Franco quietly driving in as many runs as any Nats hitter

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Quick quiz: Who leads the Nationals in RBIs? It’s Josh Bell, right?

Yes, but it’s not only Bell. Also checking in with 21 RBIs through the season’s first 36 games is an unexpected contributor: Maikel Franco.

While Bell’s offensive exploits have been front and center since opening day, Franco’s contributions have been delivered in a bit more quiet fashion. But sure enough, the veteran third baseman’s two-run homer during Saturday night’s blowout win over the Astros brought him up to Bell’s RBI total and the team lead.

Some of this is a reflection of Juan Soto’s struggles to drive in runs – he has only 11, despite eight homers and an .890 OPS – but it’s also a credit to Franco, who surprisingly finds himself on pace for 95 RBIs at the moment, a total that would shatter his previous career-high of 88.

 “He’s been great,” manager Davey Martinez said. “He’s worked really hard. He and (assistant hitting coach Pat Roessler) have built a really good relationship. They work hard in the batting cages. He’s got a really good routine going on right now.”

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Nats can't touch Verlander, late homers doom Corbin

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It had all the trimmings of a classic pitchers’ duel, Justin Verlander and Patrick Corbin matching zeros in the run column while Verlander maintained a zero in the hits column as well.

For Verlander, though, this was par for the course. He just carried a no-hit bid into the eighth inning in his previous start.

For Corbin, this was uncharted territory for 2022. And 2020 and 2021, for that matter. The pressure rested squarely upon the left-hander’s shoulder to keep up with his more accomplished counterpart. And though he did best Verlander in the length of his start, Corbin came nowhere close to beating him in the only department that actually counts.

Three late homers by the Astros spoiled Corbin’s afternoon. And with the Nationals unable to push a run across in five innings against Verlander or the next four innings against Houston relievers, the end result was an 8-0 loss that didn’t really convey the type of ballgame this actually was.

"Look who we faced today," manager Davey Martinez said. "We've been swinging the bat well. Regardless of whether or not we score runs, we've been getting five, six, seven, eight hits a game. Today, that guy was good."

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Opportunities for Rainey to pitch remain sparse

Tanner Rainey throw white

Tanner Rainey is the Nationals’ best reliever. Or, at least, they’re handling him like he’s their best reliever, using him as their closer when the opportunity presents itself.

Trouble is, there just haven’t been many of those opportunities to date.

The Nats have held a lead of three or fewer runs in the ninth inning only four times through the season’s first 35 games. And it’s happened, remarkably, only once in their last 22 games. (The team’s last six wins all have come by at least four runs, often many more.)

Which has left Rainey frequently doing nothing but watching games from the bullpen without ever taking the mound himself. He has appeared only 10 times overall this season, only four times so far this month.

So when the latter innings of Saturday night’s 13-6 rout of the Astros came around, manager Davey Martinez felt he had no choice but to go ahead and pitch Rainey, no matter the score. It was the 29-year-old’s first outing since his lone blown save Sunday in Anaheim, the third time already this season he was pitching on five days’ rest.

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Game 36 lineups: Nats vs. Astros

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The Nationals were held to one run during Friday night’s loss to the Astros. They exploded for 13 runs during Saturday night’s win over the Astros. So what should we expect from them during today’s series finale against the Astros?

As much as you’d love to see another offensive explosion, you’ve got to think the odds are stacked against them, with Justin Verlander taking the mound for Houston. The 39-year-old right-hander has been phenomenal so far this season, with a 4-1 record and league-leading 1.55 ERA and 0.639 WHIP. And he’s doing this in his return from Tommy John surgery. Like his former rotation mate in Detroit, Max Scherzer, Verlander is a freak of nature.

There are several Nationals with considerable experience against Verlander. Nelson Cruz is 15-for-57 with four doubles, three homers and 11 RBIs. Alcides Escobar is 18-for-88 with four doubles and four RBIs. And, of course, Juan Soto is 2-for-6 with a double and a titanic home run off Verlander during the 2019 World Series.

