Rattled Strasburg struggles in home finale

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Rattled Strasburg struggles in home finale

The Nationals have insisted for more than five months they can win without Stephen Strasburg, and over the course of 3 hours and 44 minutes Friday night, they tried their darndest to prove that in the most tangible way possible.

After watching their young ace get torched by the Marlins for five runs in three innings and exit his final home start of the season earlier than anyone could have anticipated, the Nationals came storming back to send this game into extra innings and nearly pulled off one final, improbable rally in the bottom of the 10th.

In the end, they couldn't quite complete that rally, stranding the tying run on second base and the winning run on first base when Roger Bernadina and Jayson Werth struck out in succession against Miami closer Steve Cishek.

So the biggest takeaway from a wild, 9-7 loss proved to be the manner in which Strasburg's 2012 D.C. finale played out and the manner in which the right-hander, his manager and others tried to explain what exactly happened.

"To be honest with you, I think he was thinking too much about the decision of what we were going to shut him down," Davey Johnson said. "And he kind wore it like it. ... I think he wasn't focused as much on the game as he was on the impending shutdown. Just he way I read it."

Strasburg, who has been reluctant all along to discuss the Nationals' precautionary plan for him, insisted the pending shutdown had nothing to do with his substandard outing.

"No," the right-hander said. "I just don't think I pitched well."

On that point, there is no dispute. Over the course of three laborious innings, Strasburg was tagged for five runs on six hits and three walks, serving up two homers and needing 67 pitches just to reach that juncture.

Whatever the reason behind it, Strasburg's issue was obvious: He couldn't locate his fastball. He either threw it early in the count for balls or grooved it down the heart of the strike zone, as was the case on both home run pitches.

Rather than tempt fate, Johnson decided to pull the plug after only 18 batters, sending up Corey Brown to pinch-hit in the bottom of the third and Zach Duke to pitch in the top of the fourth, much to the astonishment of the crowd of 28,533.

Perhaps more astonishing were the revelations offered by the manager about his young hurler afterward, with Johnson saying Strasburg is "having trouble sleeping, thinking about letting the guys down," and adding he'll need to address the matter in the coming days.

Strasburg, meanwhile, saw his innings count tick only slightly upward to 159 13 in 28 starts, though his season really can be broken down into two parts.

Early on, he was absolutely electric, blowing away opposing lineups nearly every time he took the mound. In 17 starts before the All-Star break, Strasburg was 9-4 with a 2.82 ERA, allowing more than three earned runs only twice.

Since then, he's been wildly inconsistent. He still puts together dominant outings, such as Sunday's six-inning gem against the Cardinals. But his rocky starts have become more regular, with opponents scoring at least four earned runs in four of his last 10 appearances.

"Well, I feel like it's been pretty good," he insisted. "I have a couple bad starts, but you know, I'll take a couple bad starts over the course of a year any day."

By the most basic measurement, Strasburg actually has been the least effective member of the Nationals' rotation since the All-Star break; his 3.73 ERA trails Ross Detwiler (2.79), Gio Gonzalez (3.05), Edwin Jackson (3.47) and Jordan Zimmermann (3.67).

None of this has taken Mike Rizzo by surprise. The Nationals general manager, who ultimately makes the decision when Strasburg will be shut down, has seen plenty of previous pitchers deal with inconsistencies in their first full season back from Tommy John surgery. And he acknowledges he's seen those telltale signs from Strasburg over the last two months.

Rizzo has said all along he won't base his decision on any one start, but on the patterns and tendencies he spots with his scout's eye. But what do the Nationals do moving forward, especially if they're concerned Strasburg is letting the shutdown affect his performance?

"Same thing we always do," pitching coach Steve McCatty said. "We go to the bullpen. We talk about it every day: You gotta stay focused, pitch-by-pitch. That's what we do. Pitch-by-pitch, hitter-by-hitter. Stay focused on what you do."

Strasburg has been slated to make his final start of the season Wednesday in New York. Would Friday's abbreviated outing make the Nationals reconsider the plan at all?

"It might," Johnson said in highly cryptic fashion.

Whatever ends up happening, it was clear Strasburg did not want this to be the final image of him for 2012, trudging off the mound after only three innings, unable to pitch his team one step closer to its first-ever division title.

Strasburg often talks about the lessons he tries to take from every one of his starts, good or bad. So what he he hope to learn from this one?

"Let it go, and just focus on the next one," he said. "I just didn't really have it tonight."

Nationals keep rolling against Royals, win fourth straight

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Nationals keep rolling against Royals, win fourth straight

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 2-0 win over the Kansas City Royals on Monday night at Kauffman Stadium: 

How it happened: After getting swept by the Phillies to close their most recent homestand, Nationals manager Dusty Baker called this Midwest road trip a good barometer for where they stand in the early part of this season. He, and many of his players, saw this road swing as a test, knowing they had yet to face one of baseball's best teams.

Four days later and the bar may need to be raised a little higher for these Nationals, as after sweeping the Cardinals in St. Louis, they opened their series at the defending champion Kansas City Royals with a convincing 2-0 victory on Monday night. Their brand of score early and let their pitching staff take it from there worked wonders once again.

