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Span’s option picked up by Nats

By Bill Ladson

WASHINGTON — To the surprise of no one, the Nationals picked up Denard Span’s $9 million option Thursday afternoon.

Span said general manager Mike Rizzo called to inform him that he would be back with the team in 2015. Had the Nationals declined the option, Span would have been given a buyout worth $500,000.

“I’ll be back,” Span said by telephone. “I’m very excited. I told Mike I’m excited to be coming back another year. I’m looking forward to working with the coaching staff and getting back with the guys and go on another run.”

Span is one of the reasons the Nationals won their second National League East title in three years. Besides being one of the best defensive center fielders in baseball, Span is one of the best leadoff hitters in the game. He was among the NL leaders in multi-hit games, hits, doubles and stolen bases. Span is a finalist to win his first Gold Glove Award this year.

Nats declined to exercise options on LaRoche, Soriano; Cabrera, Hairston, Schierholtz become free agents

By Bill Ladson

WASHINGTON — Nationals second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera and outfielders Scott Hairston and Nate Schierholtz are now free agents.

The Nationals also declined to exercise their options on first baseman Adam LaRoche and right-hander Rafael Soriano. None of the players are expected to be back with the team in 2015.

LaRoche reached the 90-RBI plateau for the fourth time in his career, but he is not coming back because the Nationals plan to put Ryan Zimmerman at first base. Recently, LaRoche said Zimmerman will be a quality first baseman.

“I think he is going to be an outstanding first baseman. I said that last year,” LaRoche said about Zimmerman. “He has one of the best gloves I’ve ever seen. He is an athlete. When the time comes, whether it’s next year or the following year or this postseason, he can handle that bag for sure.”

Soriano had a 6.48 ERA after the All-Star break. Soriano simply couldn’t keep his slider down in the strike zone and lost his closer’s job to Drew Storen

General manager Mike Rizzo decided to acquire Cabrera from the Indians before the July 31 non-waiver Trade Deadline. Cabrera provided steady defense at second, as Anthony Rendon shifted over to third base.

After coming from Cleveland, Cabrera expressed his desire to play shortstop, but after the Nationals were eliminated from the National League Division Series, he said he was willing to stay at second base. Going to the World Series is more important to him than playing shortstop. It is believed that the Nationals will not pay a lot of money to keep Cabrera.

Hairston and Schierholtz were part of the bench this past season. Hairston got off to a great start, but he tailed off dramatically starting in June and was taken off the roster during the NLDS.

As a pinch-hitter, Schierholtz ranks sixth among active players with at least 150 pinch-hit appearances. He started the season with the Cubs, but after getting released on Aug. 13, he signed a Minor League deal with the Nationals five days later. He made $5 million in 2014. It’s doubtful the Nationals will pay Schierholtz that kind of money in ’15, though he could be back on a Minor League deal.

 

A look at Doug Fister’s excellent season

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Doug Fister’s season didn’t begin until May 9, when he came off the disabled list and was hit hard during a start in Oakland.

It’s been smooth sailing ever since for the right-hander, acquired in an offseason trade with the Tigers. By throwing his second career shutout on Friday afternoon against the Marlins at  Nats Park, Fister surpassed the minimum number of innings needed to qualify for the National League leaderboard. He lowered his mark to 2.41, sixth-best in the Majors, behind Clayton Kershaw, Chris Sale, Johnny Cueto, Felix Hernandez and Adam Wainwright.

With his regular season now over, Fister officially has smashed the Nationals ERA record, previously set by Gio Gonzalez’s 2.89 in 2012. While teammates Jordan Zimmermann (2.78) and Tanner Roark (2.85) also are in line to beat that mark, Fister put himself way ahead of the pace.

Here’s a look at some other numbers:

  • Fister became only the ninth pitcher this season to throw a shutout with no more than three hits, zero walks and at least nine strikeouts. For the Nats, Zimmermann also accomplished the feat on June 8 against the Padres.
  • The complete game was Fister’s first this season and the seventh of his career. His only other shutout came on Sept. 22, 2012 for Detroit.
  • The nine strikeouts were a season high.
  • Fister didn’t allow a walk for the ninth time in 25 starts. He walked no more than one 18 times, and walked as many as three only once. His rate of 1.3 walks per nine innings ranks fourth in the Majors and is a small fraction ahead of Zimmermann for the best in Nats history.
  • Fister almost always, at a minimum, kept the Nats in games this year. He went 18-for-25 in quality starts, going at least six innings 20 times and at least five innings in all but his debut. After that first start, he never allowed more than four earned runs.
  • Fister was particularly brilliant during a 10-start stretch from June 21 to Aug. 17, posting a 1.57 ERA and walking nine batters in 69 innings.
  • Over his last four seasons, Fister now owns a 3.11 ERA in 116 games (114 starts). That’s 11th in the Majors over that span among pitchers with at least 600 innings.

