September 2013

Nationals reflect on their time with Davey

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

Davey Johnson managed his last game for the Nationals on Sunday, ending (for now, anyways) a storied baseball career in which he played and managed more than 3,800 games. Here’s what some of his players had to say about their departing skipper:

Ian Desmond
“Davey obviously means a lot to all of us in here. He’s done a great job. He’s really brought out the best in us. Hopefully if one day I get the opportunity to manage, I can do it just like he does.”

Dan Haren
“He has so many accomplishments. I didn’t even think of the stuff that he had done and how long he’s been in the game. … I think I read an article a couple days ago and I think Werth said he’s the ultimate players manager. I think I played for six or seven managers and I would agree. The guy’s a class act. Very stand-up. Very honest with players, honest with the media, and it’ll be sad to see him move on to the next stage of his life but he definitely left a legacy that won’t be forgotten.”

“You really won’t hear anyone say anything bad about him. The guy, he’s so easy to talk to. I know his door’s always open but I just appreciate the fact that you can have a real man-to-man conversation with him and things don’t have to be about baseball. I think other organizations I’ve been with that hasn’t been the case. It’s been a real pleasure.”

Ian Krol
“He’s had a lot of confidence in me, which helps from my point of view when pitching. Also the way he’s handled the bullpen has been spectacular with guys on short rest, guys pitching every other day. He’s done a lot. Obviously it’s sad to see him go, and I haven’t been around long enough to know him as a person, but he’s just helped me learn so much in my career. This is my first year out of the bullpen, so being up here it definitely helps having someone who’s been around the game for God knows how long. It just helps having a veteran like that ease my way into the bullpen. I couldn’t say one bad thing about him. Just an awesome guy, great manager. I love playing behind him.”

“He just always comes around the clubhouse joking with guys, laughing, always talks about his golf game and how his back’s been hurting him. Other than that, he’s just an awesome person to be around. Always smiling, never really having anything bad to say, just a great person.”

Tyler Moore
“Davey’s been great. He’s a legendary manager and he gave me my first opportunity in the big leagues. He’s been my first manager, and I’ll always remember him for that. He’s just, I don’t know, he’s just got a way about him. He cares about the guys, you can tell. He’s pretty calm, he knows the game pretty well and it’s just a privilege for me to be in the same locker room as him.”

“He walks around, talks to all the guys, just makes a point to do that. I know a lot of managers don’t do that. Just his knowledge of winning and his knowledge of this game is pretty cool.”

Anthony Rendon
“We’d always joke about how he’s from San Antonio, he grew up over there, we always have little jabs at each other because I’m not too fond of San Antonio. I can’t say on record or whatever what it’s about, but we always just take little jabs at each other. Just a little inside joke, basically.”

“He was always out there being hands-on, showing me positioning [at second base] and what to expect, what to anticipate, just little things out there to help me get by. It’s worked a lot. Holding the runners on, that was a big thing.”

Denard Span
“For the short time that I’ve been here and been around him, just an unbelievable and great baseball mind. He’s seen it all and even this year, I would love to ask him questions about some of my favorite players growing up, just to hear some of the stories he would tell. It’s priceless.”

Drew Storen
“I think that’s really awesome that he can just come up and cut it up with you, just like any other player can. That’s one of those things where he’ll tell you like it is. And he’s pretty entertaining. That’s how he is. He keeps it loose, keeps it light, and I think that’s nice because he doesn’t really panic.”

“I would say the biggest thing I learned from him is just seeing how he acts, how he doesn’t panic. He just kind of goes with the flow and doesn’t get too caught up in stuff. That’s kind of his thing. And he trusts us as players. I think that’s something that’s really important and I really appreciated from him, putting trust in us. He’ll put us in a big spot and he’s not going to short hook somebody. The ability to go talk to him about anything is great, and you’re able to talk baseball with him and whatever — and also kind of hear some old stories every once in a while.”

