Nationals Bench is Best in Class

Earlier this week the Nationals lineup against the Angels featured a starting outfield of Howie Kendrick, Adam Lind, and Michael A. Taylor with Wilmer Difo starting at shortstop. This was not due to a 1 p.m. start or the marathon games over the weekend against the Giants. Rather, due to the state of the Nationals disabled list (a loooong list) the team has had to make due with players that are playing out of position or ones that weren’t even on the roster to begin the year. Given the state of the lineup and the shuffling of the defense, the Nationals can be excused for potentially going through a slump or a cold streak. Instead, the backups and bench guys have helped the Nationals go to a season-high 25 games over .500 and a 14+ game lead in the division.

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Photo: USA Today

The long litany of injuries began when Adam Eaton tore his knee at the end of April. That forced Taylor (who was a bad spring away from possibly being released) into the starting lineup where he’s thrived. While he’s still striking out a little too much and missed time himself with an injury, Taylor has earned the trust of Dusty Baker by playing great defense and making consistent contact more than ever before. When Jayson Werth went down at the beginning of June, Brian Goodwin was called up and has been an extra-base hit machine since his call-up, generating 35 extra-base hits in his 74 games. Of course, he now is on the DL with a strained groin that is sure to sideline him for at least a couple of weeks.

On and on the injuries began to pile up, but the Nationals have continued to roll due to the strong performances of the players filling in. After Trea Turner went down, Difo came in and has been a sparkplug atop the lineup after briefly getting benched due to a slow start. Adam Lind has been pinch-hitter and spot-starter extraordinaire filling in for Ryan Zimmerman and in left-field when needed. Even when Bryce Harper went down with a horrific-looking (thankfully not season-ending) knee injury, Kendrick has stepped up and hit 3 home runs in the last 2 games, including a walk-off grand slam to end the weekend marathon Sunday night. Losing Joe Ross and Stephen Strasburg has barely slowed the team down given the strong performances of Edwin Jackson and AJ Cole spot-starting when needed.

With a huge lead in the division that won’t be relinquished, the focus down the stretch will be on getting all the key cogs healthy and ready to roll in time for the postseason. Strasburg is due back on Saturday after a strong rehab start in Potomac earlier this week. Having missed 2 of the 3 division series the Nationals have participated in, the onus will be on Stras to remain healthy and continue dealing down the stretch. Trea Turner and Jayson Werth should soon follow at the end of the month, although Werth’s timetable has continued to shift further and further back. The consensus with Harper’s injury seems to be that he will come back with a week or two left in the season, but he said that he will not return until he’s 100% healthy.

The silver lining in all these injuries? Barring any further injuries, the Nationals will have their strongest bench crew to date heading into the postseason. With professional hitters such as Kendrick and Lind raking and young guys such as Taylor, Goodwin, and Difo getting consistent at-bats, the team will have reliable options in key pinch-hitting opportunities in the postseason. While not planned or expected, the exposure that the backups and rookies have received might give them the confidence in a key spot in October. Combine the strong bench with the best offense in the National League and a bullpen that has been lights-out since the trade deadline, the Nationals could finally have the right ingredients for a deep run in October. If all clicks and the injuries don’t resurface, D.C. could finally host its first League Championship Series game in history.

News & Notes from Dusty Baker’s Pregame Presser

DTC is broadcasting live from a rainy Nationals Park on U.S. Coast Guard Day at Nats Park where the team is returning from a seven day road trip and ready to face the second place Marlins in a 4-game series. Before tonight’s game, we joined Dusty’s presser and got some updates on some injuries and some other tidbits about our ball club, which looks to build on the momentum of a series win in Chicago this past weekend against the Cubs.

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Injuries – In what felt like a never end laundry list of names and issues, no major updates on any of the players on the DL or on assignment for the Nats. Trea Turner will begin hitting soon and testing his swing after hurting his wrist on a hit by pitch several weeks ago. Turner will be moving to West Palm Beach and continuing his rehab at spring training headquarters. Jayson Werth continues to be close to returning but is now focused on running and testing that bad toe/foot and hopes to return very soon. Stephen Strasburg did throw a bullpen session today but no timetable on his return. Meanwhile Michael Taylor continues his rehab assignment and is looking to regain his bat speed after starting 1 for 22 in Syracuse on assignment

