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Nats getting bullpen back in order

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Nats getting bullpen back in order

They've gone through four different closers. They've had five different guys succumb to injury. And they've been forced to readjust roles far too many times already in a season that's only 2 12 months old.

Through it all, the Nationals bullpen has managed to get the job done and enters the week third in the NL with a 3.11 ERA, second in the league with a .217 opponents' batting average and third in the league with a .655 opponents' OPS.

"I think the bullpen has performed great," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "Yeah, they've been mixing and matching, and there's been role adjustments and personnel adjustments and a lot of different things going on. But I think they've done great."

Successful or not, the Nationals have been counting down the days until they could get their full complement of relievers back together as one cohesive unit. They're almost there at last.

Ryan Mattheus' return from the disabled list yesterday helped bring some order back to the bullpen (though it cost veteran Brad Lidge his job). Henry Rodriguez is due to return from the DL himself "very soon," according to Rizzo.

And most importantly, closer Drew Storen continues to progress in his recovery from elbow surgery and remains confident he can make his season debut around next month's All-Star break.

"It feels really good. It feels a lot stronger," said Storen, who has been throwing off a mound three days a week. "I just know we're still on track for that All-Star break."

Storen's impending return will be particularly beneficial to a Nationals relief corps that has done its best to fill in for its injured closer but could certainly use some stability in the ninth-inning role ... not to mention some added depth for the seventh and eighth innings.

Though Tyler Clippard has gone a perfect 9-for-9 in save opportunities over the last three weeks, the right-hander figures to slide back into his setup role once Storen returns. Paired with left-hander Sean Burnett (who boasts a 1.17 ERA), the Nationals could boast as dominant a bullpen trio as there is in baseball.

Each reliever who returns, however, requires an open roster spot, which leads to some difficult decisions for Rizzo. He already made a tough call yesterday designating Lidge for assignment after the veteran right-hander was scored upon in three of four appearances since returning from sports hernia surgery.

And there will be more changes to come in the next few weeks.

"It's very tough, because when the music stops, someone's going to be left without a chair," Rizzo said. "You look at the number of people there, there's going to be a very talented, very successful person, whoever that is."

One such dilemma would seem to involve Rodriguez, the flame-throwing right-hander who dazzled early this season with his triple-digit fastball and knee-buckling breaking ball but who lost all ability to throw strikes before landing on the DL with a minor finger strain.

What do the Nationals do with Rodriguez, who is out of minor-league options and would almost certainly be claimed off waivers by another club that can afford to use a roster spot on a pitcher still trying to work out his issues?

As one club official put it bluntly: "Henry's not going anywhere."

Not wanting to give up on a reliever with that kind of dominant repertoire -- especially after seeing Joel Hanrahan resurrect his career in Pittsburgh after getting shipped out of Washington three years ago following a similar bout of wildness -- the Nationals are determined to keep Rodriguez and hope he discovers some semblance of consistency.

The Nationals do face a dilemma foreign to them over the last several years. In the past, when they sat well back in the NL East, they could afford to use a roster spot or two on "projects," guys who might struggle at times right now but could pay off down the road.

Does that philosophy change now that they're in first place?

"No," Rizzo said. "We're never going to forgo depth and talent over immediacy. We're never going to do that."

That approach could wind up forcing a productive pitcher who happens to still have options (ie. Mattheus or Craig Stammen) back to Class AAA at some point. It's a sacrifice the organization would be willing to make to ensure they maintain as much depth as possible over a season that could extend into October.

In the meantime, they'll just keep mixing and matching whatever group of seven relievers they currently have, hoping this unit can continue to perform despite the constant change.

"Davey's done a great job keeping guys in roles, for as much as they've been moving around," Storen said. "In the past, it's been kind of random roles even when guys were healthy. He does a great job of defining that. I think they've done a great job adjusting and hanging with them, because there's been some injuries dealt and some big changes around."

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Nationals beat Braves, snap losing skid behind Stephen Strasburg's strong start

Nationals beat Braves, snap losing skid behind Stephen Strasburg's strong start

ATLANTA (AP) -- Stephen Strasburg struck out a season-high 11 and kept up his recent domination of the Atlanta Braves, leading Washington to a 3-2 win Sunday that stopped the Nationals' four-game losing streak.

Strasburg (5-1) allowed five hits in 7 2/3 innings, beating Atlanta for the second time this season and improving to 7-1 in his last nine starts against the Braves. He is 10-8 overall against Atlanta.

