August 2013

Small mistake looms large in playoff push

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

The Nationals’ road to the playoffs is actually more like a tightrope. They have little room for error as they try to catch Arizona and Cincinnati in the Wild Card race, and every mistake over the next month will be magnified.

Such was the case on Friday, when the Mets scored the deciding run in a 3-2 ball game on a questionable throw and missed scoop.

In the top of the eighth inning with two outs and Daniel Murphy on second base, Andrew Brown hit a chopper to Ryan Zimmerman at third. Zimmerman, who has a team-high 19 errors this season, tried to make a difficult play and skipped a throw to first. First baseman Adam LaRoche couldn’t field the ball cleanly and Murphy ran around to score.

Given the situation, it probably would have been wise for Zimmerman to hold the ball. Though if LaRoche had been able to scoop the ball on an awkward hop, Murphy wouldn’t have scored and it probably wouldn’t have been a big issue.

“I’ll throw that every time,” Zimmerman said. “I got the ball clean and threw it. When I’m off-balance like that, I usually just bounce it. Rochie made a good play. I think the guy would’ve been safe. He came off the bag and unfortunately it took a funny hop and he couldn’t come up with it. But if he catches it clean, the guy’s out at home by a mile.”

Bench coach Randy Knorr, who took over for Davey Johnson in the fourth inning because the skipper was feeling light-headed, gave Murphy credit for rounding third base without hesitation. Shortstop Ian Desmond said that he trusts Zimmerman in that situation, regardless of his throwing woes this season.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Yeah, put it in your pocket,’” Desmond said. “But at the same time, that’s a big play if he makes that play. I’ll take my chances on Zim making that play every time.”

In a vacuum, Zimmerman’s decision to throw and LaRoche’s inability to field the ball were not major blunders. The game could have turned on a number of other plays. But given the situation — both the Reds and Diamondbacks also lost Friday, giving the Nationals a chance to gain ground — those small mistakes suddenly look much larger.

 

Randy Knorr questions Harper’s hustle

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

Bryce Harper has become one of the most popular players in baseball because of the intensity that he brings to every play. But with two on and two out in the eighth inning on Friday, that intensity was lacking.

Harper fouled a 3-0 pitch from left-hander Scott Rice before hitting a routine ground ball to second base. The All-Star’s jog to first base would have gone unnoticed, except for the fact that Daniel Murphy bobbled the ball. Harper was easily thrown out and slammed his helmet on the ground.

After the game, bench coach Randy Knorr questioned Harper’s effort on the play.

“The thing about Bryce right now that’s tough [is] he gets frustrated,” said Knorr, who took over for Davey Johnson in the fourth inning Friday when the skipper left the dugout with an illness. “I don’t think he does it intentionally, but he’s going to have to start picking it up a little bit, because we’ve got everybody else doing it. He gets frustrated at times, and it just comes out of him. It’s something we’ve got to fix.”

Harper, who missed 31 games with bursitis in his left knee earlier this season, said he was confident that Murphy would have thrown him out on the play.

“I mean, ground out to Murphy. He’s pretty good over there, so in that situation I think he makes that play every single day,” Harper said.

Knorr agreed that Harper would’ve been thrown out on the play, even with maximum effort. But the bench coach also said that play was indicative of a larger trend this season.

“[It’s] something that we’ve got to get to the bottom of and keep talking to him, because eventually we’re just going to have to take him out of the game,” Knorr said. “He’s been trying, but it just shows up at times. Like in that situation, he’s got a chance to tie the ballgame up or go ahead and he doesn’t get it done. He knows he’s out, and it just comes out of him.”

Ryan Zimmerman was running to second base at the time and had his back turned to Harper. While he couldn’t say whether the 20-year-old went all-out in that instant, Zimmerman said that Harper plays hard every game like everyone else. Ian Desmond saw the play from the dugout steps.

“I know that when he got 3-0 and he let it go, I know that takes a lot of guts in that situation, lefty-lefty. Those same guts are going to be what makes us give this final push in this last month,” Desmond said. “As far as the baserunning goes, it takes guts also to run out the ones that you think are going to be outs. He does it 95, 99, almost 100 percent of the time, and I think this one might’ve just got pointed out because the guy made a bobble or whatever.

