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Nationals’ offensive struggles continue in May

By Daniel Propper

WASHINGTON – The Nationals are 9-15 during the month of May due largely to their struggling offense.

The team has compiled a .231 batting average in 24 games this month, which is tied for third-worst in the league. Washington is also second-to-last in the Majors in runs scored during May with 77 and its .298 on-base percentage ranks 25th.

“It’s a little bit of everything,” said hitting coach Rick Schu who explained why the team is not hitting. “Wherever you’re at, it’s a little bit of a mental and little bit of a mechanical thing.”

Granted, the Nationals suffered a number of injuries to key players in the first month of their 2014 campaign.

Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman was batting .364 with two home runs and six RBIs before fracturing his right thumb on April 12, an injury that has already forced him to miss 41 games. Meanwhile, left fielder Bryce Harper tore a ligament in his left thumb sliding into third base against the Padres on April 25, and has missed 28 games.

In addition, first baseman Adam LaRoche missed 14 games with a right quad strain during a stretch spanning from May 10 to May 24. He hit a two-run home run during his second game back Monday afternoon against the Marlins, but the Nationals still lost, 3-2.

“Probably more than anything, just get these guys to stop pressing,” Schu said. “LaRoche came back in the lineup, guys started relaxing a little bit more. Zimm’s getting close. And once we get those guys back in the lineup, I think it takes the pressure off the other guys trying to do too much.”

 

McLouth’s bat coming around

By Bill Ladson

WASHINGTON  — Outfielder Nate McLouth had his best game as a member of the Nationals on Wednesday, going 4-for-4 with a walk and driving in two runs in an 8-5 loss to the Marlins.

Prior to the game, McLouth was off to a slow start, hitting .143 with just one home run and one RBI. Before the productive game, McLouth said he had a positive attitude, because he remained confident in his approach at the plate.

“It was nice [to have a game like that]. I’ve been grinding. It’s really nice to come through for your team at the plate a little bit,” McLouth said. “There is certainly a chance to exhale a little bit.”

During the game, McLouth received a scare while Washington was trying to rally in the eighth inning. With the bases loaded and McLouth on third, Anthony Rendon hit a line-drive foul ball that hit McLouth on the left foot. McLouth was down for the count, while manager Matt Williams and head athletic trainer Lee Kuntz came to his aid. McLouth was in foul territory when he was hit.

“It’s sore. It got my big toe, actually. It got the sole of my shoe, so I was a little sore, but it’s fine,” McLouth said.

 

 

Extra Nats Notes from Pittsburgh

By Bill Ladson

* Nationals left-hander Ross Detwiler has been having a hard time on the mound lately. In his last eight games, Detwiler has allowed 13 runs in 10 innings. His last appearance was in Thursday’s 3-1 loss to the Pirates. He entered the game in the eighth inning, allowing blooped double to Chris Stewart, which should have been caught, and an RBI single to Josh Harrison.

Nationals manager Matt Williams thought Detwiler had a better outing Thursday than he did in previous appearances.

“The double that hung up there a little while, it was placed perfectly. And then [there was] a ball hit off the end of the bat [for a single],” Williams said. “The results don’t say it. [Detwiler] worked quicker and he had good tempo tonight. But I think, overall, he pitched better tonight than he did in his last couple of outings.”

* Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche went 0-for-2 in his first rehab game for Class A Potomac on Thursday. He is expected to play another rehab game for Double A Harrisburg on Friday. LaRoche is currently on the 15-day disabled list because of a right quad strain. He could be back with the Major League club on Sunday against the Pirates or Monday against the Marlins.

* The Nationals have been having a tough time scoring runs, so one would think that manager Matt Williams would be aggressive on the bases on Thursday against the Pirates. In the seventh inning, after Nate McLouth reached base on a bunt single, Kevin Frandsen came to the plate. One would have thought that McLouth would have tried to steal second base. But McLouth stayed on first and Frandsen hit into a double play.

“[McLouth] has the green light,” Williams said. “Franny got to 1-1. If we get to a [ceratin] count, I could certainly put it on. [McLouth] has the green light [to steal] if he feels it. But we got a double play out of it.”

* Pirates outfielder Andrew McCutchen is 46-for-116 [.397] with 13 home runs and 28 RBIs during his career against the Nationals . On Thursday, he drove in two of the three runs in a 3-1 victory over the Nationals.

In the third inning, McCutchen came to the plate and was hit by a pitch, scoring right-hander Edinson Volquez to make it a 1-0 game. Two innings later, Pirates retook the lead as McCutchen singled to center field, scoring Harrison.

In the ninth against closer Mark Melancon, the Nats put runners on first and second with two outs, but Anthony Rendon lined out to McCutchen, who made a sliding catch to end the game.

