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Nats’ Fister ready to pitch in Philly

By Bill Ladson

PHILADELPHIA — Almost a week after he announced that he had skin cancer removed from his neck, Nationals right-hander Doug Fister will pitch against the Phillies on Wednesday at Citizens Bank Park.

On Tuesday, Fister said he felt fine and nothing has changed regarding how he goes about his business.

“I had a little procedure, nothing is serious,” Fister said.

Fister said he knew the cancer had to be removed from his neck for about a month. He wasn’t scared. It runs in his family and he assumed he had to deal with it at some point in his life.

“It was something that I needed to address,” he said.

Fister announced after Friday’s 10 -3 loss to the Giants that he had skin cancer removed from his neck. Fister also said the procedure had nothing to do with Friday’s outing in which he allowed four runs in six innings. In fact, in that same game, Fister singled to center field and tried to break up a double play in the third inning.

“I think I did well, but there are things I needed to work on. I’ll continue to get better and that’s a prime example of it,” Fister said. “I have to fine-tune myself and be on top of my game all the time. … I want to be able to locate the fastball and make sure it’s down.”

Fastball command a familiar foe for Strasburg

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Stephen Strasburg faced a full count against Giants leadoff man Gregor Blanco in Sunday’s first inning. Catcher Jose Lobaton called for a fastball and set up low and inside on the left-handed hitter. Strasburg fired one in at 95 mph.

But the ball tailed right over the heart of the plate, and even at that velocity, Major League hitters will make a pitcher pay. Blanco did, ripping a shot over the right field wall for only his second home run of the season.

Although Strasburg’s offense picked him up with a late-inning barrage to win 14-6, it was a rough day for the right-hander and one that followed a familiar pattern. He missed spots with his fastball, and opposing batters punished him for it, leading to some early struggles.

“He’s got wonderful talent and the ability to throw the ball in the mid- to high-90s. And that’s great,” manager Matt Williams said. “Everybody’s got to be able to throw where they want to, and if you don’t, if you leave the ball in the middle of the plate, you have a chance to get it hit. That was the case today. The last two outings, that wasn’t the case. He threw really well and threw it exactly where he wanted to.”

In Strasburg’s previous two starts, he allowed two runs (one earned) on six hits over 15 innings. On Sunday, the Giants got him for five runs on eight hits in only four innings, tied for his shortest outing of the year.

Blanco led off the first with a homer. Travis Ishikawa led off the second with a blast into the seats in left-center off a center-cut 94 mph heater, also his second long ball of the year. Including those, Strasburg has served up a career-high 21 homers this season, with 13 coming in the first two innings and 16 coming on fastballs.

Strasburg called the pitches to Blanco and Ishikawa “dumb,” saying that while he wants to challenge hitters, he has to hit his spots more effectively. When he hasn’t this year, it’s often been the result of trying to bust that fastball inside, only to have it tail into the danger zone.

“That’s kind of where it misses sometimes,” said Strasburg, who did give up a pair of RBI hits on curveballs in the third inning. “It’s something I’ve been battling all year. Sometimes my command inside is really good, and sometimes it comes back over the plate. But the biggest thing is you’ve got to go out there and keep pitching, and it’s all going to figure itself out.”

Strasburg still has put up some impressive numbers on the season, with more than 10 strikeouts and only about two walks per nine innings. His Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) of 3.14 looks a lot better than his 3.59 ERA, and he’s posted 16 starts allowing two earned runs or fewer.

But to find more consistent success, Strasburg will have to harness the fastball that batters have hit close to .300 against this season. The key to that, according to Lobaton, is the between-starts work in the bullpen.

“You work there, and that’s it,” he said. “It’s the same as a hitter — you have a hole somewhere, you try to find it in the cage or in BP. I think today he just had a bad day, and he can do better. I know he can do better.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Harper’s base-running woes continue in loss to Giants

By Daniel Popper 

WASHINGTON – On Friday night against the Giants, Bryce Harper led off the bottom of the second inning with a rocket single up the middle. But as he has done many times this season, the 21-year-old slugger spoiled his hit by getting thrown out on the bases because of a mental error.

