The Week Ahead: Nats at 'center of the universe'

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harper-bryce-100606.jpgThis is a pretty good time to be a Washington Nationals fan. Yes, they are currently sitting in their customary position at the bottom of the NL East, but if you’re a follower of the artists formerly known as Les Expos, you’ve got to be brimming with optimism this week.

On Monday, the Nats will pick first in the First-Year Player Draft, and all indications are that they will select catcher Bryce Harper (pictured), a record-setting junior college slugger who would have just finished his junior year of high school had he not enrolled in college to become eligible for the draft a year early.

There have been some questions about Harper’s attitude, as well as thoughts that he should be moved to a different position (courtesy of his agent, you know who). But there is no denying his talent.

Then before the Harper hype even gets a chance to die down, the Nats will grab the attention of the baseball world again on Tuesday when they unveil their No. 1 pick from last year’s draft, pitcher Stephen Strasburg, who will make his first big league start against the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Strasburg never really looked like he belonged in the minors, going 7-2 with a 1.30 ERA in 55 1/3 innings split between Double-A and Triple-A, and even the Nationals brass is having a hard time keeping their expectations in check. Here is team president Stan Kasten talking to MLB.com:

As we have been building, we have been a very low-profile team, which is a frustration when you are in a big and important market as we are in D.C. Strasburg has certainly changed that dynamic. We are now the center of the universe in terms of attention in the world of baseball. We will be the center of attention on Monday night with the first pick of the Draft. We’ll be the center of attention again Tuesday. And we hope, soon thereafter, we’ll become a team that is worthy of constant attention as we become more competitive.

Center of the universe? Sure why not? Let the man enjoy the moment. And maybe, just maybe, his team will feature the most dynamic battery in baseball in years to come. Now, Washington probably won’t be able to afford any other decent players after paying for their two wunderkind, but let’s not worry about that right now.

Instead, let the Nationals be the center of the universe. We can always let things get back to normal next week.

FIVE SERIES TO WATCH
Cardinals at Dodgers, June 7-9:
The last time these two teams met, Matt Holliday was dropping fly balls in the playoffs to help L.A. reach the NLCS. The Cardinals enter the week on a three-game winning streak, and the Dodgers have been on the rise as well.

Blue Jays at Rays, June 8-10: The Blue Jays made it through a difficult week with a 3-3 record and sit only four games back in the AL East entering the week. It’s another rough week ahead, but it’s getting harder to doubt this Toronto club.

Phillies at Red Sox, June 11-13: The second-place Phillies vs. the third-place Red Sox? What happened here? Not to worry, both teams will remain in the thick of their division races all season long.

Braves at Twins, June 11-13: A couple of quiet, unheralded division leaders lock horns in Minnesota. Should be some good baseball, folks.

Angels at Dodgers; A’s at Giants, June 11-13: It’s time for some California dreamin’ as the L.A. and Bay Area rivals meet up. None of these teams are great, but they’re all competent. Yes, even the A’s.

ON THE TUBE
Monday, 7:05 p.m. ET: Padres at Phillies (ESPN)
Wednesday, 8:10 p.m.: Cubs at Brewers (ESPN)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: Phillies at Red Sox (FOX)
*Saturday, 4:10 p.m.: White Sox at Cubs (FOX)
Sunday, 1:35 p.m.: Phillies at Red Sox (TBS)
Sunday, 8:05 p.m.: White Sox at Cubs (ESPN)
*Check local listings

And for those of you who have asked for a schedule of MLB Network games, you may find that here.

Are you on Twitter? You can follow Bob here, and get all your HBT updates here.

James Shields lasts only 2 2/3 innings, gives up 10 runs to the Mariners

SEATTLE, WA - MAY 31:  Starting pitcher James Shields #33 of the San Diego Padres pitches against the Seattle Mariners in the first inning at Safeco Field on May 31, 2016 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images
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James Shields has had better afternoons. The Padres’ starter couldn’t make it out of the third inning on Tuesday, ultimately serving up 10 runs on eight hits and four walks with one strikeout in 2 2/3 innings. The Mariners plated one run in the first inning, six in the second, and three in the third against Shields.

The runs came via, in order: a Kyle Seager RBI single, a bases loaded walk to Robinson Cano, a Nelson Cruz two-run single, a three-run Seager home run, and a three-run Seth Smith home run. Things continued to get worse once Shields left, as reliever Luis Perdomo gave up a two-run home run to Franklin Gutierrez in the fourth to make it 12-0. In the fifth, Smith homered again with the bases empty, and Adam Lind later drilled a three-run shot, pushing the score to 16-0.

The White Sox were reportedly discussing a trade involving Shields with the Padres as recently as Sunday. Shields entered Tuesday’s start with a 3.06 ERA and a 56/23 K/BB ratio in 64 2/3 innings. Presumably, a team wouldn’t let one start affect its interest in a player, but Shields’ outing certainly doesn’t help.

Atlanta Braves trade reliever Jason Grilli to the Toronto Blue Jays

ATLANTA, GA - MAY 28: Jason Grilli #39 of the Atlanta Braves throws an eighth inning pitch against the Miami Marlins at Turner Field on May 28, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Cunningham/Getty Images)
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Multiple reporters including Robert Murray of Baseball Essential, Mark Bowman of MLB.com and David O’Brien of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution report that the Atlanta Braves are trading reliever Jason Grilli to the Toronto Blue Jays for a prospect. Murray says the prospect is minor league reliever Sean Ratcliffe

Grilli is having a subpar year but was a more or less effective closer last season. For 2016 he’s got a 5.29 ERA in 21 appearances and has a K/BB ratio of 23/13 in 17 innings. Nice strikeout total, but oof those walks. Last year he saved 24 games for a bad Braves team and posted a 2.94 ERA, struck out batters at the same rate and walked many fewer. Maybe a change of scenery and an adjustment would do him good.

