Baseball

vs.

 RECORDS: Nationals 69-57   Cubs 69-58

GAMETIMES: Friday-Sunday 1:20

TV: ABC Friday, NBCSN Saturday, WGN Sunday

THOSE CLOWNS IN CONGRESS: Federal Baseball

While the Cubs have been scorching at home since the break, the challenges in front of them wouldn’t exactly be called daunting. The Pirates, Reds (as annoying as they’ve been), and Padres are all at bottom halves of cycles at best. The Brewers are most definitely stuck in neutral, and the Giants are probably more neutral than they are despite what they’ve convinced themselves. Only the A’s are genuine playoff contenders, and the Cubs did manage two of three from them. That will get tuned up again this weekend, as the Nationals have been one of the better teams in baseball in the past couple months.

And these teams mirror each other in more than just record. They have very good rotations. They have offenses that are capable of needing geiger counters to measure them, but can also go the other way on you for little reason. And both watch their bullpens from the safety of a panic room.

Still, the Nats have harnessed that to the tune of a 45-24 record since June 1st, which was about the time everyone was fitting them for a toe-tag and telling Dave Martinez to get his resume ready. Since that date, they have the second most runs in the NL behind the Braves, the second best average as a team behind the Rockies, and third-best slugging mark. It’s not hard to figure out why, because there are weapons at almost every spot. Juan Soto has become a mutant at age 20 and is having one of the best age-20 seasons in history. Anthony Rendon is gong to make himself very rich this winter…or he would in a market that made any sense. Adam Eaton and Trea Turner, two players who have battled injury or ineffectiveness/learning curve, have joined the fun. Howie Kendrick has mashed, which is a thing he’s done for a decade now. Asdrubal Cabrera showed up off the waiver wire and in 11 games has hit .327, for god’s sake. It’s a little obscene.

The Nats will roll up having scored 84 runs in their past nine games. And while racking up runs against the Brewers and Pirates isn’t all that hard, they did it to the Reds too and you’ve seen what their pitching can do.

Combine that with Stephen Strasburg, Patrick Corbin, and Max Scherzer, and you get this stretch, even with Scherzer missing some time. The Cubs will catch a break in that they’ll miss Scherzer and Corbin, though they’ll get Strasburg on Sunday. Anibal Sanchez has been able to dodge the raindrops again, three years after it seemed like he was finished.

Ah, but the bullpen. It was ever thus. And this one will show up with closer Sean Doolittle on the IL. Other than him, the Nats have had nowhere to go. No heavily used reliever has an ERA below 4.00, and they’re currently trying to survive with excavations Daniel Hudson, Fernando Rodney, and Hunter Strickland. It’s worked on a limited basis, but there’s a reason these guys were covered with sand and dust when the Nats found them. You’d like to think in the non-Strasburg starts, the Cubs will find some joy in the later innings if they need them.

Their offense has been an Earth-mover. The Cubs have won five in a row. Immovable objects and irresistible forces and all that. Except when the bullpen doors open on either side.

Baseball

Everyone knows that Justin Verlander is the best right-handed pitcher of this era. What this post presupposes is…maybe he isn’t? Either way, it’s kind of funny that the Tigers had both Verlander and Max Scherzer and contrived to not win a World Series. And it would appear the Nationals are intent on imitating that pretty closely.

Anyway, whatever category you look at, Scherzer has Verlander, aside from length of career (Verlander has pitched for three more seasons). Strikeouts per nine innings? Scherzer 10.54 to 9.02. Walks? Scherzer again, 2.44 to 2.58. WHIP? 1.09 to 1.14 for Scherzer again. ERA? 3.17 to 3.55. FIP? Scherzer 3.12 to 3.43. ERA-? 76 to 79 in favor of the DC ace.

Now, the Verlander fans (or really, the Kate Upton fans because let’s be honest) will point out that Verlander has spent every year of his career in the AL, whereas Scherzer has been in the NL the last five seasons and his first full season with Arizona. And the AL is slightly tougher on pitchers, with the DH and all. Still, Scherzer has dominated in the AL as well, and racked up one of his Cy Youngs there. They’re certainly neck and neck, though it feels like Verlander is still the #1 in a lot of experts’ minds.

