Set to close, Storen appreciates Nats’ confidence

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Another playoff disappointment put a damper on an otherwise strong 2014 for Drew Storen, but the Nationals right-hander hasn’t spent his offseason dwelling on it.

“It’s just part of it. You understand when you’ve been there before,” Storen said Saturday at NatsFest. “Tough taste in your mouth to end the year, but that’s what fuels you for the next. We have a great team coming into this year, and like I said, you just build off that experience more than anything else.”

Storen posted a 1.12 ERA during the regular season, took over as closer for Rafael Soriano in September and converted all 11 of his chances. Then came the National League Division Series, and for the second time in three years, Storen stumbled. He blew a save against the Giants in Game 2 and gave up a run in a shaky Game 3 outing.

But a few things have helped the 27-year-old ease his mind this offseason. For one thing, he’s been through this type of experience before and come back from it as strong as ever. For another, he got married and went on a relaxing, sun-filled honeymoon. And finally, he’s received vocal support from manager Matt Williams and general manager Mike Rizzo, with the latter telling reporters at last week’s Winter Meetings that, “We trust Drew,” and that Storen is “penciled into the ninth inning” for 2015.

“Any guy throwing late in the game wants to be the closer,” said Storen, who also saved 43 games for Washington in ‘11. “But I think more importantly, to have that vote of confidence from Matt and management, for me it’s great. It means a lot. But it doesn’t change my approach to anything, and I’m not going to go out there and do anything different than last year.”

Tyler Clippard and Matt Thornton do give the Nats other ninth-inning options, but they are both in line to become free agents after this season, one year earlier than Storen. At the same time, Storen also  understands “that things can change quickly.”

After he blew a save and took a loss in Game 5 of the ‘12 NLDS against the Cardinals, he saw Rizzo swoop in late to sign Soriano to a two-year deal in January ‘13. Soriano, now a free agent again, spent most of the next two seasons as closer.

“It doesn’t change my job whether they came out and said, ‘We’re going to do this, Plan A, B, or C.’ It doesn’t matter,” Storen said. “I still have to be ready and do my job. It doesn’t change too much, but like I said, it’s nice to have someone say positive comments about you.”

Closer or not, the most important thing for Storen has been his resurgence following a brief demotion to Triple-A in August ‘13. Since returning with a revamped delivery, he owns a 1.19 ERA, the lowest of any Major League pitcher with at least 50 innings over that span.

“It’s really just kind of simplifying things,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to go out there and do too much. Outings went by kind of quick, which is good. You go out there and attack guys and utilize the defense we had.”

Moore getting ready for one more chance

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON – Tyler Moore is well aware that this spring could be his last chance to stick with the Nationals, and he’s hoping that an offseason that included a productive stint in the Dominican Winter League will help his cause.

The soon-to-be 28-year-old first baseman/outfielder played a major part in the Nats’ 2012 division title run as a rookie, hitting 10 homers with an .840 OPS in 75 games, but has struggled over the past two years. Going back and forth between starting at Triple-A and mostly coming off the bench in the Majors, he’s produced eight homers and a .635 OPS over 105 games for Washington.

What’s forcing the issue this spring is that Moore is out of Minor League options. That means the Nats can’t send him down without passing him through waivers, which would give the other 29 teams a chance to claim him.

“This year’s kind of a crucial year for me, and I’m just ready for an opportunity,” Moore said. “I’m going to come in and help this team win, and we’ll see what happens.

“I’m out of options, and obviously they have to make a decision, and I feel like I can play for this team.”

Moore played 22 games in the Dominican Republic earlier this offseason with Toros del Este, hitting .299/.429/.584 with six homers. He found the experience valuable, he said, getting extra at-bats against quality pitching and working on his discipline at the plate.  It’s something he expects to have him more prepared for Spring Training than in years past.

“I really do, because I really hadn’t put the bat down since I got done playing,” Moore said. “Usually I put the bat down for three months and then pick it back up, but I just hit the other day. I feel good. Hopefully it continues on to the season.”

Still, Moore’s potential role is murky, even with first baseman Adam LaRoche leaving as a free agent. The outfield is full, and Ryan Zimmerman is expected to get the bulk of the playing time at first. Unlike LaRoche, Zimmerman is right-handed, meaning Moore wouldn’t fit as a platoon partner, and the Nats still could look to add to their bench through free agency.

Barring injuries, Moore likely would be looking at a pinch-hitting-heavy role, or he could get squeezed off the roster and find an opportunity somewhere else. But for now, he’s hoping things can work out in Washington.

“I feel like I need to come in and have a good consistent spring and play good baseball, and hopefully they’ll give me the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “We’ll see what happens.”

