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Batted ball hits Blevins in second straight game

By Daniel Popper

For the second time in as many games Friday night against the Braves, a batted ball struck Nationals reliever Jerry Blevins.

On Thursday, Blevins took a line drive off his left knee in the 8th inning on an RBI single from Braves third baseman Chris Johnson. The ball trickled to the outfield past Anthony Rendon, and Blevins ran to the third base line to back up the play with a noticeable limp, but he stayed in the game. After the contest, Blevins appeared in the clubhouse with bandage on his knee and said he iced the injury as a precautionary measure.

Friday’s mishap included less pain and an improved outcome when Ramiro Pena slapped a low line drive up the middle in the 12th inning. The ball hit Blevins on the underside of his foot and deflected right to first base, where Adam LaRoche was waiting to scoop it up for the final out of the frame.

“I decided to kick it towards the other side of the infield,” Blevins joked. “Luckily, this one got me in the bottom of the foot and ricocheted toward somebody.”

Blevins returned for the 13th inning and surrendered two runs in an eventual 6-4 loss for the Nationals.

Nats struggling in extra innings

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Ever since beating the Mets in 10 innings on Opening Day, extra frames have brought the Nationals nothing but pain this season.

After falling to the Braves in 13 innings on Friday, the Nats have lost their last seven contests that have required extras. That 1-7 mark (a .125 winning percentage) is the worst in the Majors, ahead of the Dodgers (3-8, .273) and Cubs (3-6, .333). Meanwhile, the rest of the teams in the National League East are a combined 19-20 in extras, so Washington’s troubles have made a significant difference in the division standings.

“I don’t know. I don’t have the answer for that,” manager Matt Williams said when asked if he had a theory. “I’d be interested to know though how many times we’ve come back to make it extra innings. … I would imagine the majority of those are come-from-behind tying-the-game situations like we had last night, and there’s something to be said for that.”

Indeed, the Nats trailed at some point during six of those seven losses, and in four of them, they were the team that knotted the score last to keep the game going. That includes Friday’s loss to Atlanta, in which Anthony Rendon hit a two-out, two-run homer off closer Craig Kimbrel in the ninth, but the Braves scored two against Jerry Blevins in the 13th.

“The stats are the stats,” Williams said. “The fact is we’re 1-7. I don’t think of it that way. If in fact we’ve come back in those games and been down four runs and come back and tied it up, then I’m happy about that part of it, not that we didn’t end up winning those games. A team can simply say, ‘It’s not our day,’ and give up, but our guys don’t do that.”

Regardless, the results have been grisly once the ninth inning has passed. Here are the Nats’ stats from the 10th forward:

Offense: 6 runs, 12-for-65 (.185), .257 OBP, .292 SLG, 4 2B, HR, 7 BB, 20 K

  • .549 OPS ranks 28th in MLB

Pitching: 18 IP, 22 H, 14 R, 14 ER, 11 BB, 20 K, 2 HR, 7.00 ERA

  • .831 OPS against ranks 24th in MLB

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Nats not expected to make major moves before deadline

By Bill Ladson

WASHINGTON — Earlier this week, Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo said he did not anticipate making any trades or dramatic roster moves upon Bryce Harper’s return, which is expected sometime in July.

“These things usually have a way of taking care of themselves,” Rizzo said.

While the Nationals aren’t expected to make any significant moves, a baseball source said opposing teams are still inquiring about second baseman Danny Espinosa. But, as of now, the Nationals are not interested in trading him. The source said recently the Nationals still believe in Espinosa and predict he will be an All Star one day.

Espinosa is currently playing every day because of injuries to Harper and Ryan Zimmerman. It forced the team to switch Anthony Rendon from second base to third base and Espinosa from the bench to second base.

While Espinosa has been struggling at the plate, he continues to be a wizard with the glove. He has made only four errors in 66 games entering Friday’s action against the Braves. The Nationals are also looking at Espinosa as insurance in case something happened to shortstop Ian Desmond. The source pointed out there is no one on the Major League team or the Minor League system who could replace Desmond for a long period of time other than Espinosa.

While the Nationals are not looking to trade Ross Detwiler, the source said they would listen if there is any interest in the left-hander.

Detwiler hasn’t seen much action as a long reliever and is off to a start, allowing 16 earned runs in 29 innings. The source pointed out that Detwiler’s trade value is low because of the slow start and that he missed most of last season because of back issues.

If teams have interest in Detwiler, it would be as a starter. Detwiler best season came as a starter. In 2012, Detwiler was the fifth starter for Washington, winning 10 games with a respectable 3.40 ERA. Detwiler said recently he still sees himself as a starter.