Ratcliffe was an 18th round pick in 2013 for Toronto. He has only played in rookie ball and low A. He hasn’t pitched yet in 2016. Nothing in his previous three seasons shouts “great prospect” but you never know.

Jose Bautista: Rougned Odor “tried a hundred percent to hit me in the face.”

ARLINGTON, TX - MAY 15:  Adrian Beltre #29 of the Texas Rangers holds Jose Bautista #19 of the Toronto Blue Jays after being punched by Rougned Odor #12 in the eighth inning at Globe Life Park in Arlington on May 15, 2016 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
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Blue Jays outfielder Jose Bautista is still convinced that Rangers second baseman Rougned Odor was “looking for a fight” on May 15, when the two teams butted heads at Globe Life Park. Bautista also believes he deserves credit for not hurting Odor.

Ostensibly, the Rangers were still salty about Bautista’s bat flip during the ALDS last year. In the last game of the series — and the clubs’ last regular season meeting — on May 15, pitcher Matt Bush hit Bautista in the ribs with a fastball. When Justin Smoak hit a ground ball prime for a double play attempt, Bautista slid hard into Odor receiving the feed at second base. Odor then punched Bautista cleanly in the face, and the benches emptied.

Tom Verducci of Sports Illustrated has the quotes:

“Was [Odor] out to play baseball that day? Maybe partly,” Bautista told Verducci. “Part of me also thinks that he was looking for a fight.”

[…]

“I could have hit him,” Bautista said. “I could have hurt him. I chose not to. My cleats were down. I slid through the bag. Was it late? Yes, a hundred percent. But what can I do after they hit me? Should I ask my manager to let me pitch, which he is never going to let me do? Like, what am I supposed to do? Just sit there and take it?”

[…]

“I’ve been playing baseball for a long time,” Bautista said. “I know exactly what he was trying to do when he threw the ball. He tried a hundred percent to hit me in the face. And it’s not the first time he’s done it against me or some of my teammates. And there’s video to prove that.”

Bautista received a one-game suspension which was upheld upon review. Odor’s eight-game suspension was reduced to seven games which Bautista believes was “unfounded” and “unfair.”

What’s on Tap: Previewing Tuesday’s action

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 25: Starting pitcher Steven Matz #32 of the New York Mets works the first inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park on May 25, 2016 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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Welcome back to normalcy. Most of us were treated to a three-day holiday weekend for Memorial Day. Hopefully you spent it doing what makes you happy.

We have two afternoon starts today between the Astros and Diamondbacks, and the Padres and Mariners. The focus tonight will be on the fading White Sox, losers of seven consecutive games. They lost three out of four to the Indians, were swept by the Royals in heartbreaking fashion, and lost Monday’s series opener to the Mets behind seven shutout frames from the struggling Matt Harvey.

In tonight’s 7:05 game at Citi Field, the White Sox have to contend with Steven Matz, who has been nothing short of brilliant in eight starts this season. The lefty owns a 2.36 ERA with a 50/9 K/BB ratio in 49 2/3 innings. In a rotation that has heavy star power in Harvey, Noah Syndergaard, and Jacob deGrom, it’s easy to overlook Matz. Meanwhile, the White Sox will counter with Mat Latos. Latos got off to a great start, putting up a 0.74 ERA over his first four starts. In the five starts since, however, has a 7.09 ERA. The advanced stats made Latos’ fall to earth easy to predict — overall, he has a rather unimpressive 26/18 K/BB ratio — but he was giving the White Sox rotation longevity after Chris Sale and Jose Quintana.

The rest of Tuesday’s action…

Texas Rangers (Colby Lewis) @ Cleveland Indians (Corey Kluber), 6:10 PM EDT

Boston Red Sox (Eduardo Rodriguez) @ Baltimore Orioles (Kevin Gausman), 7:05 PM EDT

Washington Nationals (Joe Ross) @ Philadelphia Phillies (Aaron Nola), 7:05 PM EDT

New York Yankees (CC Sabathia) @ Toronto Blue Jays (J.A. Happ), 7:07 PM EDT

Pittsburgh Pirates (Gerrit Cole) @ Miami Marlins (Jose Fernandez), 7:10 PM EDT

San Francisco Giants (Jake Peavy) @ Atlanta Braves (Matt Wisler), 7:10 PM EDT

Los Angeles Dodgers (Scott Kazmir) @ Chicago Cubs (Jake Arrieta), 8:05 PM EDT

St. Louis Cardinals (Mike Leake) @ Milwaukee Brewers (Wily Peralta), 8:10 PM EDT

Tampa Bay Rays (Drew Smyly) @ Kansas City Royals (Dillon Gee), 8:15 PM EDT

Cincinnati Reds (Jon Moscot) @ Colorado Rockies (Jon Gray), 8:40 PM EDT

Detroit Tigers (Anibal Sanchez) @ Los Angeles Angels (Hector Santiago), 10:05 PM EDT

Minnesota Twins (Tyler Duffey) @ Oakland Athletics (Eric Surkamp), 10:05 PM EDT