August 2013

Are the Nats playing better baseball?

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

As the All-Star break passed and the losses continued to pile up, some Nationals players insisted that they were beginning to play better baseball. Even when they were swept by the Braves last week, they said that it was not for a lack of quality play. They could’ve played better, but they were no longer playing poorly. The team was taking steps in the right direction.

In the past four games, that improvement has translated into wins. And it got me thinking: Have the Nationals actually been playing better baseball?

I’m no Math major or statistics whiz, so the following analysis isn’t very advanced. But it does paint an interesting picture of the season.

The Nationals have been a disappointment this year — that much is perfectly clear — and yet they have quietly been improving with each passing month. Errors and earned runs are down, and runs and hits are up. And though we’re not even halfway through August yet, it’s shaping up to be the best month of the season.

April

May

June

July

August

Hits per game

7.59

7.57

8.31

8.48

9.1

Batting Avg.

.234

.230

.244

.255

.277

Runs per game

3.56

3.46

3.92

3.93

4.5

ER per game

3.74

3.29

3.46

4.37

2.7

Errors per game XXXX

0.89

0.57

0.73

0.56

0.5

Record

13-14 XXXX

15-13 XXXX

13-13 XXXX

11-16 XXXX

16-11* XX

*Record projection based on current winning percentage

Say what you will about the 2013 Nationals, but based on these numbers, they’re not giving up. There’s still a large chunk of the season remaining, and they’re only getting better.

Which Nats players could go after 2013?

After the 2013 season comes to an end, the Nationals are likely to make changes  to improve the club for next season. Here are the current Nationals who may not be with the club next year.       

OF Roger Bernadina: As one person put it, “[Bernadina] has been a disappointment this year.” He not only has problems swinging the bat, but Bernadina has made some fundamental mistakes on the bases. As one evaluator put it, “[general manager Mike] Rizzo has never been a fan of Bernadina’s.”

Bernadina is arbration eligible after this season and there is a good chance he will be non-tendered.

2B Danny Espinosa: Shoulder and wrist injuries are the reasons Espinosa is having his worst year in 2013.  If he comes back to the big leagues for Washington, he most likely will be a reserve. He could be an everyday player elsewhere. He must cut down on the strikeouts to become an everyday player again.

RHP Dan Haren: Despite pitching well in the last month or so, Haren doesn’t think he will be back with the Nationals next year because of the season he has had, overall. He is 7-11 with a 4.99 ERA in 21 starts. The Nationals signed him to a one-year, $13 million deal to be one of their five starters this year.

1B Adam LaRoche: Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman is arguably having his worst year defensively, with a team-leading 17 errors. But that number doesn’t tell the whole story. He is still having throwing issues because of the surgery he had on his right shoulder. In fact in early June, Zimmerman said he expects the shoulder to be in rehab mode for the rest of the season, but it will not keep him out of the lineup. It would not be surprising if the Nationals decided to move Zimmerman from third to first base as early as September. That could mean trading LaRoche to make room for Zimmerman at the position.

OF Denard Span: The Nationals thought he would be their ideal leadoff man after they acquired him from the Twins for pitching prospect Alex Meyer. Entering Tuesday’s action against the Giants, Span is hitting .263 with a .312 on-base percentage. Even worst, he has a .167 batting average against left-handers. It’s not known if Span will get another chance next season.

Brian Goodwin is not ready to take over center fielder. The Nationals could try to acquire a center fielder this offseason. For example, Shin-Soo Choo is a free agent after the season. He currently has a .409 on-base percentage with the Reds.

C Kurt Suzuki: Most of the playing time behind the plate has gone to Wilson Ramos, so it is doubtful Suzuki will have his option vested for 2014. The Nationals have a plethora of quality catchers in the farm system, so it looks like Suzuki will take his services elsewhere after next season.

INF Chad Tracy: The leader of the Goon Squad, Tracy is not having a productive season like he did last year. Entering Tuesday’s action against the Giants, Tracy is 18-for-102 [.176] with three home runs six RBIs. He is not the only one who is not producing of the bench. The bench is one of the reasons the Nationals have been inconsistent this season.

Harper’s big bunt: Nats surprise, reap benefits

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Bryce Harper owns one of baseball’s most violent and dangerous swings, so when he walks to the plate in a crucial situation with a runner in scoring position, he is expected to use it.

The Nationals defied those expectations during a key moment in Saturday night’s 8-5 comeback win against the Phillies.

