- The Washington Times - Monday, July 31, 2017

There was a smile on Yu Darvish’s face 10 minutes before Monday’s Major League Baseball non-waiver trade deadline. He stood tall at his home locker in Texas in a picture posted on social media, noting how much time remained on the clock until 4 p.m.

On the West Coast, other smiles were beginning to form. News that Darvish had been traded dropped about 25 minutes after he posted his photo. That he was dealt by the Rangers was a mild surprise. That he will pull on Los Angeles Dodgers blue for the rest of the season stunned the league and one-upped the Washington Nationals on a day when moves were made for October.

The Nationals had acquired Minnesota Twins closer Brandon Kintzler in exchange for Double-A prospect and right-handed pitcher Tyler Watson just minutes prior. Kintzler is the third relief pitcher Washington has traded for since July 16. Its offense is the best in the National League. Its starting rotation has a Cy Young candidate at the top. The bullpen, however, was desperate for a fix. It received three options in the last week: Sean Doolittle, Ryan Madson and now Kintzler, a 32-year-old who was named an All-Star this season.

But, the Dodgers‘ pulling in Darvish will populate the marquee. The four-time All-Star becomes Los Angeles’ No. 2 pitcher behind seven-time All-Star and three-time Cy Young Award winner Clayton Kershaw. Alex Wood (2.38 ERA) and Rich Hill (3.35 ERA) fill out the rotation. The Dodgers also added two bullpen options, Tony Cingrani and Tony Watson, to work in front of uber-closer Kenley Jansen. Cingrani and Watson are left-handed. So are Bryce Harper and Daniel Murphy. This is not coincidence. All of this in an afternoon’s work for the team with the best record in baseball, which was a whopping 43 games over .500 at the start of Monday.

Kintzler is a rental for the Nationals. The right-hander has 28 saves and a 2.78 ERA this season for Minnesota. He is not a strikeout pitcher, but opponents have just a .329 slugging percentage against him. Kintzler joins Doolittle, Madson and Oliver Perez as Washington bullpen options who get left-handed hitters out. Left-handed batters hit just .197 against Kintzler this season, .194 against Madson, .037 against Doolittle and .204 against Perez. Most of the Dodgers‘ hitting might resides on the left side. Should Washington face Los Angeles in the playoffs this season, it will be much better prepared in the bullpen than it was last season when it lost the National League Division Series to L.A., 3-2.

Not coming to Washington is starting pitcher Sonny Gray. The Nationals were linked to the Oakland right-hander during the rumor-mill portion of trade deadline runup. Trading for Gray would have required a high-end prospect because he is inexpensive, skilled and under team control for two-plus seasons. He cost the New York Yankees three prospects, including Jorge Mateo and Dustin Fowler. Both are top-10 prospects in New York’s organization. However, Fowler is injured. He ruptured the patellar tendon in his right knee June 29 in his first major-league game.

Last season, the Nationals decided not to deal high-end prospects Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez at the deadline. Reports suggested that left-handed reliever Andrew Miller, among the top three left-handed relievers in baseball, could have been acquired for Giolito. Miller would have been on the roster not just last season and the 2016 postseason, but also this one, when the Washington bullpen has been a careening mess. Again this season, Washington held onto its major prospects, like outfielder Victor Robles, at the deadline.

The Chicago Cubs did not wait until the deadline to land reinforcements. They pulled in Detroit closer Justin Wilson and catcher Alex Avila for two prospects earlier in the afternoon. Chicago is trying to find its mojo a season after ending its 108-year World Series drought. It started play Monday with a 2 ½-game lead in the National League Central Division thanks to a post-All-Star-break surge. If the playoffs began today, Washington would face the Cubs in the division series.

That Washington will make the playoffs for the fourth time in six seasons is inevitable. It holds a 13-game lead in the woeful National League East Division. The Miami Marlins, who just traded their closer to the New York Mets, are in second place. The Mets traded one of their key bullpen pitchers, Addison Reed, on Monday after dealing for Ramos. Atlanta is eight games below .500. Philadelphia’s season has been over for a month.

What remains is the journey to Oct. 1. That’s the final day of the regular season. Washington is expecting Stephen Strasburg, Jayson Werth, Michael A. Taylor and Stephen Drew to be healthy by then. Manager Dusty Baker will be balancing the recovery of those players with rest for others and making sure their record is superior to that of the National League Central champion. Barring a collapse and a surge, the Dodgers will finish with the NL’s best record. Washington wants to be second. Then the series begin, and all sides will deploy the talent gathered Monday with each other in mind.

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