Runs are probably going to be at a premium today, though, so the pressure’s on Patrick Corbin to deliver another quality start. The left-hander seems to have turned his entire season around over his last three starts, producing a 2.37 ERA and 1.158 WHIP. The challenge today against the Astros lineup will be tougher, but success in this one might be the most legitimate evidence to date that Corbin actually has turned a corner.

HOUSTON ASTROS at WASHINGTON NATIONALS
Where: Nationals Park
Gametime: 1:35 p.m. EDT
TV: MASN, MLB.tv
Radio: 106.7 FM, MLB.com
Weather: Chance of rain late, 79 degrees, wind 5 mph out to left field

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Bats spring to life during lopsided win over Astros (updated)

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No major league club has played better, or particularly pitched better, this month than the Astros. The Houston staff that walked into Nationals Park tonight had surrendered a grand total of 12 runs over the last 11 games. Not surprisingly, all 11 resulted in victory for Dusty Baker’s squad.

So consider what the Nationals just did on this Saturday evening, and try to explain it. Scoring a run in the first and then multiple runs in the third, fourth, fifth and sixth innings, they torched the Astros’ previously ironclad pitching staff during a 13-6 win that kind of defied logic.

The same Nats lineup that has struggled so mightily to produce extra-base hits got five of them in this game, including Yadiel Hernandez’s three-run homer, Nelson Cruz’s three-run double and Maikel Franco’s two-run homer.

All told, the Nationals crossed the plate more times tonight than they did their previous four games combined, putting an end the Astros’ winning streak with emphasis and giving a crowd of 22,949 plenty of reason to cheer, something that has been in woefully short supply this season.

"Just good at-bats," Cruz said. "We were patient. We hit strikes. We were facing pretty good pitchers, from their starters to their relievers. To be able to score that many runs, it shows how good of a lineup we have."

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Strasburg, Ross to begin five-day pitching schedule

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Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross are ready to shift into a regular, five-day pitching routine that could prepare them to join the Nationals’ rotation sometime next month after completing their latest simulated games with no issues.

Strasburg, who is recovering from last summer’s thoracic outlet surgery, and Ross, who is recovering from March’s surgery to remove a bone spur in his elbow, each tossed two innings during a simulated game Friday in West Palm Beach, Fla. Strasburg threw 27 pitches, reaching 92 mph with his fastball, according to manager Davey Martinez. Ross threw 33 pitches, topping out at 95 mph.

“They’re feeling really good,” Martinez said. “We hope that continues.”

This session came four days after both right-handers pitched their first simulated games at the club’s spring training complex. They’ll now shift to a standard, five-game schedule between outings, further evidence they are transitioning from rehab mode to preparation mode.

Both Strasburg and Ross still need time to build their arms back up. They’re essentially now treating this final stage of rehab as if they were in spring training, with no significant restrictions due to their prior injuries.

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Game 35 lineups: Nats vs. Astros

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Very little went right for the Nationals on Friday night. They trailed 5-0 in the top of the first, and though Josiah Gray did right the ship after that, the lineup did nothing of consequence to try to mount a comeback. They’ll hope for a much better outcome tonight against the Astros, really hoping they can start stringing together some hits. (Or, even better, some extra-base hits.)

The challenge standing in their way: A Houston pitching staff that has allowed a grand total of 12 runs during the current 11-game winning streak. That’s almost impossible to believe, but it’s true. Cristian Javier, tonight’s starter, has been part of this run himself, and will take the mound with a 2-0 record and 0.83 ERA, though four of his six appearances to date have come out of the bullpen and he’s yet to top 87 pitches in either of his starts.