“[McCutchen] is the MVP for a lot of reasons,” Williams said. “He is a good player, a really good player. I don’t think he is going to go after that ball if he feels like he didn’t have a chance to catch it. It was a good play.”

A big day for Denard Span

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — A few hours after Nationals manager Matt Williams said he would stick with the scuffling Denard Span as his leadoff hitter, Span rewarded that faith with one of the best games of his career on Tuesday.

Span went 5-for-5 with two doubles, two RBIs, a stolen base and two runs scored in a 9-4 win over the Reds. In the process, he lifted his batting average from .239 to .263 and his on-base percentage from .287 to .308.

It was the sixth five-hit game in Nationals history (since 2005) and first since Ian Desmond on Sept. 15, 2011. It also was the seventh five-hit game in the Major Leagues this season and the third of Span’s career — but first since 2009, his first full big league season.

“Those are special,” Williams said of the performance. “Those don’t happen very often, so good for him.”

And good for the Nats, who improved to 13-5 this season when Span reaches base safely at least twice. But that hasn’t happened often enough for Washington, which entered Tuesday last in the Majors in on-base percentage from the leadoff spot, with Span occupying that position in 35 of 44 games.

It’s Span’s second straight season getting off to a slow start. Last year, he hit .258 with a .310 on-base percentage through Aug. 16 before hitting .338 with a .375 OBP the rest of the year to finish within striking distance of his career numbers.

Tuesday showed Span’s full arsenal of offensive skills when he’s clicking. He opened the bottom of the first inning by taking Johnny Cueto the other way for a single on a rare first-pitch swing. In the third, he dropped a bunt toward third base, with his speed helping force a bad throw that scored a run and put Span at third. In the sixth, he singled and stole a base in his first at-bat and ripped a two-run double in his second — the latter hit off lefty Sean Marshall (Span came in hitting .190 against southpaws). Finally, in the eighth, he enjoyed a bit of luck that he might have been due for, hitting a blooper to shallow center field that eluded the Reds’ defense for a double.

Despite all of that, Span said he was already trying to put the game behind him.

“It was just one day. Had a good day. Today was my day,” Span said. “Saw the ball good, and I’ve got to do it again tomorrow. That’s what it’s all about. Whether I go 0-for-5 or 5-for-5, my mindset the next day is yesterday is yesterday and I’ve got to do it again.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Gio trying to ‘grind through’ recent problems

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — After enduring his second straight short and ineffective start on Saturday, Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez didn’t directly answer questions regarding his health. Gonzalez had some trouble with shoulder tightness earlier in the season and was asked how he felt after giving up five runs in three innings to the Mets.

“It’s one of those things you’ve just got to grind through,” Gonzalez said. “I’m just trying to find out what it is, and hopefully something positive comes out of it.”

Asked again if he was dealing with anything health-wise, Gonzalez added, “Realistically, arm was dropping a lot. I guess we’ll see.”

The 28-year-old, who has made at least 32 starts in four straight seasons, came out of his April 23 start against the Angels after five innings due to shoulder tightness. He’s stayed on schedule since then, pitching four more times.

Over his last two outings, Gonzalez has allowed 12 earned runs on 16 hits over 7 1/3 innings, walking five and striking out eight. He’s thrown more than 23 pitches per inning and seen his ERA rise from 2.91 to 4.62.

Gonzalez said his arm slot has been off, with his pitches getting up in the strike zone. Manager Matt Williams has noticed that Gonzalez hasn’t been able to find consistency with his release point like he usually does as a game goes along.

However, Williams said he couldn’t attribute the issues to an injury, as Gonzalez hasn’t lost velocity. On Sunday, he threw his fastball at 90-94 mph.

“He’s had a little tight shoulder earlier this year but he’s continued to pitch and tells us he feels good, so I don’t know,” Williams said. “I don’t see that.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Nats trying to make Ross Detwiler fit in ‘pen

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — When the Nationals converted Ross Detwiler into a relief pitcher near the end of Spring Training, they didn’t intend to relegate him to mop-up duty.

“He provides something special out of the bullpen,” manager Matt Williams said at the time.

“He is going to be a major part of that out of our bullpen.”

More than a month into the season, it hasn’t turned out that way for the left-hander. Jerry Blevins is the ‘pen’s primary lefty, Craig Stammen is the primary long reliever, and Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen set up closer Rafael Soriano. Detwiler’s job has not been so well defined.

But Friday might have brought a positive step. Leading 5-2, the Nats called upon Detwiler to pitch the sixth inning against three left-handed batters. He retired Curtis Granderson, gave up a single to Bobby Abreu, then induced a double-play grounder from Lucas Duda.

“We keep wanting that spot for him,” Williams said on Saturday.

