April 2014

Nats’ Fister has first rehab start

WASHINGTON — Nationals right-hander Doug Fister made his first rehab start for Class A Potomac on Sunday and threw four innings, allowing three unearned runs on 59 pitches. After that, he also threw six more pitches in the bullpen and didn’t have any problems with his right lat, which he injured right before the season started.

“Baseball results-wise, things didn’t come out as well as I hoped, but feeling-wise, I felt really good, felt strong,” Fister said. “I didn’t have any issues with the lat. It was a matter of knocking off some rust [while] getting back out there.”
 
Fister is scheduled to pitch five innings or 80 pitches in his next start and that will likely happen with Double-A Harrisburg within the next five days, Fister said. After that, the Nationals hope to activate from his the disabled list.
 
Fister was acquired from the Tigers in December for infielder Steve Lombardozzi and pitchers Robbie Ray and Ian Krol.

Fister has been on the DL since the beginning of the season with a lat strain. Fister sustained the injury during a Minor League game on March 27. He was scheduled to throw 60 pitches, but his outing ended after one inning.
– Bill Ladson

Steven Souza Jr. returns to Nationals

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Before Triple-A Syracuse played at Indianapolis on Saturday, Steven Souza Jr. was informed he wouldn’t be in the lineup. Instead, he would be heading back to Washington.

The Nationals officially recalled Souza for his second big league stint on Sunday morning, when they placed Bryce Harper on the 15-day disabled list with a left thumb sprain. Souza was in the Washington clubhouse prior to Sunday afternoon’s game against the Padres.

The 25-year-old outfielder said he feels a little more more at ease this time after his first trip to the Majors, from April 12-18, while Denard Span was on the 7-day disabled list.

“It’s kind of those first-day jitters where you don’t even know anything. You don’t know to put butter on your toast or what,” Souza said. “[Now] it’s more of how are we going to win this game, how can I help this team win, how can I be a part of this and kind of focus on that.”

Ranked by MLB.com as the Nats’ No. 14 prospect, Souza made his Major League debut on April 13 at Atlanta and picked up his first career hit on April 15 in Miami, a single to center field off Marlins lefty Dan Jennings. In all, he played five games and went 1-for-4 with a walk before being optioned back to Syracuse.

Even with Harper out, Souza might not see the field much more this time around. Manager Matt Williams indicated that Nate McLouth will see most of the starts in left field against right-handed pitchers, with Kevin Frandsen and Tyler Moore serving as options against lefties.

The brief demotion to Syracuse did give Souza a chance to log some much-needed swings. In four games there, he went 5-for-11 with a double and three RBI. For the season, Souza is hitting .333/.463/.545 with two homers and 10 RBI in 41 Triple-A plate appearances.

“Those ABs were huge, just to get in the rhythm of playing every day and getting some consistent ABs,” Souza said.

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

 

Nats’ Espinosa has bruised right knee

WASHINGTON — During the Nationals’ 4-2 loss to the Padres on Sunday afternoon, second baseman Danny Espinosa suffered a bruised right knee cap after he was hit by a pitch from Padres right-hander Ian Kennedy in the second inning.

Espinosa was down for a little over a minute before getting up on his own power and walking to first base. He was taken out of the game in a double-switch in the top of the fifth inning.

After the game, Espinosa said the knee was “sore” and that the off-day Monday would help the knee get better.

“On Tuesday, we’ll see how it’s feeling and kind of go from there,” Espinosa said.

Espinosa has been playing every day at second base since April 13, when Ryan Zimmerman went on the disabled list, and he had taken advantage of the situation, hitting .278 with a home run and two RBIs.

–Bill Ladson

Tanner Roark’s amazing run continues

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Tanner Roark was a 25th-round Draft choice who bounced between starting and relieving while posting a 4.21 ERA in his first five Minor League seasons. He entered 2013 at 26 years old and as nobody’s idea of a hot prospect.

Yet somehow, Roark’s big league performance over the past two years has surpassed anything he ever did in the Minors. Sunday afternoon brought the most striking example, as the right-hander dominated the Padres during a three-hit shutout that stood as a perfect game through 5 1/3 innings. That dropped his career ERA to 1.98 through 86 1/3 innings.