“That’s where I’m most comfortable. You are able to get a routine down. You know when you are going to pitch,” Detwiler said. “I’m always a good routine person. It changed a little bit — how much you run, how much you lift. Through all that stuff between starts, that’s the biggest difference.”

It’s also looks like Adam LaRoche will be with the Nationals the entire season. There has been talk about putting Ryan Zimmerman at first base. But the source pointed out that LaRoche is not only having a productive season [.297, eight home runs and 35 RBIs entering Friday’s action], he is a good influence in the clubhouse.

LaRoche and the Nationals have a mutual option after this season, but there hasn’t been any talk about an extension, according to LaRoche.

 

Williams: Zimmerman doing “a fine job” in LF

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — In the eighth inning of the Nationals’ loss to the Braves on Thursday night, Atlanta’s Jason Heyward lofted a shallow fly to left field with Freddie Freeman on third base and no outs. Under most circumstances, there would have been no doubt that the less-than-fleet-footed Freeman would hold on the play.

But with Ryan Zimmerman and his troublesome right shoulder still relatively untested in the outfield, it was reasonable to wonder whether the Braves would take their chances.

Zimmerman caught the ball, perhaps about 100 feet past the infield dirt. Freeman tagged and took a few steps toward home but quickly stopped and retreated. Zimmerman’s toss fluttered in and one-hopped his cutoff man.

Is Nats manager Matt Williams surprised opponents haven’t forced the issue more against Zimmerman, set to make his 16th start in left field on Friday?

“Every team has tape, so they can go look at what he’s doing, but you’re not just gonna run just to run, because he has the ability to throw you out,” Williams said. “The fact that he’s out there and playing well helps in that regard. So you can just continue to run, but it doesn’t mean you’re going to be safe. Every team has to look at what their potential for scoring runs are in that inning, how many outs there are, who’s coming up, all those things that you would do normally.”

Williams said he believes Zimmerman has “done a fine job” in left this season, after spending basically his entire professional career at third. He pointed out not only the prevented sacrifice fly, but also a play in the seventh inning, when Zimmerman cut off a Tommy La Stella liner in the left-center gap and got the back in quickly enough to hold La Stella to a single.

Zimmerman hasn’t faced a lot of difficult plays in left so far. He’s shown his athleticism, such as on the diving catch he made to rob the Giants’ Brandon Crawford in San Francisco last week. He’s also shown his inexperience, such as in Thursday’s second inning, when a broken-bat bloop from Heyward seemed to fool Zimmerman just long enough to drop a few feet in front of him for a hit.

Certainly, the throwing issues that frequently plagued Zimmerman at third over the past two seasons have not made nearly as big of an impact with him in left. Those situations come up less often, and when they do, Williams believes “it’s a completely different throw.”

“It’s a bigger target, certainly, a bigger range of target,” he said. “The second baseman or the third baseman or the catcher doesn’t necessarily have to stand on the base, so that comes into effect. It’s a little different throwing motion, too. He’s on top of the ball a little bit more in the outfield than he would be in the infield.”

All of this may or may not still be relevant when Bryce Harper comes off the disabled list, which the Nats hope will happen at the beginning of July. Williams has indicated that he intends to mix and match his lineup at that point, which could have Zimmerman bouncing between left field, third base and even first base.

For now, Zimmerman is “starting the progression” toward getting ready for the hot corner, according to Williams. He’s currently working out there every other day and will continue building up as the Nats go on a road trip next week.

“It’s a question that has to be answered,” Williams said of the lineup decisions, “and we’ll answer it when the time comes.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

 

Nationals show concern for Floyd

By Bill Ladson

WASHINGTON — On Thursday night, right-hander Gavin Floyd pitched six shutout innings and helped the Braves blank the Nationals, 3-0, at Nationals Park.

However, members of the Nationals were shocked to learn that Floyd had to leave the game in the seventh inning because of a fractured right elbow, an injury that could end his season. Floyd had recently recovered from Tommy John surgery.

“You don’t want to see anyone get hurt,” Nationals manager Matt Williams said. “It’s a long road back. We hope everything is all right. You never want to see anyone leave the mound. Everybody competes, everybody wants to win, but you don’t want to see injuries either.”

Right-hander Jordan Zimmermann has been in Floyd’s shoes. Zimmermann, who had elbow reconstruction surgery in 2009, said he hopes Floyd can recover from this most recent setback.

“You never want another pitcher to get injured. I don’t know what happened. Obviously, it was bad enough to where he had to come out of the game. Hopefully, he will be all right,” Zimmermann said.

