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The Nationals’ two 2015 seasons

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — On April 27, the Nationals played their 20th game of the season and suffered an 8-4 loss to the Braves in Atlanta, falling to 7-13, eight games behind the Mets in the National League East.

On Tuesday night, the Nationals played their 40th game of the season and rallied for an 8-6 win over the Yankees in Washington. Ryan Zimmerman’s two-run walk-off homer in the 10th inning against Andrew Miller and his 0.00 ERA lifted the Nats to 23-17 and into a first-place tie with the Mets atop the division.

Entering Wednesday’s game against New York, the Nats have played two 20-game stretches that could not be much more different. The change began on April 28 in Atlanta, when Washington fell behind by eight runs after four innings but roared back to claim a 13-12 victory on Dan Uggla’s go-ahead three-run homer in the ninth.

“This definitely is the type of game that can change the spirits of a ballclub,” center fielder Denard Span said afterward. “I’m not saying it will. But we definitely needed something like tonight.”

The idea of momentum in baseball often is wildly overstated, but there’s no doubt something turned around that day, even if it was nothing more than a good team finding its level. Since then, the Nats are 16-4, tied for the best 20-game stretch in team history. So what’s been the difference?

It hasn’t been pitching:

First 20 games: 3.64 ERA, 11 HR, 2.6 BB per game, 7.5 K per game

Last 20 games: 3.94 ERA, 14 HR, 2.4 BB per game, 8.2 K per game

In fact, the club’s starting pitchers posted a 4.33 ERA over that second stretch, compared with 3.78 in the first, with five outings of five earned runs or more.

However, some better defense has dropped the number of unearned runs scored against the Nats from an unwieldy 18 to eight.

Still, the biggest difference between the first and second versions of the Nats has been the way the club has swung the bats.

First 20 games: 3.5 runs per game, .215/.289/.346 (AVG/OBP/SLG), 16 HR

Last 20 games: 6.7 runs per game, .307/.369/.494, 29 HR

The most impressive thing about the improvement is that it’s been a total team effort. Yes, Bryce Harper has embarked on one of the best offensive stretches in baseball history, but every Nats regular has raised his game, at least a bit.

BRYCE HARPER

First 20 games: .262/.424/.508

Last 20 games: .403/.522/.944

DENARD SPAN

First 20 games: .207/.250/.207 (7 games)

Last 20 games: .377/.421/.638

DANNY ESPINOSA

First 20 games: .205/.340/.436

Last 20 games: .303/.387/.500

WILSON RAMOS

First 20 games: .250/.258/.328

Last 20 games: .379/.413/.500

YUNEL ESCOBAR

First 20 games: .284/.351/.418

Last 20 games: .378/.420/.392

RYAN ZIMMERMAN

First 20 games: .205/.279/.385

Last 20 games: .280/.310/.453

JAYSON WERTH

First 20 games: .156/.250/.200 (12 games)

Last 20 games: .250/.328/.357 (placed on DL Tuesday)

IAN DESMOND

First 20 games: .238/.297/.357

Last 20 games: .250/.296/.382

Even a couple of members of the bench have made huge contributions over the last 20 games. Backup catcher Jose Lobaton is 6-for-17 with two homers, five RBIs, four walks and a 1.182 OPS. And Uggla, whose homer against his former team ignited this surge, is 7-for-20 with a double, a triple, a homer, nine RBIs, four walks and a 1.108 OPS.

So which Nats team will show up for the next 20 games? Logic states the offense, and the club in general, will find a middle ground. But we’ll soon find out, starting Wednesday night.

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Wilmer Difo’s suddenly rapid rise

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — For much of his professional career, Wilmer Difo has not been a fast-moving prospect. That changed dramatically on Monday, when the Nationals called up the 23-year-old infielder as they placed Jayson Werth on the disabled list.

The move was the result of several circumstances. Difo was one of the organization’s few Minor League position players who already was on the 40-man roster, and manager Matt Williams said the the club already had enough options available for the outfield. Difo, meanwhile, offers extra middle-infield defense and speed on the bases.

While Difo’s stay could be short, Williams said he doesn’t believe the promotion straight from Double-A Harrisburg will affect Difo’s development.

“I know he’s excited to be here,” Williams said. “He’s already been on the field for early grounders and early hitting, and he’s working hard. We don’t know exactly what the game is going to provide for us on any day, but he’s got a lot of tools, can do a lot of things for us.”

