence in Turner's ability to transition to the outfield. Earlier this month he offered a comparison to Robin Yount, a Hall of Famer who began his career as a shortstop before moving to center field. Yount won MVPs at both positions.

Zimmerman's return could simply mean Turner is heading back to the bench, ready to step in to give a Nats infielder a day off or wait for pinch-run opportunities. If that's the case, Turner believes he can still make an impact.

"Just keep it simple and do your job, whatever they ask," he said. "I'm still learning. I think you can always figure out ways to come off the bench and take advantage of those opportunities. If I have to do that, running is going to be a huge key. I think that's just a matter of stretching and paying attention by watching video on pitchers in case you get a stolen base opportunity, or whatever it may be."

[RELATED: For Giolito: 'It’s back to the drawing board']

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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