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Nats face tough decision with playoff rotation

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — One thing is clear for the Nationals when it comes to filling out their starting rotation for the postseason: There are no bad options.

Right-hander Tanner Roark tossed a solid 6 1/3 innings Tuesday against the Mets, earning his 15th win and lowering his ERA to 2.85, which puts him in the top 20 in the Majors. Yet there is a strong possibility that Roark won’t be among Washington’s four starters for the NL Division Series.

Manager Matt Williams has yet to announce anything regarding the playoff rotation, as each of his pitchers enjoys a strong finish.

“When they go out there, they compete,” he said. “It makes for tough decisions, but those are good tough decisions.”

Stephen Strasburg, treated as the staff ace all year, has a 1.34 ERA and 33-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his last five outings. Jordan Zimmermann, consistently effective for four straight seasons, has a 2.11 ERA during a streak of 11 straight quality starts. Doug Fister, who has a stellar postseason resume, owns a 2.55 ERA after three straight solid outings. Gio Gonzalez, the rotation’s only lefty, has come on strong with a 2.79 ERA while posting six straight quality starts.

Roark, meanwhile, has done absolutely nothing to lose his spot. Consistently dependable throughout the season, the 27-year-old owns a 2.54 ERA in 14 starts since July 13.

Yet with four more established, experienced options in play, Roark could be the odd man out. He’s also thrown 198 2/3 innings this season, easily his most as a professional, and could be an asset out of the bullpen. As a reliever for the Nats in 2013, he gave up three earned runs on 14 hits and struck out 19 in 22 2/3 innings.

“You’ve got to keep doing your job,” he said of the situation. “You go out there each day, work hard each day in between starts and go out there whenever your name is called. You can’t really think about it.”

The Nats have the luxury of enjoying rare rotation depth, with each of their five starters throwing at least 150 innings with an ERA+ of 100 or better (ERA+ adjusts ERA for league and ballpark, with 100 the average). The last team to do that in a season, according to Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index, was the 2011 Rangers. Only four clubs have accomplished the feat since 1991.

“All the guys we’ve got deserve that spot,” first baseman Adam LaRoche said. “I’m just glad it’s not my decision.”

Soon, the Nats will have the make the call. No matter what, someone will be rightfully disappointed, but Williams isn’t worried that will cause a problem.

“Of course they’ll understand,” he said. “At this point in the year, not everybody will like it, but everybody will understand. We’re all on the same end of the rope, and everybody must do their part to get where we want to get to.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

In unfamiliar one-out role, Detwiler, Stammen excel

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — For most of the season, Ross Detwiler and Craig Stammen have been long men out of the Nationals’ bullpen. It’s a role that almost always requires at least an inning of work and often asks for more.

But on Tuesday night, when Nats manager Matt Williams needed two outs to end the eighth inning, he called on Detwiler and Stammen for a batter apiece against the meat of the Braves’ lineup. With a two-run lead and a runner on, the left-handed Detwiler whiffed Freddie Freeman, and the right-handed Stammen did the same to Justin Upton. They passed the baton to Drew Storen, who worked a 1-2-3 ninth to lock down a 6-4 victory.

“Those two guys have been really our longer guys this year, and they came in and got the guys they had to get,” Williams said.

A starter for much of his career, Detwiler’s only other one-batter appearance came on Aug. 4, when he gave up a single to the Orioles’ Nick Markakis. Only three times in 41 outings had he pitched less than an inning.

Stammen has served as one of baseball’s most durable bullpen arms, leading all MLB relievers with 73 appearances of at least two innings since 2010. Until this week, he hadn’t made a one-batter appearance all season.

But with Storen at least temporarily taking over for Rafael Soriano at closer, the whole relief corps has been shuffled. Combined with an 11-man bullpen thanks to expanded rosters, Williams has the need and ability to alter his usual deployment of pitchers.

In Monday’s eighth inning, lefty Matt Thornton gave up a two-out RBI single to Freeman before Stammen preserved a one-run lead by retiring Upton. A day later, Detwiler got ahead of Freeman 0-2 before finishing him off with a rare curveball. That brought on Stammen for another confrontation with Upton in an unfamiliar role.

