September 2012

Suzuki benefiting from hitting work with Eckstein

By Mike Fiammetta / MLB.com

WASHINGTON — For his first two weeks in a Nationals uniform, Kurt Suzuki’s role with his new team was one-dimensional. Manage the Nats’ young and talented pitching staff, and any offense that came with it would be considered a nice bonus.

After being traded to the Nats on Aug. 3, Suzuki batted just .180 (9-for-50) in his first 13 games. His work with the pitchers was fine, but eventually the Nats were going to want more offensive production from the bottom of their order.

“My job is to get the pitchers through the game and give us a chance to win,” Suzuki said. “Whatever I do offensively, I’m happy with, but when you contribute to both sides of the ball on the field, it definitely makes for a good game.”

Now, though, Suzuki has found his stroke at the plate and carries a six-game hitting streak into Monday’s series-opener with the Cubs. The 28-year-old backstop played a critical role in Sunday’s 4-3 series-clinching win over the Cardinals, going 2-for-3 with a solo home run in the fourth and an RBI-single in the sixth.

“Suzuki’s been good, he’s been swinging the bat better,” manager Davey Johnson said. “Today, he was outstanding. For some reason, I think he’s had pretty good success against [Cardinals starter Jake Westbrook]. He was 3-for-6 with a home run, and you could tell from that first at-bat with runners in scoring position. The ball hit him in both legs — he didn’t argue, he wanted to stay there and hit.”

Johnson has repeatedly credited Suzuki’s work with hitting coach Rick Eckstein this week, and did so again on Sunday.

“Well I thought when he first got here, he actually had a little bigger swing,” Johnson said. “He was kind of swinging up on the ball, a little longer swing. Eckstein’s done a good job.

“We had him in Cuba in the Olympic qualifier [in 2006] and he swung the bat really good there. We liked him a whole lot. I had both him [Red Sox catcher] Jarrod Saltalamacchia, and I liked Suzuki. He caught the last game over Saltalamacchia. So I liked him at an early age. He had a nice, short, quick stroke then, but when he came over, he was a little long. He’s getting back to it.”

With his quicker swing, Suzuki has went 8-for-19 (.421) with two home runs and five RBI over the course of the six-game hitting streak.

In addition, the adjustments have also made for a helpful approach that has helped Suzuki feel more free at the plate.

“That’s what we’ve really been doing, just take the effort out of the swing and just kind of be nice and easy, free and easy,” he said. “The less tension you have, you’re going to definitely be a lot quicker.”

Game 153: Cardinals at Nationals

Mike Fiammetta here, helping out Bill Ladson on the blog. The Nationals go for the series win against the Cardinals today at Nationals Park, where it’ll be Stephen Strasburg vs. Jake Westbrook. As always, follow along on Nationals.com throughout the game.

It was an awfully quite Nationals clubhouse this morning, understandable considering last night’s grueling 10-9 loss to the Cardinals. Unprovoked, Davey Johnson began his post-game meeting to the media with, “Well that had to be the longest nine-inning game I’ve ever been involved in.”

That sure wasn’t an understatement, as the three-hour, 29-minute game saw 24 hits between the two teams and a combined 11 pitchers used. Even a four-run first inning wasn’t enough for the Nats, who relinquished their lead after a four-run Cardinals fourth inning and again after St. Louis scored the go-ahead run in the top of the ninth.

Today, Strasburg looks to clinch the series for the Nats while making what should be one of this last two or three starts of the season. That was the number Johnson gave earlier in the week, and as inexact as it seems, the Nats have remained consistent with their approach to Strasburg. Johnson has said there is a plan in place, even if it hasn’t been disclosed to the media.

The good news for the Nats is that after exiting last night’s game in the ninth inning with hamstring cramps, Jayson Werth is back atop Washington’s lineup today. Adam LaRoche does get what appears to be a day off, though.

An update on Bryce Harper is coming in the notebook, and until then, here are the rest of today’s lineups.

Cardinals (72-61)

  1. Jon Jay CF
  2. Carlos Beltran RF
  3. Matt Holliday LF
  4. Allen Craig 1B
  5. David Freese 3B
  6. Bryan Anderson C
  7. Pete Kozma SS
  8. Daniel Descalso 2B
  9. Jake Westbrook RHP

Nationals (80-52)

  1. Jayson Werth RF
  2. Bryce Harper CF
  3. Ryan Zimmerman 3B
  4. Michael Morse LF
  5. Chad Tracy 1B
  6. Ian Desmond SS
  7. Danny Espinosa 2B
  8. Kurt Suzuki C
  9. Stephen Strasburg RHP

Johnson addresses Storen’s slower delivery after loss

By Mike Fiammetta / MLB.com

WASHINGTON — Drew Storen pitched more than one inning for the first time this season in Saturday’s 10-9 loss to the Cardinals.

Storen allowed one run on two hits and was tagged with the loss, dropping him to 1-1. Storen threw 19 of his 23 pitches for strikes, but his allowing Allen Craig to steal second base after a leadoff single in the ninth put the ultimate winning run in scoring position.

“He was slow to the plate last year, but this year — boy, he’s very deliberate,” manager Davey Johnson said. “I think he’s over two seconds on some of those deliveries. That cost him tonight.”

Being slow to the plate is an issue Johnson has addressed multiple times this season, noting the slower deliveries of particularly his younger pitchers. The Nats have allowed 132 stolen bases, 12th-most in the league, but their stolen bases-against percentage of .858 trails only the Pirates for the highest in the league.