Davey Martinez has two changes from Friday night’s lineup. Yadiel Hernandez, who sat against Astros left-hander Framber Valdez, is back in there batting fifth and playing left field. And Dee Strange-Gordon gets the start at shortstop instead of Alcides Escobar, who actually had a strong night in the field but had another 0-fer at the plate.

Erick Fedde gets the ball for the Nationals. He managed to shut out the Angels’ potent lineup for five innings in his last start, but he found himself having to pitch out of trouble that entire outing. He’ll need to be more efficient tonight if he wants to go deeper in the game and take some load off the bullpen’s shoulders.

HOUSTON ASTROS at WASHINGTON NATIONALS
Where: Nationals Park
Gametime: 7:05 p.m. EDT
TV: MASN, MLB.tv
Radio: 106.7 FM, MLB.com
Weather: Rain ending, 70 degrees, wind 4 mph right field to left field

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Reduction in strikeouts may be Bell's biggest improvement

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There are any number of ways to articulate how well Josh Bell has hit for the Nationals so far this season. The .342 batting average is an obvious one, as is the .434 on-base percentage. Each ranks third among all qualifying National League hitters.

There’s another, less obvious way to underscore Bell’s success to date: His lack of strikeouts.

Consider that the 29-year-old first baseman has struck out only 15 times in 138 plate appearances so far this season. Only four qualifying NL hitters have struck out fewer times, and they’re all contact-happy middle infielders: Jose Iglesias, Miguel Rojas, Nico Hoerner and Jeff McNeil.

Bell? He’s one of the most intimidating physical presences in the batter’s box in the majors, a 261-pound slugger who seems to want to hit the ball as hard as he can every time he swings.

Looks, however, can be deceiving.

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Astros blast Gray early, Nats never recover (updated)

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The crowd at Nationals Park had just had an opportunity to welcome Dusty Baker back to town, standing and applauding the former Nats manager in his first appearance here since October 2017. Then, within seconds, the applause morphed into boos as the visitors’ starting lineup was announced, the first such appearance here for the Astros since October 2019.

Thus was the stage set for the start of an emotional weekend, one that plenty of folks had eagerly anticipated for some time.

And then Jose Altuve blasted Josiah Gray’s very first pitch of the game off the top of the center field fence for a leadoff home run, and the mood instantly changed.

And then Michael Brantley followed with a double off the wall, and Alex Bregman followed that with a double down the line, and Yordan Alvarez followed that with an RBI single and then – with a quick break for an actual out to be recorded – Yuli Gurriel crushed Gray’s 14th pitch of the night deep to left and the Astros already led by five runs and all life had been sucked out of the crowd.

It would never really return by the end of the night, Houston cruising to a 6-1 victory that for all purposes was resolved before the Nationals even came up to bat in the bottom of the first.

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Five years later, Baker happy to return to Nationals Park

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The first thing Dusty Baker noticed was the neighborhood. Navy Yard now looks a whole lot different from the last time he came here, in October 2017.

“Man, I sure wish I was invested in a couple buildings. Or in some big cranes,” he said with a laugh. “I’m telling you, this has really, really picked up. I stopped by on the way here today to see a friend, and I’d been over there many times, and I couldn’t find it. They’ve certainly built this area up.”

Once that initial shock of urban development wore off and he walked through the bowels of Nationals Park, past the home clubhouse he resided in for two years, and made his way to the visitors’ clubhouse he hadn’t set foot in since 2013 when he managed the Reds, the memories started coming back.

Good memories, even if it didn’t end the way he wanted it to.

“I had great memories here,” he said. “The people were great. I enjoyed the town. Like I’ve said many times, I enjoyed the diversity, the educational level here. For a two-year period, this is probably as good of a period as I’ve had anywhere.”

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Game 34 lineups: Nats vs. Astros

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The Nationals are facing the Astros this weekend, if you haven’t heard, and that means it’s going to be a weekend filled with nostalgia. This is, of course, the first matchup between the two clubs since the 2019 World Series (non-spring training matchup, that is). So you’re going to see a lot of highlights from that glorious 10-day stretch in late-October 2019 all weekend, for better or worse.