“I mean, he’s 20 years old and I think he’s still dealing with some emotions of the game,” Desmond continued. “It’s hard to remember a lot of the time that he is 20. What most of us were doing at 20 wasn’t this.”

Aaron Boone’s take on Nats

Aaron Boone played one year for the Nationals, in 2008. However, he is best remembered for hitting the game-winning home run that helped Yankees win the 2003 American League pennant.

Now a baseball analyst for ESPN, Boone, 40, spoke with MLB.com on Friday about the 2013 Nationals and their chances of making the postseason.

MLB.com: What do you think of the Nationals’ latest run?

Aaron Boone: I think it’s too little, too late, but stranger things have happened over the last couple of seasons. Obviously, they are going to try to continue it at a lights out level during the final month of the season.

Obviously, you have to go on a 20-5 run, but then they need help from other teams. Those things have happened over time. No question. But they are still well behind at this point.

MLB.com: How surprised were you that the Nationals were inconsistent for most of the season?

Boone: I was. I thought, provided their pitching stayed healthy, it would carry them and [they'd] be in a position to win the division or at least get a wild card. [The pitching] hasn’t been as overwhelming as we anticipated. The bullpen is very average – at best. I think what has hurt them this year is that the bench hasn’t been very good. It seems they don’t have anybody they can plug in or step in during the course of the season. That adds up.

MLB.com: The overall offense hasn’t been good for most of the season.

Boone: I still think this offense is solid all around, but when your starting nine aren’t completely healthy and you don’t have pieces to plug in — they haven’t had a guy off the bench that’s had a big year for them, a person they can plug in for a week or two. There has been a really big drop off that I’ve noticed. Outside of the main core guys, they’ve had some struggles.

MLB.com: Do you think the Nationals made a mistake by letting lefty relievers like Tom Gorzelanny go?

Boone: When I looked at this team in Spring Training, … everyone felt like, well, their starting pitching is so good and then with [Tyler]Clippard, [Drew] Storen and [Craig] Stammen and adding Soriano in the back end, [the Nationals] have guys who can neutralize the lefties – how Clippard has been over his career [against lefties]. They thought they could get away with it. … I think going in, it’s the one area I thought they would have a concern, but I thought the overall strength of the bullpen would be able to counter it. It is something that has bit them a little bit.

MLB.com: What do you think about the way Jayson Werth has carried the Nationals the last two months?

Boone: It has been really awesome. He has been a beast. This is what they’ve signed him to do. You have to tip your cap for what he has done and what he has been able to put together. Obviously, he is right in the middle of being on a nice little run and giving them a fighter’s chance down the stretch.

MLB.com: How are things going with you health-wise?

Boone: I’m doing really well. I’m enjoying my gig. It’s a lot of fun to be able to cover game that I love and have a small part in the sport. It has been a blessed transition for me.

Tuesday’s lineup for Nats

Nationals
——————
1. Span–CF
2. Zimmerman–3B
3. Harper–LF
4. Werth–RF
5. Desmond–SS
6. LaRoche–1B
7. Ramos–C
8. Rendon–4
9. Ohlendorf–9

Harper homers despite having bad foot

KANSAS CITY — It looked like Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper was going to leave Sunday’s game against the Royals in the sixth inning after he fouled a ball off his left foot.

Harper was slow getting up, but he remained in the game and singled to left field in the same inning.

“In a situation like that, I want to stay in there. I want to get some knocks and try to win that ballgame,” Harper said.

An inning later, Harper’s foot was still “throbbing” when he hit a two-run homer of Ervin Santana to tie the score at 4.

“He gave me a pitch I could drive. I got something I could do with it,” Harper said.

During the 10-game road trip, Harper went 14-for-37 [.378] with one home run and six RBIs.

“I’m just trying to go out there and just try to have good [at-bats] and good things will happen,” he said.” I’m going to try to walk a little bit more, just try to get on base … and try to win some ballgames.”