He reached double digits in strikeouts for the second time this season after fanning 10 Braves on April 20.

Strasburg faded in the eighth, when Dansby Swanson hit a two-run double. Koda Glover struck out Nick Markakis to end the inning and finished the six-hitter for his third save.

Daniel Murphy hit a second-inning homer off Jaime Garcia (1-3) and the Nationals added two unearned runs in the third.

Matt Adams was 0 for 4 with three strikeouts and hit into a ninth-inning double play in his debut for Atlanta, a day after he was acquired from St. Louis. Matt Kemp led off the ninth, and Adams hit a line drive that was caught by Ryan Zimmerman, who stepped on first base.

Garcia allowed three runs -- one earned -- and seven hits in eight innings with no walks.

Washington took a 3-0 lead in the third following fielding errors by Markakis in right and Garcia. Bryce Harper had a run-scoring single.

TRAINER'S ROOM

Nationals: 3B Anthony Rendon and C Matt Wieters were given days off from the starting lineup. Rendon entered at third base in the eighth.

Braves: RHP Kris Medlen allowed one hits in six scoreless innings Saturday in his first start for Class A Florida. He missed most of 2016 with shoulder problems after his second Tommy John surgery. "That would be a real nice piece to have," Braves manager Brian Snitker said. Medlen pitched for Kansas City in 2015-16 and his last season with Atlanta was in 2013, when he was 15-12 with a 3.11 ERA.

UP NEXT

Nationals: Following an off day, RHP Jacob Turner (2-2) is expected to start when the Nationals will open a series against Seattle on Tuesday.

Braves: RHP Mike Foltynewicz (2-4) will take a 0-3 career record in three starts against Pittsburgh into Monday night's series opener against the Pirates.

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2017 MLB Power Rankings: As Bryce Harper goes, so do the Nationals

2017 MLB Power Rankings: As Bryce Harper goes, so do the Nationals

A week ago, the Nationals were looking unstoppable. Bryce Harper was hitting walkoff dingers left and right, there were multiple winning streaks, and the bullpen was only sorta bad. 

2017 MLB POWER RANKINGS

A week's worth of games later - against the Braves, Pirates and Phillies, no less - and the Nats don't look nearly as stainless. Harper's hitting under .200 since his Mother's Day walkoff, the team lost 5 of 6, and the bullpen turned back into a pumpkin. Because of that, there's a new team at the top of the Power Rankings this week. Who is it? To the rankings! 

30. MIAMI MARLINS

2017 Record: 15-28
Previous Ranking: 24
Last 10 Games: 2-8
Notable Performance: Dee Gordon (.318/.400/.364 last week)

Stanton hasn't homered in over two weeks, a stretch of 12 games. After going 2-8 over the last 10, including that weird Dodgers game, the Marlins have seen better weeks.  

29. SAN DIEGO PADRES

2017 Record: 16-30
Previous Ranking: 29
Last 10 Games: 3-7
Notable Performance: Brad Hand (.300/.500/.600 last week)

Wil Myers' underwhelming season continues. The outfielder is hitting .150 over the last week, and only .219 over the last month. The Padres best position player is only worth .6 bWAR, and that's 5th-best on the team.

28. PHILADELPHIA PHILLIES

2017 Record: 15-26
Previous Ranking: 23
Last 10 Games: 2-8
Notable Performance: Daniel Nava (.429/.429/.571 last week)

They ran into Texas at exactly the wrong time. Getting starts that are consistently like Aaron Nola's last one will be huge for his development this season. 

27. KANSAS CITY ROYALS

2017 Record: 18-25
Previous Ranking: 27
Last 10 Games: 6-4
Notable Performance: Lorenzo Cain (.087/.125/.087 last week)

They're starting to play better, but upcomming series with the Yankees and Indians aren't making life any easier for KC. Jason Vargas (?!) has been their most valuable player this year (2.0 bWAR). 

26. ATLANTA BRAVES

2017 Record: 18-23
Previous Ranking: 30
Last 10 Games: 7-3
Notable Performance: Matt Kemp (.375/.423/.708 last week)

Losing Freeman for three months because of some dumb unspoken beef is just a testament to how stupid unwritten baseball rules are. The silver lining to this year, though, is that the Braves are going to fleece some team for Matt Kemp in July. 

SEE THE REST OF THE RANKINGS HERE