“It’s obviously harder to get more outs,” Stammen said. “What I’ve done most of the season is get six, seven, eight outs if I had to. Getting one out’s a little simpler, but you also know it’s do-or-die, so if you don’t get that guy out, it’s not like you get three or four other guys to try to get out. So you’ve just got to execute your pitches — nothing really changes — execute your pitchers and go back to what you’ve always done and be yourself.”

Stammen had worked Upton with sinkers on Monday, so this time he got ahead 0-2 with a pair of sliders, buried two more sliders in the dirt to even the count, then put the Atlanta cleanup hitter away with two sinkers.

His unusually short, but effective, night was over.

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Unusual mound visit pays off for Williams, Nats

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — What’s in a mound visit?

Most of these meetings fall into a couple of categories. The pitching coach comes out to offer advice, talk strategy, give his pitcher a breather or perhaps stall for the bullpen. The manager tends to come out with his hook at the ready.

So when Nationals skipper Matt Williams hopped out of the dugout and made his way toward the hill with two outs in Monday’s seventh inning, it was reasonable to assume starter Doug Fister’s day was done. Clinging to a 1-0 lead over the Braves, he had two outs in the inning but had walked two, putting him at 101 pitches with Andrelton Simmons coming to the plate. The bullpen was active.

As it turned out, Williams had other plans.

“I wasn’t going to take him out,” Williams said. “I just wanted to go out there and let him know he had this guy.”

When Williams began his voyage to the mound, Fister had his back turned, so he couldn’t see if his manager had given the signal for a reliever.

But Williams hadn’t. As the entire Nats infield converged, Williams strode quickly to his destination, looked at his pitcher, had a brief exchange, then retreated. The whole visit lasted perhaps five seconds.

“I want to read him,” Williams said. “I want to make sure he’s feeling OK. And I asked him how he was, and he said he was good, so I turned around. I really had no plans on taking him out. But I want to read his eyes, too. He was intense and wanted that last hitter.”

Fister said that whenever his manager comes out, he hopes for a chance to continue. This time, he got it.

“We both have that sense about us that we kind of read personalities, and he looked at me on his way out there and asked me, ‘Hey, what do you got?’” Fister said. “And I said, ‘I want this guy.’ He was ready for that. He was ready for that answer.”

Certainly, the move could have backfired, in a close game against a team that has dominated their head-to-head matchups over the past two seasons. But Fister got ahead of Simmons 0-2, then induced a ground ball that shortstop Ian Desmond fielded and took to second for a force.

His manager’s faith had been rewarded, and the Nats hung on for a big victory.

“He came out there and gave me the option, and it’s greatly appreciated,” Fister said. “That’s the epitome of showing confidence. That’s what great managers do, show confidence in guys and trusting them, and that’s what he did tonight.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Hairston embraces challenge of Hamels matchups

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Scott Hairston doesn’t start often for the Nationals, but when he does, there’s a good chance the Phillies’ Cole Hamels is on the mound.

After a trade from the Cubs, the veteran outfielder made his Nationals debut against Hamels last July 9. The two were paired up again on Sunday afternoon at Nats Park, where Hairston fell just short of hitting two home runs but still came away with the go-ahead sacrifice fly in a 3-2 victory.

As a powerful right-handed hitter with a history of doing damage against southpaws, Hairston fills a clear niche on the Nats’ roster. The result has been Hairston making four of his 11 starts this year against Hamels, with all of those opportunities coming in a six-start span since July 12.

“It’s a challenge, it really is,” Hairston said. “It’s not only Cole. I believe I’ve faced [Clayton] Kershaw a couple times and [Scott] Kazmir and a couple other lefties that are pretty dominant.

“Especially the role I’m in, I don’t really get everyday at-bats, and when I do get a start, it’s against either a former Cy Young Award winner or a future one. I take it as a challenge. Whenever I’m out there, I try to just have the best at-bats possible, just to help the team win, do my part.”

Hairston now has 53 career plate appearances against Hamels, 15 more than against any other pitcher. Since joining the Nats, he’s faced Hairston 20 times, with Kershaw the next closest, at eight.

Here is a breakdown of Hairston’s starts with Washington:

- 6 vs. Cole Hamels (PHI)

- 3 vs. Clayton Kershaw (LAD)

- 2 vs. Mike Minor (ATL)

- 2 vs. Jon Niese (NYM)

- 1 vs. nine other pitchers

- Includes Madison Bumgarner (SF), Francisco Liriano (PIT), Scott Kazmir (OAK)

Against Hamels, Hairston is a .375 career hitter (18-for-48), with five doubles, five homers and 10 RBI. With the Nats, he’s 6-for-18 (.333) with one RBI. Does seeing Hamels so often give Hairston any advantage?

