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.
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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.
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.
By Andrew Simon
VIERA, Fla. — Saturday’s Grapefruit League contest between the Nationals and Braves at Space Coast Stadium featured two teams that figure to be fighting each other for the National League East title. But after a brisk first two innings from starters Jordan Zimmermann and Julio Teheran, the game devolved into a sloppy affair that lasted three hours, 59 minutes and featured 31 runs, 37 hits, 14 walks, six errors and numerous misplays.
For what it’s worth, the Nats outlasted the Braves, 16-15. Here are some notes and observations from a long and crazy day at the ballpark:
– Zimmermann was on point, throwing 15 of his 20 pitches for strikes and getting five ground balls in six batters during two scoreless innings. As mentioned in today’s notebook, Zimmermann mixed in some nice changeups, a part of his repertoire that that he has developed very gradually in recent years.
– Bryce Harper played his first game of the spring, going four innings in left field and taking three plate appearances. He lined out sharply to first base, walked twice and stole a base.
– The Nats went 3-for-3 on steals in the third inning, with Denard Span stealing one on his own before pulling off a double steal of third and second with Harper. New manager Matt Williams wants his players to run the bases more aggressively, and they appear to be doing that in the early going.
– Most of the Nats pitchers after Zimmermann had a tough time, but veteran righty Luis Ayala — competing for one the last two bullpen spots — stopped the bleeding. He came in to protect a one-run lead with one out and the bases loaded in the eighth and induced an inning-ending double play, then pitched a scoreless ninth for the save. Ayala is a sinkerball artist who posted an excellent 59 percent groundball rate last season, mostly with Atlanta.
“He’s a guy that can have really quick innings,” Williams said. “An aggressive opposition, ball sinking down and in, a lot of ground balls. So that’s why we’re considering him and that’s why he’s here and it was a perfect situation today for him.”
– Michael Taylor, who is considered a strong defensive prospect in center field, had a rough day after entering the game in right. He made two errors on one play to allow Matt Lipka to circle the bases on a bloop hit down the line and later dropped a line drive into the right-center gap.
“We want to make sure he gets some reps out there,” Williams said. “Today’s a rough day for any right fielder, but he’ll get some more reps out there, too.”
Tomorrow: The Nats are back at Space Coast to take on the Marlins at 1:05 p.m. Doug Fister will start in his Washington debut, and fellow newcomer Jerry Blevins is scheduled to pitch as well. Jayson Werth is supposed to play for the first time this spring.
Looking ahead: Ross Detwiler will start against the Yankees on Monday in Tampa, and Stephen Strasburg will take the ball against the Braves on Tuesday in Lake Buena Vista. That would leave Gio Gonzalez as the one expected member of the rotation yet to pitch.
Worth noting: Although he called Saturday’s defensive sloppiness an “aberration,” Williams said his club will address the issue in a previously scheduled situational defense practice on Sunday.
Worth quoting: While passing a group of reporters in a hallway shortly after the game, Nats coach Mark Weidemaier, who is in charge of the club’s defense, quipped, “Coached the [heck] out of ‘em today!”
Further reading: Today’s notebook on Nationals.com also includes info on how Danny Espinosa will split his time between second base and shortstop this spring, the approach Williams wants prospect Zach Walters to take at the plate, and lefty Tyler Robertson aiming for a bullpen job.
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By Andrew Simon
VIERA, Fla. — Thursday was a light day at Nationals camp, as the team gears up for the start of the Grapefruit League season, which begins on Friday against the Mets at Port St. Lucie. The main piece of action was batting practice on the field at Space Coast Stadium. Here are some notes and observations:
– As mentioned in today’s notebook on Nationals.com, manager Matt Williams and catcher Wilson Ramos got into a bit of friendly competition during Ramos’ BP rounds. Ramos whiffed on one early offering but got his revenge by crushing a few monstrous home runs, including two off the left-field scoreboard. After Ramos demolished his last pitch over the berm behind deep left-center field, Williams jokingly shouted, “Show-off!”