Max Scherzer – Dusty confirmed Max Scherzer will be getting the start tonight, 5 days after leaving his last start early with neck spasms. Dusty mentioned there is no cause for concern with Max and that both his arm and his legs feel good, which is a great sign. What wasn’t a great sign was the gesture Max made to Dusty which initiated his removal from his last start. Dusty spoke about the panic in the dugout when your ace gestures that he needs to come out after 1 inning and especially with a guy like Max. Dusty jokingly said he thought he exerted too much energy on his HR trot and that he wanted to go out on a high mark J

Passing of Don Baylor – Dusty’s longest and most emotional response today came when asked about the news of the passing of Don Baylor, a former teammate and friend of Baker. Dusty said that he was supposed to be Hank Aaron to Baylor’s Frank Howard as they both came up in the league together and got drafted together. He then retold the story of how he learned of Baylor’s death today from Baylor’s son and that he wishes he had spent more time calling Baylor back. Dusty ended his presser by stating he had just listened to Tupac’s “Death around the corner” track and believes that’s why it’s so important to be kind and friendly to people because you never know when they’ll be gone.

Stay tuned to DTC for more content prior to first pitch tonight @defeatthecurse on Twitter and @defeatingthecurse on Instagram

Nats Rally Past Cubs in Chicago

In what many pegged as a preview of the National League Division Series, the Nationals and Cubs met in Wrigley for a three game series over the weekend.

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With the Dodgers clearly ahead of the pack in the National League and likely to meet the wild-card game winner, the Cubs and Nats seem to have already been locked in to the series even this early in August. This despite the fact that the Cubs just recently went ahead in the National League Central and maintain only a slim lead over the Brewers and others in the Central. Both teams really beefed up leading up the trade deadline seemingly in preparation to face the other in the playoffs. The Cubs picked up a frontline starter in Jose Quintana from the White Sox and back of the bullpen help in Justin Wilson from the Tigers (with Alex Avila also added into the deal as catching depth behind Wilson Contreras). The Nationals meanwhile, remade their bullpen picking up 3 shutdown relievers to help stabilize their late-game woes and a sneaky good bench piece in Howie Kendrick.

The highly-anticipated matchup quickly fizzled when Dusty Baker announced that Max Scherzer and Gio Gonzalez would both miss their scheduled starts as Scherzer was recovering from neck spasms while Gio was on paternity leave in anticipation of the birth of his second child. The Cubs had two of their top four starters lined up in Kyle Hendricks and Jon Lester sandwiched between John Lackey, who started on Saturday. Given the circumstances, you could forgive the Nationals for dropping the series or even getting swept since the Nationals countered with journeyman Edwin Jackson and rookie Erick Fedde following Tanner Roark’s turn in the rotation. Daniel Murphy crushed two homeruns on Friday afternoon as the Nationals revamped bullpen shut things down after Roark’s solid 6.1 innings of work.

Bryce Harper went deep in the first inning against John Lackey on Saturday, but Edwin Jackson continued his hot and cold pattern by giving up 4 runs in 5 innings and Matt Grace gave up two more in the sixth as the Nats dropped the middle game of the series. Facing Jon Lester on Sunday, Erick Fedde was solid, but unspectacular as the Nationals went into the eighth inning trailing 5-3. The middle of the order then came up and turned the game around loading the bases for Anthony Rendon, who promptly was hit by a pitch and drove in a run. A struggling Matt Wieters came to the plate looking to tie the game or give his team the lead. He did one better, driving the first pitch out to centerfield for a grand slam to give the Nats the lead. Brian Goodwin padded the lead with a solo home run in the ninth and Ryan Madson and Sean Doolittle shut things down once again as the Nationals took the series in Wrigley.

So, what did this series really tell us? In actuality, not very much given the state of the Nationals rotation during this series and that the lineup is still without Trea Turner, Jayson Werth, and Michael A. Taylor. The Nationals also faced John Lackey, who will most likely not be a part of the playoff rotation for the Cubbies. With the revamped bullpen looking sharp however, it must be comforting for Nats fans to watch a finally stabilized back of the bullpen. Kendrick also has given the Nats a true 2-hole hitter in front of Harper, Zimmerman, and Murphy until the return of Werth. Kendrick’s flexibility also gives the Nationals a chance to rest as many as 6 regulars down the stretch and a solid backup plan should Werth’s injury continues to linger into the playoffs. What is certain though is that the Nationals and Cubs (should they hold on to their lead in the Central) will provide a memorable division series.