Stephen Strasburg
“I think I’ve known Davey a little bit longer, especially going back to [the 2008 U.S. Olympic baseball team in] Beijing. The one thing about him is there’s no doubt that he’s going to fight for you and he’s going to be in your corner, no matter how bad it gets. I think he’s always positive and it really rubs off on a lot of guys, and I think that’s really helped us, even with all the struggles early on in the year, keep playing hard and start playing good baseball in September.”

20-20 (Part II): Ian Desmond joins elite company

By Andrew Simon

When Ian Desmond swiped second base in the seventh of Sunday’s nightcap against the Marlins, it gave him 20 stolen bases and his second consecutive season with at least 20 steals and 20 homers.

Considering that Desmond plays a prime defensive position at shortstop, that blend of power and speed is a rare commodity. Six other players have hit the 20-20 mark this year, and all of them are outfielders. Only three other infielders are anywhere close with a week left to go, but none of them are shortstops.

In fact, Desmond is now only the seventh shortstop in history with multiple 20-20 seasons, joining Hanley Ramirez (four), Jimmy Rollins (four), Alex Rodriguez (three), Derek Jeter (two), Barry Larkin (two) and Alan Trammell (two).

“He does it all,” said center fielder Denard Span, who is first-year teammates with Desmond. “I’m gonna be honest with you — has a strong arm, hits for power, hits for average. He’s the total package. I knew him for a few years before I got here but I never had a chance to watch him play up close and personal and he’s definitely the real deal.”

Span also praised the intelligence, work ethic and drive Desmond brings on a daily basis.

The 28-year-old has played in and started 153 of the Nats’ 156 games this year and on Monday will hit the 154-game plateau for the third time in his four full big league seasons. Manager Davey Johnson called him “Iron Man Desi,” on Saturday, when he brought him up as a worthy candidate for team MVP, alongside Jayson Werth.

Quality has matched quantity, too. Desmond’s .286/.338/.465 batting line with 20 homers gets him close to his numbers from a breakout 2012, and he already has set a career high with 80 RBIs. He also has accrued a career-best 5.1 wins above replacement (according to FanGraphs.com), thanks to solid contributions offensively, defensively and on the bases. That puts him second among MLB shortstops, behind only Troy Tulowitzki.

“Every day he’s ready to go, same intensity,” Span said. “He never looks tired, never looks frustrated or flustered. He’s always ready to go. He’s definitely a gamer.”

Two innings after Desmond reached 20-20, he took first on an intentional walk. With one out in the ninth inning of a tie game, he broke for second on the back end of a double steal and slid in safely for No. 21.

Clearly, he wasn’t satisfied.

“It’s pretty cool. It’s definitely a blessing,” he said of the accomplishment, which earned him an ovation from the crowd at the end of the inning. “I wasn’t always headed down this road in my life, and I’m just fortunate and try to take every day as a blessing and just try to do the best I can every day.”

Haren to Nats: “Keep this group together”

By Andrew Simon 

Sunday afternoon’s loss to the Marlins was Dan Haren’s final start of the season at Nationals Park. By his own admission, it probably was his last there, period, as a member of the Nationals.

Haren signed a one-year deal with Washington last offseason, and despite a second-half rebound, the overall results have been rocky. At 9-14 with a 4.87 ERA, the veteran right-hander admits, “I was part of the reason we were so many games down,” in the playoff race.

Yet even if Haren doesn’t return, he sees a bright future for the Nats — as long as they stay the course. In his opinion, the club shouldn’t take this year’s likely disappointing finish as a sign to make radical changes. He pointed to his last team, the Angels, who went 89-73 but missed the playoffs with Haren in 2012. An altered roster, including big free agent signing Josh Hamilton, was 76-78 going into Sunday.

“This area has a lot to look forward to,” Haren said. “I think last year in L.A., we won 89-90 games and they kind of blew up the team, and I think they’ve struggled most of the year and got on track late in the year. I think that was the wrong thing to do.

