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One run won't cut it for Nats

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One run won't cut it for Nats

BALTIMORE -- As consistent and as dominant as their pitching staff has been since Opening Day, the Nationals have known all along there will be days when they simply need to score a few more runs and take some of the pressure off those electric arms who take the mound in succession inning after inning, day after day.

That's why Ryan Zimmerman is attempting to play through a nagging shoulder injury, why the veteran third baseman received a pain-killing shot one hour before Sunday's game in what could become a recurring theme for the rest of the season.

Zimmerman knows the Nationals' lineup needs all the help it can get right now, and who better to provide that spark than a two-time Silver Slugger Award winner?

"We need to score more," he said. "That's not in question."

True, Sunday's 2-1 loss to the Orioles was a direct result of Sean Burnett serving up a two-run homer to Matt Wieters in the bottom of the eighth, the first time the left-hander had blown a lead this year.

But the Nationals can ask their typically lights-out bullpen to protect such slim leads only so many times over a full season without accepting the occasional slip-up.

"It's not the easiest thing in the world," Burnett said. "You'd like to have a little bit of leniency. But a 1-run lead, our job is to come in and nail it down. And unfortunately I didn't do that today."

Had Burnett's teammates given him a cushion of even two or maybe three runs instead of one, perhaps the result would have been different. But these days, the Nationals can't count on their lineup producing anything more than the bare minimum on a daily basis.

Over their last nine games, the Nationals have given up 29 runs, a more-than-respectable average of 3.2. But during that same span, they've scored only 23 runs, an paltry average of 2.6. (It's probably no surprise their record in those games was 3-6.)

They had opportunities to add to Sunday's output but went 1-for-6 with runners in scoring position against Baltimore starter Jake Arrieta, who entered with a 5.83 ERA and an AL-leading nine losses.

The lone run-producing hit by a player wearing red and blue in this game? Zimmerman's RBI single in the third, perhaps his most-impressive hit in weeks, given the fact he drove a 95 mph fastball over shortstop J.J. Hardy's head despite the persistent shoulder pain that has afflicted him most of this season.

The difference for Zimmerman? The pain-killing shot that included cortisone and lidocaine and gave the ailing third baseman "relief" for the first time in a long time.

"Obviously, I wasn't performing," he said. "But to go out there today and feel a little bit like I could do the things that I've always been able to do gave me a little bit more confidence and just makes you happier."

Zimmerman wound up with a pair of hits that raised his batting average to .223, a well-stuck fly ball to center field and several highlight-reel plays at third base. That performance -- barely 12 hours after he finally admitted the extent to which his shoulder injury was affecting his swing and suggested he may need to spend time on the disabled list -- left the Nationals feeling better about his long-term prognosis.

Team doctors examined Zimmerman's shoulder Sunday morning and came away with the same diagnosis from two months ago: A sprained AC joint. They found no damage to any tendons or ligaments, only a bone-on-bone situation that's causing the pain.

At some point, preferably in the offseason, Zimmerman could have surgery to clean up the area. Recovery time would be roughly 4-6 weeks. For now, he believes he can continue to play, with the aid of the occasional pain-killing shot.

"I can play through this," he said. "And that's what I plan to do for the rest of the year."

The Nationals can only hope the treatment now only allows Zimmerman to take the field each day but also allows him to rediscover the power stroke that made him such a dangerous hitter through the first six seasons of his big-league career. Even so, a healthy Zimmerman might not be enough to carry a lineup that has scored only 262 runs this season (fourth fewest in the majors).

Sunday's game saw the Nationals get a total of two hits from players not named Zimmerman or Bryce Harper (who singled in the first inning and then hustled to turn a routine base hit to center into a electrifying double in the sixth inning).

That second Harper hit, which drew oohs and aahs from the bipartisan crowd of 41,794 at Camden Yards, put the Nationals in golden position to add to their 1-0 lead. But Zimmerman struck out swinging at a 2-2 breaking ball low and outside. And after Adam LaRoche was intentionally walked, Michael Morse struck out swinging at another 2-2 breaking ball, then Ian Desmond popped out to end the inning.

"I still think we're not ... a lot of hitters are doing some over-aggressiveness," Johnson said. "We're trying to hit the ball out of the ballpark instead of making good swings. But we're getting there."

The silver lining to all this is that the Nationals, in spite of their offensive woes, will hold at least a 2 12-game lead in the NL East come Monday morning. They also just survived what could be the toughest stretch of their season -- 32 consecutive games against only NL East and AL East opponents -- with an 18-14 record.

They also know that while pitching wins championships, a little offense every now and then certainly helps.

"We want to score more runs," Zimmerman said. "I think this whole series kind of shows you how good both of these teams' pitching is. It's not easy to score runs, but we definitely need to do a better job of capitalizing on our opportunities."