Harper took too big a secondary lead off first base with Wilson Ramos at the dish, and veteran catcher Buster Posey took advantage, firing a snap throw down the line that beat Harper to the bag in plenty of time. It marked the 13th time this season that Harper either made an out on base during a base-running play — not counting force plays — or was picked off.

Those 13 outs rank third-worst in the Major Leagues this season, which by itself is an alarming fact. But when you consider Harper missed 57 games with a torn left thumb ligament, the outfielder’s base-running errors start to stick out like a…sore thumb.

Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, who is two years older than Harper, has made a league-worst 17 outs on the bases, but he’s done it 118 games. Pirates outfielder Starling Marte is second-worst with 15, and he’s played 103 games. Twins second baseman Brian Dozier is tied with Harper at 13. He’s done it in 124 games.

Harper, meanwhile, has compiled his total in 68 games. Not to mention, he’s made those 13 outs having been on base 95 times all season. That means Harper is making an out during a base-running play or via pick off roughly 14 percent of the time he’s on base.

“It’s not alarming. I think that it’s a maturation process. We discuss every time something goes haywire,” manager Matt Williams said. “He does some good things, as well. We make sure we let him know that, and we make sure we discuss the things that don’t go so well. And he learns and moves forward like the rest of us. …He’s an aggressive player, and he’ll continue to be that way.”

Fister OK after skin-cancer removal in neck

By Daniel Popper

WASHINGTON — Nationals starter Doug Fister told the media Friday night that the stitches on the right side of his neck resulted from skin-cancer removal he underwent “a couple days ago.”

Fister surrendered four earned runs over six innings in Washington’s 10-3 loss to Giants on Friday — the most runs he’s allowed since June 15. But the right-hander said after the game that the procedure and subsequent wound on his neck did not influence his performance, and he’s “good” moving forward.

“It had no effect tonight,” Fister said.

Werth stays in after fouling pitch off leg

By Daniel Popper

WASHINGTON — In the bottom of the fifth inning Thursday against the D-backs, Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth fouled a 3-2 slider from left-hander Wade Miley off his left shin bone. Werth collapsed in a heap near home plate and rested there for around 10 seconds before rising to one knee.

Manager Matt Williams and assistant trainer Steve Gober jogged onto the field to check on the right-handed slugger as he rose to his feet. Werth remained in the game and drew a walk in the at-bat.

“He’s good. It was right off the shin bone” Williams said. “That’s a stinger that gets you for a little while, but he’s okay. It will be a little sore tomorrow, I’m sure. No issues.”

Williams: With Harper’s approach, homers ‘will come’

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — When Bryce Harper led off the bottom of the ninth inning on Wednesday night with a line-drive single to center field, it set up the Nationals for their ninth straight victory and fourth walk-off in five games. But it also could be a sign that Harper is setting himself up for a big stretch run.

Harper’s hit off D-backs reliever Evan Marshall was his third of the night. More important, in the opinion of manager Matt Williams, is the fact that Harper sent the ball back through the middle of the field in each of his four at-bats.

“If he stays through the middle like that, the home runs will come,” Williams said. “They will come. They will come on hanging breaking balls and changeups left up in the zone if he can stay middle of the diamond. And he’s working hard on that, so I’m proud of his approach tonight.”

It’s been a trying season for Harper, who hasn’t enjoyed a sustained hot streak at the plate since last April, before injuries sidetracked what was shaping up to be an MVP-caliber campaign.

He began 2014 by hitting .289/.352/.422 in 22 games before tearing a thumb ligament and missing a little more than two months. After returning, he struggled to get comfortable at the plate, tinkering with his stance and posting a .220/.324/.322 line over his first 35 games back.

But Wednesday was Harper’s fifth multi-hit effort in his last 13 games, and he’s 15-for-49 (.306) over that span, with five walks and three home runs.