McLouth looking toward a better 2015

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON – It’s fair to say Nate McLouth’s first season with the Nationals didn’t go as planned, with the veteran outfielder struggling at the plate, then missing the final two months with a torn labrum in his right shoulder.

Now entering the final half of a two-year, $10.75 million deal — which includes a 2016 team option — McLouth is almost four months removed from surgery and is feeling stronger as he rehabs five days a week. He expects to be back at 100 percent by Spring Training.

“It’s doing better,” he said Saturday at NatsFest. “I’ve been rehabbing pretty much every day. It’s pretty monotonous, obviously, but it’s feeling much better. I saw the doctor yesterday here, and he said everything went good.”

The 33-year-old doesn’t believe any one incident caused his injury, calling it a “wear-and-tear type of thing.” However, it did get worse as the season went along, eventually forcing him to the disabled list. While he isn’t certain how much the issue affected him on the field, he acknowledged it was a factor.

In fact, McLouth never really got going, especially with the bat. After hitting a solid .258/.329/.399 with 12 home runs in ’13 for the Orioles, he got off to a 4-for-51 start for the Nats and wound up with a .173/.280/.237 line and one homer over 162 plate appearances.

While Washington expected the left-hander to receive significant playing time as a fourth outfielder, it didn’t always work out that way. And with all three starting outfielders coming back for ’15 – and youngsters like Steven Souza and Michael Taylor also expected to contend for spots – it could continue to be difficult for McLouth to establish himself with the Nats.

“Hopefully [I’ll get] some sort of consistent scheduled playing time,” he said. “I think there was a month [last season] where I had 10 at-bats, which is tough for anybody. It’s tough to do anything with that. Hopefully I’ll be able to get in there a little more.”

Nats’ Desmond, Rendon win Silver Slugger awards

By Bill Ladson

WASHINGTON — Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond and third baseman Anthony Rendon were the recipients of the 2014 National League Silver Slugger Award at their positions Thursday.

It’s the third consecutive year Desmond received the honor, while Rendon won his first award.

Both Demond and Rendon had solid seasons. The longest tenured member of the Nationals, Desmond got off to a slow start because of the flu, but he made up for lost time and was among the team leader in homers [24] and RBIs [91]. He has had three straight years of 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases in a season.

Rendon has performed like the club’s Most Valuable Player in his first full season with the Nationals, hitting .287 with 21 home runs and 83 RBIs. Not only has he done the job offensively, but he plays Gold Glove-caliber defense at third and second base. One would never know that Rendon is one of Washington’s best players based on his personality. After great games, Rendon is a man of few words. He sometimes tries to avoid the media. He would rather stay humble and credit God for his success.

Although he was one of the team’s best players, what impresses bench coach Randy Knorr is Rendon’s demeanor. No one can tell if Rendon is in a slump or on a hitting streak.

“It’s unbelievable,” Knorr said about Rendon. “For a young kid like that, the way he goes about his business, it’s incredible. He never gets excited, he is always laughing. He never gets excited. He is smiling, he is laughing. He has a good time, he has the ability — at a young age — to get past at-bats.”

No Gold Glove award for Span

By Bill Ladson

WASHINGTON – Nationals center fielder Denard Span said recently that winning the Gold Glove would mean the world to him, but he didn’t win the award Tuesday. Instead, it went to the Mets’ Juan Lagares.

Span is considered to be one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball. This past season, he played 147 games in center fielder and made four errors. It seemed like he always made a great running catch to save a game for Washington. In ’13, Span didn’t make an error, but the Gold Glove went to Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez.

The award is determined by a survey of managers and coaches, which make up 75 percent of the voting, and the Society for Sabermetric Reasearch, which accounts for the other 25 percent.

“I prepared myself for whatever happened,” Span said by phone . “I’m not surprised. Last year, I didn’t make any errors. This year I made four errors, so I didn’t win it last year making no errors. I guess I was prepared for what was ever going to happen.”

The Nationals recently picked up Span’s option worth $9 million and he already is talking about having a better year than this past season. He is arguably coming off the best year his career. He led the team in batting average and set career highs in hits [184] and stolen bases [31].

“I haven’t been an All-Star or an MVP or won a Gold Glove. There is a lot of room for improvement in every facet in my game,” Span said. “Even though I had a good year, I’m not satisfied with that. I want to be remembered as a great player. I’m going to continue to work hard. Every facet of my game can improve.”

Span’s option picked up by Nats

By Bill Ladson

WASHINGTON — To the surprise of no one, the Nationals picked up Denard Span’s $9 million option Thursday afternoon.