Whether Zimmerman's new treatment plan can keep him in the lineup -- and, more importantly, whether he can produce again -- could go a long way toward answering this club's most-pressing question.

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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

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MLB Trade Rumors: Who should the Nationals target before the deadline?

MLB Trade Rumors: Who should the Nationals target before the deadline?

BY JEREMY FIALKOW (@JeremyFialkow)

The Nationals may be good — very good — but they're not perfect, not yet. 

With the trade deadline fast approaching, GM Mike Rizzo's hunt to turn the roster he assembled into a legitimate World Series contender will grab the spotlight.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE NATIONALS' TOP TRADE DEADLINE TARGETS

There's speculation around the league that Rizzo's plans start and end with adding a commanding bullpen arm, capable of shortening each game by three outs, at least.

Nevertheless, Washington has the assets on hand and in their farm system to secure anyone they fancy, whether it's an arm, a bat ... or both.

Fortunately for baseball fans (but unfortunately for the Nats) the 2016 season has been competitive all around, leaving teams deemed surefire sellers few and far between.

Still, Rizzo's team is in a desirable position with the always appreciated ability of flexibility, so which players will the Nats target before the July 31 trade deadline.

CLICK HERE TO VIEW THE NATIONALS' TOP TRADE DEADLINE TARGETS

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Nats' Giolito returns to minors: 'It’s back to the drawing board'

Nats' Giolito returns to minors: 'It’s back to the drawing board'

For the second time in two weeks, the Nationals have sent top prospect Lucas Giolito back down to the minors to work on some things.

The former first round pick who many consider to be the top prospect in baseball has hit a rough patch this season. His talent has been well-documented and it's obvious on the mound. But the results at the big league level have yet to follow through three MLB starts and even Giolito will admit he is not where he wants to be.

The Nationals saw Giolito labor through 3 2/3 innings against the Padres on Sunday, then sent him to Triple-A Syracuse 90 minutes after the game was over. The kid who has the stuff to strike out anybody struck out nobody in his latest MLB turn and only got one swing-and-miss in his 66 pitches.

Something is off and they are determined to figure it out.

“I was talking to [Wilson] Ramos when I took him out and he said he just couldn’t get any of his secondary pitches over, his curveball or his changeup," manager Dusty Baker said. "He was really down to one pitch. And you have to have either tremendous gas, or you have to be able to locate to the max. It’s back to the drawing board with him.”

Baker has offered detailed critiques of Giolito since he debuted on June 28. Part of him has been impressed by the 22-year-old. But as a 21-year veteran MLB manager, he's seen countless top prospects and knows Giolito has plenty of work to do to reach his potential.

Last week when the Nats chose prospect Reynaldo Lopez to face the Dodgers instead of Giolito, Baker offered a blunt assessment.

"What we want… in the progress of certain players, it doesn't coincide sometimes," he said. 

Giolito's fastball reached 95 and 96 on Sunday, but sometimes dipped to the 91-93 range. That's fine, but nowhere near the upper 90s to 100 he has thrown in the past.

But, as Baker describes, it's not so much the velocity that is hurting him. It's the inability to command his curveball and changeup. Giolito only threw four changeups on Sunday.

"I wasn't commanding my off speed pitches for strikes," Giolito said. "So when I fall behind batters instead of being able to go to changeup or curveball, I was throwing fastballs and big league hitters are able to take my offspeed pitches out of the equation if I'm not throwing it for a strike. So, they kind of jumped on that."

Giolito's offspeed repertoire has been a work in progress all season and he has had trouble walking batters as a result. On Sunday, he walked three batters and now has nine through three big league starts. In the minors this season, Giolito has walked 36 batters in 84 2/3 innings.

During spring training, his first big league camp, Giolito's curveball and changeup were sharp. But as the season has progressed, he's seen his command come and go. 

"It's frustrating because my last outing at Syracuse I was commanding offspeed pitches pretty well and I had a good outing. I didn't translate that into today, obviously. I just have to keep working and try to get better at it," he said.

Along the way Giolito has made several minor mechanical adjustments. But lately, he has been working with a noticeable one, his delivery has been compacted to eliminate a full windup. Instead, Giolito almost works out of the stretch even when runners are not on base.

"I augmented my windup so that I already have my foot planted from where I start it from instead of the movement before hand, I felt like that's been a good change for me, kind of less movement going into the windup. I feel comfortable doing that," he said.

Making changes, both big and small, is part of the learning process for Giolito as a professional pitcher. The Nationals are confident he'll soon be able to tap into his immense potential, it's just going to take some time for him to figure it out.

[RELATED: Nats option Giolito, Taylor to make room on roster]

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