July 2014

Henley helps ‘send’ Nats to walk-off win

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Third base coach is one of those mostly thankless jobs that tends to draws notice only in the form of blame when something goes wrong.

“That’s part of it,” the Nationals’ Bob Henley said. “I don’t worry about that.”

Henley’s willingness to take a risk helped the Nationals pull out a dramatic 5-4 over the Brewers on Sunday at Nationals Park, as he waved home Anthony Rendon for the walk-off run in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Washington had Rendon — who offers decent if unspectacular speed — at first base with two outs when Jayson Werth ripped Rob Wooten’s pitch for a line drive down the left field line. Stationed past third base on contact, Henley began moving toward home plate, turning around and backpedaling so he could watch left fielder Khris Davis’ pursuit into the left field corner. Henley got perhaps a third of the way between the base and the plate, and by that time, the decision was completely in his hands.

“He’s the one watching the play,” Rendon said. “Once I turn and go to third base, the play’s behind me, so I have to trust him.”

All kinds of factors must be considered, including the game situation, the speed of the runner and the arm of the fielder.

When Davis reached the ball on the warning track, Rendon was about halfway to third. At that point, Henley said, he had made up his mind.

“With two outs, you know [Rendon’s] going to be running on contact, and as soon as it was hit, I was thinking about sending him,” Henley said. “As soon as it went to the wall, I knew I was. Great hitting, great baserunning — it really has nothing to do with me at all. I send everybody.”

“Old No Stop Sign Henley,” as Werth referred to him, began waving his arm — the universal third base coach signal for “Go” — when Davis double-clutched and Rendon got about 5-to-7 steps from the bag.

“We knew we were going to have a play at the plate, and either we were or we weren’t [going to score], but we were going to send him,” Henley said.

What could have and perhaps should have been a close play turned out to be no play at all. With Davis slow to get off a throw and then airmailing his cutoff man, the Brewers never even got the ball to the plate.

“We’ve got to try to win the game there,” manager Matt Williams said. “If ‘Hen’ stops him there, then we’re banking on another base hit. We’ve got to take a chance there.”

This time, the chance paid off, not that Henley wanted any credit for it.

“We’re trying to win ball games, and the boys did an unbelievable job to win,” he said. “I just try to stay out of their way.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Soriano leads group of Nats’ All-Star snubs

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Rafael Soriano entered Sunday’s game against the Cubs with a one-run lead in the ninth inning, tossed six of his eight pitches for strikes and retired the side in order for his 21st save. It was a performance representative of the closer’s strong season, yet Soriano was not among the pitchers named to the National League All-Star team a couple of hours later.

Soriano headed the list of snubs for the Nats, who have only one guaranteed All-Star despite a 48-39 record that puts them a half-game behind the Braves in the NL East. While right-hander Jordan Zimmermann was selected for the second year in a row and infielder Anthony Rendon is one of five Final Vote candidates, Washington has at least a few other players who can argue reasonably for inclusion.

“I think there’s some guys that are deserving, Soriano being one of them,” Zimmermann said. “He’s having a great year. Hopefully we can get Rendon in there, too.”

In his second season with Washington, Soriano has converted 21 of 23 save opportunities and held the opposition scoreless in 32 of his 35 appearances. He boasts a 1.03 ERA and .154 opponents’ average in 35 innings, with 11 walks, 18 hits and only one home run allowed, along with 32 strikeouts.

Then there’s the set-up duo of Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard, which has been about as reliable getting leads to Soriano as he has been saving them. Storen allowed a run on Sunday, only his fourth in 27 innings this season, a 1.33 ERA to go along with a .204 opponents’ average. Clippard wiggled out of a jam in the eighth inning for his 29th scoreless appearance out of his past 30. He’s posted a 1.89 ERA, a .200 opponents’ average and 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings.

Clippard was asked if he was surprised the back end of the Nats’ bullpen came up empty in terms of All-Star nods.

“It’s a joke, to be honest with you,” he said. “I don’t know who’s gonna make it. I’m sure there’s a lot of worthy guys out there, but what Soriano’s done this year, there’s no way he doesn’t make the All-Star team, in my opinion. That guy’s got under a 1.00 ERA and 21 saves, and it’s incredible that he didn’t make it.”

Beyond Rendon and the bullpen, first baseman Adam LaRoche has an argument for making his first Midsummer Classic in his 11-year career. After going 0-for-2 with a pair of walks on Sunday, LaRoche is hitting .294/.401/.482, which would give him the second-highest OPS of his career and the eighth-best in the NL this season.