“He’s just big power. Big power,” Williams said. “He hits the ball the other way really good, too. So that’s why he’s so good at driving runs in because he stays through the middle of the diamond. Today he was letting it eat a little bit though. That’s good.”
– The workout was open to the public, and although only perhaps a few dozen people sat in the stands, one group serenaded center fielder Denard Span with “Happy Birthday” when he stepped into the cage for his first round of BP. Span turned 30 on Thursday.
– Some managers prefer to take their own cars to away games during Spring Training, but Williams will be taking the bus.
“I don’t think that I have authority to do that right now,” Williams said of going on his own. “One, I don’t know where I’m going. Two, we’re going to have talks on the way back. We’re going to need to put together lineups for the next day and stuff like that.”
Tomorrow: The Nats finally will face someone other than themselves when they square off against the Mets at 1:10 p.m. ET. Taylor Jordan will get the start, while Rafael Montero will go for New York. As Bill Ladson writes, it will be Williams’ first game as a big league manager, even if it’s only Spring Training.
Looking ahead: The club’s first game at Space Coast Stadium will be at 1:05 p.m. on Saturday against the Braves. They also will face the Marlins in Viera on Sunday at 1:05 before heading back on the road.
Worth noting: Williams said he plans to give his starters a couple of at-bats in Friday’s game. That group includes the likes of Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond.
Worth quoting: Williams on if he is nervous about the mechanics of managing a game – “No, it’s fine. That part of it, I’ve done before [in the Arizona Fall League]. Not at this level. The only thing I’m worried about or nervous about is trying to get everyone into the game. I want to look at everybody. So unfortunately that is almost impossible sometimes. But that’s the plan. But going out there and making a change, I’m not worried about that stuff.”
Further reading: In today’s notebook, there are items on Williams’ plan to keep Ramos healthy and fresh this season, the Nats’ catchers preparing for the new home-plate collision rule, and how reliever Erik Davis is progressing in his recovery from an elbow injury.
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By Andrew Simon
VIERA, Fla. — Wednesday was the Nationals’ second-to-last day of workouts before their Grapefruit League schedule begins on Friday against the Mets in Port St. Lucie. Here are some notes, observations and photos from the club’s Spring Training complex:
- Stephen Strasburg threw live batting practice to a group including Ryan Zimmerman, Tyler Moore and Adam LaRoche and had the catcher’s glove popping with each fastball.
- During batting practice, non-roster right-hander Clay Hensley accidentally drilled second baseman Anthony Rendon in the back with one of his offerings. He apologized profusely, and Rendon was able to laugh it off, even if he’ll likely be sporting a bruise by Thursday.
- Minor League righty Blake Treinen, coming off a strong season at Double-A Harrisburg, made a good impression while throwing to fellow prospects Steven Souza, Michael Taylor and Brian Goodwin. The 25-year-old’s stuff, which manager Matt Williams called “electric,” prompted veteran catcher Koyie Hill to tell Treinen after his session that he’s going to strike it rich during his career.
- Williams also was impressed with reliever Drew Storen, especially the way he got good action down in the zone with his changeup, drawing some swings and misses.
Tomorrow: The Nats will have a lighter workout day on Thursday, something more like what they will have once games start. They also will be on the field at Space Coast Stadium instead of the complex’s back fields.
Looking ahead: The Nationals announced their lineup for Friday’s game, which will feature the debut of outfielder Nate McLouth. Taylor Jordan will get the start, with A.J. Cole, Christian Garcia, Xavier Cedeno, Manny Delcarmen, Aaron Barrett, Danny Rosenbaum and Tyler Robertson scheduled to follow.
Worth noting: Williams plans to have his veterans make plenty of road trips, including Friday’s, saying “there’s no getting around it,” considering how often the club must go long distances to face Grapefruit League opponents. Asked if that decision includes outfielder Jayson Werth, Williams answered, “It most certainly does.”
Worth quoting: “It’s nerve-racking because I’ve never been on this side of it, but at the same time it’s rewarding that we’ve gotten here and now we’re on the verge of starting games and having it ramp up a little bit and have it get a little bit faster for everyone. I’m looking forward to it.” — Williams, on experiencing his first Spring Training as a manager.