A look at Roark by the numbers:

  • 8: Roark’s career-high strikeout total Saturday, including four in the span of five batters at one point.
  • 8 1/3: The most innings Roark had thrown in a professional game at any level before Saturday.
  • 105: Roark’s pitch count, the second-lowest by any pitcher in a shutout this season.
  • 14-to-3: Roark’s ratio of groundouts to flyouts. Entering Saturday, he had more flyouts this year.
  • 23: Batters out of 31 that saw a first-pitch strike from Roark.
  • 1: Earned runs allowed by Roark in 35 career innings at Nats Park, a 0.26 ERA.
  • 7: Number of career starts, out of 10, in which Roark has allowed two runs or fewer.
  • .189: Batting average of right-handed hitters against Roark in his career, with no home runs.
  • 3: Roark’s career high in walks. He had one on Saturday, throwing 69.5% strikes.

The soft-spoken native of Wilmington, Ill., isn’t one to spend too many words examining his own success. Asked after Saturday’s game if knew why his Major League performance has eclipsed his Minor League performance, he smiled and said, “You got me.”

Roark and manager Matt Williams both talked about the importance of Roark’s changeup on Saturday, especially against left-handed batters, who went 0-for-17 with one walk and six strikeouts against him. Roark called it his best pitch of the day, over his fastball, slider and curve.

“He’s aggressive,” Williams said. “He threw a lot of really good changeups today for strikes and that’s one of his weapons. He keeps lefties off balance with that. Comeback fastball into the lefties as well.”

That comeback, or two-seam, fastball is important as well. Roark said he’s talked with Livan Hernandez about the way Greg Maddux used to use that pitch to tail back over the inside corner against left-handed batters.

“You see guys jumping out the way because they think it’s going to hit them and it goes right across the plate,” Roark said. “It’s a very effective pitch. The biggest thing for me is I’ve got to stay on the pitch as long as I possibly can and not come out of it.”

How long Roark can stay on his current run of big league success remains to be seen — some regression is inevitable. But at the least, he seems to have solidified his place in a rotation spot he didn’t lock up until Doug Fister went on the disabled list at the end of Spring Training.

“When he takes the mound, it feels like he’s under control to all of us,” Williams said. “There’s definitely a trust factor there.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Thumb still swollen, Harper sits out (updated)

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — A day after coming out of the Nationals’ win over the Padres with a jammed left thumb, Bryce Harper was not in the club’s starting lineup for Saturday afternoon’s game. Kevin Frandsen started in left field in his place, but manager Matt Williams said Harper would be available off the bench “for sure.”

Harper suffered the injury diving headfirst into third base on a fourth-inning triple and came out an inning later. X-rays were negative, but Harper continued to experience swelling on Saturday, according to Williams. He is scheduled to see a hand specialist at some point during the day. [UPDATE: Williams said after the game that Harper saw the specialist during the game and is undergoing an MRI, with results likely available by Sunday. Harper probably will sit out Sunday's game as well, which would give him three straight days of rest, including Monday's off-day.]

“There’s some swelling there, so we just want to make sure we knock it out,” Williams said.

* In other news, Williams said pitcher Gio Gonzalez was doing “fine” after coming out of Wednesday’s start with tightness in his left shoulder. Gonzalez did some throwing on Thursday, took batting practice on Friday without problems and likely will throw a bullpen session on Sunday.

“We anticipate him being OK,” Williams said.

On Monday, the Nats get their first off-day in three weeks, and Williams will use it to give each member of the starting rotation an extra day of rest, instead of skipping someone.

* Right-hander Doug Fister (right lat strain) still is scheduled to make his first Minor League rehab start on Sunday at Class A Advanced Potomac.

* The hand specialist who saw Harper also examined catcher Wilson Ramos and third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, recovering from a hamate fracture and a thumb fracture, respectively. Williams said Zimmerman still is “some time away” from be able to grip a ball.

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Error taken away from Nats’ Desmond

WASHINGTON — After Tuesday’s game, Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond had been charged with nine errors, which led the Major Leagues. However, an error was taken away from Desmond by Major League Baseball before Wednesday’s game against the Angels.
 
On April 11, Braves outfielder B.J. Upton came to the plate and hit a hard groundball to Desmond, who backhanded the ball but did not field it cleanly. Desmond was charged with an error on the play. Upton asked for a review on the play, and the call was overturned to a hit by Joe Torre, the leagues executive vice president of baseball operations, on Wednesday.  Desmond and Upton were not available for comment.
–Bill Ladson

Defensive woes continue for Ian Desmond

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — For the second time in five nights, Ian Desmond stood in front of his locker and answered questions about his faltering defense following Monday night’s 4-2 loss to the Angels.