However, LaRoche also missed 14 games with a quad strain, which has cut into his counting stats (12 home runs, 45 RBIs). That hurts in a crowded field of NL first basemen.

Of course, the Nats’ All-Star contingent still could grow, either through the Final Vote or the usual flood of replacements due to injury or other factors.

“I think there’s a couple other guys that are deserving to go,” center fielder Denard Span said. “Rendy’s in the running for it, so hopefully he gets it. But I think he’s been an All-Star. You could argue for Soriano. He’s been lights-out. You could argue for Adam. There’s two or three guys extra that I think should be acknowledged, especially because we’ve been playing good baseball as a team. We’re pretty much a first-place team, and we only have one guy, so I think that’s a little odd.”

Fully stocked Nats lineup doing damage

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Saturday was the Nationals’ fifth game since Bryce Harper’s return made their starting lineup whole again, and the offense broke out with a season-best performance in a 13-0 drubbing of the Cubs.

Matt Williams’ lineup card demonstrated the depth at his disposal, with the trio of Harper, Desmond and Ramos — capable of anchoring a batting order — filling the three slots ahead of pitcher Gio Gonzalez. The Cubs had to scramble for pitching after trading scheduled starter Jeff Samardzija on Friday night, and the Nats’ bats took advantage with season highs of 13 runs and 19 hits.

“It’s not easy to pitch to this lineup,” said Ramos, who went 2-for-5 with a double. “The leadoff guy, the eight guy, everybody can hit the ball well, so right now it’s hard for them to face us.”

Here’s a look at some numbers that stand out from the win:

  • At 13-0, this was the biggest shutout victory of the season by any team. In terms of Nationals history (since 2005), it was by far their biggest winning margin in a shutout. Previously, Washington’s biggest shutout victory was by 10 runs.
  • The Nats had scored in double digits only three previous times this season, with a high of 11. Two of those games came in April, and the last was May 31 against the Rangers.
  • Ten Nationals recorded at least one hit on Saturday, including all eight starting position players, pitcher Gio Gonzalez and substitute Kevin Frandsen. Seven players recorded an RBI.
  • The Nats’ eight doubles was a club record (since ’05). The last time it happened in franchise history was Sept. 18, 1998, when the Expos had eight against the Phillies. Two of the two-baggers in that contest came from third base coach Bob Henley and TV analyst F.P. Santangelo.
  • The Nats batted around twice and had another frame in which they sent eight hitters to the plate. The only time they went down in order was in the eighth.
  • Anthony Rendon stroked a career-high three doubles and has 21 for the season. In his last 31 games, he’s hitting .341/.396/.603.
  • In his last 16 games of June, Jayson Werth hit .145/.264/.177 with two extra-base hits (both doubles), four RBI and 16 strikeouts. In his first four games of July, he’s 9-for-14 with five doubles, two homers, eight RBI and two strikeouts.
  • Ryan Zimmerman went 4-for-5 on Saturday, his second four-hit game of the season, with the other coming April 3 against the Mets. Before this season, he had eight such games, but none since July 28, 2011. Zimmerman is batting .357 (15-for-42) with six doubles, a homer and eight RBI over his last 11 games.
  • Since coming off the DL for the second time this year, Ramos is 9-for-26 (.346) with a double and a home run.

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Nationals sign four more international prospects

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — The Nationals announced four international free agent signings on Saturday, bringing their total to nine since Wednesday, the start of the 2014-15 international signing period.

On Saturday, the Nats inked Venezeulan right-handed pitchers Tomas Alastre, Pedro Avila and Christian Flores, as well as Panamanian left-hander Gilberto Chu. Avila is 17 years old, while the other three are 16.

According to the club, Alastre recently converted to the mound from shortstop, while Avila is “durable and competitive.” Chu already offers a three-pitch mix, and Flores was described as “projectable … with an athletic body and good arm action.”

Washington opened up the signing period on Wednesday by agreeing to deals with five prospects.

Zimmerman pulled in top of ninth inning

By Daniel Popper 

With the Nationals leading the Rockies, 4-3, in the top of the ninth inning Wednesday night, manager Matt Williams made a defensive switch by bringing Danny Espinosa into the game at second base.

But the move came at a price.

Williams was forced to remove Ryan Zimmerman from the contest as not to lose Anthony Rendon, who moved from second base to replace Zimmerman at the hot corner for the final inning.

The point became moot when Rafael Soriano earned his 20th save of the season, but he did so in dramatic fashion by stranding runners at first and third base. Had the Rockies tied the game up in the ninth inning, Zimmerman would not have been available to hit in the bottom half or beyond.

“At that point, we want our finest defense in there,” Williams said.

