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Nationals vs. Pirates Preview: Turner, bullpen once again focal points

Nationals vs. Pirates Preview: Turner, bullpen once again focal points

PITTSBURGH — The Washington Nationals have a ton of bullpen issues. Even so, they will look for that unit to do even more than usual on Wednesday, as right-hander Jacob Turner will be called from the bullpen to make a spot start against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Nationals played a doubleheader on Sunday, which necessitated an extra arm in manager Dusty Baker's rotation. Turner was stretched out earlier in the year, so he was the logical choice.

Turner has a 2-1 record and a 3.31 ERA in seven appearances this season, but just one of those was a start, and that came back on April 24. Since then, he has pitched more than two innings just once and not at all since May 3.

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In his career, Turner has been a starter more often than a reliever, with 54 of his 86 career appearances coming in a starting role. His only career action against the Pirates came as a starter in 2014, when Turner was with the Chicago Cubs. He lost that game, giving up seven runs in 4 1/3 innings in what is now essentially ancient history.

However, the Nationals' bullpen struggles are very much up to the minute. The team's relievers have the second-worst ERA in the National League, and several pitchers who were expected to have prominent roles have struggled out of the chute.

Joe Blanton (9.49 ERA), Blake Treinen (8.10 ERA) and Shawn Kelley (7.15 ERA) all have inflated numbers. Treinen and Kelley -- along with Koda Glover and Enny Romero -- were part of the group of relievers expected to compete for saves. Instead of one player stepping up, Baker has been left to mix and match while the quartet muddles through.

Glover earned the nod in the ninth inning on Tuesday, but it took him 29 pitches to get through the scoreless frame to complete an 8-4 win over the Pirates, bringing into question his availability for Wednesday.

"We've got to get his pitch count down so he can go the next day and the next day," Baker said.

With the bullpen already missing Turner and the spot starter unlikely to turn in a long outing, the game very well could come down to the back of the Nationals' bullpen again.

"On the real good teams that I've had, when you get to the sixth or seventh inning, we know it and they know that the game is over," Baker said. "And so we just got to go back to the drawing board to try to figure it out. We've used different guys in different places and different guys late in the game."

The Pirates will counter with their starting pitcher who has most reliably gone deep into games, Gerrit Cole. The right-hander has recorded seven consecutive quality starts and has a 3.06 ERA on the season. However, his record is just 1-4 thanks to some lacking run support.

That has been a common theme in Pittsburgh. The Pirates are hitting just .224 on the season, second worst in the National League.

"Guys are going up there fighting," manager Clint Hurdle said after his team went 2-for-11 with runners in scoring position on Tuesday. "We just keep playing the game."

Cole is 2-1 with a 2.92 ERA in four career starts against Washington.

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MLB Postseason 2017 Bracket Projection

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USA Today Sports

MLB Postseason 2017 Bracket Projection

Two weeks remain in the regular season for the Washington Nationals, Baltimore Orioles, and the rest of Major League Baseball.

Already, the Nationals have clinched a spot in the MLB postseason, while the Orioles are still clinging to an outside chance of making it through to one of the two Wild Card spots. If Baltimore were to make the surprise climb they would likely be the third team from the AL East to make the MLB postseason.

NATIONAL LEAGUE:

Washington is joined by the Los Angeles Dodgers as the only two teams to have claimed a playoff berth in the National League. This past weekend the Dodgers took two out of three in a pivotal series from the Nationals to hold on to the top seed. The lead is now up to 6 games for Los Angeles after it was down to only 3.5 games in the middle of the week.

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The Dodgers have not clinched their division yet but with their turnaround in Washington this past weekend it is only a matter of time. Leading the Arizona Diamondbacks by 9.5 games, the Dodgers magic number is only four. With 96 wins, Los Angeles also would be the team to hold home-field advantage throughout the postseason, including the World Series.

Only the National League Central Division has an interesting battle as the year winds down, but the Chicago Cubs maintain a four game edge over the Milwaukee Brewers. Right behind the Brewers are the St. Louis Cardinals, two games back. There is brief two-game series for the Cubs in Tampa Bay before back-to-back road series against the Brewers than the Cardinals. Within a week, this division could be flipped over. It is a near lock that the division winner will be the No. 3 seed.

Arizona is likely to clinch one of the Wild Card berths this week. Colorado currently holds the second spot, and they're 2.5 up on the Brewers.