DeRosa surprised by Nats’ disappointing season

NEW YORK — Blue Jays infielder Mark DeRosa said Tuesday that he is surprised the Nationals have been inconsistent this season.

Entering Tuesday’s action, the Nationals are 60-64, 16 games behind the Braves in the National League East and 10 ½ games behind the Reds in the second and final spot in the NL Wild Card race.

“As good as last year was, nothing is ever written in stone,” said DeRosa, who played on the 2012 Nationals. “But you get that vibe that it’s going to happen [for the Nationals] again. They are going to get on the track and they are going to roll toward the World Series [someday]. … The talent is there. Every season has a way of letting you know it’s not that easy.”

DeRosa didn’t play much for the Nationals last year because of injuries, but was a major influence on the young players such as Tyler Moore and Roger Bernadina. Both players credited DeRosa for their ability to be successful off the bench last year.

“I was a sounding board for a lot of guys. I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind, regardless of how poorly I played,” DeRosa said. “The same thing goes for Michael Morse, a guy who kept the clubhouse loose, a guy people enjoyed seeing. The same with Sean Burnett, the same with Tom Gorzelanny. These guys were significant pieces of the team.”

After the season ended, DeRosa, Morse, Gorzelanny, Burnett and Michael Gonzalez all left the Nationals. Asked who is missed the most, DeRosa said, “It’s a combination of all of us. To not have the lefties in the ‘pen to start the year was a situation that could haunt them. But they felt comfortable going out in getting [Rafael] Soriano and doing all those things. They have done an amazing job over there.

“I don’t want to say they took a step back. I still say that talent is there for them to win a World Series. But for whatever reason, it didn’t happen [this year].”

DeRosa is having a productive season off the bench, hitting seven home runs with 31 RBIs. He could become a free agent after the season if the Blue Jays don’t pick up his option.

“We haven’t discussed anything moving forward. I feel good. My wrist is healthy. I’m hitting the occasional home run. I’m doing my job, which is very rewarding. Last year, all I brought to the table was a voice and that was frustrating, but I did the best I could — given the circumstances,” DeRosa said.

Nationals manager Davey Johnson is planning to retire after this season. Would DeRosa be interested in the job?

“God, I haven’t even thought about that. You think Jayson Werth would listen to me? I don’t think so,” DeRosa said jokingly. “I’ve been asked that question quite a bit, but that’s down the road. I have to run it by my wife. She has been grinding it with me for so long that if I’m not going to play, I have to go home for a minute and be a dad.”

Wild weekend for Harper in Atlanta

ATLANTA — It was some kind of weekend for Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper at Turner Field.

On Friday against the Braves, Harper was hit twice by pitches and didn’t start the next game because of a left triceps injury, which occurred when he was hit by a Luis Avilan fastball.

“I really don’t want to comment on it,” Harper said on Sunday.

But right-hander Stephen Strasburg was able to get revenge for Harper on Saturday. Strasburg hit Justin Upton on the backside in the first inning after Jason Heyward’s leadoff home run, and warnings were issued to both benches.

Then with the Nationals leading, 4-1, Jordan Schafer led off the second inning and drew a walk. After that, Strasburg couldn’t throw a strike. With Andrelton Simmons at the plate, Strasburg threw three consecutive wild pitches, two of them behind Simmons’ back.

Home-plate umpire Marvin Hudson immediately threw Strasburg and manager Davey Johnson out of the game after the third wild pitch, which enabled Schafer to score.    Harper entered as a defensive replacement in the bottom of the ninth inning and played the rest of the game in left field, going 0-for-2 in the Nationals’ 8-7 win over the Braves in 15 innings.

In Washington’s 3-2 loss on Sunday, Harper went 2-for-4, but struck out to end the game. With a 1-2 count, Braves closer Craig Kimbrel threw a pitch and it appeared Harper checked his swing, but Hudson, the third-base umpire in this contest, said he swung at the pitch, ending the game. Harper was clearly upset and was arguing with the umpires until teammate Jayson Werth told Harper to walk away.