“I know there’ll be some subtle changes, me probably being one of them. But I think the most important thing is to keep this group together. This could be a building block. Last year they had a great year and this year we’ve shown a lot of fight here the last few months. I think as close as things could stay to the guys in this room, I think the better.”

That means keeping the roster largely intact. But, as Haren said, it’s also “top-down, manager-wise.”

The Nationals, of course, must find a replacement for the retiring Davey Johnson, who has voiced support for bench coach Randy Knorr, in addition to third base coach Trent Jewett. The organization also figures to consider outside candidates, but Haren thinks Knorr would be a good choice.

“Randy I think could step in and do a real good job,” Haren said. “I think the guys overall really like him. So it just kind of goes into the organization not really needing to do that much. We got off to a slow start, but I think we’ve learned a lot of things.”

Zimmermann’s chance at 20 wins

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

Jordan Zimmermann doesn’t care about reaching 20 wins. At least, he downplayed the milestone Friday night after blanking the Marlins, 8-0.

After battling through neck stiffness during the middle of the season, Zimmermann again looked like the first-half All-Star that he was on Friday. He struck out nine, allowed just two hits and only walked one. His fastball hovered around 95 mph and his slider touched 90 mph.  Zimmermann became the first pitcher in the National League to reach 19 wins, but that doesn’t mean he’s thinking about No. 20.

“I mean, I just want the team to win, to be honest with you,” Zimmermann said. “If that means me going six, seven innings of no runs and I get the no decision, as long as we win, that’s the main thing.”

Zimmermann’s teammates know better.

“I don’t believe him,” Denard Span said, smiling, “but OK.

“He’s a modest guy,” Anthony Rendon added. “He’s not going to be like, ‘I’m trying to get to 20.’ But yeah, it would be awesome. Twenty games, that’s a lot.”

Most people in the baseball world have devalued wins as a measure of a pitcher’s effectiveness. Take the Nationals’ rotation this season as an example. Stephen Strasburg has 16 quality starts in 28 outings and is 7-9. Jordan Zimmermann has 21 quality starts in 30 outings and is 19-8.

But regardless of statistical preference, everyone can agree that a 20-win season is impressive.

“I think 20 wins for a pitcher is like 20 home runs for a position player,” Span explained. “A position player tells you 20 home runs is not important, they’re probably not telling the truth. So yeah, 20 wins for a starting pitcher, it seems to be like the milestone … the standard of a good, powerful, quality starting pitcher.”

Eclipsing 20 wins would also bolster Zimmermann’s case for the NL Cy Young Award. Jayson Werth thinks that Zimmermann’s chances at winning the award are good, but it’s important to keep everything in perspective.

“I think they get a lot better if we make it to the postseason,” Werth said.

Even in loss, fifth starters show worth

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

Nationals starter Ross Ohlendorf should share the blame for Wednesday night’s loss to the Braves, which all but crushed Washington’s slim playoff hopes. However, he also deserves his share of credit for helping keep the Nationals in the race in the first place.

Without the efforts of Ohlendorf, Taylor Jordan and Tanner Roark this season, the Nationals would not be in a last-gasp push for the second Wild Card in the National League.  Together, they have exceeded expectations while filling in for Ross Detwiler, who has been on and off the disabled list with back issues. Ohlendorf, a 31-year-old journeyman, and two rookies have posted a combined 12-4 record and 2.80 ERA this year.

“We knew going in that’s one of the areas we didn’t have a lot of depth,” manager Davey Johnson said. “So hopefully, with Detwiler getting healthy and what these guys have done, and some other arms we’ve got coming, this organization will be in great shape.”

For all their unmet expectations this season, the Nationals’ organizational depth at pitcher has lived up to the hype. First it was Ohlendorf, who debuted an old-school windup in a spot start in Colorado and has provided stability ever since, both as a long reliever and starter. Then it was Jordan, who jumped from Double-A to the Majors in his first season off Tommy John surgery.