If it wasn’t for injury, Scherzer would be on track for a career season this year at age 35. Which is saying something given the avalanche of home runs that pitchers have been dealing with this year. He’s striking out more hitters than he ever has, his walk rate is the second-lowest of his career, and he’s produced more grounders this season than he has since he was a Diamondback.

How has Scherzer gone about this? There doesn’t seem to be a huge change in usage or repertoire. Scherzer is using his fastball less than before, the least amount in his career in fact at just 48%. Which is a little strange, because it has even more juice on it than it did last year at 95.2 MPH. No other pitch has lost much either. And there isn’t much change in how any of his pitches move. And yet his slider and change have gotten more whiffs than before.

What gives?

It appears that Scherzer has decided to live on the hands of left-handed hitters, for one.

He’s getting a higher grounder rate against lefties than in the last five years. For righties, Scherzer is doing the opposite, going to the outside corner more and going away from righties’ hands. It’s resulted in a much higher ground-ball rate from righties for him.

The only problem Scherzer has run into this season is health. This will be the first season that Scherzer won’t collect at least 30 starts, as he’s only at 20 now and just got off the IL yesterday. Perhaps that will leave him fresher for the one frontier he hasn’t conquered, at least for the Nats, and that’s the postseason.

As strange as it sounds, Scherzer has only made three postseason starts for the Nationals. Two in the Division Series against the Dodgers in 2016, and one against the Cubs the following season when he dealt with health problems again and couldn’t appear until Game 3. And he made that one, ill-fated relief appearance in Game 5 against the Cubs. The Nats have lost all four of those postseason games, even though he was brilliant in two of them.

Verlander got to put his record straight with the Astros in 2017. Could it finally be Scherzer’s turn to match him there as well?

 

Baseball

vs.

RECORDS: White Sox 29-30   Nationals 26-33

GAMETIMES: Tuesday 6:05, Wednesday 12:05

TV: WGN Tuesday, NBCSN Wednesday

WHAT A BUNCH OF CLOWNS: Federal Baseball

PROBABLE PITCHERS

Reynaldo Lopez vs. Stephen Strasburg

Dylan Covey vs. Anibal Sanchez

PROBABLE WHITE SOX LINEUP

Leury Garcia – CF

Yoan Moncada – 3B

Jose Abreu – 1B

James McCann – C

Tim Anderson – SS

Eloy Jimenez – LF

Charlie Tilson – RF

Yolmer Sanchez – 2B

PROBABLE NATS LINEUP

Trea Turner – SS

Adam Eaton – RF

Anthony Rendon – 3B

Juan Soto – LF

Howie Kendrick – 2B

Matt Adams – 1B

Victor Robles – CF

Yan Gomes – C

 

Within touching distance now of .500, the Sox head to the nation’s capital for a series that will be over in a matter of 20 hours or so. Such is the “beauty” of interleague play, which will also leave the Sox with two off-days in the same week, which is much preferable to having another one in August I’m sure. The Sox could leave and be heading to KC with an above-water mark, and you would think the Nationals would be the perfect candidate for that kind of propulsion. However, the lights may just be starting to flicker on for the Nats, though there’s still a long way to go.

Since getting domed in Queens by the Mets for four straight, and being right around where the Marlins are which is how you definitely know you should have taken a right at Albuquerque, the Nationals have taken seven of nine as the schedule has unquestionably lightened up on them. In that span they’ve gotten to play the Marlins, Braves, and Reds, though the latter two aren’t pushovers.

The bats have seem to awakened a bit for Washington, as other than Turner and Robles everyone has turned on the past two weeks. Juan Soto especially has been a beacon of destruction of late.

The rotation is always going to be good, and the Sox will only have to see one-third of the magic troika at the top in the form of Stephen Strasburg. Max Scherzer is basically running the team now and struck out 15 Reds on Sunday, so the Sox will avoid that hell. Anibal Sanchez has lost all of the control that made him special, or at least good, in the past but remains behind the first three due to a lack of other options. Show some patience there.

