June 2013

Why Storen’s scoreless inning mattered

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

Thursday night’s game featured two young aces, two home runs, two wall-crashing catches, a game-saving snag, a sacrifice squeeze and a small fire. So in the middle of all that, it would have been easy to miss (or see and eventually forget about) Drew Storen’s scoreless eighth inning.

Storen struck out the top of the D-backs lineup, setting down Gerardo Parra, Aaron Hill and Paul Goldschmidt in order with 15 pitches. Storen struck out the side for the first time all season, but that’s not what made his outing noteworthy. He also kept the game tied at 2, though that’s not what made it important.

Storen’s scoreless eighth inning mattered because for perhaps the first time all season, he pitched like a closer. He was nothing short of dominant, attacking the strike zone with four different pitches — including the changeup that he developed last season. He finished all three of his strikeouts with offspeed stuff: changeup, slider, changeup.

“When I got hurt last year, I told myself I had to work on a changeup because you see these guys and they make adjustments to you,” Storen said. “No matter how good your breaking ball is, if they’ve seen you a couple times, it’s not really going to do you a whole lot of good. So you’ve got to be able to have something else to throw in there and get somebody out with your fastball, and that’s been working out pretty well so far.”

One of the lasting images of the 2012 season is Storen sitting alone at his locker after blowing a save in Game 5 of the NLDS. His confidence was shaken, and he continued to struggle early in the season. After Thursday night, it looks like he might have turned a corner. He has not allowed an earned run in 14 of his past 15 appearances.

“He’s starting to pitch more instead of just throw, which he did for me in 2011,” manager Davey Johnson said. “He was good against both left and right [handed hitters], and this year I think coming back, starting a new role, he was just more interested in trying to overpower them.”

The Nationals have bolstered their bullpen with lefties Fernando Abad and Ian Krol, whose reliability as the season wears on could play a significant role in this team’s fate. But a confident, closer-ready Storen is the key. If he returns to old form, he will have a stabilizing effect on the bullpen and give Johnson some much-needed wiggle room late in the game.

After all, not everybody is cut out for high-pressure situations — like, for instance, the eighth inning of a tie game against one of the best teams in the National League. Storen, however, lives for it.

“I’ve always kind of thrived off that, I always enjoy pitching in those situations,” he said with a shrug. “I guess that’s a good thing to have.”

Anthony Rendon’s All-Star month

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

Anthony Rendon hasn’t been around long, and his name isn’t even on the All-Star ballot. Several other National League second baseman have more at-bats, more home runs, more experience and more name recognition.

But over the past three weeks, nobody has played more like an All-Star than Rendon.

The 23-year-old went 3-for-4 at the plate on Wednesday with two singles, one double and a towering fly ball that landed a few feet short of the left-field fence. Since being recalled by the Nationals on June 4, he is batting .392 with nine doubles and a game-winning home run. Since June 8, only one National League player — Mets third baseman David Wright — has more hits.

“He’s swung the bat like a veteran,” manager Davey Johnson said. “He’s hit every pitch that’s thrown up there at him. He’s got a quick bat and he’s aggressive, he hits all types of pitches.”

The biggest knock against Rendon is obviously his limited number of at-bats. He’s only played in 26 Major League games and his next at-bat will be his 100th at this level. His numbers, while stellar, could easily be indicative of a hot streak rather than a great hitter.

But if the All-Star game truly is about fielding the best player at each position in mid-July, can you completely write off Rendon? While his sample size might be small, Rendon has proven that he is as capable a hitter as anybody in the Nationals lineup. And while Brandon Phillips and Marco Scutaro are the two top vote-getters at the position so far, neither has been as valuable to his lineup over the past month as Rendon.

“Obviously hitting .350 or whatever, [he’s had] a pretty good effect,” third baseman Ryan Zimmerman said. “We all knew he could hit, and for him to play second base like he has with really no experience there… you really couldn’t ask for him to do any more than he’s done.”

Johnson has been impressed by Rendon’s poise and control at the plate, namely his ability to hit the ball to all parts of the field. While other young hitters have a tendency to pull the ball, Rendon has consistently recorded opposite-field hits and line drives up the middle.

