By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter
When the Nationals fired Rick Eckstein last week, several veterans said that a new hitting coach wouldn’t amount to much change. When you reach the big leagues, as Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond explained, you’re pretty much set in your ways at the plate.
But after belting his second home run in as many days on Sunday, Denard Span said that new hitting coach Rick Schu has already made a noticeable difference in his swing. Span, who is having one of the worst offensive seasons of his career, said that he’s been working regularly with Schu in the batting cage. Schu suggested changing where Span’s hands are on the bat and getting more rhythm in his swing.
Since Schu’s arrival, Span is 7-for-25 (.280) with two home runs, five RBI and four runs scored.
“Just simplifying it, trying to get a little rhythm in my swing,” Span said. “All year I’ve kind of been jumpy and choppy at the plate, starting and stopping and all that, so just getting a little bit more flow.”
Span said that Schu’s term for the change is “fluididty.”
“You’ll have to ask him about that,” Span said, smiling. “He made that word up. But you know, it’s been good so far.”
While Span doesn’t feel like he’s being any more aggressive at the plate, manager Davey Johnson said that he’s seen a change in Span’s approach since the center fielder moved out of the leadoff spot and into the lower part of the lineup.
“I think in the leadoff spot, you kind of want to make the pitcher work a lot, helps all the hitters behind you,” Johnson said. “But I think your on-base percentage always goes up when you show a pitcher you’re going to hammer something when he tries to get something down the middle early and get ahead. He’s been more aggressive on balls that are pretty much down the middle. He’ll still take the borderline pitches, but I like his approach. And he’s actually making contact out front more than even with it and rolling over. So that’s great.”
General manager Mike Rizzo spoke to the local media Saturday and talked about Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and the Nationals.
On why the Nationals sent Drew Storen to the Minors?
Rizzo: We felt that he was struggling, struggling with his mechanics, with his tempo with his delivery, with his arm slot, and we felt that we would do him better by letting him go down in a less stressful situation, work on his mechanics, get it fixed and get back up here and help us.
What Storen needs to do to get back to the Major Leagues?:
Rizzo: I think he needs to … I think it’s a mechanical situation to where he needs to revert back to where he was when we drafted him, where he was in ’11, but mechanically and tempo-wise and arm slot and everything, clear his mind, come back with a fresh, clear mind and be able to help us.
How did Storen take the news?
Rizzo: He took it hard like a lot of guys that have established themselves in the big leagues take it. I had a long conversation with him today and it was a very good conversation. I explained to him our rationale for it and that he’s a huge part of this organization and he’s going to be for a long time and just need to get him right. It’s very difficult, especially for a reliever, to tweak your delivery and get your delivery back in sync when you’re in a competitive situation at the big league level trying to win games. We feel that sending him down there, getting him in a less stressful situation, getting him with Spin Williams and Greg Booker, who’ve had him before, had him when he’s been extremely successful, I think it will benefit him.
“I think that he’s performed admirably in ’11, he hurt his arm in ’12 and had surgery. He was slow to recover from that and come back from that, and this year, I think that he was at a point where his arm was finally back to health and his mechanics went away from him. He has to get back to what made him successful – leveraging the baseball downhill, getting movement on his stuff and commanding the baseball much better. To me, the velocity is back to where it was pre-injury, pre-surgery, and now he needs to get back to the deliver, the tempo and the command of the stuff.
Did Rafael Soriano affect Storen mentally?
Rizzo: When you add a player like Rafael Soriano, we felt like we were strengthening a strength. We feel that we had a shutdown back-of-the-game bullpen that would shorten the games for our starters. We felt like that would give us great depth. All the things that we talked about at the beginning of the season. There’s been a lot of closers that started off as set-up guys and the case was we had three guys who had closer’s experience that we felt could finish off games and we felt the back-end of the bullpen was as good as anybody’s.
Please answer the question. Did it affect Storen mentally?
Rizzo: I don’t see the reason why it should’ve. He’s a mentally-strong person with good stuff and a guy that we’re getting an established closer with a great track record and we felt there was another guy that added depth and power to the end of the bullpen.
What was your reaction to Clippard’s comments?
Rizzo: I talked to Clip also, and we’ve got an open-door policy here. His opinion means a lot to me. I disagree with his assessment of the situation, but you fight to the death to let them speak their mind and say what they want. And that’s what makes these guys what they are on the mound. You’ve got to have a certain type of attitude and makeup to pitch in the latter-end of these games. They’re a competitive bunch, and the one thing I’ve never shied away from is when we have a discussion, we have it man-to-man, eye-to-eye, and I certainly can take his opinion. Like I said, I don’t agree with it, but I commend him for having a strong opinion on it.