Desmond had spoken forcefully about his struggles after making two errors on Thursday against the Cardinals

“I’m going to keep on grinding,” he said at the time. “I was out there hoping that they would keep on hitting me ground balls. That’s all you can do, just go out and keep on playing. As long as my name’s in the lineup, I’m going to go out there and play as hard as I can. It’s not a lack of effort. It’s just, I’ve got to execute. And I will.”

Desmond appeared much more subdued on Monday after racking up his Major League-leading eighth and ninth errors of the season during a disastrous eighth inning that saw the Angels score four runs to rally from a 1-0 deficit.

“Not making the plays,” said Desmond, who again sat waiting at his locker for reporters to arrive. “I wish I had an answer.”

Leading off the eighth against Tyler Clippard, Albert Pujols bounced a ground ball up the middle. Desmond ranged to his left, reached out and had the ball glance off his glove. He scrambled to pick it up, but it was too late to attempt a throw.

It wasn’t a routine play but one Desmond certainly expects himself to make.

“I’m a big league shortstop,” he said. “Not that tough.”

By the time Desmond made his second miscue of the inning, the damage was done. Erick Aybar tied the game with an RBI single, and Raul Ibanez smacked a three-run double, with Desmond throwing wildly to home to allow Ibanez to take third.

It was Desmond’s third two-error game of the season, with all nine of the mistakes coming in the past 12 games — five fielding, four throwing. Going into Monday, no other Major League player had more than five total, and five entire teams had fewer than nine.

As Desmond pointed out on Thursday, he’s been through and come out of this sort of stretch before. Just last year, he committed seven errors by April 21, then didn’t make his next one until June 28, finishing with 20 and as a Gold Glove finalist for the second straight season.

The Nationals, who lead the Majors in errors as a club, will have to hope Desmond can reverse course again. He believes he can.

“You use everything in the past to make yourself better,” he said. “This is going to be one of those circumstances, and I’ve just got to weather the storm.”

Follow Andrew Simon @AndrewSimonMLB.

Defensive miscues haunting Nationals

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — The Nationals’ defense has been an issue all season, but the sloppiness seemed to rise to another level during Thursday night’s 8-0 loss to the Cardinals.

The Nats committed a season-high four errors that helped bring in two unearned runs, and that doesn’t even include some of their other miscues in the field. It was only the 12th game with at least four errors in the franchise’s 10-year Washington history, and the first since July 15, 2011, against the Braves.

“Those happen,” Nats manager Matt Williams said of the mistakes. “ It just seems like it’s happening an extraordinary amount to us.”

Williams isn’t imagining things. Washington now leads the Major Leagues with 20 errors on the season, including seven by shortstop Ian Desmond, who committed two on Thursday. By contrast, the Orioles have an MLB-low three errors, and several other teams remain in single digits.

Of course, errors don’t tell the whole story, but advanced metrics aren’t smiling on the Nats’ gloves either. Even before Thursday’s showing, they ranked 23rd in the Majors in FanGraphs’ defensive value and 26th in Baseball Prospectus’ defensive efficiency.

Friday might have been the low point — or at least the Nats will hope it was.

The Cardinals started a three-run first-inning when Desmond mishandled Matt Carpenter’s grounder and pitcher Taylor Jordan did the same on Kolten Wong’s. In the fourth, Desmond made a bad throw to first, and on the next play, umpires ruled that second baseman Danny Espinosa dropped Desmond’s flip while transferring to his throwing hand. In the sixth, Desmond failed to make a play on Adam Wainwright’s grounder into the hole, although that was ruled a hit. And finally, in the eighth, right fielder Jayson Werth lost Yadier Molina’s line drive in the lights as it sailed past him.

First baseman Adam LaRoche said he doesn’t see any trend in all the miscues.

“Some of it gets magnified, you kick a couple of balls,” he said. “Maybe we’re pressing a little. It’s the same way at the plate. Like tonight, nothing going on, guys trying a little too hard to expand the zone and you end up looking worse. It could be the same way defensively. We have a really good defensive club, is the thing. It’s not showing right now, but I have a feeling that by the end of the year those numbers are going to be our specialty. We are just too good defensively to make the kind of errors we are.”

Williams isn’t prescribing any radical fixes. The team will prepare the way it already was scheduled to on Friday, which means a full session of ground balls.

“We just keep grinding away at it,” he said.

Follow Andrew Simon @AndrewSimonMLB

A fast start for Adam LaRoche

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — The 2014 season is still very young, but already, Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche is bucking a trend that has left its mark on his career.

Whether it’s a meaningless statistical quirk or something deeper, LaRoche has rightfully earned the label of a slow starter over the years. As of last year, he sported the seventh-largest negative gap between his career OPS and April OPS, as well as the second-biggest between his career OPS and first-half OPS of any active player. At the time, mired in a rough start even by his standards, LaRoche couldn’t explain what was behind it.