The bullpen has been where the real issues are, as the Nationals have been unable to find any bridge to closer Sean Doolittle all season, and basically last as well. They can’t even find a float there. No one other than Doolittle is carrying an ERA under 4.50, and you know it’s bad when one of your relievers keeps ending up on Deadspin for his performance as Trevor Rosenthal managed. Of late, Matt Grace and Tanner Rainey have managed to at least to keep fires from becoming infernos, though a heavy use of Rainey last week sent more quizzical looks at manager Dave Martinez. There’s still a lot of gasoline here.

The Nationals shouldn’t be here, and are another bad week or two from either firing Martinez, blowing it all up and selling at the deadline, or both. This team’s cycle seems like it’s on the back side if not at the end, though they’re paying those three pitchers so much you feel like they always have to go for it. Still feels like something broke here though that can’t be fixed for a while.

For the Sox, they’re going to do everyone a favor and use the extra off-day to skip Manny Banuelos in the rotation and keep the air somewhat breathable. Lopez will be happy to see May over, and will face the team that sent him to the Sox for the first time. Covey will attempt to build on a win for the first time since dinosaurs, or so it seemed, with that coming on Friday vs. Cleveland.

Not that the Sox have that big of aims for this year, but seven games against the sputtering Nats and unfortunate Royals this close to .500 is pretty enticing.

 

Baseball

Baseball is weird in so many ways, which is probably why we watch in the first place. When it comes to managers, and whether or not they should be removed from their jobs, it’s so much easier to identify in other sports. You can tell when a football coach is running the wrong system for his personnel or has watched the game pass him by (we’ve done more than enough of both locally). It’s even clearer in basketball when a coach isn’t maximizing his players, whether they need to be playing faster or with more shooters on the floor or if the offense has become stagnant or the defense doesn’t bother. In hockey you can always tell when a team has quit on its coach and is either too loose with fundamentals and not paying attention to the details or is feeling restricted by too-tight reins.

But this is baseball. There is no “system.” You send your guys out one at a time and they do their thing. Sure, there are details to be paid attention to and you know when a team isn’t. There can be a lack of hustle. But these tend to be more around the fringes than structural. Still, you kind of know when a manager in baseball is going to eat it. And whether he should. It’s more of just a feeling.

Which brings us to Dave Martinez. The Nats thought bringing over the lieutenant of the team that put them out to pasture in 2017 was a better idea than hanging on to Dusty Baker, who had actually improved as a manager over the years but was unable to bring the Nationals their first playoff advancement. And that was basically because the Cubs unleashed some BABIP Kung Fu Treachery on Max Scherzer in the 5th inning of Game 5 then. Not much to be done. But this has been an organization in panic for years. First it was about taking advantage of a true World Series worthy core. Then it was just about winning a series for once. Then it was about being something to convince Bryce Harper to stay. Now it’s about absorbing Harper’s departure. They seem to be running from one end to the other without taking a breath .

So Martinez was brought over from the Cubs last year. And it all went flat. The Nats were barely .500, they never were within touching distance of the Braves, Harper checked out, and it all just kind of didn’t work. But it should have. Even with holes at second and center, it was a more than decent lineup. The rotation got its usual from Strasburg and Scherzer, with Jeremy Hellickson somehow joining the party. But one of Martinez’s bugaboos has been managing the pen, or over-managing it, not that the Nats have put together much out there. Doolittle was hurt for part of the year, but pitchers felt he was riding them too hard in May, and pretty much everyone lost confidence and it all went south.

It hasn’t been much better this year. To be fair to Martinez, the offense has gone south without Harper, as Trea Turner has been hurt and not all that good when he’s been around, Ryan Zimmerman is out with his yearly plague, Brian Dozier was terrible, and Victor Robles is going through some growing pains. The rotation has been everything they could have hoped for, but the pen has the worst ERA in the majors and once again everyone is complaining about their usage and Martinez’s methods.

There’s something unquantifiable about an unhappy club. It’s more than losing. Lots of teams lose. But you can tell when something is amiss, when players are side-eying everything. The Nationals should not under any circumstance be anywhere close to the Marlins in the standings. They were like two weeks ago. Too many players are not performing to their normal levels, much less peaks. Everyone is getting the impression Martinez is managing for his job, which leads to even more panicked bullpen usage and strange decisions in a big to get anything going.