“It’s really tough to say,” said Hairston, who first battled Hamels in 2008 with the Padres. “We’ve faced each other so many times. Like I’ve said before, I think this is the best I’ve ever seen him. … He’s always been good, but I don’t recall him pitching this good.”

In Sunday’s sixth inning, Hairston broke a 2-2 tie with a drive off Hamels that Phillies left fielder Grady Sizemore caught up against the wall, scoring Ian Desmond. It was the second time in three at-bats that an unkind wind seemed to turn a home run into a warning-track for Hairston

“I was just thankful that somebody was one base for that last one,” he said. “It would have stung a lot more if the bases were empty, and I could have tied the game or put us ahead with a home run.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter at @AndrewSimonMLB.

Nats notes: Williams to ‘address’ closer situation

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — After Rafael Soriano’s rough second half continued with a blown save in Friday’s loss to the Phillies, Nationals manager Matt Williams stopped short of announcing a change in closers but said he will “address” the situation.

“It’s not an easy decision,” Williams said, following Soriano’s three-run, two-homer ninth inning. “None of them are. But we want to be able to close those games out. Sori understands that — he’s been around the block.”

Williams said he will talk with the veteran and “see where we’re at,” on Saturday. The Nats used nine relievers in Wednesday’s crazy win over the Dodgers and then eight on Friday, so even with a 10-man bullpen thanks to expanded September rosters, options will be a bit limited for the second game of the series.

But if Williams wants to turn to someone other than Soriano, he has choices. Tyler Clippard saved 32 games in 2012, a year after Drew Storen saved 43. Lefty Matt Thornton has saved 23 over an 11-year career.

“We’ll address it,” Williams said. “Again, I’m not gonna let [the media] know exactly what’s gonna happen right now, but we have guys that have done it, so we have multiple options. I can give you that. Depends on who’s available, who’s fresh, who’s not. But we have multiple options, which is a good thing for us. Guys who have been there before.”

Soriano entered Friday’s ninth inning with a 7-4 lead but gave up a leadoff single to Domonic Brown before Carlos Ruiz mashed a two-run homer. Two outs later, Ben Revere tied the game with his only his second career homer, in nearly 2,000 plate appearances. Both long balls came on two-strike sliders up and out over the plate.

Since the All-Star break, Soriano has allowed 15 earned runs, 27 hits and seven walks over 19 1/3 innings, but he said he feels fine physically and with his fastball. He plans to watch video and sit down with pitching coach Steve McCatty on Saturday. He’ll also throw in the bullpen for McCatty in an effort to figure out what’s wrong.

Told of Williams’ comments, Soriano said he and his manager share “good communication.”

“I talk to him in Spring Training,” said Soriano, who has converted 31 of 38 chances this season. “That be my job in the ninth, and right now it not be too easy to do. I have to do it better. I gotta figure out what’s going on right now and do it better.”

Meanwhile, teammates Bryce Harper, Adam LaRoche and Denard Span all expressed support for Soriano.

“He’s our closer,” LaRoche said. “He’s done it for a long time, he knows what he’s doing and he knows how good he is. He’s put up some really good years. It’s really easy through a short stretch to second guess what somebody is doing.

“I think this will pass and nobody will think twice about it. He’s just going through one of those stretches where nothing is working out. Good pitches are getting fouled off. The ones that were getting hit right at somebody are hitting a gap or leaving the ballpark. He’ll be all right.”

 

A couple of other notes from a wild night at the ballpark:

– Harper and Span combined for a costly mistake in the 11th inning when they collided while going for Brown’s fly ball into the left-center gap, allowing it to drop for a two-base error. Brown later scored the go-ahead run.

“It got to the point where I thought I could get it, [Span] called it, and we bump into each other,” Harper said. “Center field priority, of course. I got to get out of there.”

Added Span: “I saw him in my peripheral [vision], but I thought he was going to veer off and just didn’t. I’m pretty positive he didn’t hear me. Just miscommunication, basically.”

– Span picked up his 1,000th career hit with a first-inning single and tipped his helmet to the crowd after receiving a big ovation.

“It was definitely touching, heartfelt, and just unbelievable,” he said. “The fans, they’ve embraced me, really since the second half of last year. It was just a good feeling when the fans acknowledge you for your hard work.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

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.

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