It’s also Dusty Baker’s return to D.C. for the first time since he was let go by the Nationals following the 2017 season. At the time, it was reasonable to think Baker would never get another chance to manage in the big leagues. As it turned out, he did get another chance, and not only that but a chance to manage a World Series contender. We’ll see what kind of reception he gets this weekend from Nats fans, but I would imagine it will be a resoundingly positive one.

As for tonight’s series opener, Josiah Gray gets the ball against a tough Houston lineup. It’s the latest big test for the young right-hander, who in the big picture has impressed this season. He shut out the Giants over six innings two starts ago, then held the Angels to three runs over 5 1/3 innings last time out in a start that looked better than that final line would indicate.

The Nationals lineup, meanwhile, has to try to solve an Astros pitching staff that has been lights out. Those arms have allowed a total of 11 runs during the 10-game winning streak they carry into this series. Yes, only 11 runs allowed in 10 games. Left-hander Framber Valdez, who starts tonight, has been somewhat less effective than his rotation mates, allowing five total runs over his last two starts. Still pretty good, though.

HOUSTON ASTROS at WASHINGTON NATIONALS
Where: Nationals Park
Gametime: 7:05 p.m. EDT
TV: MASN, MLB.tv
Radio: 980 AM, MLB.com
Weather: Chance of rain, 71 degrees, wind 7 mph in from right field

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Thursday morning Nats Q&A

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It’s another beautiful day for baseball, and the Nationals and Mets will be wrapping up their three-game series this afternoon on South Capitol Street, the Nats trying to take two of three from their division rivals. 

Bobby Blanco will have all your coverage from Nationals Park, but before he gets to work, let’s take some time this morning to chat. What’s on your mind about the Nats? Are you encouraged by what you’ve seen lately, or are you discouraged? 

Submit your questions in the comments section below, then check back throughout the morning for my responses ...

Nats bounce right back in first, cruise to win over Mets

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If you turned off tonight’s game after four batters, disgusted by what you saw from the Nationals from a pitching and defense perspective, well, you certainly were justified in being disgusted.

You also wound up missing quite the turnaround by the home club, which managed to come all the way back (and then some) before the first inning even ended.

Yep, after surrendering three runs to the Mets in the top of the first, the Nationals stormed back to score five in the bottom of the inning, then three more in the bottom of the second to take an 8-3 lead that would hold up for the rest of the night.

It was an unexpected, but welcome, comeback in rapid fashion for the Nats, who in the process snapped a nine-game home losing streak that stretched all the way back to April 19, when they eked out a 1-0 win over the Diamondbacks.

"We kept everybody together, we kept the energy," right fielder Juan Soto said. "It always feels good winning games like that and coming from behind. We showed what we have, and it feels great."

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Strasburg, Ross throw simulated games; Escobar out again

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Stephen Strasburg and Joe Ross each made it through the first simulated games of their rehab programs strong and are prepared to go through that drill again this weekend.

Strasburg and Ross pitched in those game situations Monday at the Nationals’ spring training complex in West Palm Beach, Fla. Davey Martinez didn’t have details on the number of innings or pitches each threw, but the manager had previously said they were scheduled for two innings a piece.

“What I got was: They both felt good,” Martinez said, relaying information he received from the organization’s medical staff. “So that’s good.”

This was a key step for both right-handers in their return from injury-plagued 2021 seasons. Strasburg, who had thoracic outlet surgery last July, and Ross, who was shut down last summer with a partially torn elbow ligament and then had surgery in March to remove a bone spur, had previously only thrown live batting practice.

The simulated game allowed both righties to pitch in a situation that more closely resembles a real game. Facing teammates who are also rehabbing in Florida, they would typically throw about 15 pitches per “inning,” then return to the dugout to rest for 10-15 minutes before taking the mound for their second “inning” of work.