“The home-plate umpire [Wally Bell] said no three times. He doesn’t want to check,” Harper said. “They obviously check and they bang me. That’s one less pitch I see against [Kimbrel]. He is a great closer. Trying to see as many pitches [as I can] is huge.”

Throughout the weekend, Braves fans were jeering Harper. How did he feel about being the most hated member of the Nationals?

“I love these fans, I really do,” Harper said. “These people are absolutely unbelievable for their team. If I was playing for a team like this and a crowd like that, I’d be stoked to play every night, too.

“But I love playing in Nats Park, too. We have a great crowd, too. Going to Philly, going [to Atlanta], Fenway, New York, there are so many great crowds. This is a baseball organization that really loves the Braves.”

Taking stock of the Nats’ dwindling playoff hopes

By Andrew Simon

The Nationals saw a victory slip through their fingers in agonizing fashion on Thursday against the Giants, who snapped their five-game winning streak and put a damper on their flight to Atlanta for Friday’s series opener against the Braves.

On one hand, the Nats had righted themselves after a sweep by the Braves and closed their homestand on a 5-1 run. Catcher Kurt Suzuki felt the momentum was still there.

“We won two series in a row, going to Atlanta feeling good about ourselves,” he said. “Hey, you never know.”

With baseball, one never does know. Strange things happen. But at this point in the season, with the Nats clinging for dear life to the fringes of the playoff chase, every game takes on monumental importance. Washington can’t afford to have many more slip away.

Just how dire is the situation?

At 59-61, the Nats trail the Reds by 9 1/2 games and the D-backs by 3 1/2 for the second NL Wild Card spot (the Cardinals hold the first Wild Card and are only a half-game in front of Cincinnati). Odds calculated by Baseball Prospectus give the Nats a 1.7 percent chance to make the postseason, while the website coolstandings.com figures about the same, at 1.9 percent.

Of course, teams have come back from long odds before. Take the breathtaking 2011 season, which came down to the final day. The Rays’ playoff odds dipped as low as 0.5 percent on September 3, while the Cardinals’ chances fell to 1.1 percent on Aug. 27. Both teams stormed back to claim Wild Card berths, and St. Louis won the World Series. Even if it’s faint, there is hope.

If the Nats were to stage their own miraculous comeback, what would it look like? They have 42 games remaining, one more than the Reds. Putting aside the D-backs and assuming the Reds remain the team to catch for the second Wild Card, here are a handful of scenarios that would result in a tie:

Reds go 25-16 (.610)… Nats go 35-7 (.833)

Reds go 21-20 (.512) … Nats go 31-11 (.738)

Reds go 20-21 (.487) … Nats go 30-12 (.714)

Reds go 16-25 (.390)… Nats go 26-16 (.619)

There are several other factors to keep in mind as Washington tries to make this a reality.

  • The Nats still haven’t won more than five straight all season and they have only three four-game winning streaks. Their best 10-game stretch is 7-3, and they’ve done that only a few times.
  • They have limited chances to gain ground directly. Their season series with Cincinnati is finished. They do close their schedule with three against St. Louis and three against Arizona, games that could wind up being do or die.
  • They just finished a nine-game homestand, part of a stretch in which they played 20 of 25 at Nationals Park. That leaves them with 26 road games and only 16 home contests remaining, not good news for a club with a 23-32 road record.
  • They will need to take advantage of their 23 remaining games against the Mets, Phillies and Marlins, the three teams behind them in the division. The Nats are 20-14 so far in those season series. They also get four against the 52-68 Cubs. On the other hand, they’ll need to figure out a way to beat the Braves over six more meetings after starting 3-10 against them.
  • The Reds play 23 of their final 41 at home, where they are 37-21. About half of their remaining schedule is against teams with winning records, including four against the D-backs and seven against the Cardinals. The D-backs play 24 of 43 on the road, where they are 26-31, but have only 14 left against winning teams.

After Braves’ sweep, Nats’ pressure lifted

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

The Nationals entered 2013 with legitimate World Series aspirations, as well as the enormous pressure that comes with them.