Did you decide to send Storen down before the doubleheader?
Rizzo: We made it before. We knew we were going to have to make a roster move after the 26th man and we felt that with his struggles with his delivery and that type of thing, that we were going to give him this opportunity to go back to the minors and figure things out.
Are you looking for a starting pitcher before the deadline?
Rizzo: Well you know we’ve got a lot of trade discussions. We’ve received calls, we’ve made calls. I’m not going to go much more into it than that other than we’re going to do what we do at every trade deadline. We’re going to try to improve this ballclub for 2013 and beyond.
What are the areas of improvement?
Rizzo: You can just press your recorder on this, it’s the same assessment that we’ve had for the last month or so. We feel good about our core players and we feel that we’re solid at our position players, we like our rotation, we like our bullpen arms. If we could tweak or improve certain spots on the bench, I think that would be one place that we would attack. But we’ve got ourselves a pretty talented group of guys that we’re committed to and we like where we’re at.
Is there more weight on next year or this year?
Rizzo: Well we’re going to stay consistent with the same thought process we’ve had since 2009. We’re always worried about this year and beyond. We never make decisions based on the current season alone, so that hasn’t changed since I’ve taken over as GM. We’re always thinking about this year, improving ourselves this year, but when we improve ourselves this year it will be this year and beyond.
On Taylor Jordan’s innings limit
Rizzo: Well, we’ve got parameters in mind for Taylor Jordan and when we feel that he’s done pitching, we’re going to shut him down.
Are you committed to all eight starting position players?
We’ve got a good core of position players, starting rotation and bullpen, and we’re committed to 25 guys right now. We’ve got a good, young core of players and we’re committed to them.
Are you planning any splashy moves?
Rizzo: I still feel the same way. Like I said, things haven’t changed since we spoke on the trade deadline last and things haven’t changed.
Why are the Nationals inconsistent?
Rizzo: We’re in the midst of trying to assess that. I think we still have two months to figure it out and we’ll assess it throughout the rest of the season and come up with a battle plan in the offseason to try and remedy that. We still have a lot of baseball left, and we’re looking forward to that and like I said, I still like this ballclub. I still believe in it.
What is your relationship with Davey Johnson?
Rizzo: I think it’s great. I love Davey and respect him, and I think he feels the same way.
On Ross Ohlendorf in the fifth spot of the rotation.
Rizzo: Yeah, he’s certainly an option for us in the rotation.
What the story on Christian Garcia?
Rizzo: Yeah, he’s rehabbing his hamstring injury.
Is Garcia out for a while?
Rizzo: Well, no. We’re planning on him being able to pitch sometime this year. I don’t know exactly where he’s at with his rehab, but certainly the hamstring set him back because he was just about ready to be activated off the DL.
Is there any chance Davey won’t be the manager by the end of the season?
Rizzo: There is no chance that he won’t be the manager until the end of the season.
What do you think of Randy Knorr?
Rizzo: Well Randy is a guy that I’ve had great respect for a long time. I think that he’s certainly a manager-caliber, he’s a manager candidate and he has a lot of manager capabilities and we love having him on the staff.
Will Knorr be considered the next manager?
Rizzo: He’s certainly a manager-caliber bench coach at this point.
What are the plans for Jordan in 2014?
Rizzo: Well I think he’s going to get every opportunity to be in the mix for the rotation next year, certainly. He’s pitched extremely well, I like his stuff, I like his demeanor on the mound, he shows poise of a major league pitcher and has the stuff for it.
Are you surprised by what Jordan has done in the big leagues?
Rizzo: No, I’m not surprised at all. We knew what we had with him, that’s why we got his feet wet in some major league spring training games this spring, and he was a guy we liked extremely a lot out of the draft and then of course got sidetracked by that injury.
By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter
It took 105 games, but Nationals center fielder Denard Span finally hit a home run in Saturday’s 4-1 victory over the Mets.
After Ian Desmond hit a two-out bomb in the second inning, Span followed with a homer of his own on the very next pitch. The ball flew high into the air and barely cleared the right field wall.
“He swung at the first pitch. We all about fell out on the bench,” manager Davey Johnson joked.
Johnson said that batting Span seventh has allowed the center fielder to be more aggressive at the plate, and Span agreed. He said that instead of taking pitches and getting a feel for the opposing pitcher, he can instead concentrate on getting a good pitch and putting it in play.