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Game 32 lineups: Nats vs. Mets

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The Nationals have been playing better baseball, getting much better starting pitching. That hasn’t necessarily translated into a lot of wins, though. After going 3-1 to start their recent West Coast trip, they’ve gone 1-5 since entering tonight’s game against the Mets.

Aaron Sanchez gets the ball for his fourth start as a member of the rotation. All three previous outings have come against National League West opponents (the Giants twice, the Rockies once). Sanchez has his work cut for him in a Mets lineup that ranks first in the league in hits and on-base percentage and fourth in runs scored and OPS.

The Nats also have their work cut out facing right-hander Tylor Megill, who has been surprisingly dominant so far. Megill, you’ll remember, was the emergency opening day starter after both Jacob deGrom and Max Scherzer were unavailable, and he proceeded to shut them out over five innings.

Alcides Escobar remains out after being scratched from last night's lineup with an infection under his left pointer finger nail. Dee Strange-Gordon is back playing shortstop and batting eighth.

NEW YORK METS at WASHINGTON NATIONALS
Where: Nationals Park
Gametime: 7:05 p.m. EDT
TV: MASN, MLB.tv
Radio: The Team 980, MLB.com
Weather: Mostly cloudy, 66 degrees, wind 9 mph in from right field

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Nats hope Anaheim outing boosts Finnegan's confidence

Kyle Finnegan throw gray Mothers Day cap

If not for one ill-fated moment involving his bullpen mate in the bottom of the ninth Sunday afternoon in Anaheim, Kyle Finnegan might well have been the biggest story to come out of what would’ve been an impressive Nationals victory over the Angels.

It got lost in the shuffle when Tanner Rainey gave up the game-tying double to Shohei Ohtani and game-winning single to Anthony Rendon moments later, but Finnegan’s performance two innings earlier was the most dominant for any member of the Nats pitching staff this season and arguably would stack up with any single inning thrown by any major leaguer in 2022.

Tasked with protecting a 4-2 lead against the top of the Angels lineup, Finnegan allowed a leadoff single to Taylor Ward but then struck out Mike Trout, Ohtani and Rendon in succession, each on fastballs registering 96-97 mph.

For Finnegan, who had been scored upon in each of his three previous outings during the club’s West Coast trip, this provided a major boost of confidence.

“To have success against those guys, it’s reassuring,” the right-hander said prior to Tuesday’s game against the Mets. “Your stuff plays. You get Mike Trout out and Shohei Ohtani out and Anthony Rendon out, you’re doing something right. That was big for me as a confidence boost.”

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Corbin's latest strong start wasted in 4-2 loss to Mets

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Five scoreless innings by Patrick Corbin is nothing to scoff at these days. The Nationals are counting any encouraging results by the long-slumping lefty as major positives, and for the third straight start this evening Corbin was quite encouraging.

Davey Martinez also doesn’t want to jeopardize those encouraging results going down the drain in one bad sequence. So when Corbin departed tonight’s game against the Mets at the end of the fifth, zeros on the scoreboard but four walks and 86 pitches on his register, the Nats manager decided not to press his luck.

"Man, he had a lot of high-leverage innings there. He got into a lot of jams," Martinez said. "And he threw the ball well. He just walked a lot of guys. I talked to him in the fifth inning, and he was honest: He got a little fatigued. Reason being, he threw (86) pitches in five innings. He worked through a lot of different situations."

So out came Corbin and in came Carl Edwards Jr. to make his first appearance for the Nationals. Summoned from Triple-A Rochester earlier in the afternoon after allowing only one run on three hits over 14 1/3 innings, the 30-year-old reliever was now being entrusted to protect a two-run lead in a big league game.

By the time Edwards departed, that two-run lead had morphed into a one-run deficit. The right-hander surrendered two singles, a walk and then a two-run double to Jeff McNeil that proved the difference in what wound up a 4-2 loss to New York.

