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In the three most important games the Washington Nationals have played this season, all of which they lost to the surging New York Mets, they used five relief pitchers: Tanner Roark, Casey Janssen and Matt Thornton once apiece, with Felipe Rivero and Aaron Barrett twice.
The first two games were one-run losses, both frittered away in the late innings, the kind that sting even more when considering Drew Storen and Jonathan Papelbon, arguably the best relief duo in the National League, spent the entire series picking splinters out of their behinds.
Managerial malpractice is an easy thing to find when highlighting a small window of time. Ned Yost spent last August looking like he was going to bunt his way into unemployment, and for that he ended up in the World Series. Validation comes in plenty of ways, and all across baseball there are players and GMs and particularly managers looking for it. And Yost's triumph gives a sliver of hope to …
1. Matt Williams after he bungled his way through the weekend series against the Mets and watched his team, the overwhelming favorite to run roughshod through the NL East, slip into a first-place tie with the Mets.
The reigning NL Manager of the Year hasn't acquitted himself as much of a tactician in his year and a half on the job, and his performance over the weekend did nothing to sway his reputation otherwise. It was bad enough that two unnecessary intentional walks backfired Saturday. Parking Storen and Papelbon in the bullpen for the entire series showed a troublesome adherence to standard principles more open-minded managers long ago ignored.
It's one thing to save a closer in a tie game on the road – as in, one thing that is stubborn and unnecessary. Even so, the Nationals traded for Papelbon before the July 31 deadline to fortify their bullpen for exactly this sort of situation. And while Storen presumably wasn't available because he had pitched July 29 and 30 – even though Williams twice had him pitch three straight days last September and his outings before the Mets game were nine and 10 pitches, respectively – he surely could have thrown in the second game of the series. Papelbon could've pitched in either, particularly the second game, seeing as Williams had Storen, an effective closer before being deposed, waiting to finish out the Mets if Washington took a lead
That never happened, and Nationals pitchers threw 27 innings without a single pitch from relievers who have combined for a 1.59 ERA in 79 innings with 89 strikeouts against 17 walks. No good excuse for it exists, and …
2. Yoenis Cespedes wasn't going to argue with any of it. In his first game with the Mets, Williams intentionally walked him with left-hander Matt Thornton on the mound, which seemed a mite curious, seeing as Cespedes is hitting .183/.244/.329 against left-handers this season, an egregious reverse platoon that begs for exploitation from managers.
Instead, Cespedes' debut in New York turned into a celebration, as did the final game of the sweep, in which he played center field for the first time in more than a year. Cespedes came to New York as a savior and left his first weekend riding the cresting wave that is the Mets' season.
Cespedes is a good player, with lots of power and a great arm and a serviceable glove. He is not the sort to liberate New York from the sins of the Wilpons, the Mets' owners who are being lauded for upgrading their team at the deadline. Here's the truth: A New York team starting the season with a payroll below that of the Milwaukee Brewers, Kansas City Royals and Cincinnati Reds, among many, many others, is the sort of unforgiveable failing that makes this look promising only because where they started is such an embarrassment.
The idea of Cespedes as some referendum is laughable, and unfortunately he wears a crown weighted down by years of replacing gold with lead. If he can somehow hoist it – if the Mets can hold off the Nationals or sneak into a wild-card spot – he'll be a hero. And if not, he'll be the not-good-enough solution, the rental for whom the Mets gave up Michael Fulmer. It's a black-and-white existence, seemingly the only sort available in New York, though it's not unique to there as …
3. Brad Ausmus has learned in Detroit. Like Williams, he found immediate success. His second season has been even worse than Williams', the Tigers struggling to a sub-.500 record and selling assets like Cespedes at the deadline.
Which, of course, makes it more difficult to get a full read on what sort of manager Ausmus can be. He came into the job with the right personality, the proper temperament, the on-field resume, the ability to look and sound good on camera. Now he's got a short-handed team that's going to turn over even more at the end of the season – particularly if GM Dave Dombrowski, whose contract is up, leaves the organization.
The expectation is that Dombrowski will stay, and if he does, he'll need to decide whether this new generation of Tigers – featuring the bounty of pitching he got in the deadline deals – will call Ausmus manager. Daniel Norris does now, and if he can keep pitching like he did in his Tigers debut Sunday, the trade of …
4. David Price will look all the better. Toronto gave up a pair of potential 2016 rotation pieces in Norris and Matt Boyd, plus a powerful left-handed arm in Jairo Labourt, and the Blue Jays get to see the fruit of their labor Monday when he makes his first start.
The validation of Price isn't too complicated. He's one of the best pitchers in baseball. He just wants to show he's a $200 million pitcher, and as free agency beckons, the soon-to-be-30-year-old is having a dream walk season: a 2.53 ERA with nearly seven innings a start. He's throwing his fastball harder than he has since 2012. And now he gets to do it in a pennant race.
Plenty of other starters face similar Augusts and Septembers as Price: Johnny Cueto, Jordan Zimmermann, Jeff Samardzija and even Zack Greinke, who can opt out of his contract with the Dodgers. Price is the prize of the group, though, much as he was of the trade deadline, when …
5. Alex Anthopoulos swooped in and stole him from the moneyed teams that would've adored a pitcher of his caliber. Anthopoulos is the Randy Orton of baseball, sneaking in from obtuse angles to execute finisher after finisher. Troy Tulowitzki was his first big prize and Price his second, with the acquisitions of reliever Mark Lowe and outfielder Ben Revere the sort of supplementary moves other teams might've considered big plays.