Span said general manager Mike Rizzo called to inform him that he would be back with the team in 2015. Had the Nationals declined the option, Span would have been given a buyout worth $500,000.

“I’ll be back,” Span said by telephone. “I’m very excited. I told Mike I’m excited to be coming back another year. I’m looking forward to working with the coaching staff and getting back with the guys and go on another run.”

Span is one of the reasons the Nationals won their second National League East title in three years. Besides being one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball, Span is one of the best leadoff hitters in the game. He was among the NL leaders in multi-hit games, hits, doubles and stolen bases. Span is a finalist to win his first Gold Glove Award this year.

Nats declined to exercise options on LaRoche, Soriano; Cabrera, Hairston, Schierholtz become free agents

By Bill Ladson

WASHINGTON — Nationals second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera and outfielders Scott Hairston and Nate Schierholtz are now free agents.

The Nationals also declined to exercise their options on first baseman Adam LaRoche and right-hander Rafael Soriano. None of the players are expected to be back with the team in 2015.

LaRoche reached the 90-RBI plateau for the fourth time in his career, but he is not coming back because the Nationals plan to put Ryan Zimmerman at first base. Recently, LaRoche said Zimmerman will be a quality first baseman.

“I think he is going to be an outstanding first baseman. I said that last year,” LaRoche said about Zimmerman. “He has one of the best gloves I’ve ever seen. He is an athlete. When the time comes, whether it’s next year or the following year or this postseason, he can handle that bag for sure.”

Soriano had a 6.48 ERA after the All-Star break. Soriano simply couldn’t keep his slider down in the strike zone and lost his closer’s job to Drew Storen

General manager Mike Rizzo decided to acquire Cabrera from the Indians before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. Cabrera provided steady defense at second, as Anthony Rendon shifted over to third base.

After coming from Cleveland, Cabrera expressed his desire to play shortstop, but after the Nationals were eliminated from the National League Division Series, he said he was willing to stay at second base. Going to the World Series is more important to him than playing shortstop. It is believed that the Nationals will not pay a lot of money to keep Cabrera.

Hairston and Schierholtz were part of the bench this past season. Hairston got off to a great start, but he tailed off dramatically starting in June and was taken off the roster during the NLDS.

As a pinch-hitter, Schierholtz ranks sixth among active players with at least 150 pinch-hit appearances. He started the season with the Cubs, but after getting released on Aug. 13, he signed a Minor League deal with the Nationals five days later. He made $5 million in 2014. It’s doubtful the Nationals will pay Schierholtz that kind of money in ’15, though he could be back on a Minor League deal.

 

A look at Doug Fister’s excellent season

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Doug Fister’s season didn’t begin until May 9, when he came off the disabled list and was hit hard during a start in Oakland.

It’s been smooth sailing ever since for the right-hander, acquired in an offseason trade with the Tigers. By throwing his second career shutout on Friday afternoon against the Marlins at  Nats Park, Fister surpassed the minimum number of innings needed to qualify for the National League leaderboard. He lowered his mark to 2.41, sixth-best in the Majors, behind Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Johnny Cueto, Felix Hernandez and Adam Wainwright.

With his regular season now over, Fister officially has smashed the Nationals ERA record, previously set by Gio Gonzalez’s 2.89 in 2012. While teammates Jordan Zimmermann (2.78) and Tanner Roark (2.85) also are in line to beat that mark, Fister put himself way ahead of the pace.

Here’s a look at some other numbers:

  • Fister became only the ninth pitcher this season to throw a shutout with no more than three hits, zero walks and at least nine strikeouts. For the Nats, Zimmermann also accomplished the feat on June 8 against the Padres.
  • The complete game was Fister’s first this season and the seventh of his career. His only other shutout came on Sept. 22, 2012 for Detroit.
  • The nine strikeouts were a season high.
  • Fister didn’t allow a walk for the ninth time in 25 starts. He walked no more than one 18 times, and walked as many as three only once. His rate of 1.3 walks per nine innings ranks fourth in the Majors and is a small fraction ahead of Zimmermann for the best in Nats history.
  • Fister almost always, at a minimum, kept the Nats in games this year. He went 18-for-25 in quality starts, going at least six innings 20 times and at least five innings in all but his debut. After that first start, he never allowed more than four earned runs.
  • Fister was particularly brilliant during a 10-start stretch from June 21 to Aug. 17, posting a 1.57 ERA and walking nine batters in 69 innings.
  • Over his last four seasons, Fister now owns a 3.11 ERA in 116 games (114 starts). That’s 11th in the Majors over that span among pitchers with at least 600 innings.

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Nats face tough decision with playoff rotation

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — One thing is clear for the Nationals when it comes to filling out their starting rotation for the postseason: There are no bad options.