Further reading: Brock Peterson, in camp on a Minor League deal, is trying to author a better second chapter to his big league career after struggling following a long-awaited call-up with the Cardinals in 2013. Jordan is excited to make the first start of the spring.
By Andrew Simon
WASHINGTON — Describing last season as a “wakeup call,” Tyler Moore is preparing for Spring Training with the mindset that he will need to win a spot on the Nationals’ 25-man roster.
Moore, who turns 27 on Thursday, burst onto the scene with a strong rookie season in 2012 but struggled throughout much of ‘13, enduring a demotion to the Minor Leagues along the way. He figures to be a part of Washington’s bench again this year but isn’t taking that job for granted.
“I’m not given anything,” Moore said on Saturday at FanFest. “I definitely have to earn what I’m gonna get. I’m just looking forward to it, looking forward to competing.”
Moore knows that playing time could be scarce this season. Adam LaRoche remains as the starter at first base, and while the right-handed Moore could get some starts there against lefties, The Washington Post reported in December that the club plans to have third baseman Ryan Zimmerman work out at first this spring. If Zimmerman takes some starts at first, and with Scott Hairston providing an extra righty bat in the outfield, Moore likely would be relegated mostly to a pinch-hitting role.
That puts the onus on Moore to produce in more limited opportunities.
“I think last year maybe I was a little too lackadaisical in spring, and that’s what I want to kind of correct this year because I know I don’t have an everyday job, obviously,” Moore said. “I have to be ready to come in and hit when I have a chance, and when I have that chance, I have to take the best advantage of it.”
As a rookie, Moore hit .263/.327/.513 in 171 plate appearances, with 10 home runs and 29 RBIs. But in ‘13, he posted a .222/.260/.347 line in 178 plate appearances, seeing his walks drop and his strikeouts rise while collecting four home runs and 21 RBIs.
Then-manager Davey Johnson talked frequently about how difficult it can be for a young player, used to being in the lineup every day in the Minors, to fill a bench role in the Majors. Although he enjoyed some success as a pinch-hitter in ‘12, Moore went 1-for-18 with 12 strikeouts last year.
“Physically, I definitely know how. Mentally it’s still a challenge,” Moore said of coming off the bench. “I think it’s still a challenge, even for the veteran guys, and it’s something you have to figure out every day and your own personal way to do things. The biggest thing for me is just to slow the game down and really just get locked in when I’m watching the game on the bench, to stay in the game and not lose myself.”
Moore spent about a month and a half at Triple-A Syracuse last summer, but when he returned, he was clicking. Making the most of some chances to start, Moore went 21-for-61 (.344) from Aug. 17 on, with four doubles, a homer and seven RBIs.
With that finish as a springboard, Moore intends to come to Nationals camp in Viera, Fla., with a sense of urgency as he looks to put 2013 behind him.
“It was tough. But at the same time, it was kind of a wakeup call, like, look, you can’t just roll in here [to the Majors] and think you’re gonna do good all the time,” Moore said. “This is a tough and humbling game, and it’s an eye-opener, makes you a little bit more hungry, because a lot of people are talking bad and you just want to prove them wrong, but at the same time you want to prove to yourself that you belong here and you want to stay.”
By Bill Ladson
WASHINGTON — During the offseason, Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez had bullpen sessions every Tuesday at the University of Miami with former Yankees catcher Jorge Posada.
“I think Jorge is a great mentor, a childhood dream,” Gonzalez said. “I always dreamt about pitching to Jorge Posada. It’s not that often you get a guy that is more than happy to catch a bullpen for you. … He is an inspiration as an idol. He is everything you could possibly think of and more. He is a true definition of an athlete.”
Gonzalez put photos of him and Posada on Twitter and had some people believe that Posada was possibly making a comeback. But Gonzalez wants everybody to know that Posada will remain retired. In the meantime Gonzalez is getting sound advice from Posada, who teaching him about pitching mechanics, patients and hitting his spots in the strike zone.
“You just sit there and listen,” Gonzalez said. “How many times [do] you have a [five-] title guy coming up to you with the information he has.”