“By the time I get up there, I’ve already seen six guys hit,” Span explained. “So, I already have a good idea of what that pitcher’s doing. When I get up there, if they’re going to throw me a first-pitch fastball, I’m going to swing. It’s different when I’m leading off, I try to see as many pitches as possible but hitting seventh there’s really no rules.”
As Span’s home run cleared the wall, he cruised around the bases, basking in the glory of his first home run in 422 plate appearances this season.
“Felt good to get the monkey off my back,” he said, smiling. “It hasn’t taken this long to hit a home run in a while. Probably since A-ball. But it felt good.
“My home run trot was definitely a little rusty. I think I stutter-stepped around third. I was just trying not to fall.”
Span touched home plate and jogged to the dugout, where he exchanged some emphatic high fives with teammates.
“Denard’s got some pop, so it was good to see him do that,” Bryce Harper said. “Hopefully he doesn’t get too cocky and stay a little humble.”
“I tell you what, after hitting one today it felt like I might hit 30 for the rest of the season,” Span said jokingly. “So you guys watch out for me.”
By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter
The Nationals optioned Drew Storen to Triple-A Syracuse after Friday’s doubleheader, and Storen’s close friend — and former roommate — Tyler Clippard had some strong words on the move. Here’s what he said, in its entirety:
“It’s tough. I mean, he’s done a lot this year as far as he’s worked hard, tried to get out of this funk. It kind of snowballed on him there to get to this point. It’s just unfortunate. I think there’s a lot of things that led to this that could’ve been prevented. You know, you basically send a guy a message this offseason for having one bad game that he’s not the guy for the job. He’s only human, you know? I mean, it’s going to get to anybody. He hasn’t had to deal with a lot of adversity. He’s came up and had unbelievable stuff. He had success right away. Came in last year, coming off of a surgery, and pitched huge games for us in a 98 win season. Picked me up when I was struggling in September. Picked our team up in the playoffs. Had one bad game. You know, eight months later, you get to a point where he’s struggling and you turn the page on him, you know, you send him down. It’s not necessarily turning the page on him because I think he needs to go down and regroup, and get out of this environment, take a deep breath and regather himself. So I think it’s going to help him. I just think it’s been handled very poorly. And it could’ve gone either way. I know the same message was sent to me. And I’ve been through adversity in my career, you know? So I know how to handle it. So, you know, this is a tough day. He’s going to be part of this organization for a long time, I hope, because he’s good. And we need him. But if he goes somewhere else, he’s going to be great for them, you know? So it’s one of those things that I think was handled very poorly by the organization but at the same time, that’s the decision that was made and we have to move forward as a team. We have great guys in this locker room that are going to get it done. We’re going to make a playoff push at the end of the season, I have no doubt about that. But this is a tough day.”
Clippard, who was visibly emotional, was then asked why this move is so tough for him.
“It’s multiple reasons, yeah. Obviously me and Drew are close. We’re good friends. But at the end of the day, you’d like to think that there’s a human element involved in this whole thing and I think there was on both sides of it. I can understand, you know, after the devastation that happened last year, maybe trying to make a change and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to bring in somebody that we think can get it done in that big situation.’ It’s just the wrong message to send, I think. But at the end of the day, that’s what happened and that’s where we’re at. So it’s up to me, it’s up to Drew, it’s up to everyone in this locker room to kind of pick ourselves up and move forward. And that’s what we have to do, we have no choice. That’s what this game’s all about. So, this is part of it. There’s definitely human element involved in both sides of it and I can understand that.”
On Friday morning, Nationals manager Davey Johnson announced that reliever Drew Storen had the flu and needed to dramatically recover from the illness in order to play in the day-night doubleheader against the Mets.
But in the top of the ninth inning of the first game, Storen entered the game with one out in the ninth inning and was hit hard, allowing three runs in two-thirds of an inning during an 11-0 loss to New York. The biggest blow came when Ike Davis hit the first pitch for a three-run homer.
Why did Johnson bring in Storen even though he was sick?
“Well, he got to feeling a little better,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “Had to use him. Tried to get by with Ryan Mattheus, but [it] took him as many pitches as he could throw without taking a chance on hurting him. He had a new look, saw this new look. High leg-kick. Just left the ball up. That’s all.”
But according to two baseball sources, Storen was still under the weather when he entered the game in the ninth inning. Johnson informed the media that bullpen coach Jimmy Lett informed the skipper that Storen was feeling better.