Earlier in the contest, Zimmerman — who was making his third start at third base since returning from a fractured right thumb — made a stellar diving play on a rocket shot down the left-field line off the bat off Michael McKenry, throwing the lead runner out at second base. Even so, Williams opted to take Zimmerman out of the one-run ballgame.

“It’s the right move,” Zimmerman said. “I’m still getting used to playing third base again…Anthony’s played well at third base and Danny is one of the best if not the best defensive second basemen in the game. So if we’re up late in the game, I have no problem if it gives us the best chance to win.”

Even if it means losing a potentially crucial at-bat late in the game?

“With our bullpen, we expect to hold a lead after the seventh inning, whether it’s one run or five runs,” Zimmerman said. “You’ve got to put your best defensive players in. And right now, that’s Anthony and Danny.”

Williams looks to put Harper’s comments in the past

By Daniel Popper

WASHINGTON – Nationals manager Matt Williams did his best Wednesday to eliminate any perceived tension in his clubhouse regarding Bryce Harper’s comments about the lineup.

Before returning to the field Monday night after missing more then two months with a torn left thumb ligament, Harper addressed the media and displayed some dissatisfaction with Williams’s decision to hit the 21-year-old slugger sixth in the batting order.

Harper also disagreed with where individuals were playing in the field, stating that Ryan Zimmerman playing left field, Danny Espinosa playing second and Anthony Rendon playing third “should be what’s happening.” Harper’s proposed lineup would have presumably moved him to center field in place of Denard Span.

Instead, Williams played Rendon at second, Zimmerman at third and Harper in left field for both Monday and Tuesday, with Span retaining his starting job in center field. And on Wednesday, the rookie manager proposed that Harper’s comments were taken out of context.

“What was the question asked?” Williams said. “And how did he respond to that particular question? We don’t often hear the question. We just get the response. So with regard to scrutiny regarding the lineup, that’s on me. I make the lineup. And that’s all that Bryce said: ‘He makes the lineup. I’ll play left field or I’ll play center or I’ll play wherever he wants me to and I’ll hit wherever her wants me to.’ I think that’s the proper response. And I don’t think he had anything different. He said ‘If I have the pen, it may be different.’ That’s perfectly fine. It’s perfectly fine. That doesn’t mean he disagrees with the way I’m doing things or has some issue with me. What it means is that, yeah, if I was him, I would want to hit 3rd or 4th too. Who wouldn’t?”

In reality, the question that prompted Harper’s response asked how appreciative Harper was of Zimmerman’s unwavering willingness to move from position to position. After his return on June 3, Zimmerman started 25 games in left field — a brand new position for him. He since returned to third base even though he made clear on multiple occasions he’d prefer to stay in left.

Nonetheless, Williams said Harper’s place in the order is a temporary situation as the outfielder continues to improve after the injury that sidelined him for 57 games.

“I will tell you this, it would be beneficial, I think, for everybody to just see how it plays because I don’t anticipate Bryce Harper hitting 6th the rest of the year,” Williams said. “There’s a number of reasons for it, but first and foremost is he’s just coming back from injury. So does he hit two for us? Yeah. Does he hit three for us? Yeah. Does he hit four? Yeah. Maybe not today, but he will. And it will be this year.”

Williams cautioned reporters who make the assumption that Harper was calling out Span with his remarks on the lineup. But most importantly, the manager said he’s ready to put the ordeal in the past.

“That’s where we’re at right now. He’s good. I’m good,” Williams said. “He wants to play. He wants to win. I want to write his name in the lineup every day. His teammates are there to support him. He’s there to support his teammates. And we’re going to move on.”

Nats’ Werth getting back on track

By Bill Ladson

WASHINGTON — Entering Tuesday’s action against the Rockies, Nationals outfielder Jayson Weryth was in a 7-for-52 slump and saw his batting average dip to .266.

So after Monday night’s 7-3 victory over the Rockies, Werth and hitting coach Rick Schu looked over video tape to figure out what’s wrong with Werth at the plate. The two came to the conclusion that Werth needed stand more upright in order to see the ball better.

The new stance paid off for Werth on Tuesday night. He went 2-for-3 with three RBIs in a 7-1 victory over Colorado.

“I had a pretty good mindset going into the game,” Werth said. “We made a minor adjustment, just shortened things up,”

In the first inning, with runners on first and second and no outs, Werth doubled down the left-field line, scoring Denard Span and Anthony Rendon. A few minutes before the RBI double, Werth hit a ball hard that went foul, and he had a feeling that his swing was back on track.

“I barreled it — way foul. I don’t remember the last time I did that,” Werth said. “I felt pretty confident after that. I put together a pretty good game. Hopefully, that will be the one to keep me going.”

