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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.

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.”

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