Unfriendly foe: Braves continue to have Nats’ number

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — The Braves stumbled into D.C. on Thursday on a three-game losing streak, having dropped seven of their 11 games. They were 19-28 since April 29, and the Nationals had overtaken them for first place in the NL East by 1.5 games.

It didn’t matter.

The result of the opener of this four-game series was distressingly familiar for the Nats. They generated few baserunners, did little with the ones they had and watched the Braves scratch across a few runs in a 3-0 game.

Since the start of last season, the Nats are 7-19 against the Braves (a .269 winning percentage) and 116-91 (.560) against everyone else. While the Nats have struggled against a few other teams during that time — they’re 2-11 against the Cardinals — their issues with the Braves sting worse, considering their frequent confrontations and the implications in the division race.

“I don’t know what it is,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “You’ve got to think, losing that many games, it’s not all coincidence.”

A look at some of the Nats’ numbers over the past two years, first offensively:

  • Runs scored per game: 2.5 vs. Atlanta … 4.3 vs. all other teams
  • Batting average: .213 vs. Atlanta … .250 overall
  • On-base percentage: .278 vs. Atlanta … .314 overall
  • Slugging percentage: .307 vs. Atlanta … .393 overall
  • Strikeouts: 8.3 per game vs. Atlanta … 7.5 overall
  • Walks: 2.7 per game vs. Atlanta … 3.0 overall

Now, some pitching numbers

  • ERA: 3.58 vs. Atlanta …. 3.43 overall
  • Runs allowed per game: 4.2 vs. Atlanta … 3.7 vs. all other teams
  • Batting average against: .247 vs. Atlanta … .249 overall
  • 1.291 WHIP vs. Atlanta … 1.223 overall
  • 2.7 K-to-BB ratio vs. Atlanta … 3.1 overall

As those numbers show, the offense has been a significantly bigger culprit than the pitching against the Braves, just as it was on Thursday. Jordan Zimmermann pitched a solid seven innings but took a hard-luck loss, as the Nats managed only three hits and two walks against Gavin Floyd and three relievers.

In those 26 matchups over the past two years, the Nats have

  • Suffered two shutouts (0-2 record)
  • Scored one run six times (0-6)
  • Scored two runs eight times (2-6)
  • Scored three runs five times (2-3)
  • Scored four runs two times (1-1)
  • Scored more than four runs three times (2-1)

So when the Nats have managed to plate three runs or more, they’ve gone a respectable 5-5 against the Braves. The problem is, they’ve scored two runs or fewer 16 times and gone 2-14. Over that stretch, Braves starters own a 2.30 ERA.

Is there something about this matchup that causes it to consistently tip in Atlanta’s favor? Are the Braves in the Nats’ heads, or is this simply a quirk that will even out over more time?

Nats manager Matt Williams wasn’t here last season, when the Braves beat up on the Nats on their way to a division title, but he’s not putting too much stock in the recent results between the teams.

“I don’t have the history, so I don’t buy into that,” he said. “I think that if we execute and we do things properly, we’ve got a chance to win every day, regardless of who we play. Tonight they got us, and we’ll be ready to tomorrow. We can’t look any further than that. You can’t peek around the corner and you can’t look back.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

McLouth returns to his role as a bench player

By Daniel Popper 

WASHINGTON — Nate McLouth found himself in a situation Tuesday night against the Astros that he hasn’t encountered too often this season: as a pinch hitter.

Nationals manager Matt Williams called the outfielder’s number with bases loaded and one out in the bottom of the seventh inning of a 5-5 tie. And McLouth delivered a sacrifice fly to left field on the first pitch he saw, scoring Ryan Zimmerman for what was eventually the game-winning run.

“He got a ball to hit out over first pitch and he did what he was supposed to do with it,” Williams said. “He went up there with a plan…and got the job done.  It’s nice to see. Good for him.”

McLouth signed his two-year, $10.75 million contract with the Nationals before this season understanding his role as a bench player. But when Bryce Harper suffered a torn thumb ligament at the end of April, McLouth was forced into the starting lineup as a left fielder for over a month until Ryan Zimmerman’s return on June 3.

Now, McLouth is back to doing what he expected to entering this season. And while he noted the high pressures, limited opportunities and different in-game preparations that come with pinch-hitting, McLouth said he’s up for the task.

“It’s a tough gig sometimes just for the simple fact that it’s hard to get in a rhythm at the plate when you don’t get consistent at bats,” McLouth said. “But that’s my job.”