Three innings later, Werth knocked in his third run of the game, doubling to right-center field, scoring Rendon.

“I’ve been able to barrel those balls to right-center and sometimes hit home runs on pitches like that,” Werth said. “That was a little more telling than the first hit. I feel good. … It was nice to come through for the guys tonight.”

Zimmermann concludes superb June

By Daniel Popper

WASHINGTON — Jordan Zimmermann made his final start in June Monday night, surrendering two earned runs over six innings to earn his sixth win of the season in the Nationals’ 7-3 victory over the Rockies.

And while the performance was certainly not Zimmermann’s best of the season, it capped off an outstanding month from the right-hander, who went 3-2 with a 1.43 ERA and .818 WHIP over six starts.

Zimmermann’s best outing of the month came on June 8 when he threw a two-hit, complete-game shutout while striking out a season-high 12 against the Padres. That showing came in the midst of a three-start span during which he allowed just one earned run in 25 innings.

Zimmermann’s tremendous June came after significant struggles in May, when he posted a 5.06 ERA in five starts.

“I’m just locating really well right now,” Zimmermann said. “Nothing really has changed, I’m just locating well and the slider’s really good. And when I have those two things working together, I can usually string some pretty good starts together.”

Zimmerman shines in return to third base

By Daniel Popper

WASHINGTON — During the past month, Ryan Zimmerman has more or less said farewell to third base — the position he manned exclusively for his first nine seasons with the Nationals. 

The former Gold Glove-winning third baseman started 25 of 26 games in left field after he returned from a fractured right thumb on June 3. The only game Zimmerman didn’t start in left field during that span was his first start of the season at first base on June 15 at the Cardinals.

But on Monday against the Rockies, Bryce Harper was reinstated from the disabled list after missing 57 games due to a torn left thumb ligament. And with the 21-year-old slugger reclaiming his spot in left field, Zimmerman returned to third base for the first time since April 12, going 3-for-4 with two doubles, an RBI and two runs scored in a 7-3 win.

“It’s definitely going to take some adjustment,” Zimmerman said. “I still have a lot of work to try to get back where I want to be. But it felt okay.”

In the top of 7th inning, Zimmerman made a play that illustrated what kind of ability he still possesses at the hot corner.

With pinch-hitter Corey Dickerson on first base and one out, center fielder Corey Dickerson hit a soft line drive off the end of his bat down the third-base line. Zimmerman took one step to his right, slid and caught the ball cleanly just before it hit the dirt. He then quickly jumped to his feet and fired a one-hopper across the diamond to double up Dickerson, ending the inning. 

“I would say it was impressive if I hadn’t seen it like 500 other times,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “He’s a good third baseman. There’s no doubt about that.” 

Ian Desmond punishes intentional walks

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — The Rockies faced a difficult choice in the sixth inning of Monday’s game at Nationals Park, as Bryce Harper trode to the plate with runners at second and third and one out in a 2-2 game. They could have right-hander Rob Scahill pitch to Harper, or walk him intentionally to load the bases in order to go after Ian Desmond in hopes of inducing an inning-ending double play.

Colorado manager Walt Weiss picked Option B, setting up Desmond to punish yet another free pass. And when Scahill looped a first-pitch curveball over the plate, Desmond blistered a shot down the left-field line for a go-ahead, bases-clearing double.

The hit made Desmond 11-for-16 (.647) with 16 RBI in his career when the previous batter is walked intentionally, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. It’s certainly a small sample, but an impressive one nonetheless.

“I just try to do the same thing I do every other time,” Desmond said. “And it’s just a good situation to hit in — bases loaded, less than two outs — that’s what you’re looking for.”

Indeed, Desmond has feasted in those spots as well.

With the bases full this season, he has gone 6-for-6 with a double, a home run and 14 RBI. In 61 career plate appearances in those situations, he has posted a line of .444/.377/.611, with three doubles, two home runs and 54 RBI, including seven sacrifice flies. Among active players with at least 50 bases-loaded plate appearances, Desmond’s batting average ranks first.

Always an aggressive hitter, Desmond certainly has been a free swinger with the bases packed, never drawing a walk. In his six chances this season, he has seen a total of 14 pitches.

But Desmond said that regardless of the situation, he doesn’t walk up to the plate with any additional motivation to do damage.

“If you need any extra boost at this level, you’re not where you’re supposed to be,” he said. “None of us are up there hoping for an extra boost or an extra edge or anything like that. I’m trying to do my best when there’s nobody on or when the bases loaded, or intentional walk or not.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

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