Right-hander Tanner Roark tossed a solid 6 1/3 innings Tuesday against the Mets, earning his 15th win and lowering his ERA to 2.85, which puts him in the top 20 in the Majors. Yet there is a strong possibility that Roark won’t be among Washington’s four starters for the NL Division Series.

Manager Matt Williams has yet to announce anything regarding the playoff rotation, as each of his pitchers enjoys a strong finish.

“When they go out there, they compete,” he said. “It makes for tough decisions, but those are good tough decisions.”

Stephen Strasburg, treated as the staff ace all year, has a 1.34 ERA and 33-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his last five outings. Jordan Zimmermann, consistently effective for four straight seasons, has a 2.11 ERA during a streak of 11 straight quality starts. Doug Fister, who has a stellar postseason resume, owns a 2.55 ERA after three straight solid outings. Gio Gonzalez, the rotation’s only lefty, has come on strong with a 2.79 ERA while posting six straight quality starts.

Roark, meanwhile, has done absolutely nothing to lose his spot. Consistently dependable throughout the season, the 27-year-old owns a 2.54 ERA in 14 starts since July 13.

Yet with four more established, experienced options in play, Roark could be the odd man out. He’s also thrown 198 2/3 innings this season, easily his most as a professional, and could be an asset out of the bullpen. As a reliever for the Nats in 2013, he gave up three earned runs on 14 hits and struck out 19 in 22 2/3 innings.

“You’ve got to keep doing your job,” he said of the situation. “You go out there each day, work hard each day in between starts and go out there whenever your name is called. You can’t really think about it.”

The Nats have the luxury of enjoying rare rotation depth, with each of their five starters throwing at least 150 innings with an ERA+ of 100 or better (ERA+ adjusts ERA for league and ballpark, with 100 the average). The last team to do that in a season, according to Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index, was the 2011 Rangers. Only four clubs have accomplished the feat since 1991.

“All the guys we’ve got deserve that spot,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “I’m just glad it’s not my decision.”

Soon, the Nats will have the make the call. No matter what, someone will be rightfully disappointed, but Williams isn’t worried that will cause a problem.

“Of course they’ll understand,” he said. “At this point in the year, not everybody will like it, but everybody will understand. We’re all on the same end of the rope, and everybody must do their part to get where we want to get to.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

In unfamiliar one-out role, Detwiler, Stammen excel

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — For most of the season, Ross Detwiler and Craig Stammen have been long men out of the Nationals’ bullpen. It’s a role that almost always requires at least an inning of work and often asks for more.

But on Tuesday night, when Nats manager Matt Williams needed two outs to end the eighth inning, he called on Detwiler and Stammen for a batter apiece against the meat of the Braves’ lineup. With a two-run lead and a runner on, the left-handed Detwiler whiffed Freddie Freeman, and the right-handed Stammen did the same to Justin Upton. They passed the baton to Drew Storen, who worked a 1-2-3 ninth to lock down a 6-4 victory.

“Those two guys have been really our longer guys this year, and they came in and got the guys they had to get,” Williams said.

A starter for much of his career, Detwiler’s only other one-batter appearance came on Aug. 4, when he gave up a single to the Orioles’ Nick Markakis. Only three times in 41 outings had he pitched less than an inning.

Stammen has served as one of baseball’s most durable bullpen arms, leading all MLB relievers with 73 appearances of at least two innings since 2010. Until this week, he hadn’t made a one-batter appearance all season.

But with Storen at least temporarily taking over for Rafael Soriano at closer, the whole relief corps has been shuffled. Combined with an 11-man bullpen thanks to expanded rosters, Williams has the need and ability to alter his usual deployment of pitchers.

In Monday’s eighth inning, lefty Matt Thornton gave up a two-out RBI single to Freeman before Stammen preserved a one-run lead by retiring Upton. A day later, Detwiler got ahead of Freeman 0-2 before finishing him off with a rare curveball. That brought on Stammen for another confrontation with Upton in an unfamiliar role.

“It’s obviously harder to get more outs,” Stammen said. “What I’ve done most of the season is get six, seven, eight outs if I had to. Getting one out’s a little simpler, but you also know it’s do-or-die, so if you don’t get that guy out, it’s not like you get three or four other guys to try to get out. So you’ve just got to execute your pitches — nothing really changes — execute your pitchers and go back to what you’ve always done and be yourself.”

Stammen had worked Upton with sinkers on Monday, so this time he got ahead 0-2 with a pair of sliders, buried two more sliders in the dirt to even the count, then put the Atlanta cleanup hitter away with two sinkers.

His unusually short, but effective, night was over.

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

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