August 2014

With two strikes, Adam LaRoche remains a threat

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche stepped in against Mets right-hander Dillon Gee in the first inning of Thursday’s game in New York, took one curveball for a strike, then fouled off another.

That situation means danger for a hitter. Through Friday’s action, all Major Leaguers had combined to bat .165/.194/.240 after falling behind 0-2.

But Gee came back with a fastball up and away, and LaRoche smacked it over the left-center field wall for a two-run homer. It was the veteran’s 17th homer of the season, and as pointed out by Beyond the Box Score, it was his 11th in a two-strike count to tie him with the Astros’ Chris Carter for the Major League lead. Among all big leaguers with at least 10 big flies this year, LaRoche leads the way with 64.7 percent coming with two strikes.

“I don’t have an answer for that,” LaRoche said when informed of the stat. “I don’t know if maybe in those counts you’re not trying to do too much — you’re just trying to make solid contact and in turn end up putting a better swing on the ball.”

Of course, 2014 represents a small sample of LaRoche’s 11-year career, and plenty of fluctuations can occur in splits such as these.

LaRoche guessed that his recent two-strike power would be at odds with the rest of his career, and indeed, he hasn’t shown a consistent pattern in that regard. Of the 165 players to hit at least 100 homers since LaRoche’s rookie year of 2004, he ranks only 66th by hitting 30.8 percent of his long balls in two-strike counts (teammate Jayson Werth ranks third, at 41.1 percent).

Nats manager Matt Williams cited LaRoche’s experience and understanding of pitchers as reasons he might be more comfortable hitting in those situations, but LaRoche believes it’s something that “comes and goes” rather than improving over time.

“When you’re feeling good at the plate and when things are rolling, you really don’t care if there’s no strikes or two strikes,” he said. “It doesn’t bother you to work a count and potentially get to a two-strike count. And when you’re not feeling good, not seeing the ball well, you try to stay out of those two-strike counts.”

There is no doubt that the better the count, the better off a hitter is. For example, Major Leaguers have a .796 OPS after getting ahead 1-0 this year, compared with .593 after falling behind 0-1. They slug .262 with two strikes but .548 with none.

Furthermore, many hitters might shorten their swings when on the verge of a strikeout, in an effort to put the ball in play. But LaRoche theorized that in some cases that actually could help produce a home run.

“You’d think without two strikes, you’d have a little more powerful swing,” he said. “But again, baseball’s a lot like golf. The harder you try to swing, the ball doesn’t go as far. It’s kind of funny how that works. You think you’re putting a nice, easy swing on the ball, and then it just kind of jumps sometimes.”

Williams added that advantageous counts, such as 2-0 or 3-1, can lead a hitter to become anxious and swing too hard. But when LaRoche gets behind, as he did against Gee, “he simply puts the head of the bat on it.”

“He doesn’t panic when he gets to two strikes,” Williams said. “He’s done it a time or two.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Soriano records 28th save in unconvincing fashion

By Daniel Popper

WASHINGTON – Rafael Soriano earned his third save in as many nights Friday against the Pirates at Nationals Park, but the performance was not without some drama.

Pittsburgh rallied against the right-hander in the ninth, bringing one run home on a Pedro Alvarez single before the third hit of the inning put the tying run on third base with two outs. Soriano then forced Josh Harrison into a game-ending popup that catcher Wilson Ramos secured behind the plate, clinching the closer’s 28th save of the season.

Nonetheless, the outing marked the second time in the last three games that Soriano entered a contest with a two-run lead and surrendered a run on three hits. On Wednesday, he gave up a leadoff home run to Travis d’Arnaud of the Mets in the final inning but rebounded to close the game out thanks to a botched bunt from Juan Lagares.

Still, despite Soriano’s recent scuffles — his ERA has risen to above 2.00 for the first time all season — manager Matt Williams sees no reason to panic.

“It is part of the season, it’s part of things that pitchers go through,” Williams said. “It doesn’t mean that next time out, he isn’t going to go 1-2-3. We’ve got confidence in him that he can do that, and he’s certainly got confidence in himself that he can do that. So the next time it presents itself, he’ll have the ball again.”

Wednesday was Soriano’s first appearance in four days. After the lackluster performance, the closer commented on how he needs a more consistent workload and to pitch at least every two or three days.

Fast-forward to Friday, which was Soriano’s third straight night on the mound. He still struggled, though, leaving mistakes up in the zone to a number of Pirates’ hitters.

So the question becomes: is too much or too little rest the actual issue?

“He’s got the job done for us all year,” Williams said. “That’s three and a row for him, so that’s a pretty heavy workload, but he got through it tonight. We’ll see how he feels tomorrow.”

Souza leaves game with undisclosed injury

By Bill Ladson

ATLANTA — Nationals right fielder Steven Souza Jr. left Friday’s game in the bottom  of the third inning against the Braves because of an undisclosed injury.

The injury occurred in the bottom of the second inning.  With Atlanta leading, 4-0, Freddie Freeman swung at a 2-1 pitch from right-hander Steven Strasburg and hit a long fly ball to right field. Souza went after the ball and hit the wall extremely hard as the ball went over the fence for a two-run homer.