“It’s one of those things where you take off all that time, you’re trying to find something that works,” Harper said. “I’ve switched so many times, my stance and for my hand, for me knee, for so many things. So to be able to go in there every single day and feel good with my swing and where it’s at right now, not changing anything, stay with everything I’ve been doing, it feels very good.”

Harper benefited from a scoring change in the first inning, when D-backs second baseman Aaron Hill made a diving stop on his grounder up the middle but threw high to second while trying for a force. Initially ruled a fielder’s choice, it later became an infield single. Harper then singled up the middle on a grounder in the fourth, before Hill made a diving stop for a fielder’s choice in the sixth.

In the end, Harper had his fourth three-hit game of the season and first in more than a month.

“I’ve been battling every single day,” he said. “I’ve been trying to come in here and work my tail off, trying to get that rhythm, trying to get that feel of where I want to be. The next month-and-a-half, hopefully I can take off and help this team win some more ballgames.

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Soriano rebounds with perfect ninth inning

By Daniel Popper

WASHINGTON – In his previous nine appearances before Wednesday night, Nationals closer Rafael Soriano compiled a 13.06 ERA, surrendering nine earned runs on 12 hits over 6.2 innings. He blew two saves in six chances and saw his 2014 ERA skyrocket from 1.96 to 2.54, a season-worst for the right-hander.

The rough stretch prompted manager Matt Williams to give Soriano Monday and Tuesday off. And on Wednesday night against the D-backs, Soriano rebounded with a perfect top of the ninth inning in a tie ballgame.

The performance proved crucial, as the Nationals pulled out a walk-off, 3-2 victory in the bottom half on an RBI single from pinch-hitter Anthony Rendon.

“He had a really good fastball tonight, 92-93. Good slider,” Williams said. “Everything was crisp. A couple of days off really helped him.”

Cabrera, Desmond gelling as double-play partners

By Daniel Popper

WASHINGTON – Asdrubal Cabrera has been a member of the Nationals for less than a month, but he’s already made a huge impact on both sides of the ball. In the process, the second baseman has become increasingly comfortable playing alongside shortstop Ian Desmond.

The duo turned a sensational 4-6-3 double play in Sunday’s walk-off win over the Pirates. With no outs in the top of the eighth and reliever Tyler Clippard on the mound, Russell Martin ripped a line drive up the middle. Cabrera moved to his right, scooped it up off two hops, and flipped behind the back to second base. The delivery was a shade low, but Desmond was able to collect the ball, tag the base and fire to first for what ended up being the No. 1 play on SportsCenter’s Top 10 that night.

“The reputation that he has around the league, what the guys say when they come to second base and what the umpires have to say about him, it’s all great,” Desmond said of Cabrera. “Personally, when I get to establish myself in the league a little more, I want to be known as a professional and that’s what he is. He’s what you strive to be as a ballplayer. That’s just respected and appreciated and we definitely appreciate him here.”

Cabrera and Desmond turned another exquisite double play in Tuesday night’s 8-1 win over the D-backs at Nationals Park, this time on a rocket shot to shortstop. Desmond ranged left and picked a hotshot grounder up the middle before making the short throw to second, where Cabrera received the ball, turned and gunned out Mark Trumbo at first.

“He’s a great shortstop,” said Cabrera, who went 1-for-3 with a double and three RBIs Tuesday night. “I feel really comfortable at second, too. I think we no have to work too much together to get everything done. I think we do a great job and hope we still do what we’re doing now.”

Cabrera OK after nasty face-first collision

By Daniel Popper

WASHINGTON – There was a scary moment at Nationals Park in the bottom of the third inning Monday night when Asdrubel Cabrera smashed face-first into the leg of D-backs shortstop Didi Gregorious while sliding into second base. The incident proved not as serious as it originally appeared, though, as Cabrera stayed in the game for the remainder of the Nationals’ 5-4 extra-innings victory.

