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The good, the bad, and the ugly from the Nationals’ series win over the Phillies

It might be the other side of the All-Star break, but it didn’t snap the Nationals’ hot streak. They continued to roll with another series win. Here are the big takeaways...

MLB: Washington Nationals at Philadelphia Phillies Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

The Washington Nationals started the second half of the season on a positive note as they were able to take two out of the three games against the Philadelphia Phillies.

The Nats are now 9-5 against the Phils this season, including winning five of their last six games against them. It’s a huge reason that they’ve been able to overcome the big deficit they had earlier this season.

Here are the main takeaways from the three-game set at Citizens Bank Park...

The Good

Rotation still rolling

Even though their ace is currently out of commission - which we’ll come onto later in this piece - the Nationals’ rotation picked up right where it left off entering the All-Star break.

All three starters this series delivered a quality start and all of them gave the team a chance to win.

Stephen Strasburg dominated over six shutout innings, Patrick Corbin looked good with six innings of three-run ball, striking out double-digits, and then Aníbal Sánchez delivered six strong innings on Sunday, allowing just three runs.

Strasburg and Corbin dominating is nothing new. Both have been doing their thing most of the year. However, the emergence of Sánchez as an excellent fourth option in the rotation has given the team a huge lift, giving them a strong chance to win for each of their top four.

“Our starting pitching has been our strength,” manager Dave Martinez said on Sunday.

“Those guys, they take the ball and they go out there and even when I take them out of the game, they don’t want to come out of the game.”

The Nats’ rotation continues to lead the majors in fWAR while ranking third in ERA, FIP, and xFIP. All this success despite the revolving door that has been the fifth starter’s role.

The performance of the rotation bodes well for the stretch run for the Nationals as a solid base for everything else. As long as they get their ace back healthy, expect this excellent stretch from the starting pitching to continue the rest of the season.

Fight, fight, fight

“The boys battled.” Someone needs to print that on a t-shirt. It’s a pretty good motto for the 2019 incarnation of the Nationals, even if it has been used sarcastically by plenty.

The big moment came on Saturday, with the Nats down to their last out, Anthony Rendon singled to set up a go-ahead two-run blast from Juan Soto. Cue absolute delirium in the Nationals’ dugout and from all the fans watching.

It was yet another victory stolen from the Phillies in dramatic fashion causing the boos to once again rain down in Philly.

“They don’t quit, they keep battling,” Martinez said after the series. “You’re playing a good team over there, with good players, like I said, it was just unfortunate [Sunday’s] game ended that way, but I love the way we’re playing.”

They couldn’t quite complete similar heroics on Sunday, coming back from 3-1 down late, before surrendering the walk-off home run to Maikel Franco. But despite this, it continued quite a remarkable streak the Nats have going for them currently.

In their last 22 games, the Nationals have either been tied or ahead in the 7th inning or later. This team’s resiliency continues to be their calling card, digging deep and never knowing when they’re beaten. That’s a trait that they’ll need if they plan on a deep postseason run.

Bullpen continues rebound

Look past the walk-off homer surrendered by Matt Grace in the series finale, even if it leaves a sour taste in the mouth. The much-maligned Nationals bullpen put in a solid effort in this series, playing a big role in taking two of three this weekend.

Over the three games, the bullpen twirled 8.1 innings of one-run ball. But it’s not just this series, the group has been on a roll for quite a while now, perhaps a little under the radar.

Since the start of July, the relief corps has posted a 2.45 ERA, good enough for 4th in the majors. And since June 1st, the Nationals’ 4.00 ERA ranks 7th overall as it’s clearly been a key to the big turnaround that’s vaulted the team into playoff contention.

“As Paul [Menhart] got the job, I told him the biggest thing for me is the walks,” Martinez said before Sunday’s game. “When those guys come in the game, we’ve got to limit the walks, the walks kill you.”

“They’ve done a better job with that, and attacking the strike zone, those are the keys for our bullpen.”

It’s a stark contrast from early on in the season when whoever trotted out to the mound couldn’t stop getting in the way of the team’s success.

But now, with an addition or two at the trade deadline, the bullpen could become an asset. Let’s see what Mike Rizzo and the front office can come up within the next two weeks...

The Bad

Doolittle’s velocity concerns

Even though the Nationals bullpen is now righting the ship, the team’s best reliever is suffering from his own concerns. Sean Doolittle

In both of his outings in this series, the left-hander’s fastball velocity started off at 91mph, down from the 93.9mph average fastball velocity he’s posted so far this season.

However, towards the end of his outings, he picked it back up to 94mph. Very strange, but neither Doolittle nor his manager could figure out a specific reason why it dipped.

“Yesterday his velo started down too,” his manager said after Saturday’s outing. “Then at the end he pumped it up a little bit. As long as he’s throwing his fastball and he’s throwing it up, he’s effective.”

As Martinez said, it’s always essential for him to have his peak velocity to succeed. His location, late movement, and deceptiveness will still generate swings and misses, but it’s still strange for the left-hander.

”I am not sure exactly why it is down,” Doolittle said of his velocity in the series. “I can still navigate innings and get guys out. It doesn’t take very long to get ready.”

Some of the dip may be down to a heavy workload this year, not just appearing in 41 games, which ranks second on the team, but also seemingly warming up in most games as well.

Doolittle would clearly be one of the biggest beneficiaries if the Nats manage to acquire a top-tier reliever, giving him more rest down the stretch. It’s only light concern with the velocity drop for now, so hopefully, he can pick it back up and erase those concerns.

The Ugly

Max still nursing back injury

There are a handful of players that the Nationals really can’t afford to lose for an extended period of time. Therefore, there’s no surprise that the news of Max Scherzer landing on the Injured List with a mid-back strain has some on DEFCON 4.

The first that fans heard of the injury was when Scherzer sat out the All-Star game, citing “back stiffness” as the reason. However, concern then grew as he was scratched from his scheduled Sunday start, but has now been skipped completely with this IL stint.

“[Max] said he felt the same as yesterday,” Martinez said of the decision to place his ace on the IL. “We decided to just give him those days. We were able to retro it back three days, so he’s available hopefully this weekend.”

It’s a bad break for the Nats who were hoping to have Scherzer face the Phillies and then the Atlanta Braves twice in July, maximizing his outings against NL foes.

Though that plan may have fallen by the wayside, assuming he can return when eligible over the weekend, they can still squeeze out two Scherzer starts against the Braves. Just to be safe though, it might be worth finding those lucky rabbit feet and four-leaf clovers...

Next up: After an off-day Monday, the Nationals travel up the I-95 for the first Beltway Series of the year against the Baltimore Orioles. The Nats will send Austin Voth to the mound in the opener, with the second game being handled by either Stephen Strasburg or a spot starter.