Souza was on the ground for at least a minute, while manager Matt Williams, athletic trainer Lee Kuntz and several teammates came to his aide. Souza got up on his own power and was able to get an at-bat in the top of the third inning. He lined out hard to shortstop Ramiro Pena before he was taken out of the game.

Stammen snaps out of slump at crucial time for Nats

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Craig Stammen has established himself as a valuable piece of the Nationals bullpen over the past few seasons, the rare reliever capable of eating innings like a long man and with the effectiveness of a set-up man. From 2012-13, he threw 170 innings for Washington with a 2.54 ERA and 166 strikeouts.

For almost the first three months of 2014, it was business as usual for the right-hander, who had a 2.52 ERA in 23 outings through June 24. Then, things hit a snag: a stretch of 10 games in which he was torched for 14 earned runs on 26 hits in 16 innings. He took two losses, posted a 7.88 ERA and allowed a batting line of .388/.431/.597, as his work became infrequent.

But Stammen found himself at a critical time for the Nats on Thursday, pitching the final three scoreless innings of a 5-3, 13-inning walkoff victory. He allowed one hit, issued two walks (one intentional) and struck out two. It was his seventh career relief appearance of at least three scoreless frames, and third this year.

“It’s very valuable to have a guy like him, that can go that many pitches and run you through some innings and keep them where they’re at,” manager Matt Williams said.

Stammen’s outing not only gave the Nats the chance for a dramatic win, but also spared Williams from having to burn his final reliever (Ross Detwiler) and possibly a starting pitcher ahead of a crucial weekend series in Atlanta.

“It was just one of those things, I felt a little bit more comfortable out there,” Stammen said. “I’ve been working on a few things that kind of clicked. Made some good pitches, got some outs early, gave me a little bit of confidence that I could keep going.”

Stammen relies heavily on his sinker and threw it 27 times in 43 pitches Thursday, not counting the intentional pass. Starter Jordan Zimmermann called the pitch “really nasty,” and Stammen agreed he had it going.

“That’s my bread and butter,” he said. “When it’s working, I usually have decent success, and for the past couple weeks it might have been struggling, but you just keep going after it and do the best you can, and hopefully it comes back.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Espinosa continues red-hot hitting from right side

By Daniel Popper

WASHINGTON – Danny Espinosa got the start at second base over Asdrubal Cabrera Wednesday night against Mets left-hander Jonathon Niese because of his tremendous numbers from the right side of the plate in 2014.

He rewarded the decision from manager Matt Williams in the sixth inning by delivering a three-run righty homerun to deep left field on a changeup down in the strike zone that extended the Nationals lead to six runs in an eventual 7-1 victory at Nationals Park.

“He had good length through the swing and was able to get enough of it to get it out,” Williams said.

Entering the contest, the switch-hitting infielder known for his stellar glove was hitting .309 with a .385 on-base percentage in 81 right-handed at-bats. However, Espinosa’s been equally as abysmal from the left side of the plate this season as he’s been potent from the right side. In 201 lefty at-bats, Espinosa is hitting .184 with 84 of his 104 total strikeouts.

Manager Matt Williams said the discrepancy between Espinosa’s numbers in right-handed and left-handed at-bats boils down to the second baseman getting on top of the baseball. Williams said Espinosa has a natural tendency to get on top of the ball more from the right side than the left side, though he’s been working tirelessly in the cage to improve that part of his hitting as a lefty.

From Espinosa’s perspective, his success as a righty this season comes down to consistency.

“I go up there and I do the same thing,” Espinosa said of his right-handed approach. “I go up there with the same stance. I go up there and I know what I want to do. I know what I can do. Left-handed, I’ve been searching as far as comfort in my stance. Right-handed I’ve been the same guy since I’ve been in pro ball.”

When asked after the game if he was considering only batting right-handed until he figured things out from the left side, Espinosa didn’t shoot down the idea.

Still, he noted that it would be a difficult transition, largely because he’s never faced a big-league right-hander from the right side of the plate. To adjust to the different angles, Espinosa said he would need a substantial number of at-bats outside of the Majors, an amount he could only get during the offseason.

“If it was that easy, I think I would try it,” Espinosa said. “But I’ve never done it.”

Werth tweaks sprained ankle vs. Mets

By Daniel Popper 

WASHINGTON – Jayson Werth aggravated his sprained ankle in the bottom of the first inning Tuesday night against the Mets at Nationals Park.

With two outs, Werth connected on a groundball to short. But as he was leaving the batter’s box, he caught his foot and tweaked the injury he suffered in Miami on July 28 while trying to stretch a hit into a double against the Marlins.

After Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada gunned Werth out at first, the right fielder waited near the base in clear discomfort. Trainer Lee Kuntz and manager Matt Williams came to check on him, but Werth remained in the game.

“We went out there and asked him and he was fine,” Williams said. “He ran fine the rest of the night.”

After the game, Werth said tonight’s incident wasn’t the first time he’s experienced a setback with the injury over the past week. But ultimately, it’s something he expects.