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Edwards Jr. promoted, Machado optioned to Triple-A

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The Nationals had noticed how well Carl Edwards Jr. was pitching at Triple-A Rochester for several weeks now. Eventually, it got to the point where they felt there was no reason to wait any longer, so this afternoon they called up the 30-year-old and added his experience to their bullpen.

Edwards, owner of a 3.77 ERA and 1.138 WHIP in 206 career big league appearances, had his contract purchased. Fellow right-hander Andres Machado was optioned to Rochester to open a spot on the 26-man roster, with Mason Thompson transferred to the 60-day injured list to clear a spot on the 40-man roster.

In 13 games at Triple-A, Edwards was utterly dominant. His ERA was 0.63, with only one run allowed in 14 1/3 innings. He surrendered only three hits while walking four and striking out 17. There was nothing not to like about that performance.

“Carl was really throwing the ball well,” manager Davey Martinez said. “I spoke to (Rochester manager) Matt LeCroy, and we thought it was time to get him up here. He did everything we asked him to do. He checked all the boxes, and I think he can help us here.”

Martinez knows Edwards well, having both been employed by the Cubs before. From his debut in 2015 through 2018, Edwards posted a 3.06 ERA and 1.069 WHIP over 172 games. He also made 15 postseason appearances over the years, including eight during Chicago’s historic 2016 World Series run. (Though around here he’s perhaps best known for giving up a towering home run to Bryce Harper during the 2017 National League Division Series.)

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Game 31 lineups: Nats vs. Mets

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The Nationals are finally back home after a long West Coast trip that included some legitimate highs and some awful lows, all of it coming together for a 4-5 record. Now they need to see if they can start playing better at home, which has been quite a challenge in 2022.

Last time we saw them in D.C., the Nats were closing out a 10-game homestand with an eight-game losing streak. Overall, they’re a wretched 3-11 at Nationals Park this season. And the challenge doesn’t get any easier this week when the Mets and Astros come to town.

This is already New York’s second trip here. The first one, if you’ll recall, didn’t go well. The Mets won the first three games of the season-opening series before the Nationals rallied late to win the finale. The opener saw Patrick Corbin take the first of his five losses, though the lefty did toss four scoreless innings before falling apart in the fifth and allowing two runs.

Corbin has looked much better of late, pitching well in three of his last four starts, including a complete-game loss to the Rockies at Coors Field six days ago. Perhaps not coincidentally, Riley Adams was behind the plate for all three of those strong starts. So even though he started Sunday in Anaheim, Adams will start tonight and work with Corbin again.

The lineup will try to produce some runs against Mets starter Carlos Carrasco, who held them to one run and two hits in 5 2/3 innings during that early April series here. (UPDATE: The Nats made a late lineup change, scratching Alcides Escobar for unspecified reasons. Dee Strange-Gordon will now start at shortstop and bat seventh.)

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Highs and lows from the Nationals' long trip west

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The Nationals’ just-completed West Coast trip simultaneously featured some of their best performances of the season and some of their worst.

There were back-to-back deep starts in Colorado by Erick Fedde and Patrick Corbin, the latter authoring the team’s first complete game of the year. There were offensive explosions in San Francisco, Colorado and Anaheim, with the team scoring seven or more runs in five of the nine games played. And there was at times dominant relief work from several members of a suddenly thinner bullpen.

On the flip side, there was a continued lack of power from a lineup that has totaled only 20 homers in 30 games this season. There were periods of atrocious defense. And, of course, there was Tanner Rainey’s blown save in the bottom of the ninth Sunday in Anaheim.

The end result of all that: a 4-5 trip that represented clear progress from where this team resided just before it, yet still felt short of what truly was possible.

“It would be a great road trip,” Davey Martinez said prior to Sunday’s finale against the Angels. “We’re playing a lot better than we have in the beginning. And we have an opportunity to win another series today.”

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