Now, Johnson believes that he has found another potential contributor in Roark, who was 6-17 at Triple-A Syracuse last season. On Tuesday night, after Roark’s seventh consecutive win, Johnson compared the right-hander to all-time great Greg Maddux.

“[Minor League pitching coordinator] Spin [Williams] was really high on him this year and all through spring during the year. He certainly has reason to be,” Johnson said of Roark. “Once I saw him pitch up here out of the ‘pen, how he located the ball and used all his pitches, I said, ‘Yeah, he’s going to be good.”

Jordan and Roark both have the potential to earn a long-term role on the Nationals in Spring Training, but they are just two of the many talented arms that will join the rotation in the next couple of years. Stephen Strasburg is only 24. Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Detwiler are 27. Lucas Giolito, A.J. Cole, Nathan Karns, Robbie Ray, Sammy Solis and Jake Johansen are among the many talented arms working their way through the farm system.

Not many teams have that kind of depth at pitcher.

“Great arms,” Johnson said. “Pitching comes fast. They’re all going to be pitching in Double-A or up. When you get them to that level, I think you can come from AA to the big leagues just as easy as coming from AAA.”

[Updated] Strasburg scratched again

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

WASHINGTON — After Wednesday night’s 5-2 loss to the Braves, Nationals manager Davey Johnson announced that Stephen Strasburg would miss his scheduled start Thursday against the Marlins. Gio Gonzalez will start Thursday, Jordan Zimmermann will start Friday and Strasburg will return Saturday, barring any further setbacks.

Strasburg was unexpectedly scratched from his previous start on Friday with right forearm tightness, which might have occurred when the right-hander was experimenting with a new pitch last Thursday in New York. The right-hander rested for two days, threw a “great” bullpen session on Monday and said Tuesday that he was prepared to start Thursday’s series-opener as planned.

However, Strasburg had trouble getting loose Wednesday afternoon and still felt some tightness.

“He felt a little something there [in the forearm] but he wanted to pitch,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘Well, no way. I got guys on full rest. I’ll pitch them and you can be in the lineup for Saturday.’ So it’s my decision.”

Strasburg described the feeling as a “strong cramp” that bothered him when he was warming up Wednesday afternoon. He felt the tightness and took a break, moving his hand and squeezing it a bit. Then the feeling dissipated and he returned to the field and felt fine.

“I don’t really know why it’s happening,” Strasburg said. “When it happens, it happens. It’s like a strong cramp, so I just think I would put us in a bind if I went out there and felt it. We’d definitely be down some pitchers.”

Johnson said last week that Strasburg’s injury is not related to the surgically-repaired ligament in the right-hander’s elbow. Strasburg was examined by team doctor Wiemi Douoguih, who assured him that the arm is structurally sound.

“I wouldn’t say I’m too concerned because when I get nice and loose it feels 100 percent. The tough thing is getting loose,” Strasburg said. “I think it’s just part of it being September and that’s pretty much it.”

Johnson said that Strasburg wanted to pitch Thursday, but the skipper ultimately decided to hold him back as a precaution.

“It’s just not worth the risks,” Johnson said. “He wanted to go tomorrow, I said no.”

Breaking down the Nats’ playoff chances

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

With their all-important doubleheader sweep of the Braves on Tuesday, the Nationals have won 10 of 11, 21 of 27 and 27 of 37.

But with only 11 games remaining, their playoff odds have not improved much.

CoolStandings.com pegs Washington’s chances of reaching the postseason at 3.8 percent. Baseball Prospectus has them even lower, at 3.3 percent.

The Reds have a 4 1/2-game lead in the National League Wild Card race, which is fairly significant with less than two weeks left in the season. Their magic number to clinch the Wild Card is seven, meaning a combined seven Reds wins and Nats losses.