Cabrera reached on a one-out single before Jordan Zimmermann attempted a sacrifice bunt. Left-hander Vidal Nuno pounced off the mound, fielded and fired to second for the force out. The collision happened as Cabrera was trying to break up the double play. Gregorious’ shin connected flush with Cabrera’s nose and mouth.

The first thing Cabrera did was check to make sure he hadn’t lost any teeth. After that, he laid on his stomach for a brief moment before trainer Lee Kuntz trotted onto the field to attend to the injured second baseman. Cabrera eventually walked off the field under his own power.

“As soon as he hit me, I just touched my teeth to see if they were still there or not,” Cabrera said. “I had a headache for the first two innings after that. But after that, I was fine.”

Struggling Gio Gonzalez searching for curveball

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — A bumpy season got bumpier for Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez on Saturday.

Although Washington rallied late to beat Pittsburgh, 4-3, Gonzalez lasted only five innings and surrendered three runs on seven hits. It was his his fourth straight non-quality start and the fourth time in his last six outings that he failed to pitch into the sixth inning.

Yet a little over a month ago, Gonzalez was rolling, with a streak of three straight scoreless starts. Here’s a look at that period, compared with Gonzalez’s recent struggles:

June 23-July 5

  • 3 starts, 21 IP, 9 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 7 BB, 19 K, 0 HR, 15.3 pitches/IP. Opponents hit .132/.213/.147

July 31-Aug. 16

  • 4 starts, 19.1 IP, 27 H, 14 R, 14 ER, 9 BB, 23 K, 1 HR, 19.6 pitches/IP. Opponents hit .321/.387/.417

So how did Gonzalez go from one to the other?

Before and after Saturday’s game, manager Matt Williams identified curveball command as a key for Gonzalez. If he can throw it for strikes and work ahead in counts, he can keep hitters guessing. And if not?

“If he doesn’t have it, the other team can just eliminate it from their thought process and it makes it more difficult for him to get guys out,” Williams said.

During that scoreless stretch, Gonzalez threw his curve 20.8 percent of the time according to BrooksBaseball.net. He threw 31.3 percent of them for strikes, including 17.9 percent whiffs. But during his recent downturn, Gonzalez has been able to spin the curve only 11.6 percent of the time, with 15.9 percent strikes and 6.8 percent whiffs.

“It’s just trying to find a feel for it,” Gonzalez said after Saturday’s outing, in which he threw seven of his 11 curves for balls and got one swing and miss. “It’s one of those pitches, almost like the changeup where you’ve got to get that touch and feel in the back of your head, just ‘Oh, there it is.’ That’s the pitch you wanted. But so far, it lands for a strike and then it has no clue where it’s going.”

Williams said that Gonzalez, who earlier this season spent time on the disabled list with left shoulder inflammation, feels good and hasn’t complained of any pain. His fastball velocity hasn’t dipped. It will be up to Gonzalez and pitching coach Steve McCatty to refine the curve during the pitcher’s next bullpen session, searching for the right arm slot.

Of course, luck also factors into any good or bad stretch in baseball. And while Gonzalez clearly hasn’t been sharp, he did strike out seven on Saturday while walking only two. He gave up one extra-base hit, a Starling Marte RBI double that flew just inches over the outstretched glove of third baseman Anthony Rendon. The Pirates grounded a few singles through the left side of the infield, and also collected an infield hit.

During Gonzalez’s three straight scoreless starts, batters hit a very low .184 on balls in play while smacking line drives 20 percent of the time. In his last four starts, batters have hit a scalding .433 on balls in play, with 23 percent line drives.

While Gonzalez now sports a 4.00 ERA, compared with 2.89 in 2012 and 3.36 last year, his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) of 3.17 sits in between the 2.82 and 3.41 of the past two seasons.

“Just tough breaks,” Gonzalez said Saturday. “I got ground balls that I wanted — they just found a hole. I got broken bats, and they found hits. So that’s just baseball. That’s how it’s going for me this year. You got to keep grinding, keep grinding.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

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