It was Harper’s run-scoring bunt in the seventh inning that tied the game and set up Jayson Werth’s dramatic go-ahead home run one batter later. Asked to grade the bunt after the game, Werth gave it an “S for surprising,” and it certainly was that.

The Nationals entered the seventh training, 4-3. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel replaced starting pitcher Cliff Lee with another left-hander, Jake Diekman, and Nats skipper Davey Johnson sent up pinch hitter Steve Lombardozzi.

Lombardozzi got things started with a walk, moved to second on Denard Span’s sacrifice and then boldly stole third to move 90 feet from tying the game with Ryan Zimmerman at the plate.

“Well, [Diekman’s] real slow to the plate,” Johnson said. “He’s like 1.6, 1.7 [seconds]. That’s what you do. But [Lombardozzi’s] a smart baserunner. He had a good jump and he got in pretty easy.”

Zimmerman walked to put runners on the corners for Harper. On one hand, the 20-year-old is one of Washington’s deadliest hitters, not your usual candidate for a bunt. In his career, Harper had never driven home a run with a bunt, and he had used them for five sacrifices and one hit.

But a couple of factors, other than the element of surprise, made the bunt a more appealing proposition. For one thing, Harper hasn’t been the same offensive threat he was early in the year, entering Saturday hitting .225 with a .734 OPS since April 28. He went into that at-bat hitting .174 against lefties, with 26 strikeouts in 101 plate appearances. And lefties are 6-for-35 (.171) with 10 Ks against Diekman this year.

Johnson called for the bunt, later saying his reasoning was simply to, “get a run in.” Third base coach Trent Jewett passed Harper the signal to safety squeeze, meaning he only tries to bunt on a strike, and Lombardozzi only breaks for home if Harper gets it down.

Harper took a slider just inside for ball one. He later said Jewett took the bunt off on the 1-0 pitch, a slider down and away that Harper swung through. Jewett signaled for it again on the next pitch, and Harper hung with a slider up and inside. He got it in the air, but in the right spot, the ball shooting toward second base and reaching Chase Utley on one hop. With no play at home, and no chance for a double play, Utley took the force at second, and the game was tied.

“I mean, he hung a slider, so it kind of caught me off-guard a little bit,” Harper said. “I think if it was a fastball, it would’ve gone straight into the ground, because he has pretty good two-seam action on his fastball. The slider, I tried to hit it into right field, it looked like. Thankfully it fell in front of Utley and we got that run.”

Of getting called on to squeeze in that spot, Harper said, “I love it. I think it’s great.” It may have been a surprising call, but it worked.

“The last thing you want to do right there is hit into a double play,” Werth said. “Sometimes, first and third with one out and the game on the line like that, a bunt’s a good play if it works out. But a guy like Bryce, you want to see Bryce swing the bat. But when the guy he’s facing is a nasty lefty, Charlie Manuel would always talk about being creative in the moment. Bryce was definitely creative in the moment right there.”

A look at Dan Haren’s resurgence

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — It took four months and a stint on the disabled list, but the Nationals finally seem to have found the Dan Haren they thought they were getting for a one-year, $13 million contract this winter.

The veteran right-hander went 4-9 with a 6.15 ERA in his first 15 starts through June 22, a performance that he believes left him, “a bad start of two away from getting released.” Then he went on the disabled list with a sore right shoulder and returned July 8 as a new pitcher.

Haren held the Phillies to two runs on four hits over seven innings in Friday’s win over the Phillies, his third straight victory. In six starts since his DL stint, he has a 2.43 ERA.

“This is definitely more like it,” Haren said. “I felt really good out there today. Really comfortable. The ball was moving pretty good. And obviously getting all the runs made it pretty easy. It’s just kind of unfortunate that it didn’t start off like this, but at least I’m showing that’s in there.”

The question facing Haren and the Nats is, why the sudden turnaround? And can it continue for the rest of the season?

The obvious explanation is that Haren is healthier now. Manager Davey Johnson said Friday that he pitched through some arm problems during the first half of the season. But Haren continues to insist that he had no physical ailment before going on the DL, only that, “Mentally I was pretty messed up.” Having a couple of weeks off might have given Haren a needed opportunity to step back, regroup and catch his breath, but it wouldn’t seem to account for his massive jump in performance. If his arm is any stronger, it hasn’t been reflected in his velocity.