Nationals Fall to Brewers 8-0 to Open Series

After a grueling West Coast road trip and time off during the All-Star break, this was not the homecoming the Nationals had hoped for upon returning to the District in yesterday’s home opener against the Brewers.

With Edwin Jackson starting his 2nd game in replacement of the injured Stephen Strasburg, the Nats hoped E-Jax could build on the success he had last week in Anaheim and continue the momentum of a 7-2 road trip. But Jackson labored through 5 innings and wasn’t nearly as sharp yesterday as he was in Anaheim last week. E-Jax gave up seven hits, three walks, three home runs, and seven runs total (3 ER), throwing 112 pitches in what ended up an 8-0 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers.

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Meanwhile, the bats the Nationals had relied on so heavily for their recent success went silent at home as Zach Davies held the Nationals in check over 7 23 scoreless, efficient innings of work in, giving up three hits and three walks in his longest start of the season. Daniel Murphy and Ryan Zimmerman both went 1 for 4 with a single each, as Zimmerman continues to struggle to get his early season groove back. On a bright note, Bryce Harper singled in the 8th inning to keep his hitting streak going at 17 games.

After the game, manager Dusty Baker seemed unfazed by Jackson’s rough start and showed confidence in the veteran. “His pitch count got up high,” Dusty Baker said, “and he didn’t have the command that he had last time. He was wild high and away.” It a perfect summary statement, Baker added, “It was a rough night for Edwin tonight.”

In spit of his struggles in the loss, Jackson will get another opportunity to start next time his turn in the rotation comes around. “He’s not on a pitch-by-pitch, performance-type thing,” Baker said. “That can happen to anybody. So, sure, I don’t see why not.”

Luckily, before the game, Baker had reassured the assembled press who had gathered for his pregame presser that Stephen Strasburg’s issues seemed to be minor and not long term, and that he would be making his next start. That piece of news ended up being the best news of the night for a Nats team who hopes to rebound tonight with Gio Gonzalez on the mound. All eyes will be on him tonight literally, as the entire baseball universe will be tuned in to see the 2018 All-Star logo which will be on display over his right shoulder throughout the game as well.

*Note: Congratulations are in order to Dusty Baker for being inducted into the USMC Sports Hall of Fame. The officially ceremony took place last night prior to the first pitch at Nationals Park. Thank you Dusty, from all of us!

Jayson Werth Eyes Return… “Soon”

On a beautiful night at Nationals Park honoring our brave men and women of the U.S. Marine Corps, a nice surprise greeted all the servicemen and women who had gathered behind home plate. To the naked eye, Jayson Werth crushing baseballs 400 feet during batting practice before a mid-summer game isn’t anything to write home about or stop the presses. But Werth has been on the DL since June 3rd with a toe injury and foot fracture and was moved to the 60 day DL on July 23rd to clear a spot on the 40 man roster. So it was quite a surprise to those around the ballpark when Werth came out for BP and crushed ball after ball after ball into the left field bleachers.

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Jayson and Steve discuss his recovery and Game of Thrones. (7/25/2017 @JoeAzer)

We caught up exclusively with Jayson after his BP session and he was in high spirits and very positive about his progress and rehab. When asked about a possible return in the near future, Werth responded, “Should be any day now.”

Werth’s position in the Nationals batting lineup has proven hard to replace. The coveted, and precious #2 spot has seen a revolving door of participants hoping to match Werth’s production, including Wilmer Difo, Stephen Drew, Michael A. Taylor, and Ryan Rayburn. While the bench players have produced admirably, none have matched Werth’s production before he went down. In 47 games, he was batting .262 with 8 hrs and 18 RBIs and had been just starting to find his rhythm after a slow start.

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Dusty and Jayson share a thought during batting practice. (7/25/2017 @JoeAzer)

Only time will tell you how Jayson will respond to the long layoff and come back and find his niche in a Nationals lineup that is best in the MLB this season. While Werth is participating in baseball activities, but he still hasn’t been cleared to sprint and will go on a rehab assignment before rejoining the National League East-leading Nationals.

While Jayson was gracious enough to talk to us exclusively about his injury, one topic he was more than willing to discuss was our Game of Thrones recaps and his analysis of the season so far. He was quite intrigued with Arya’s reunion with Nymeria and predicts that Nymeria will meet up with her again and wreak havoc on the Army of the Dead. So I don’t know what will happen, but we’re going with the guy who’s got a beard that would put Tormund to shame.