It’s still out there for the Nats. The Phillies haven’t completely gotten away in the division. the Braves continue to sputter and flicker, and the Mets have a terminal case of being the Mets. But Martinez has had a season and a half to get them close, and he hasn’t yet. You don’t feel like the Nationals are going to wait much longer.

Baseball

vs.

RECORDS: Cubs 25-16   Nationals 18-25

GAMETIMES: Friday- Sunday at 6:05 

TV: WGN Friday, FOX Saturday, ESPN Sunday

THOSE CLOWNS IN DC DID IT AGAIN: Federal Baseball

PROBABLE PITCHERS

Cole Hamels vs. Max Scherzer

Jon Lester vs. Stephen Strasburg

Kyle Hendricks vs. Jeremy Hellickson

PROBABLE CUBS LINEUP

Kyle Schwarber – LF

Kris Bryant – 3B

Anthony Rizzo – 1B

Javier Baez – SS

Willson Contreras – C

Daniel Descalso – 2B

Jason Heyward – RF

Albert Almora Jr. – CF

PROBABLE NATS LINEUP

Trea Turner – SS

Victor Robles – RF

Anthony Rendon – 3B

Howie Kendrick – 1B

Juan Soto – LF

Kurt Suzuki – C

Brian Dozier – 2B

Michael Taylor – CF

 

After their first disappointing series result in over a month, the Cubs decamp to the capital to see what a real disappointment looks like, Dave Martinez looked overmatched last year with a mess of a team with a departing Bryce Harper and everyone else pretty much miserable. But the Nats’ brass wanted a second look to be sure, like when you sleep with someone a second time after the first time was terrible to make sure it wasn’t you, and it’s going just about as well. The Nats only have the Marlins to thank for propping them up in the East, and they’re six games behind pace-setters Philadelphia.

One misfiring piston is the offense, which ranks 10th in the NL in runs, OBP, and wOBA. The two kids, Robles and Soto, have done what they can but they have not gotten much help. Brian Dozier apparently dies three years ago. We know Ryan Zimmerman did. Trea Turner has been hurt but returns tonight which means they can stop giving ABs to human drainage ditch Wilmer Difo. Anthony Rendon still rules, and he’s the main threat in this outfit. Ryan Zimmerman is on the IL by being covered in formaldehyde. And Adam Eaton hasn’t been able to bro it up very much with his one knee. Turner’s return should see a jump from this offense, but how much we’ll see.

The rotation is what you’ve come to expect and perhaps the biggest reason the Nats were still thought of as faves in the division ever after losing THE HAIR in right. And Scherzer, Corbin, and Strasburg have been up to that challenge, so unlucky for the Cubs they’ll catch two of the three. But the back end has been terrible with Anibal Sanchez and Sunday’s starter Hellickson, and now Sanchez is hurt.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the Nationals have had some bullpen problems. Closer Sean Doolittle, along with being an excellent person, has been very good, but getting to him has proven something of a jump over lava. Wander Suero, which I’m pretty sure is a name and a command, has been undone by a couple ugly outings but has straightened out of late. Tony Sipp blows, and everyone else outside Kyle Barraclough has been gasoline. There are enough arms to get by, especially after what they get from their top three starters, but once again they’ll have to figure this one out later in the season if they want to contend.

There’s certainly more than enough here for the Nationals to run with the Fightin’s and if either the Mets or Braves stop drinking their own piss. But there was enough last year, and Martinez’s bewildered expression didn’t do a lot for them. Perhaps when Robles and Soto stop striking out over a quarter of the time the offense will really take off, and you’ll see a run then. What they can’t have is any injury to the troika in the rotation or Doolittle, and the latter hasn’t not been the most sturdy in his career. He’d also look mighty fine in blue pinstripes if it really goes balls-up for the Nats.

For the Cubs, Anthony Rizzo returns from his backiotomy. The first two nights feature some neon-light pitching matchups, and Nationals Park hasn’t been the happiest of hunting grounds for the Cubs. Still, a win in this series puts the Cubs on a .500 road trip and that’s fine. They’ll just have to get one over on either Strasburg or Scherzer to get that, or both. Not the easiest path.