After Friday’s start, Haren gave a lot of the credit to his improved ability to keep the ball down, especially with his splitter. He had surrendered a whopping 19 home runs in his first 15 outings but only two since, and both of those came in his one poor post-DL start, July 22 against the Pirates.

Haren has worked on a new grip for the split, in an effort to slow down the pitch and gain greater separation from his fastball. It appears to have worked. According to data from brooksbaseball.net, Haren’s splitter velocity has dropped significantly over the past two months. He was throwing the pitch in the 84-86 mph range early in the season; on Friday, it averaged 82.3 mph. Along with that, the data shows that since Haren came off the DL, batters are swinging at the splitter at about the same rate but putting it in play much less.

According to Haren, the key has been both the pitch itself and his concerted effort to keep the ball down in crucial situations, to be, “a little more concerned with location, rather than just concerned with throwing strikes.”

“My split has been really good since coming off the DL, but really it’s just keeping the ball down,” Haren said. “I really focus on that, trying to keep the ball in the ballpark. I mean, the home runs really burned me all year.”

As Haren admitted, there probably is some good luck involved as well, just as there probably was some bad luck involved in his earlier struggles. His opponents’ batting average on balls in play was .333 before his DL stint and .267 since, which could indicate weaker contact, but also more batted balls finding their way to Nats fielders. Some fly balls that barely were clearing the fence before might be staying in the yard now.

There also is the issue of who Haren has faced. Since returning, he has seen the Phillies twice, plus the Brewers, Marlins, Mets and Pirates. All of those clubs rank in the bottom half of the Majors in runs scored, batting average and OPS.

Haren’s next scheduled start is Thursday against the Giants, another weaker offensive club, so he’ll have a good chance to continue his surge.

Lefties in bullpen going through rough patch

By Andrew Simon 

WASHINGTON — Twice during Wednesday night’s 6-3 loss to the Braves, Nationals manager Davey Johnson called on a left-handed reliever in a crucial spot. Both times, that pitcher did not get the job done, highlighting an issue that has plagued the team throughout much of the season and caused problems again of late.

During last year’s run to a division title, Sean Burnett, Mike Gonzalez and Tom Gorzelanny gave Johnson three effective bullpen options from the left side. Each posted an ERA of 3.03 or lower and each left the team via free agency.

The Nats began 2013 with long reliever Zach Duke as their only lefty reliever, but that experiment fizzled. The situation improved in late May, however, when Washington dug into its Minor League system. Fernando Abad, signed this offseason, was called up from Triple-A Syracuse on May 21. Ian Krol, acquired in a trade from the A’s, arrived from Double-A Harrisburg on June 4.

Both started out hot. Both have been struggling for an extended period of time, even if their ERAs don’t show the extent of the damage. The following numbers are based around arbitrary cutoff points but give an idea as to how the situation has been trending.

Abad and Krol’s first 18 combined games:

17.1 IP, 5 H, 2 BB, 21 K, .089 opp. avg., 0.40 WHIP, 0 of 6 inherited runners scored

Last 32 combined games:

28.2 IP, 43 H, 7 BB, 19 K, .341 opp. avg., 1.74 WHIP, 11 of 15 inherited runners scored

“It was really good,” Nats manager Davey Johnson said of his left-handed relief, “and now when we’re leaning on them, they’re having a few blips on the radar screen.”

The latest came on Wednesday. Abad entered a tie game in the seventh inning and served up a rocket of a home run to Justin Upton. Krol entered a tie game in the eighth, in a perilous situation, with runners on first and second, two outs and Jason Heyward at the plate. The 22-year-old rookie got Heyward into an 0-2 count but left a breaking ball over the plate, something Johnson called, “an inexperienced, bad mistake.” Krol paid for it with the go-ahead RBI single, and Upton followed with a two-run double.

After the game, Krol talked about missing his spot and admitted he might have been better off going to an inside fastball. He’s been trying to adjust to the adjustments hitters have made to him, and it’s caused him to deviate from his strengths.

“They seem to be jumping on my fastball a little more early than usual,” Krol said. “I’ve been trying to pitch backward, and that’s not my game. My game is to go after them with fastballs and attacking the zone, so I need to get back to what I was doing before, and like I said, just clear my head and have a short memory.”

Nats need to make improvements

WASHINGTON  — Entering Tuesday action, the Nationals were 54-58, 13 ½ games behind the Braves in the National League East and seven games behind the Reds in the Wild Card race. While manager Davey Johnson continues to have a positive attitude about his team, it’s pretty clear why the Nationals may not play in the postseason this year.