“I’ve been playing on it. Obviously, if you sprain your ankle, you’re going to have to play through some pain,” Werth said. “Just kind of bit a little bit coming out of the box, but I think it’s happened a couple other times since I’ve done it, so it’s playable. I’m just hanging in there.”

Aggressive baserunning backfires on Werth, Nats

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Trailing the Mets 2-1 in the sixth inning on Tuesday night, the Nationals got a leadoff double from Jayson Werth before Adam LaRoche slapped a single to left field. Werth, getting the wave from third base coach Bob Henley, steamed around to try to score the tying run but was beaten by left fielder Eric Campbell’s nearly perfect one-hop throw.

In a game filled with missed opportunities, this was one that stood out. Instead of having runners at the corners with no outs, the Nats were left with a runner at first with one out. Two batters later, the inning was over, and Washington never scored another run.

So did Henley err by sending Werth in that situation? After the game, both Werth and manager Matt Williams defended the decision, for two main reasons.

1) The Mets’ defense was shifted against the left-handed LaRoche, putting three infielders to the right side of second base, with no shortstop in position to hold Werth close to the bag. Therefore, Werth was able to take a good lead, and was about halfway to third base when the ball reached the outfield grass.

“I thought Jayson had a good jump,” Williams said. “He knows they’re not playing behind him. He knows they’re swung over. The shortstop is to his left, and there’s nobody there.”

Plus, neither Henley nor Werth probably figured that Campbell — making his second Major League start in the outfield — would throw an on-target seed to the plate. But he did.

“It would take a perfect throw, and that’s what happened,” Werth said.

2) Back on July 20 at Nationals Park, the Nats took a walk-off victory against the Brewers when Henley waved around Anthony Rendon from first on Werth’s double down the left field line, prompting Werth to refer to the third base coach as “Old No Stop Sign Henley.”

From the first day of Spring Training, Williams has wanted a team that goes for it on the basepaths, and the approach has worked. The Nats entered Tuesday second in the Majors in FanGraphs’ baserunning metric and fifth in the one calculated by Baseball Prospectus.

“That’s the way we play,” Williams said. “We’re aggressive. We have been all year and we can’t stop now.”

Werth agreed that the club will “stay aggressive on the bases.”

“That’s part of our game,” he said. “That’s part of who we are. So sometimes it works out for us, sometimes it doesn’t.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Stammen struggling without consistent innings

By Daniel Popper

WASHINGTON – Nationals reliever Craig Stammen has taken the mound just twice since July 22. In those two outings, he’s combined to allow five earned runs on 11 hits — all of them singles — to balloon his ERA above 4.00 for the first time since May.

“I’m a sinkerball pitcher. I pitch to contact,” said Stammen, who surrendered two runs on six hits in the Nationals’ 7-3 loss to the Orioles Monday night. “Sometimes, they hit them where the fielders aren’t.”

Stammen said there are small adjustments he can make to improve his command. But most importantly, he has to trust in his stuff.

“I’m not missing by a ton, I’m not walking guys, but I’m leaving the ball a little bit more over the plate than I normally do,” Stammen said.

The main reason why Stammen has seen so few innings over the past several weeks revolves around the Nationals’ stout starting pitching. In 11 games from July 23 through Sunday, Washington starters failed to go at least seven innings just twice.

In short, Stammen hasn’t had opportunities to pitch with setup man Tyler Clippard and closer Rafael Soriano firmly cemented in their roles. And often times, that lack of innings can throw a reliever — and an entire bullpen — out of whack.

“For me, that’s usually not a good sign,” Stammen said. “But our starters have done really well, so that means less innings for the bullpen. And usually, that’s when the bullpen struggles a little bit: when they’re not pitching a lot.”

Even so, Stammen understands that strong starting pitching is the key to winning games. And ultimately, that’s the goal.

“It’s more fun to win than pitch more,” he said.

Source: Nats have interest in Cotts

By Bill Ladson

WASHINGTON – Although the non-waiver trade deadline has past, the Nationals are still looking to improve their bullpen. According to a baseball source, the Nationals have interest in Rangers left-hander Neal Cotts. But, so far, the Rangers don’t like what teams have been offering for Cotts.

Cotts is a pitcher who can get all hitters out. Entering Monday’s action, left-handed hitters have a .265 batting average against Cotts, while right-handed hitters are hitting .246 against the left-hander. Cotts has appeared in 52 games for Rangers this season and has a respectable 3.38 ERA.

The Nationals have been looking for a left-handed reliever since before the non-waiver trade deadline. They had interest in left-hander Andrew Miller, but the Red Sox traded him to the Orioles for left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez.

Currently, the Nationals have two lefties in their bullpen. Jerry Blevins has been hit hard since June 14. He has allowed 13 runs in 14 2/3 innings. Ross Detwiler doesn’t have the experience of being a late-inning lefty, although manager Matt Williams said recently that Detwiler will be used in important situations.

Trying to trade for a player after the non-waiver deadline is nothing new for the Nationals. On Aug. 3, 2012, the Nationals acquired catcher Kurt Suzuki from the Athletics for Minor League catcher David Freitas. At the time, the Nationals were unhappy with Jesus Flores’ game calling behind the plate.