- The Washington Times - Monday, September 11, 2017

Monday became about headaches and soaked clothing. Each were tended to in different places. The internal skull throb could be handled at home because the Washington Nationals had the day off. Drenched clothes, mostly team issued, were corralled into the large tumblers just outside the Nationals clubhouse following Sunday’s thorough celebration a few feet away.

As Nationals manager Dusty Baker said, goggles on his head Sunday, the situation worked out close to perfect for his team. They won a day game to help clinch their fourth division title in six seasons. They had a day off Monday to soothe the after effects of celebration. For many veterans, who didn’t play Sunday, it was a second consecutive day off from baseball. The Nationals have 19 games remaining to gain more rhythm and rest, each needed by different players.

During Sunday’s clinch party, Jayson Werth stood in the back of the clubhouse talking about personal pride. He mentioned the four division titles in six seasons — it could have been more, he said — and how the organization has evolved from problem to producer. Werth, 38, armed with a World Series ring, veteran status, opinions and presence, said this year was different. The reason? He felt like the Nationals‘ front office, and by extension the Lerner family, came through.

“This is the year I feel like the organization took all the proper steps to insuring us — we’re going to have all the weapons we need in October,” Werth said. “I don’t know if I can say that for every other year.”

A jab and compliment in the same sentence. Does he have a point?

Werth mentioned how the most glaring problems were fixed. The bullpen was addressed. Bringing in Howie Kendrick added versatility to the bench. Young players filling in for injured starters was also crucial.

The bullpen’s immediate alignment has changed the season. Long last in reliever’s ERA in Major League Baseball, the Nationals have crept up to 28th. The team as a whole is second in ERA since the All-Star break. Brandon Kintzler moved from closer in Minnesota to the seventh inning in Washington. Ryan Madson had a 12-inning scoreless streak since being acquired snapped Sunday when he pitched the ninth instead of the eighth. As a setup man, he is unblemished in Washington. Closer Sean Doolittle is 17 for 17 in save opportunities since arriving.

“I don’t want to say surprised [by the results] because we all thought we could do it,” Doolittle said. “But, I also think we all understand the volatility of the bullpen and changes of scenery sometimes and expectations and that kind of stuff, but I think it says a lot about those guys, the way they’ve handled their rolls and the way it’s kind of allowed the bullpen, everything to fall into place. It’s pretty awesome that the way we had drawn it up worked out for the first time.”

How the Nationals‘ bench looks going into the postseason will be the most difficult question for Baker. Last year in the playoffs, the Nationals carried five outfielders, seven infielders, and seven relievers.

Jose Lobaton will be the backup catcher. Kendrick and Adam Lind will be the right- and left-handed options off the bench. The Nationals hope improved health returns Werth and Bryce Harper, who has done nothing more than play catch since hyperextending and bruising his knee Aug. 13. Asked Sunday about his progress, Harper said he was well enough to celebrate and left it at that.

Since Lind (first base) and Kendrick (second base) could play an infield spot but are poor outfielders, Baker is likely to search for an extra dose of outfield speed and defense. Wilmer Difo has been sent to the outfield to explore his ability there. Having him stand out there in the postseason would be unnerving and undermine his versatility in the infield.

A surprise who may fit the pinch-runner/defensive-outfielder role is Andrew Stevenson. He’s shown the ability to be a plus defender in the outfield since he was at LSU. If Difo, Kendrick and Lind are listed as infielders with the four starters, that leaves two outfield spots should Washington use the same alignment as last season. Or, Kendrick could be moved to the outfielders list to open an infield spot perhaps for Adrian Sanchez, who has played solid baseball during his 26 games in the major leagues this season. Top prospect Victor Robles appears to be a longshot for the postseason roster. He has three weeks to change that.

The first five in the bullpen appears clear. After the trio of acquisitions, left-handed Sammy Solis and right-handed Matt Albers are next. Opponents are hitting .140 against Solis since the All-Star break. Albers, whom Baker likes to call “the find of the year,” has held opponents to a .169 average this season. Behind them will be the questions. Will the other left-handed pitcher be Oliver Perez or hard-throwing Enny Romero? Could Baker opt for both depending on the opponent? Does Joe Blanton fit as the long man? Matt Grace?

“We just got to play good baseball, got to do the things we can to play small ball, get guys over, score runs, it’s all about pitching in the postseason,” Harper said. “So have our pitching staff be where they are, hopefully having [Stephen] Strasburg healthy going into the postseason for the first time, just our whole staff we can get everybody healthy, get everybody back then we’ll be OK.”

Strasburg. Right. Remember him? He has been out of the mix this time of year. This season, his 34 consecutive scoreless innings represent the longest streak in the majors. It’s also a franchise record. Strasburg was the first player up the dugout steps to the field to celebrate Sunday. But, he was hard to find in the clubhouse chaos afterward.

From his court in the back, Werth had one other thought. He knows Baker returned to win a World Series. In Baker’s mind, winning a championship could be the final step he needs to one day enter baseball’s Hall of Fame. Miami’s Jack McKeon is the oldest manager to win a World Series. He was 72 when the Marlins won in 2003. Baker, 68, and others, know his remaining window is not wide.

Dusty deserves a World Series,” Werth said. “He’s first class. He’s a baseball guy. He’s been around forever. The only thing left to put on his resume is a World Series and I want to be part of the group that does that for him.”

If Werth is right, this represents the Nationals‘ best chance to do so.

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