They rank near the bottom in offense and defense. They have also had their share of injuries. The worst was Bryce Harper, who missed more than a month of action because of a left knee injury.

“All the little things add up and they can affect your performance,” Johnson said. “It’s my job to stay positive and hope, at some point, we get it all going.”

What improvements should the Nationals make to get better? They need a leadoff hitter. Center fielder Denard Span has hit first for most of the season, and he is hitting .251 with a .310 on-base percentage at the top spot.

Ryan Zimmerman is arguably having his worst year defensively, with a team-leading 17 errors. But that number doesn’t tell the whole story. He is still having throwing issues because of the surgery he had on his right shoulder. In fact in early June, Zimmerman said he expects the shoulder to be in rehab mode for the rest of the season, but it will not keep him out of the lineup.

Zimmerman had arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder last October. While there wasn’t any labrum or rotator cuff damage, Zimmerman needed to have his AC joint fixed, and the surgery revealed the injury to be more serious than anticipated.

It would not be surprising if the Nationals decided to move Zimmerman from third to first base in the future. That could possibly mean trading first baseman Adam LaRoche to make room for Zimmerman.

Asked if Zimmerman needed to play a different position, Johnson said, “With the work he is putting in, I thought it’d take until June. Obviously, it has taken longer. If you see him throw early [during batting practice], he throws deeper and throws the ball on the line.

“I don’t know if it’s physical or mental. I see him throw pretty good, and then in the game, he will want to get a lot of air under it. If that doesn’t get better, obviously, it’s not a good spot for him to be in. At one time, he had a cannon, and we are all waiting for him to come back. I think it’s more mental and not trusting it and cutting it lose. I see him working, and he throws the ball pretty good.”

The bench was one reason the Nationals won the division title last year.  This year, not one reserve is hitting above .250 or has provided the pop off the bench. Before the Trade Deadline, the Nationals made an attempt to acquire veteran players for the bench. They were able acquire Scott Hairston from the Cubs, but since he has been in Washington, Hairston has played only against left-handed pitching.

The Nationals may need to look for two starting pitchers. Right-hander Dan Haren said recently he most likely will not be coming back because he has not lived up to expectations. Left-hander Ross Detwiler has missed most of the season because of a back injury. It’s not known if he will be healthy for next year.

The Nationals have a lot of work to do after the season comes to an end.

Johnson, Span and Monday’s ninth-inning bunt

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

With Anthony Rendon standing on first base and nobody out on Monday night against the Braves, manager Davey Johnson relayed a sign to Denard Span asking the center fielder to bunt for a hit.

The Nationals have two different signs for bunts: one to bunt for a sacrifice, the other to bunt for a hit. Span knew that this was a bunt for a hit.  And that confused him.

“Why would he give me the base-hit bunt?” Span said after the Nationals’ 3-2 loss. “It’s not surprising anybody.”

Sure enough, the Braves saw the play building and crashed toward the plate. Span put down the bunt and safely advanced the runner to second base, but he was easily thrown out at first by third baseman Chris Johnson. The play was scored as a sacrifice.

“It was one of those things where, when he gave it to me, it was kind of tough, because you know it’s a bunt situation and both sides are crashing,” Span said. “I wasn’t expecting to get a hit, because they already were way in on the grass.”

That out proved costly as Scott Hairston and Chad Tracy popped out in the next two at-bats to end the game. Johnson said he would’ve liked to see Span go all-out for the hit.

“He just decided to sacrifice,” Johnson said. “I would’ve rather seen him try to bunt and get on. That’s something he hasn’t done a lot of. But I didn’t want a straight sacrifice.”

Missed opportunity overshadows big day for Hairston

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

Since he was acquired from the Cubs a little less than a month ago, Scott Hairston has searched for opportunities to help the struggling Nationals. He got his chance with one out in the bottom of the ninth inning on Monday and couldn’t come through, a sour end to what was otherwise his best day in a Nationals uniform.

Hairston took a ball before Braves reliever Jordan Walden threw a wild pitch, allowing Anthony Rendon to advance from second to third. Hairston only needed a sacrifice fly to tie the game. Instead, he swung at a low 2-0 fastball and popped it straight up and back toward the screen. Catcher Brian McCann made a basket catch against the backstop for the out, and Chad Tracy flew out to left field in the next at-bat to end the game.

“It’s always tough,” Hairston said. “I think when you’re in that position to help the team win and you don’t do it, it’s somewhat of a disappointment and we all feel the same way. You have to seize the opportunity.”

