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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."

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Frank Howard on Ring of Honor, Bryce Harper and a potential Nats World Series

Frank Howard on Ring of Honor, Bryce Harper and a potential Nats World Series

Friday night wasn't the first time the Nationals paid tribute to Senators slugger Frank Howard. After all, it’s his likeness that is featured in one of the few statues outside of Nats Park. 

But it wasn't until a recent change in the team’s Ring of Honor criteria — which now allows for any pre-Nats/Expos D.C. great to be inducted — that Howard became eligible for recognition by the franchise.  

 “It’s a real thrill for me, it really is,” said Howard, 80, before Friday’s game against the Colorado Rockies. “It’s nice when somebody says ‘Welcome to the Ring of Honor.’”

For many longtime D.C. sports fans, Howard is one of the few vestiges of the city’s last baseball team before a 34-year gap without the game. He had his best years as a member of the Senators from 1965 to 1971, hitting 237 home runs — the most any player representing D.C. has ever hit.

On Friday, Howard didn’t delve too much into his past, instead praising the current state of D.C.’s baseball team.

“They’re not a young organization anymore,” Howard said of the Nats. “They wanted to create their own image and they should. They’ve done a beautiful job, from top to bottom.”

Howard’s impact on the game went beyond the nation’s capital. Nats manager Dusty Baker said that when he was growing up, his brother would emulate Howard, who began his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“As a kid, his name was big Frank Howard, or ‘Hondo.’,” Baker recalled. “We’re playing games in the back yard and my brother was Frank Howard, and I was Tommy Davis.”

Baker would get to meet and interact with Howard over the years, calling him “the most gentle giant of a man I know.” Howard returned the favor with a few compliments of his own.  

“Dusty Baker is a quality big league player, quality big league manager,” he said. "Knows the game from A to Z and back to Z to A. He’s been very successful.”

And of course, talking to any D.C. baseball great means getting their opinion on the reigning NL MVP, Bryce Harper.

“He haven’t even begun to scratch the surface,” Howard said of the 23-year-old right fielder. “His next 10 years should be dynamite years.”

As great as Howard was for the Senators, the teams he played for in D.C. were rarely considered World Series contenders. This Nats club, on the other hand, represents a perennial threat to win it all, something Howard hopes the team will make good on someday. 

“I think it’d be great for the area,” he said. “We’ve got great fans here, and to give them a world championship ball club would be a real thrill.”

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Gonzalez takes the mound as the Nats kick off weekend set vs. Rockies

Gonzalez takes the mound as the Nats kick off weekend set vs. Rockies

Nats (74-53) vs. Rockies (60-67) at Nationals Park

The Nationals will look to make it back-to-back wins Friday night as they host the Colorado Rockies for the first of a three-game weekend set. Washington will send Gio Gonzalez (8-9, 4.30 ERA) to the mound to oppose rookie right hander Jeff Hoffman (0-1, 13.50 ERA). 

The last time these two clubs met, the Nats dropped two of three in Colorado, as they were overwhelmed by the Rockies' power-laden lineup. Dusty Baker and company will hope to fare better this time around in the friendly confines of Nats Park.  

Speaking of Baker, his lineup will be without Wilson Ramos for the second straight day. The Nats' skipper explained before Friday's game that his catcher is fine, and that the move is to simply give him an additional day of rest. Jose Lobaton, who called Thursday night's shutout against the Orioles, will be back in there and batting eighth. Other than that, it's the typical lineup. 

First pitch: 7:05 p.m.
TV: MASN 2
Radio: 106.7 The Fan
Starting pitchers: Nats - Gio Gonzalez vs. Rockies - Jeff Hoffman

NATS

CF Trea Turner
LF Jayson Werth
2B Daniel Murphy
RF Bryce Harper
3B Anthony Rendon
1B Ryan Zimmerman
SS Danny Espinosa
C Jose Lobaton
LHP Gio Gonzalez

ROCKIES

CF Charlie Blackmon
1B Stephen Cardullo 
3B Nolan Arenado
RF Carlos Gonzalez
LF Ryan Raburn
C Nick Hundley
2B Daniel Descalso 
SS Cristhian Adames
RHP Jeff Hoffman

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MLB Power Rankings: The Royals arrived, just in time

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MLB Power Rankings: The Royals arrived, just in time

Just when everyone was writing the 2016 Kansas City Royals' obituary, they win 9 in a row and plant themselves in the thick of the playoff race. It's possibly the most Royals thing in the world to do. How did the other teams fare? To the rankings! 

30. Atlanta Braves (LW: 30)

Adios, Jeff Francoeur. 

29. Minnesota Twins (LW: 29)

It's still weird to think that before this season, people thought they'd be a playoff team. 

28.  Arizona Diamondbacks (LW: 28)

Matt Wisler looked dominant in his almost-no-hitter of the Diamondbacks. 

27. Cincinnati Reds (LW: 25) 

The Joey Votto offseason trade rumors are starting to heat up! 

26. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (LW: 26)

Are there really rumors that the Angels are the team seriously looking into Tim Tebow?

SEE THE REST OF THE RANKINGS HERE