“He’s got to quicken up just a little bit,” Johnson said of Storen. “With that move, anybody can steal. It seems to me last year, he was 1.5 [seconds]. I saw a couple of them today over two seconds.”

For his part, Storen didn’t recognize the issue, adding that he was OK with the pitches he threw.

“I don’t know,” Storen said when asked if he’s slower to the plate this season. “I’m concentrating on throwing good pitches. That’s something I need to work on and something, I guess, I need to make an adjustment on for next time.”

Werth exits with hamstring cramp, “hopefully it’ll be nothing”

By Mike Fiammetta / MLB.com

WASHINGTON — Jayson Werth exited Saturday’s 10-9 loss to the Cardinals prior to the ninth inning with a hamstring cramp.

With the score tied 9-9 as the Nationals took the field, Eury Perez — called up earlier in the day as rosters expanded to 40 players– made his Major League-debut in center field as Werth remained in the dugout. Werth finished the game 1-for-5 with one run scored and two strikeouts, lowering his batting average to .313.

Perez never got to bat, though he did field a fly ball for the final out of the ninth.

“It just felt intelligent not to play any longer, so [manager Davey Johnson] took me out,” Werth said. “It’s been a long time since I’ve cramped up during a game, so hopefully it’ll be nothing and I’ll be back by [Sunday], but we’ll see. I don’t think it’s too serious, though.”

Werth added it’s been “four or five years” since he’s cramped up during a game, but Johnson confirmed the issue wasn’t anything serious.

“He was cramping real bad,” he said. “He didn’t pull nothing, so he should be OK.”

Gonzalez’ gem powers Nationals to 3rd-straight win

By Mike Fiammetta / MLB.com

WASHINGTON — Eight innings into the first complete-game shutout of his career, Gio Gonzalez received a jolt of energy from one of the loudest Nationals Park crowds of the season.

Chants of “Let’s go Gio!” emanated from all corners of the stadium, keeping Gonzalez alive in the ninth despite surrendering a leadoff single and a walk two batters later. But then Shane Robinson came to the plate with two outs and launched a Gonzalez fastball — still hitting 94 MPH on the radar — high and harmlessly to Bryce Harper in center field. Harper hauled it in, rewarding the Nats and whatever the percentage of the crowd that stayed for the duration of the game despite a 10-0 blowout.

“It was kind of like having a Red Bull right there in the ninth,” Gonzalez said of the crowd’s chanting. “But when they were coming alive, I was just trying to do my best and try to pound that strike zone. Then I just came up with it, and [Kurt Suzuki] did a great job and made everything come out alive. The defense was unbelievable.”

Gonzalez was effusive with his praise afterward, lauding the Nats’ team defense and catcher Kurt Suzuki more than anything. He also thanked the 10 runs on 12 hits the offense supplied him, deadpanning, “10 runs is a pretty good cushion.”

The victory boosted his record to 17-7, tying him with R.A. Dickey and Johnny Cueto for the Major League-lead in wins. But perhaps more than anything, it continued the tremendous distance the Nats have placed between their current standing and the five-game losing streak earlier this week that muddied much of their strong play in August.

It all came with Gonzalez’ family in the stands, too, with his mother directly in his line of sight for the whole game.

“My Mom was right behind home plate, so imagine seeing [Suzuki’s] face, then the umpire and then my mom,” Gonzalez said. “So it was like, ‘Uh oh, can’t disappoint you, Ma.’ You can hear her every at-bat, ‘Swing! Do this!’ And I’m like, oh God, somebody keep her quiet over there.

“My dad disappeared, my dad was somewhere in the stands. Probably in left field or something. It was one of those things when you have your whole family here, you want to step it up and enjoy it.”

The Nats sure did enjoy it, and a lot of it was due to manager Davey Johnson, who kept Gonzalez in the game despite his reaching 119 pitches. With Major League rosters set to expand to 40 players tomorrow and significant alteration coming soon to the rotation once Stephen Strasburg is shut down, Johnson has been stretching his starters a little longer. Thursday night, Edwin Jackson tossed eight sterling shutout innings, giving up just four hits with 10 strikeouts and two walks while throwing 123 pitches.

“I had an 120-pitch limit on [Gonzalez] in a game like that,” Johnson said. “He took me right to the edge. If he walked [the last batter], I had [Ryan] Mattheus ready. But I might’ve let him go over my predetermined number. Otherwise, I’d have Gio hassling me all week. So, what a great effort.”

In actuality, the decision might not’ve been that difficult for Johnson. After Gonzalez said his manager would’ve had to “kill me first” before he’d leave the game, the 26-year-old lefty said Johnson teasingly pushed him back to the mound for the ninth inning.

Either way, Gonzalez was dealing from the start. Though he had only two strikeouts through three innings, Gonzalez got five of those nine outs on ground balls.

“His curveball was good early tonight,” Suzuki said. “Usually, it takes a little bit for him to get into a groove and get his curveball going. He was spotting his fastball, keeping it down in the zone, moving it in and out. You could just kind of see it from the beginning couple of innings.”

Gonzalez struck out four batters over the last three innings, enjoying 1-2-3 frames in the seventh and eighth after facing just four batters in the sixth. But when Robinson’s fly ball floated high toward center field on his 119th pitch, Gonzalez — satisfied but worn-out — just hoped the game would end.

“Catch it please, Bryce,” he said of his thoughts while the ball was in the air. “That’s all I had left in the tank. As soon as he caught it, I just stood there, closed my eyes for a second, or probably not. Then I gave Suzuki a big smile and a big handshake, a thank you. It’s a great win for us all.”

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