Hairston collected as many hits in his first three at-bats on Monday (two) as he had in his first 19 plate appearances with the Nationals. He doubled down the left-field line in the second inning, walked in the fifth and doubled again in the seventh. But he also knows that he’s more likely to be remembered for the one hit he didn’t get than the ones he did.

“It hurts,” he said, “but once you leave the ballpark today, we’re just gonna have to prepare for tomorrow.”

The play was particularly disappointing considering the fact that Walden, not closer Craig Kimbrel, was in the game at the time. Kimbrel got the night off after pitching in three straight games.

“Is Kimbrel a better pitcher? Yes he is. But Walden, he’s good too,” Hairston said. “I just think at this level, whoever gets put in that situation is there to do the job. There’s no letdown no matter who’s on the mound. But hey, I had a chance to do my job tonight with one out and I didn’t do it. It’s just how it goes sometimes. Hopefully the next time I’m in that situation, I’ll be able to get the job done.”

Gio’s statement on Biogenesis innocence

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez released a statement Monday after being declared innocent in Major League Baseball’s Biogenesis Investigation.

“I am very pleased that Major League Baseball has cleared my name,” Gonzalez said in the statement. “With this process now complete, I have no lingering sense of animosity, as I quickly realized that the objective of this investigation was to clean up our game. This is an ideal that I share with both Major League Baseball and the MLBPA. I would also like to acknowledge the unwavering support of my teammates, the Lerner Family, Mike Rizzo, Davey Johnson, our coaching staff and Nationals fans everywhere.”

Gonzalez declined further comment before Monday’s game against the Braves.

Tyler Clippard, who with the demotion of Drew Storen is now the Nationals’ union player representative, said that he was happy to see Gonzalez proclaimed innocent, but also upset that the left-hander’s name was connected with the investigation in the first place.

“I think it’s unfortunate that he was on the list to begin with,” Clippard said. “He’s obviously doing the right things. Gio’s a good guy and obviously wasn’t cheating, so for him to be on the list in the first place was kind of unfortunate. But I guess it’s kind of good for him to get a clean slate. He really should’ve never been mentioned anyway, but that’s neither here nor there. It’s good that he’s clean.”

By and large, players in the Nationals’ clubhouse were happy for Gonzalez but at all surprised by his innocence. Adam LaRoche said that it was a non-issue. He always knew that Gonzalez was clean.

“I think we did, enough of us talked to him early on that we knew he was free and clear on that,” LaRoche said. “It’s good peace of mind for him, and for any skeptics out there, to have it confirmed. I’m sure it’s a big weight of his shoulders.”

Haren: ‘My heart says I probably won’t be back’

MILWAUKEE — Nationals right-hander Dan Haren has been feeling comfortable on the mound lately. Since coming off the disabled list on July 8, Haren is 2-2 with a 2.40 ERA and 32 strikeouts in 30 innings.

“In the last few weeks, I have been more myself,” Haren said. “The city has been good. I’ve enjoyed my time in D.C. I enjoy the history. I’ve walked around D.C. a few times just to take it all in. It has been nice.”

Despite pitching well in the last month, Haren doesn’t think he will be back with the Nationals next year because of the season he has had, overall. He is 6-11 with a 5.14 ERA in 20 starts. The Nationals signed him to a one-year, $13 million deal to be one of their five starters.

“My heart says I probably won’t be back,” Haren said. “I haven’t lived up to what I was paid to do and what I came here to accomplish, despite the last two or three weeks. The majority of the season has been a struggle for me. Even if I wanted to come back — it has been a tough year. I haven’t lived up to the billing so far. I don’t know what next year is going to bring.”

With the way the year has gone, Haren believes his options will be somewhat limited for next year. He has the desire to play again next year, but “I have contemplated going home and being home because of how much I miss my family,” he said.

After beating the Brewers on Saturday, Haren said he has struggled off the field, as well. He acknowledged that he misses his wife, Jessica, and their two kids, who live in Southern California. Haren said he has been lucky that has played for teams near his home.

“I know the fans don’t care. But we’re humans, too. I have two little kids and I see them once every month and a half or so. It has been really hard. I’ve been fortunate to play on the West Coast just by being traded to a couple of teams. I would be close to home.

“When I was deciding which teams to come to this offseason, the Nationals had everything I wanted in a team. I wanted to come out here and give it a shot on the East Coast.”

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