Fellow GMs' opinions on his maneuvering ranged from moral hazard to appreciation of how he goes for it with gusto. The weekend, much as a four-game series can, seemed to validate why Anthopoulos thought enough of a .500 team to spend so many future assets. The Blue Jays are positively frightening, with an offense the trots out home run hitter after home run hitter, a bullpen with thunder in Aaron Sanchez and lightning in Roberto Osuna, and a rotation robust enough to take three of four from Kansas City without Price.
The one game the Royals did win came with …
6. Yordano Ventura on the mound, though his performance Sunday afternoon on Twitter was far more impressive than anything he did the day before with his right arm.
Some context: The Royals' reputation as a team that likes to scrap begins with Ventura, and after Kansas City pitchers hit a pair of batters and brushed back Donaldson with fastballs twice Sunday, Sanchez hit Alcides Escobar in the knee and was ejected. After the game, both sides popped off, which prompted Jose Bautista to say on Twitter he lost respect for Yost, which prompted Ventura to fire off three tweets he deleted soon thereafter.
In those tweets, according to two people who read and translated them, Ventura said to Bautista: "We'll meet again later and if you do that with me, you'll see what I'm about. I don't care about anybody. I used to respect you, but you're a nobody. … You got lucky this time, but MLB doesn't get canceled after this season. Keep running your mouth. … You need to stop giving signs. You're gonna get it from me for being fresh and you really are a nobody."
So, not only did Ventura call a six-time All-Star a nobody – twice – he accused the Blue Jays of tipping pitches to their teammates, which brought back memories of The Man In White. After Ventura wiped the tweets away, he tweeted: "I take responsibility for my words. I'm not scared." And that was that, classic Ventura, audacious and over the top, about as incapable of controlling his emotions as he is his 100-mph fastball, so full of potential but so far from fully grasping it. Sounds a lot like ...
7. Yasiel Puig and Joc Pederson, whose struggles haven't exactly torpedoed the Dodgers yet. It's a testament to the team's strengths, actually, that Puig and Pederson can start the second half as cold as they have – a .204 batting average with 31 strikeouts and four walks in just over 100 plate appearances between them – and the Dodgers can still take nine of 14 coming out of the break.
This entire Dodgers team is a big validation ticket, from Puig and Pederson to manager Don Mattingly to Clayton Kershaw doing in the playoffs what he does every regular season. The Dodgers have shown organizational savvy. They've shown a willingness to spend their copious dollars. Now it's time to show whether they can hold off a Giants team 2½ games back and claw their way through the NL postseason gauntlet that doesn't necessarily reward the best team.
At very least the Dodgers can claim the title of best team in Los Angeles after their three-game sweep of the Angels over the weekend, a low moment for …
8. Mike Scioscia in a season with more than usual. The ugliness of GM Jerry Dipoto's resignation following a power struggle lost to Scioscia, the Angels' longtime manager, put the Angels' performance this year under even more of a microscope than usually focuses on Scioscia.
He is considered bulletproof, not just because of a contract that seems to extend in perpetuity but because he's been the seat of power in the Angels organization for going on two decades. And for that, he has a World Series title in 2002 to show for it. Flags do fly forever. Mike Trout was also 11 when the Angels hoisted theirs.
So, yes, the six-game losing streak that pushed the Angels four back of the Astros and barely holding on to a wild-card spot isn't a great look, especially with C.J. Wilson's injured elbow possibly ending his season. Scioscia is in no danger; allowing him to pick the team's new GM, which owner Arte Moreno ostensibly is doing, could look even sillier if the man picking it hasn't been able to get out of the first round of the playoffs in four seasons with the best player in the world. It's not playoffs or bust for …
9. A.J. Preller, either, though his inaction at the trading deadline might be in greater need of validation than anything on this list. As the San Diego Padres' GM, Preller had multiple bands of assets: short-term (free agents, like Justin Upton, Ian Kennedy and Will Venable), long-term (desirable players, like Tyson Ross, Andrew Cashner and Craig Kimbrel) and big messes (the undesirable contracts of James Shields, Matt Kemp and Jedd Gyorko).
His one trade: acquiring Mark Rzpeczynski, the left-handed reliever. Whether it was because of their easy schedule or a sense of responsibility to stay in the playoff hunt despite a sub-.500 record, the Padres didn't sell, and the rest of baseball wondered what Preller saw that everyone else didn't.
He went totally against convention, and that's a great thing … so long as it succeeds. Unsuccessful iconoclasm is the worst kind of failure, and Preller is setting himself up for a disappointment that goes well beyond his big offseason trades not delivering yet. This is doubling down on them and the team with which he's trying to win, and much like …
10. Matt Williams, he didn't do anything on July 31. Blaming Williams for the Nationals' woes is every bit the sport in Washington as backstabbing and horse-trading.
It's not Williams' fault the Nationals have scored just 52 runs in 16 games since the All-Star break. Or that Ryan Zimmerman, the franchise's first $100 million player, is hitting .213/.271/.361 on the season. Or that Ian Desmond is having one of the worst walk years in memory, flushing any thought of a nine-figure deal down a .216/.264/.359 toilet. Or that Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth and Denard Span haven't been healthy all year, leaving Bryce Harper to single-handed carry the offense.
Among that and Jordan Zimmermann's issues and the injuries to Stephen Strasburg and so much more, it's been a difficult season for Williams, well beyond a bad bullpen weekend. It just magnifies the mistakes that much more, makes them stand out in a season where bad luck is enough to ruin a season. It hasn't done so yet, and if, like Yost last season, Williams can evolve and learn, the Nationals stand far better a chance of holding off the Mets.
They next play in New York from Oct . 2-4 – the last series of the regular season. More and more it's looking like a weekend that's going to matter. Maybe enough we'll even see Drew Storen and Jonathan Papelbon.