“I know Drew is not feeling very well,” teammate Ryan Mattheus said. “That’s just tough, but I bet if you ask him, he would take the ball again. He is a tough kid. You have to commend him for going out there.”
Storen is having the worst year of his career. In 47 games, he is 3-2 with a 5.95 ERA. He was Washington’s closer until this offseason when the team acquired right-hander Rafael Soriano this offseason.
By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter
One of the Nationals’ most controversial managerial decisions of the season occurred in the ninth inning of Thursday’s win against the Pirates. And manager Davey Johnson wasn’t the one who made it.
After Johnson was ejected in the fifth inning, bench coach Randy Knorr assumed the team’s managerial duties and decided to remove closer Rafael Soriano from the game in the ninth. Knorr put in rookie Ian Krol, who walked Pedro Alvarez, struck out Jose Tabata and then allowed a two-run single that tied the game.
“In the past, I’ve seen [Soriano] pitch and when it’s not a save opportunity, he doesn’t have the same effect when he’s pitching,” Knorr explained. “He wasn’t throwing the ball over the plate and a couple lefties were coming up. I like the way Krol throws the ball. Figured if you don’t want to be in that mode to shut the game down, I’ll bring somebody else in.”
When asked Friday morning if he agreed with Knorr’s decision, Johnson said that he didn’t know.
“I know I was watching in my office, and I don’t try to control things from my office. Once I get ejected, I’m done,” Johnson said. “I [would] want to see it coming out of his hand and the way hitters are reacting. But, a good baseball man trusts whatever they do.”
Friday’s ninth inning marked the first time that Soriano has pitched less than one inning all season, but Johnson doesn’t think that will affect him.
“No, I mean, he’s a professional,” he said. “Strange things happen in a baseball season. He’s been hooked before.”
By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter
As the Nationals returned from the All-Star break and the losses began to pile up, Steve Lombardozzi waited patiently for his opportunity to make an impact. On Thursday, he got it.
The 24-year-old spelled Anthony Rendon at second base in the Nationals’ series-finale against the Pirates and went 3-for-5 at the plate with two doubles, two runs scored, and one RBI. He also made a few big defensive plays, leaving his imprint in every aspect of Washington’s 9-7 walk-off win.
“That’s why I play this game,” he said. “I want to get in there and give this team a boost, get some energy and try and give us a spark. And I was able to do that today. It was a fun win, and a big one.”
Since the day that he first joined the Nationals in September 2011, Lombardozzi has more or less been a bench player. He has played three positions this season and pinch-hit 34 times. And after filling in for an injured Danny Espinosa in May, he hasn’t had consistent playing time all season.
“You want to help, so I cheer from the bench when I’m not playing,” Lombardozzi said, “but it’s good to get in there and pick these guys up a bit and get them going.”
Lombardozzi’s bunt single in the first inning helped the Nationals get on the board early, and his ground-rule double to left field in the eighth inning scored Roger Bernadina, the first of three much-needed insurance runs.
“Lombo’s unbelievable,” Bryce Harper, who won the game with a two-run homer in the ninth, said. “He’s an unbelievable player, he has been since the first time I met him in the fall league. He can play second base like no other and he can swing it. He’s a .300 hitter and I really believe he’s going to help us down the stretch. He’s a great ballplayer.”
Lombardozzi wasn’t sure that he would even be playing in Thursday’s game until a few hours before first pitch. Ian Desmond missed Wednesday’s game with a blister on his hand, and when he was a late addition to the lineup on Thursday, Lombardozzi thought he would go back to the bench. Instead, manager Davey Johnson decided to rest Rendon and give Lombardozzi a rare day of multiple at-bats.
“It’s a whole different ball game when you get a start, know you’re going to get 3, 4, 5 at-bats,” Lombardozzi said. “So it’s a completely different mindset, and again it’s fun to get out there and compete.”
By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter
Trailing 4-2 with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning against the Pirates on Wednesday night, Wilson Ramos stood on first base. Denard Span hit a chopper to second baseman Neil Walker, and then things got interesting.
Walker lunged to tag Ramos, who appeared to shift out of the way, and then threw the ball to first base to complete the double play. Umpire Laz Diaz ruled that Walker had tagged Ramos, so the game was over. Video replays showed that Walker’s tag missed Ramos. Manager Davey Johnson went out to argue the call, but his efforts were unsuccessful.
Diaz was unavailable for comment after the game, but here’s what some of those involved had to say:
Ramos: “Not even close. He never tagged me. … I don’t know, maybe he want to go home.”