If the season were to end today, here is how the National League bracket would look:

Wild Card Round (Winner-take-all):

No. 5 Colorado Rockies (82-68) at No. 4 Arizona Diamondbacks (87-63)

National League Divisional Series (Best-of-5):

No. 1 Los Angeles Dodgers (96-53) vs. Wild Card Round Winner
No. 2 Washington Nationals (90-59) vs. No. 3 Chicago Cubs (83-66)

Wild Card Race:

Arizona Diamondbacks:  +5.0
Colorado Rockies:              ---
Milwaukee Brewers:        -2.5
St. Louis Cardinals:          -4.5
Miami Marlins:                -12.5

AMERICAN LEAGUE

Thanks to their improbable 22-game winning streak, the Cleveland Indians now sit atop the American League. They hold a slight 1.5 game lead over the Houston Astros for the top seed and home-field advantage in the AL. Both of these teams have already handily clinched their divisions holding on to the No. 1 and 2 seeds.

The incredible run by Cleveland has also put them 3.5 games behind the Dodgers for home-field throughout the entire postseason.

As it does seemingly every year, the American League East will come down to the wire. The New York Yankees trail the Boston Red Sox by only three games with their season series already wrapped up. Of the Yankees final 13 games though, 10 are at home where they are 43-28 on the season. Boston only has seven at home and six on the road. New York also faces an easier stretch playing opponents with a combined .487 win percentage compared to Boston’s .501.

Unlike the National League Wild Card, which is essentially down to four teams, the American League is wide open. Ten teams are mathematically still alive including the Oakland Athletics who are 17 games under .500. New York or Boston will likely take the top Wild Card slot with the Minnesota Twins currently holding down second. The Los Angeles Angels (2.0 games back), Seattle Mariners (4.5 games back), and the Kansas City Royals (5.0 games back) are giving chase.

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It will be tough for the Twins to hold on to the final spot with 10 of their final 13 games being on the road. First up for them is a three-game series in the Bronx. The Red Sox and Orioles also start a three-game series in Baltimore with much on the line for both teams. 

If the season were to end today, here is how the American League bracket would look:

Wild Card Round (Winner-take-all):

No. 5 Minnesota Twins (78-71) at No. 4 New York Yankees (82-67)

American League Divisional Series (Best-of-5):

No. 1 Cleveland Indians (93-57) vs. Wild Card Round Winner
No. 2 Houston Astros (91-58) vs. No. 3 Boston Red Sox (85-64)

Wild Card Race:

New York Yankees:     +4.0
Minnesota Twins:          ---
Los Angeles Angels:     -2.0
Seattle Mariners:         -4.5
Kansas City Royals:      -5.0
Texas Rangers:             -5.0
Baltimore Orioles:       -5.5
Tampa Bay Rays:          -5.5
Toronto Blue Jays:       -8.5
Oakland Athletics:      -12.0

MORE MLB NEWS: BRYCE HARPER NEARING POSTSEASON RETURN

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Nationals' Bryce Harper takes next step in recovery from knee injury

Nationals' Bryce Harper takes next step in recovery from knee injury

WASHINGTON-- Washington Nationals slugger Bryce Harper took swings during batting practice Sunday for the first time since hyperextending his left knee on Aug. 12.

Harper previously had taken cuts in the batting cage, but was on the field before the Nationals' series finale against the Los Angeles Dodgers. His session included several shots deep into the stands at Nationals Park.

"Just trying to get out there and trying put the bat on the ball and just try to be as fluid as I can and try to get my swing back," said the 2015 NL MVP, who is second in the NL with a .326 batting average.

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The NL East champions open the NLDS on Oct. 6.

"I hope so. That's definitely in my head," Harper said of a return goal. "That's what I want to do. That's where I want to be. But it takes time."

Harper remains second on Washington with 29 home runs this season despite missing 34 games.

He was injured at home against the Giants when he awkwardly landed on the slick first base bag during a game that was delayed by rain. Washington placed the All-Star on the disabled list the following day.

"It just happened. It's something I can't control," Harper said. "It definitely was a freak accident. We put it behind us as quick as possible and tried to get everything going as quick as we could. And then it was all behind me. I didn't really worry about it much."

The right fielder said he tested the knee Sunday running to first base. "Felt fine. Just super-easy. Just kind of jogging to first and trying to get the feel for it again. Running to first feels a lot more comfortable than running on the track. "

Harper said timing in the batter's box could be a process. If his return matches the start of the postseason, he'll have to adjust on the fly.

"It's definitely going to be a tough thing," Harper said. "If we play Chicago, I might be facing Jon Lester for my first at-bat in six weeks. That's a tough task. It's going to take some time. Hopefully, I can get back and get going a little sooner than later."

Harper was succinct with his biggest physical test remaining.

"Playing in a baseball game. That's going to be the biggest thing, getting in there and playing the game and feeling good," he said. "As long as I'm healthy, that's all I want."