Smoltz’s take on Nats, Braves

By Bill Ladson

WASHINGTON — Former Major League pitcher John Smoltz, now an analyst for MLB Network, feels the current four-game series between the Nationals and Braves is more important for the Nationals because they need to psychologically show they can beat the Braves.

Entering Thursday’s game, the Braves had won five out of six games against the Nationals this season, but Smoltz pointed out that the Braves have not played good baseball lately. Atlanta won 16 of its first 24 games, but has gone 19-28 since then. It doesn’t help that the Braves have been inconsistent on offense. The Braves’ pitching staff was off to a great start, but it has struggled lately.

“You have two teams that are going in opposite directions,” Smoltz said.  “One [the Nationals] is trying to get healthy and the other team [Braves] is trying to get back to its winning ways. It’s been a rough stretch. It will be an interesting series, unless there is a sweep.”

Smoltz did not predict who will win the series, but he is impressed with the Nationals’ pitching staff. He said their pitching depth is so good that they can mix and match with any team. Smoltz also said the bullpen is underrated.

“[The bullpen] is probably the best in the National League collectively,” Smoltz said.

Smoltz believes the Nationals will be even better once their players are healthy. The biggest piece that is missing is outfielder Bryce Harper, who hasn’t played since April 25 because of torn ligaments in his right thumb. As of now,  Harper is expected to be back by July 1.

Smoltz pointed out the Nationals have been inconsistent scoring runs because key players such as Harper, Adam LaRoche, Ryan Zimmerman and Wilson Ramos have been hurt at some point this season. Like Harper, Ramos is expected to be back with the team soon.

“Once they get healthy, they will score more runs than they have been scoring,” Smoltz said. “Left-handed, when you are missing LaRoche like you were and you are missing Harper. That’s a big left-handed weapon out of your lineup. The right-handed hitters have held their own, but they have to get some balance in their lineup.”

Matt Williams reflects on passing of Tony Gwynn

By Daniel Popper

WASHINGTON — Nationals Manager Matt Williams played 10 seasons with the San Francisco Giants from 1987 until 1996, and faced Tony Gwynn of the division-rival Padres in multiple series every season.

Gwynn passed away Monday at the age of 54 after a long battle with salivary gland cancer. And Williams shared his thoughts on the death of the one of the greatest hitters to ever swing a bat.

“It was a marvel to see him take batting practice because he could do anything he wanted to do with a baseball,” Williams said. “He’d take any pitch and hit it wherever he wanted to hit it.”

Williams said the Giants, like many other teams, would try a variety of defensive schemes to try and take away Gwynn’s favorable hole in between shortstop and third base, where Williams played. However, the attempts were to no avail.

“He’d walk to the plate and see where you were, and then decide to hit it where you weren’t,” Williams said. “Pretty skilled, hand eye coordination, vision, all of those things that are very unique to a select few. You’d stand out there and try to defend it, and it he’d hit it by you. You’d just go ‘Well, I don’t know what to do.’ But we weren’t alone. That’s for sure.”

Nats’ Ramos placed on disabled list

By Bill Ladson

SAN FRANCISCO – The Nationals have placed catcher Wilson Ramos on the 15-day disabled list on Wednesday because of right hamstring tightness. The team is recalling catcher Sandy Leon to be the No. 2 catcher.

Wilson hurt the hamstring after batting in the ninth inning against Giants right-hander Juan Gutierrez. Ramos doubled to left-center field and felt pain as he was sliding into second base. Ramos left the game and was replaced by outfielder Nate McLouth. Ramos walked back into the dugout on his own power.

It marked the second time Ramos has been placed on the disabled list this season. The first time came a day after Opening Day after he broke his left hamate bone.

On Wednesday, Ramos was upbeat and “normal,” but he understood why he was placed on the DL. He realizes they need to have healthy catcher in case something happens to Jose Lobaton, who is in the starting lineup.

“They put me on the DL because they need to have somebody 100 percent in case Loby gets hurt or something like that. They need to get somebody ready,” Ramos said.  “I want to work. I want to keep working. Let’s see how I feel the next couple of days.”

Ramos is in great shape, but Lobaton suggested to Ramos that he starts a new program in order to keep his legs healthy. Ramos agrees with his teammate. Ramos had hamstring issues last year and missed half the season.

“I need to do something different,” Ramos said. “I need to work more on my hammy. I need to work on my hammy because I don’t have any problem with any part of my body, just my hammy. I need to work 100 percent with my hammy.”

As for Leon, this is his second stint with the Nationals this season. He is having a productive year with the Triple A Syracuse, hitting .294 with six RBIs.

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