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Nats starting pitching a weakness so far

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Nats starting pitching a weakness so far

From April through September, there was no better team in baseball than the Nationals when it came to starting pitching. Through injuries to their lineup and bullpen, it was their constant, their guarantee.

But now three games into the National League Division Series, starting pitching is all of a sudden a weakness. Nats starters have barely been able to get out of the second inning without digging a significant hole for their team to get out of. In the Nationals' 8-0 loss in Game 3, Edwin Jackson was no different.

Nats manager Davey Johnson sent Jackson to the mound after two shaky starts by his one and two starters Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann in Games 1 and 2. And despite Jacksons playoff experience, he couldnt buck the trend of starting the game with trouble early on. Jackson, in fact, missed the strike zone by about a foot on each of his first two pitches.

Johnson acknowledged that maybe Jackson and his teammates were a little jumpy after a pregame celebration of Washington, D.C.s first home MLB playoff game since 1933.

Everybody's excited about the opening ceremonies with all of the dignitaries and the flyover.Got everybody excited, Johnson said. If you get behind early, sometimes it takes the wind out of your sails.

Jackson allowed a run in the first inning off back-to-back hits to Matt Holliday and Allen Craig. Holliday scored all the way from first as left fielder Michael Morse tracked down the ball in the corner.

The second inning for Jackson began with a double by David Freese. Daniel Descalso then singled to move Freese over to third. The next batter, Pete Kozma, took the next pitch over the left field fence for a three-run homer.

Jackson was bitten early just as Gonzalez and Zimmermann were in St. Louis. After experiencing it himself he explained why the Cardinals keep finding success in the first two innings.

Theyre just coming out and being aggressive, he said. Theyre not waiting around for you to get strike one. They are coming out and jumping on pitches early in the count.

In Game 1 Gonzalez allowed two runs, including one on a wild pitch, and walked four batters in the second inning. In Game 2 Zimmermann allowed three runs in the second with four straight hits to begin the inning.

Add their outings with Jacksons day and Nationals starters have allowed 11 earned runs in 13 innings, a combined 7.62 ERA. Thats more than double their combined ERAs in the regular season.

Whatever the Cardinals lineup is doing, they are doing it right. Some of the Nationals position players feel they need to get their bats going early to help the starter in any way they can.

We need to put a couple runs up early, Ryan Zimmerman said. We can give our pitchers some leeway and attack their guys so they dont have so much pressure to make perfect pitches all the time.

Pitching his huge definitely. Having guys going out there and throw strikes and doing well is the key to winning, Bryce Harper said. And hopefully we can get some runs up on the board and really get things going early.

Through three games the Nationals have been outscored 10-2 in the first two innings. Heading to the mound for Game 4 will be Ross Detwiler who is their least experienced starter. Johnson hopes the lefty can get the pitching staff back to where it was just a few games ago, the teams backbone and biggest strength.

We have two more ballgames.Det's capable of pitching a good game tomorrow, he said.

That's been our strength all year.These young guys have pitched great all year. Need a couple more goodpitched games this series.

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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