He says he’s using the same approach that he’s used his whole life.

“The game hasn’t changed since I was a little kid,” he said. “[The] strike zone, plate’s still the same size. The bases might have gotten a little bit longer, but that’s pretty much it.”

Stretch out Rendon’s numbers as if he were here all season and the results are impressive. If Rendon maintained his current averages and had as many at-bats as leading vote-getter Phillips (287, or about 3.6 per game), he would lead National League second baseman in hits (106), doubles (30), batting average (.354), on-base percentage (.402) and slugging percentage (.485). He also would rank fifth in runs (36) and walks (24).

Could Rendon hit like this for three straight months? Probably not. Is there any chance that his fellow players will vote him onto the All-Star roster with only a month of Major League experience? Probably not.

But when you talk about Nationals and All-Stars, Rendon has at least earned a place in the conversation.

Rizzo believes Harper, Ramos will help offense

With the non-waiver Trade Deadline coming up on July 31, general manager Mike Rizzo said the Nationals’ top priority is getting outfielder Bryce Harper and catcher Wilson Ramos healthy and contributing to the offense, which is one of the lowest scoring in the Major Leagues.

Harper, who is on a rehab assignment with Class A Potomac, is expected to rejoin the Nationals next week against the Brewers. Ramos is close to a rehab assignment, according to manager Davey Johnson.

“We would like to see a big left-handed bat. His name is Harper and he is on the horizon,” Rizzo said.  “And we would like to get a hitting catcher named Ramos. He is on the horizon. And [we really want to] gauge and see what a fully healthy lineup looks like. Two of our main cogs have been out for an extended period. We haven’t had our lineup together since April 14. So we are getting players more and more healthy.

“Hopefully, everyone will be healthy at the same time. We’ll see what the lineup can do when we have all our players playing and everyone is starting to hit on all cylinders — really gauge where we are at.”

With right-hander Dan Haren on the 15-day disabled list, will the Nationals look for another starting pitcher before the deadline? Rizzo said the right-hander has to get healthy first.

“First of all, we have to get him healthy and see where he is at and we’ll evaluate a healthy Dan Haren and make our decision from there,” Rizzo said. “Like any other part of the roster, we want to see him at 100 percent, and I would gauge where we are at from there.”

LaRoche’s take on Tyler Moore’s demotion

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

With the myriad injuries that they’ve had this season, the Nationals have frequently had to ship players to and from the Minor Leagues. The team’s decision to option Tyler Moore to Triple-A Syracuse on Sunday night, however, had nothing to do with health.

 The 26-year-old first baseman and outfielder is one of the few guys in Washington who hasn’t had injury problems this year. But his problems at the plate, where the Nationals counted on him to be a key contributor off the bench, have been just as concerning.

Moore batted .158 (15-for-94) in 37 games with the Nationals, including just five doubles and two home runs. He was sent down in favor of first baseman Chris Marrero, another slugger who has simply had a better season so far.

“I’m not up here for my defense. I’m up here for my hitting, and I’m not doing it. There’s no excuses,” Moore said on Sunday night. “Stuff wasn’t falling like it usually does. I was striking out too much. I just had to make some adjustments, and I didn’t make them quick enough.”

Manager Davey Johnson said that his plan is to have Moore get regular at-bats at Syracuse and regain his confidence. And nobody understands Johnson’s thinking better than veteran first baseman Adam LaRoche, who has served as a mentor for the 26-year-old as he tries to find his footing.

“That’s the hardest thing, being a younger guy, getting sent down for the first time, it’s hard to see a positive in that,” LaRoche said. “We’ve all known it since he’s been up here that he’s an everyday player for a lot of people. He’s proved that in the minor leagues, what he can do with 500 or 600 at-bats, and he’s in a bad spot here. He just doesn’t get a lot of at-bats. You can’t expect a guy with not a lot of big-league time to be productive off the bench. It’s just too hard.”

“I hate it for him because I love having him in this clubhouse and I love having his bat and the fact that he can play outfield, play first base,” LaRoche continued. “Selfishly, it’d be nice to have him up here but there’s no doubt it’s the best thing for him.”