“We’ve told him that we want to get him more opportunities. It hasn’t worked that way through the first 41 games, but I’d imagine that at some point during this season, it’ll work better that way. So it’s encouraging, yeah.”

At three runs, it was the smallest lead Detwiler has pitched with this season, as most of his appearances have come with the game pretty much decided one way or another.

Baseball-Reference.com calculates a statistic called “leverage index,” a measurement of the pressure a player faces during a game, depending on the score and situation. A number greater than 1.0 indicates above-average pressure, while a number less than 1.0 indicates below-average pressure. Detwiler’s season average of 0.47 is the ninth-lowest among all MLB pitchers with at least 10 appearances this season. His 0.87 score on Friday was his fourth-highest of the year.

“That’s the situation we want to put him in,” Williams said. “It doesn’t work out every day, but yeah. We want to do that. We’ve had the meeting with him and talked to him about it. I’ve personally talked to him about I want to get you more of those opportunities and I’ll do my best to get you in those situations, and last night was one of them. Maybe there’s another opportunity today.”

As Williams pointed out, one obstacle is that as a converted starter, it still takes Detwiler longer to warm up in the bullpen than the team’s other relievers. Therefore, in a quick-developing situation at a key point in the game, he might not be able to get loose fast enough to get an opportunity.

Detwiler also probably hasn’t pitched well enough to demand a greater role. He has a solid 3.79 ERA in 19 innings but has allowed 22 hits, a .297 opponents’ average and nearly as many walks (11) as strikeouts (12).

Then again, if Detwiler finds a solid role and more consistent chances along with it, his performance could benefit.

“The issue is we want to give him more work so his mechanics are good and he feels good about throwing strikes,” Williams said. “It’s like a guy who plays off the bench — the more at-bats he gets, the better timing he gets. It’s the same with pitching.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

 

Nationals notes, 5/16

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Here are some quick Nationals notes before the start of a three-game series against the Mets on Friday night. More to come soon on Nationals.com.

  • Third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, on the disabled list since April 13 with a right thumb fracture, still has not been cleared to begin strengthening the thumb, according to manager Matt Williams. He will have another X-ray taken Monday, at the five-week mark since the injury. If doctors believe the fracture has healed, Zimmerman then will be cleared to work on regaining strength, at which point he could progress to throwing a ball and swinging a bat. However, Williams said there is no specific timetable for his return. The Nats will continue to proceed with caution, because if Zimmerman were to re-fracture the thumb, it would be another eight-week recovery from that point.
  • Left fielder Bryce Harper has had the stitches removed from his left thumb, which is now in a brace following surgery on a torn ligament. Williams said that Harper is scheduled to make another visit to Cleveland to visit a specialist next week.
  • Right-hander Ross Ohlendorf, on the 60-day DL all season with a lumbar strain, was in the Nats’ clubhouse on Friday, two days after making his first Minor League rehab start, for Class A Advanced Potomac. Ohlendorf was shelled for seven runs in 2 1/3 innings, but Williams said he was able to hit 90-94 mph with his fastball and had no physical issues. Ohlendorf will continue making rehab starts every five days, as the Nats want him to prepare as a starter.
  • With first baseman Adam LaRoche on the disabled list, Williams said Greg Dobbs could see some starts at first base after joining the club on Friday. Dobbs got 13 pinch-hit appearances but never played the field for the Marlins before his release, and after signing with the Nats, he spent a few days at extended Spring Training in Viera, Fla., getting his legs under him and collecting at-bats. Dobbs said he was happy to end up in Washington, as he had wanted to sign with the club as a free agent before the 2012 season, believing it was ready to win.

Jerry Blevins Wins Another Battle

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — The task confronting Nationals left-hander Jerry Blevins on Wednesday afternoon was simple, yet challenging.

With the Nationals clinging to a 3-2 lead over the Dodgers in the eighth inning, starter Stephen Strasburg had put runners on first and second with one out to bring up Adrian Gonzalez, who has a .923 OPS this season, but only .631 against lefties. Nats manager Matt Williams played the matchups and brought in Blevins to face one batter for only the second time this season.

“Big spot,” Blevins said. “Stras pitched his butt off like a true ace. He came out in the eighth and tried to get out there as long as he could, and my main goal right there is to get that out for him, for the guys that fight.”

Blevins had pitched against Gonzalez six times in the past, holding him to 1-for-6 with two strikeouts. One of those matchups came in the series opener on Monday, when Blevins threw the sixth inning with a 2-0 lead. Facing Gonzalez as the potential tying run with two outs, Blevins whiffed him on four pitches, getting strike two on a sweeping curveball low and away and finishing him off and an up-and-in 89 mph two-seamer.