Gio Gonzalez continued his career-best start to a season with six scoreless frames, Ryan Zimmerman and Daniel Murphy notched first-inning RBI and the Nats' bullpen held on to push the Nats to club record 18-7 on the season through 25 games.

What it means: The 'they haven't beaten anyone' knock on the 2016 Nats can officially be put to rest. The Nationals are now 4-0 on this road trip, having first swept a 100-win team from a year ago in the Cardinals, to now opening this series against the reigning champs with a win. 

Gio keeps on rolling: Gonzalez battled a high pitch count early, but recovered to give the Nats six scoreless innings on four hits and two walks. Gio now has a 1.15 ERA through five starts this season, going at least six innings in each of those outings. The Nats rotation as a whole has held a 0.92 mark with 34 strikeouts and 10 walks in their last six starts as a group. 

Zim comes up big: Zimmerman has been in quite the skid lately, finishing the month of April hitting .219/.301/.301 with just one hit in his last four games (13 ABs). Zimmerman had been showing positive signs, including the highest average exit velocity on the Nats through the weekend. And on Monday, he came through with a big hit in the first inning, an RBI double to right field to give the Nats an early lead. It was Zim's first RBI since April 26. The Nats have now scored 32 of their 101 total runs this season in the first inning. Zimmerman also smacked a ground-rule double in the ninth inning for just his fourth multi-hit game in 20 games this season.

Harper finally gets a hit: Harper's slump recent slump continued through his first two plate appearances on Monday, as Harper struck out and flew out to make it 16 at-bats without a hit dating back to last Thursday. Harper would finally get one, though, on a bloop single to left field to lead off the top of the sixth inning. Harper broke his slump, but he was quickly thrown out trying to steal second by Royals catcher Lorenzo Cain. He also now has only two hits in his last six games.

Murphy gets No. 1000: Murphy had another solid day at the plate on Monday with three hits and an RBI on a groundout in the first inning. His second hit was No. 1000 for his career. It was a double to center field in the sixth inning and it gave Murphy his 12th multi-hit game in 24 total appearances this season. Only three times this year has he been held hitless. Murphy, by the way, is the 10th player ever to record their 1000th career hit in a Nats uniform. Denard Span was the last in September of 2014.

Up next: The Nats continue their series at the Royals with another 8:15 p.m. start on Tuesday night. Tanner Roark (2-2, 2.03) and former Nats minor leaguer Chris Young (1-4, 6.12) are the starters.

Nats begin series at World Series-champion Kansas City Royals

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Nats begin series at World Series-champion Kansas City Royals

Nats (17-7) vs. Royals (13-11) at Kauffman Stadium

The Nationals rolled through St. Louis this weekend to secure their first sweep of the Cardinals since 2007. It was an impressive series against a team that led baseball with 100 wins last year. And now, on Monday night, they will face another of MLB's most talented clubs.

The Nats begin a three-game set with the defending champion Kansas City Royals with an 8:15 p.m. first pitch. Gio Gonzalez (1-1, 1.42) and right-hander Edinson Volquez (3-1, 3.34) are the scheduled starters.

Gio is pitching his fifth game of the 2016 season and is off to the best start of his career. The Nats' southpaw is holding opponents to a .196 average and .489 OPS. The Royals, though, will be his biggest challenge to date.

Gonzalez will pitch to Jose Lobaton per usual, though Wilson Ramos is back from the bereavement list. The rest of the Nats' lineup is as expected with Stephen Drew in there as the designated hitter.

First pitch: 8:15 p.m.
TV: MASN
Radio: 106.7 The Fan
Starting pitchers: Nats - Gio Gonzalez vs. Royals - Edinson Volquez

NATS

CF Michael Taylor
3B Anthony Rendon
RF Bryce Harper
1B Ryan Zimmerman
2B Daniel Murphy
LF Jayson Werth
DH Stephen Drew
C Jose Lobaton
SS Danny Espinosa
(LHP Gio Gonzalez)

ROYALS

SS Alcides Escobar
CF Lorenzo Cain
1B Eric Hosmer
DH Kendrys Morales
LF Alex Gordon
C Salvador Perez
2B Omar Infante
3B Christian Colon
RF Paulo Orlando
(RHP Edinson Volquez)

Follow along with GameView here.

Baker had his team rub a former player's ears for good luck vs. Cards

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Baker had his team rub a former player's ears for good luck vs. Cards

You're going to lobe this story. Wait, sorry, you're going to love this story.

Before the Nationals' weekend series against the Cardinals that started on Friday, a former player and current pal of Dusty Baker named Kirk Rueter stopped by to say hello. It was there when things took a turn for the weird, according to USA TODAY Sports' Bob Nightengale.

As a pitcher under Baker with the Giants, Rueter apparently developed a reputation for having incredibly good fortune. With that in mind,  Baker — whose team had just been swept at home by the Phillies — wanted to take advantage of his penchant for luck.

So he had his buddy walk through Washington's clubhouse and told his roster to rub his ears.

Yes, this is a thing that happened.

The bizarre superstition, of course, seemed to work, considering the Nats took all three games from St. Louis, an organization that has given them fits before. Next up is a four-game tilt in Kansas City. Rueter better bring his ears. 

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