With each loss, that pressure grew. The Nats pressed. The pressure grew. The season snowballed to the point of potential failure, a three-game series against the Braves last week. The pressure bottlenecked at that series, and when the Nationals were swept by Atlanta, extinguishing any hopes of a second straight National League East title, that pressure vanished.

The Nationals have won five straight since.

“Maybe we just said, ‘Screw it,’” Jayson Werth said. “We just got our [butts] kicked. What do we got to lose? It was definitely a flip that was switched. Hopefully it was the right one.”

After every brief winning streak this season, players were asked if this would be the streak to ignite their season. And after every ugly loss, they were asked if they had finally hit rock bottom. Tyler Clippard said that being swept by the Braves was finally it.

“This game, it kind of beats you down so bad at times that I feel like we hit rock bottom and we’re like, ‘All right, let’s just go out there and play and not worry about what’s going on and who is winning what games and focus on ourselves,’” he said. “Unfortunately we did lose three to the Braves, but it let us take a step back and be like, ‘All right guys, let’s just play baseball and see what happens.’ And that’s what we’re doing right now and it’s a lot more fun that way, these last five games.”

Manager Davey Johnson always says that baseball is 90 percent mental. Early in the season, he tried to build confidence in his bench and bullpen by using struggling players in important situations. He has shuffled the lineup to help hitters find a mental comfort zone. But when asked Wednesday if this winning streak was the result of lifted pressure, Johnson said the Nationals are simply playing better baseball.

“Throughout the lineup we’re swinging the bats better,” Johnson said. “Water seeks its level and sooner or later everybodys going to start getting hits with runners in scoring position. We’ve got too good of talent.”

Ramos’ hamstring strain not as bad as feared

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

WASHINGTON — After injuring his left hamstring for the third time this season on Tuesday night, Wilson Ramos was all smiles in the Nationals’ clubhouse on Wednesday. The strain was not as serious as the team feared, and Ramos said that he will only miss one or two games before returning to the lineup.

“[I’m] a little bit happy because it’s not too hurt,” Ramos said. “I felt a little bit yesterday sore in my hamstring but it’s not in the big part of the hamstring. It’s down in the hamstring, a little bit behind the knee.”

Ramos said that he felt the muscle tighten as soon as he left the batter’s box after hitting a ground ball in the fourth inning, but he knew right away that the strain wasn’t as bad as his previous tweaks. The 26-year-old said last month that he would not run full-speed on routine grounders, but when the ball deflected off pitcher Madison Bumgarner’s mitt, Ramos thought he could beat the throw to first.

“Next time for me, easy out,” Ramos said. “I’m not going to try to do too much, not anymore.”

Manager Davey Johnson said that is easier said than done.

“That’s easy to say, but as soon as you hits one where he thinks he’s got an infield hit, he’s going to go hard. That’s just human nature,” Johnson said. “I think it’s that first move coming out [of the batter’s box] that you’ve got to be careful with. Because you twist and then you’re jumping back.”

Ramos exited Tuesday’s game after the fourth inning, when the game was delayed for more than a hour because of rain. Had it not started raining, Ramos said that he likely would have tried to stay in the game.

“Thank God it was raining,” he said. “He took me out of the game.”

Ramos was left out of Wednesday’s lineup but could return on Thursday or Friday, when the team opens a three-game series in Atlanta. Johnson said that he wanted to see Ramos go through his normal pre-game routines before determining how many games the catcher would miss.

Despite Johnson’s concerns, Ramos said that he hopes to resume starting every day when he returns to the lineup. He said that the regularity has helped him get in a rhythm, both at the plate and behind it.

“I feel comfortable when I play every day,” Ramos said. “I feel strong, more consistent behind the plate or hitting. I saw the difference in this month. I threw a couple runners out. My arm feels good. I feel good behind the plate, calling games. I’m hitting well. I can see the difference when I play every day than every other day. That’s good for me. And hopefully I’ll be ready in two or three more days and then go keep playing like that.”

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