Blevins knew that in their second battle of the series, he’d have to make some adjustments.

“Yeah, I’m definitely aware that he’s such a well rounded hitter and he’s smart,” Blevins said. “He knows going in what I’ve got and how I got him out last time, so that factors in.”

Blevins’ goal was to try to induce a ground ball, while staying inside on Gonzalez to prevent him from extending his arms. He quickly put Gonzalez in a 1-2 hole with three sinkers, but this time, Gonzalez didn’t go down quickly. He fouled off two more sinkers, took a slider outside for a ball, fouled off another sinker and took a curveball in the dirt. That made the count 3-2 and ratcheted up the pressure on Blevins not to load the bases with a free pass.

“At that point it’s mano-a-mano,” Blevins said. “I’m going to throw what I think is the best pitch in this situation. I’m definitely going to throw him a strike…. I’m going to challenge him and make him put the ball in play.”

That’s what Blevins did, throwing Gonzalez two more up-and-in sinkers. Jammed both times, Gonzalez fouled them off, and the second one found its way into Anthony Rendon’s glove for the out.

Blevins’ job was done, and the Nats held on to win the game and the series.

The eight-year veteran now has made 18 appearances and posted a 2.93 ERA over 15 1/3 innings, allowing 12 hits, walking six, striking out 19 and stranding all nine inherited runners. Although Blevins has not been strictly a left-handed specialist throughout his career, he has completely neutralized lefties this season. They are 3-for-26 against him, with one double, two walks and 12 strikeouts, for a line of .115/.179/.154.

“He’s been great for us,” Williams said.

Now Blevins will make his return to Oakland, as the Nats open a three-game series on Friday against his former club. He played his first seven big league seasons with the A’s, from 2007-13, and won division titles the last two years there.

“We weren’t very good when I first [arrived in Oakland],” Blevins said. “They had a good Minor League system. A lot of guys came up. We played together as a team and went off from there. We believed in each other.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Nats’ Fister has first rehab start

WASHINGTON — Nationals right-hander Doug Fister made his first rehab start for Class A Potomac on Sunday and threw four innings, allowing three unearned runs on 59 pitches. After that, he also threw six more pitches in the bullpen and didn’t have any problems with his right lat, which he injured right before the season started.

“Baseball results-wise, things didn’t come out as well as I hoped, but feeling-wise, I felt really good, felt strong,” Fister said. “I didn’t have any issues with the lat. It was a matter of knocking off some rust [while] getting back out there.”
 
Fister is scheduled to pitch five innings or 80 pitches in his next start and that will likely happen with Double-A Harrisburg within the next five days, Fister said. After that, the Nationals hope to activate from his the disabled list.
 
Fister was acquired from the Tigers in December for infielder Steve Lombardozzi and pitchers Robbie Ray and Ian Krol.

Fister has been on the DL since the beginning of the season with a lat strain. Fister sustained the injury during a Minor League game on March 27. He was scheduled to throw 60 pitches, but his outing ended after one inning.
– Bill Ladson

Steven Souza Jr. returns to Nationals

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Before Triple-A Syracuse played at Indianapolis on Saturday, Steven Souza Jr. was informed he wouldn’t be in the lineup. Instead, he would be heading back to Washington.

The Nationals officially recalled Souza for his second big league stint on Sunday morning, when they placed Bryce Harper on the 15-day disabled list with a left thumb sprain. Souza was in the Washington clubhouse prior to Sunday afternoon’s game against the Padres.

The 25-year-old outfielder said he feels a little more more at ease this time after his first trip to the Majors, from April 12-18, while Denard Span was on the 7-day disabled list.

“It’s kind of those first-day jitters where you don’t even know anything. You don’t know to put butter on your toast or what,” Souza said. “[Now] it’s more of how are we going to win this game, how can I help this team win, how can I be a part of this and kind of focus on that.”

Ranked by MLB.com as the Nats’ No. 14 prospect, Souza made his Major League debut on April 13 at Atlanta and picked up his first career hit on April 15 in Miami, a single to center field off Marlins lefty Dan Jennings. In all, he played five games and went 1-for-4 with a walk before being optioned back to Syracuse.

Even with Harper out, Souza might not see the field much more this time around. Manager Matt Williams indicated that Nate McLouth will see most of the starts in left field against right-handed pitchers, with Kevin Frandsen and Tyler Moore serving as options against lefties.

The brief demotion to Syracuse did give Souza a chance to log some much-needed swings. In four games there, he went 5-for-11 with a double and three RBI. For the season, Souza is hitting .333/.463/.545 with two homers and 10 RBI in 41 Triple-A plate appearances.

“Those ABs were huge, just to get in the rhythm of playing every day and getting some consistent ABs,” Souza said.

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

 

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