“If I had the answer to that, I’d love to pass it on to some younger guys, but there’s just nothing there,” LaRoche said, near the end of an April that saw him hit .136/.213/.259.

To be clear, LaRoche has enjoyed strong Aprils before, such as in 2012, when he jumpstarted one of his best overall seasons by posting a .964 OPS in the opening month. And so far in 2014, he’s on that track again.

LaRoche went 3-for-3 and drew a walk in Tuesday night’s win over the Marlins, leaving him with a line of .348/.500/.652.

To be sure, it’s an extremely small sample size. But coming off a subpar 2013 and considering LaRoche’s historical struggles in the early going, it qualifies as a positive sign.

“I’ve seen Adam hit 30 [home runs] and drive in 100, and I know he’s capable of doing that,” manager Matt Williams said. “What’s encouraging to me is him hitting the ball the other way and taking the single when it’s given to him. What he’s done so far is he’s handled lefties pretty well and stayed on the baseball. We saw that a lot in Spring Training, too. It was a focus of his to stay on the baseball and hit it to the opposite gap, and he’s done that.”

LaRoche did put together a solid spring, hitting .283/.327/.522. He said that over the last couple of weeks of Grapefruit League play, he tweaked his swing slightly, working to shorten it and keep his front leg soft.

“It’s paying off now,” he said. “It feels good. Again, it’s hitting. It comes and goes, so you just ride it out.”

So far this season, LaRoche has homered twice, including a mammoth blast into the top deck at Nats Park on Saturday against the Braves.

He didn’t offer up anything that dramatic on Tuesday, but he reached safely in every plate appearance. LaRoche singled to left in the first inning, walked in the fourth, singled to center in the sixth and singled to right in the eighth against lefty reliever Mike Dunn.

He said his frequent use of the opposite field hasn’t been intentional, but it is a good sign.

“When I’m in position to hit and I’m not pulling off the ball, I’ll do that obviously more than not,” he said. “I’ll get in modes where it probably appears I’m pulling off of everything. It’s one of those things there where I get really hard on my front side, so without getting too technical, no, it’s an accident and I’m looking to drive the ball, but if the timing’s on and I’m in position, I’m still able to go that way.”

However it’s happened, the results have been stark. In seven games and 30 plate appearances, LaRoche has reached base safely 15 times. Last season, it took him 14 games and 53 plate appearances to get to the same point.

Nats’ Knorr believes Ramos has wrist injury

By Bill Ladson

NEW YORK — After catcher Wilson Ramos hurt his left wrist in Monday’s Opening Day game against the Mets, Nationals bench coach Randy Knorr went on FM 106.7 The Fan on Tuesday and revealed that Ramos’s left wrist problems date back to Spring Training.

According to Knorr, the injury first occurred in Jupiter, Fla., about a week ago. After a particular at-bat in Spring Training, Ramos went into the dugout and said, “My wrist feels funny.” But Ramos managed to be in the Opening Day lineup on Monday against the Mets and went 0-for-3.

In his final at-bat in the seventh inning, Ramos struck out looking and was immediately taken out of the game. He was replaced by Jose Lobaton, who could be the No. 1 catcher if Ramos goes on the disabled list.

“Yesterday we were watching that last at-bat he had, and he took a swing. It was like the second pitch he took a swing and fouled it off over the first-base dugout,” Knorr told The Sports Junkies. “I saw it and Rick Schu, our hitting coach, comes over and says, ‘Randy, you see that?’ I go, ‘Yeah.’ And then he takes a fastball down the middle.

“Now, Wilson Ramos has never taken a fastball down the middle, ever. So when he came in I said, ‘What’s going on with you, man?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know, it doesn’t feel right.’ So we took him out of the game.

“… For Wilson Ramos to come out of the game, it doesn’t look good. I always try to stay positive and say OK, go to the doctor, maybe it’s not as bad as people think it is, maybe it’s two or three days, and I try to stay that way, but in my mind and seeing guys over my career, it really doesn’t look good. It might be a hamate bone or something.”

Nats manager Matt Williams originally said that Ramos suffered a left hand injury. As of 6:30 p.m. ET, the Nationals have been quiet on the extent of the Ramos’ injury. If Ramos goes on the disabled list, they could call up catcher Sandy Leon, who was less than stellar in the Minors last year. Leon was one of the final players sent to Minor League camp this past Spring Training.

Andrew Simon contributed to this report.

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