“I mean, we’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Denard Span said. “We haven’t gotten over any humps yet. [The Braves] are in the playoffs. We’re not. So it feels good for today … but that’s all I’m concerned about right now.”

Yes, long odds like these have been overcome before. In 2011, St. Louis went 8-3 and passed the Braves, who finished 2-8. That same year, the Rays trailed Boston by four games with 12 to play and won the Wild Card. But it doesn’t happen often.

For a team that has struggled with expectations all season, however, that might be a good thing.

“We’re playing with house money,” Ian Desmond said over the weekend. “Everyone kind of wrote us off, and we’re fighting our way back in. Just keep on playing and what will be will be.”

The easiest way to think about the race is in terms of that magic number: seven. If the Reds finish 7-3, they automatically clinch the Wild Card — even if the Nationals go 11-0. If the Reds go 5-5 and the Nationals finish 9-2 (which is still a tremendous stretch), the Reds still clinch.

All of that assumes, of course, that we have a two-team race for the second Wild Card spot. In reality, it is a fluid situation.

The Cardinals, Pirates and Reds are separated by 2 1/2 games in the NL Central. Pittsburgh and Cincinnati will play six of their final nine games against one another. The Nationals will open a three-game series in St. Louis at the beginning of next week. Depending on how those games shake out, the Nationals could find themselves targeting another NL Central team for that final Wild Card spot.

That said, it’s hard to overstate the importance of the Nationals’ sweep of the Braves on Tuesday. The Reds are in Houston beating up on Bo Porter and the Astros, so if the Nationals can win again Wednesday and merely keep up with Cincinnati over these three days, it will be a major victory.

Playoff implications aside, the Nationals are building momentum for a strong finish. They beat a Braves team that had bullied them at Nationals Park all season. It was about pride as much as anything else.

Sure, the odds say that the Nats will not make the playoffs. But they also seem poised to finish well above .500 with the confidence that this core group of players can still get the job done, even if they have to wait until next year to do so.

“By no means are we to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow yet,” Desmond said. “But we are playing better and I think that’s all of us in here really wanted to see us do, finish the season with some pride and put up the year people thought we were going to.”

Nats, Braves to play day/night doubleheader

Tonight’s Nationals-Braves game scheduled to begin at 7:05 p.m. at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., has been postponed due to the tragic events that occurred earlier today.

The team will play a split doubleheader on Tuesday, with tonight’s make-up game beginning at 1:05 p.m. The second regularly scheduled game will begin at 7:05 p.m. All gates for the originally scheduled 7:05 p.m. game will open 1.5 hours after the last out of the 1:05 p.m. game or 6:00 p.m., whichever is later.* The two games against the Braves on September 17 will require separate admission.

Fans with game tickets to Monday’s postponed contest may use their original tickets for the 1:05 p.m. make-up game on September 17. Those unable to attend the 1:05 p.m. game on September 17 can exchange their tickets for any remaining home game during the 2013 regular season or any Value Game during the 2014 regular season. Exchanged tickets will be issued from available inventory in the closest pricing category of equal or lesser value to the original seats.

Season Plan Holders, whose Season Plan includes seats for tonight’s postponed game, will have their Card automatically activated for the September 17 contest at 1:05 p.m. Season Plan Holders who wish to transfer or forward seats for this make-up game should login to nationals.com/access to view their seats. Season Plan Holders who cannot attend the 1:05 p.m. game on September 17 may exchange their seats for any remaining home game during the 2013 regular season or any Value Game during the 2014 regular season at the Nationals Park Box Office.**

In the event that a seat for tonight’s game was forwarded from a Season Plan Holder Card to a print at home ticket, the print at home barcode will be active for the make-up game and will not return to the Card; as such, fans should retain their print at home tickets from tonight’s postponed game to gain entrance to the 1:05 p.m. contest on September 17.

The key to Zimmerman’s power surge

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

When Ryan Zimmerman woke up on September 1, he had hit 15 home runs in 121 games this season.