Span: “He didn’t tag him, from what I saw. Neil Walker charged the ball, tried to tag him, and when he didn’t tag him, you can even tell by the way his effort was to even throw it to first, he was just trying to get an out with me. It was not even close, and that’s too bad that Laz missed it.”
Johnson: “[Diaz] said he saw the tag. I said, ‘Were you in position to see the tag?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I saw it.’ … I asked Mike Winters, ‘How about you?’ He said, ‘I didn’t see it.’ Wasn’t in position.”
Ramos: “He told me, ‘He tagged you. I don’t hear, but I saw it.’ I said, ‘Sure, you didn’t see anything. Not even close.’”
Johnson: “It’s almost a guess play.”
Span: “It’s no secret that the ball definitely isn’t bouncing our way. That wasn’t the story of the game tonight, but anything could’ve happened if that play isn’t called there.”
By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter
Lost in the Nationals’ 5-1 defeat against the Pirates on Tuesday night was news that reliever Ryan Mattheus, who has been out since May after breaking his hand while punching a locker, will in all likelihood return to the team on Friday, according to manager Davey Johnson.
The Nationals are allowed to add a 26th man to the roster for their doubleheader against the Mets, and Johnson said that it will be Mattheus. But what the team decides to do after the game will be far more interesting.
Johnson has finally reached a level of comfort with his bullpen. He has regularly praised left-handers Fernando Abad and Ian Krol, as well as long reliever Ross Ohlendorf. But when Mattheus returns, someone will have to go. Here are a few of the possibilities:
Taylor Jordan: After Tuesday night’s start, Johnson said that Jordan had earned a spot in the rotation. The 24-year-old is 0-3, but he has a 3.68 ERA through five starts and has improved every time out. The problem is that after undergoing Tommy John surgery in Sept. 2011, he is also on an innings-limit. General manager Mike Rizzo refused to specify how many innings Jordan has left, but the Nationals might decide to let him reach that limit at Double-A Harrisburg. They could then slide Ohlendorf into Jordan’s spot in the rotation while Ross Detwiler continues to rehab a stiff back.
Krol: Krol, like Jordan, has absolutely earned his spot on the big league club. He has allowed just four earned runs in 16 1/3 innings of work with a 2.20 ERA. But like Jordan, he is young (22 years old) and would not be distraught by a return trip to the Minors. Johnson loves having two lefties out of the ‘pen, but if for whatever reason he decides that he can make do with one, the Nationals might opt to demote Krol rather than risk losing 27-year-old Abad.
Drew Storen: This is the most unlikely option of them all, as 25-year-olds with closer experience are incredibly hard to find. But if Rizzo and Johnson decide that they want to add a left-handed bat off the bench before the July 31 trade deadline, Storen is one of the few movable pieces that could help them make that happen. He’s been rattled for much of this season, but he still has the upside and youth that make him a valuable bargaining chip.
By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter
With the Nationals’ 6-5 loss to Pittsburgh on Monday, right-hander Dan Haren fell to 4-11 on the season. His ERA is among the highest in the National League. He hasn’t won a game since May 9.
The reason? Simple: Haren is getting beat by the long ball.
He gave up a pair of two-run homers to Andrew McCutchen in Monday’s loss, one in the first inning and another in the third. He has now allowed 21 home runs in 18 starts, a career-worst average of 1.93 dingers per nine innings. His previous worst was 1.4 per nine innings.
“That’s kind of been the story of the year for me: Every mistake I’ve made, I’ve paid the price for it,” he said. “If I could take those two pitches back, things would be a lot different. But the fact of the matter is I can’t.”
Haren has watched more balls clear the fence this season than all but four Major League starters, and he’s already surpassed his home run allowance for the entire 2011 season (20). Of his 63 earned runs this season, 33 have come on home runs.
But if you forget about his astronomical home run numbers for a minute, Haren actually isn’t having that bad of a season. He’s striking out more batters than usual, and walking fewer. In fact, if Haren was allowing a career-norm 1.1 homers per nine innings this season instead of 1.93, he would have given up 12 homers instead of 21. His ERA would probably be in the mid-fours instead of the high-fives.
“I’m able to get strikeouts, I’m not walking too many guys, but the home runs have just killed me,” he said. “A very high percentage of the runs I’ve given up this year have been from the home run. Just not able to minimize it. When I’ve been successful this year, I’ve been able to keep the ball down and get the ball on the ground, but [I’m] just giving up way too many home runs.”