When he woke up Saturday morning, he had hit nine home runs — in the first two weeks of the month.

Just how remarkable is this recent surge? In his past 11 games, Zimmerman has as many dingers as he had in June, July and August combined. He has already tied the club record for most homers in the month of September. Nine of his past 14 hits have left the park.

His explanation?

“I don’t know,” he said Friday night. “Just going with it. Come here and I do the same stuff I did all year. And that’s the way I’ve done it for years. Every now and then I get hot. Hopefully, I just try and kind of ride it as long as it will go and don’t try and think about it too much.”

Manager Davey Johnson, however, offered a more interesting explanation. In addition to Zimmerman’s improved performance in the field, the 70-year-old skipper attributed this recent performance to a change in batting practice.

About three weeks ago, Johnson noticed that Zimmerman was pulling the ball in BP. He was peppering hits to left field. Johnson likes to see hitters pull the ball and attack pitches on the inside part of the plate. He believes that this change in Zimmerman’s batting practice has spilled over to games.

And he might be right. Of Zimmerman’s nine home runs this month, seven have been to left or left-center field, one to straightaway center, and one to right.

“[This season] they’ve been getting him out early throwing him down and in, inside,” Johnson explained. “Now he’s hammering that ball. So I like it.”

Ian Desmond said the surge could be the result of mere inches in Zimmerman’s swing.

“I mean, this is the crazy thing about baseball,” Desmond said. “He’s been hitting low line drives that have been hard ground balls, low hard ground balls that if you’re one grain up turn into home runs. And now it’s happening.

“This game, you are what you are, and by the end of the day, we might look up and Zim might have 30 [homers] and 100 [RBI]. That is who he is.”

Strasburg scratched with right forearm tightness

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

WASHINGTON — Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg was a surprise scratch from his scheduled start Friday night because of tightness in his right forearm.

Manager Davey Johnson said that Strasburg originally felt the soreness before Thursday’s game against the Mets, when the right-hander was experimenting with a new pitch. Strasburg will rest for two days and take some medication, but he is expected to make his next start on Sept. 19 against the Marlins.

Johnson said the tightness is in the soft tissue of Strasburg’s arm, not the surgically-repaired ligament in his elbow.

“All of the doctors think it’s a non-issue,” Johnson said. “We’ll give him some rest. There might have been some inflammation in there or something from some new muscles being used on this new pitch. Who knows?”

Strasburg was examined by doctors in New York on Thursday and team doctor Wiemi Douoguih on Friday. Johnson said Strasburg had some tests, but the skipper did not think that the right-hander had an MRI.

Strasburg was not available for comment before Friday’s game. Johnson would not reveal the new pitch that the right-hander was working on. The Nationals’ manager did, however, admit that the news was initially worrisome.

“Yeah, I was concerned,” Johnson said. “Any time a pitcher tells you he can’t throw tomorrow, doesn’t want to play catch [is concerning]. He came in here and got treatment, the doctor in New York examined him and didn’t think it was anything serious. Probably just tight. So here we are. He’s not pitching. He’ll pitch the 19th.”

Right-hander Ross Ohlendorf, who has made sporadic starts for the Nationals this season, was slotted to start Friday in Strasburg’s place. Johnson said that Ohlendorf had been preparing as if he would start Thursday, so he effectively received an extra day of rest.

Strasburg, meanwhile, has made 28 starts this season, the same amount he made in 2012 before the Nationals elected to shut him down for precautionary reasons. In 2012, Strasburg went 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA over 159 1/3 innings. Though he is just 7-9 this season, he sports a 2.96 ERA over 170 innings of work.

While Strasburg’s shut down last year was carefully planned months in advance, his forearm tightness and missed start Friday were completely unexpected.

“Right out of the blue,” Johnson said. “But Stephen’s a perfectionist. He likes everything just perfect. So any time you’ve had an arm injury, any little discomfort and the alarm bells are going to go off.”

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