Still, it’s worth looking at Difo’s gradual — then suddenly rapid — ascent up the ladder.

— 2010 (age 18): 45 games in Dominican Summer League … .570 OPS

— 2011 (age 19): 64 games in DSL and rookie-level Gulf Coast League … .794 OPS

— 2012 (age 20): 54 games in GCL … .703 OPS

— 2013 (age 21): 61 games in GCL and three Class-A affiliates … .644 OPS

— 2014 (age 22): 136 games at Class A Hagerstown … .831 OPS

— 2015 (age 23): 33 games at high Class A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg … .887 OPS

Difo attributed his progress over the past couple of years to staying healthy, and this spring he was able to play with the big league club in 13 Grapefruit League games, batting .318 and impressing Williams with his aggressiveness.

Now, after only 14 games above Class A, he’s in Washington. It’s certainly an unusual trajectory. Let’s see how that compares to the games other current Nats position players spent in the high Minors before their Major League debuts.

— Anthony Rendon, 35

— Bryce Harper, 58

— Ryan Zimmerman, 63

— Wilson Ramos, 71 (Twins)

— Michael Taylor, 102

— Danny Espinosa, 123

— Jose Lobaton, 131 (Padres)

— Tyler Moore, 160

— Yunel Escobar, 167 (Braves)

— Dan Uggla, 218 (D-backs)

— Ian Desmond, 227

— Clint Robinson, 323 (Royals)

— Denard Span, 343 (Twins)

— Jayson Werth, 356 (Orioles/Blue Jays)

And how about some high-profile position players from other teams?

— Albert Pujols, 3 (Cardinals)

— Alex Rodriguez, 17 (Mariners)

— Buster Posey, 35 (Giants)

— Miguel Cabrera, 69 (Marlins)

— Joe Mauer, 73 (Twins)

— Mike Trout, 75 (Angels)

— David Wright, 91 (Mets)

— Ryan Braun, 93 (Brewers)

— Paul Goldschmidt, 103 (D-backs)

— Troy Tulowitzki, 104 (Rockies)

— Giancarlo Stanton, 132 (Marlins)

— Andrew McCutchen, 339 (Pirates)

Treinen gets shot at 8th-inning role

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — From 2010-14, Tyler Clippard averaged 74 appearances out of the Nationals bullpen. Other than a stint as closer in 2012, he did most of his work as a set-up man, pitching in the eighth inning nearly 50 times per year over that stretch.

On Wednesday night, the Nationals led the Mets, 2-1, heading into the eighth. This would have been Clippard’s spot, but he was traded to the A’s during the offseason, and Drew Storen took over for Rafael Soriano at closer. That left manager Matt Williams without a clear right-handed option for the eighth inning, to use alongside lefty Matt Thornton.

At least on this day, Williams turned to Blake Treinen, a 26-year-old righty with 15 games of Major League experience, including eight relief appearances. The manager said that was his plan coming into the game, and it worked, as Treinen tossed a scoreless inning, and the Nats won, 2-1.

This was a new experience for Treinen, who mostly started in the Minors. Of his eight times working out of the bullpen last year, all but one came in a Nats loss or blowout win. Baseball-Reference.com’s average leverage index, which measures the pressure during a pitcher’s outing, puts Wednesday’s appearance as the highest-leverage of Treinen’s young career.

“Even last year in the bullpen, I didn’t really come in for one-run leads,” Treinen said. “So its still new, but I enjoyed it

“It’s something I’ll get adjusted to. I don’t think it bothers me. I enjoy those moments.”

Treinen tries not to approach things much differently out of the bullpen. But a short stint can allow him to dial up his velocity while focusing on his sinker and slider and pushing aside his third pitch, a changeup.

On Wednesday, Treinen threw two sliders and 11 sinkers, which averaged a blazing 97.7 mph, according to BrooksBaseball.net. The Mets did hit a couple of balls hard, with David Wright ripping a one-out single to right before Lucas Duda lined into an inning-ending double play.

But for context, of all pitchers who threw at least 200 sinkers last year, PITCHf/x measured only two who topped that average velocity. Treinen’s stuff certainly impressed Williams, who envisions him as a big part of the bullpen.

“He’s running the ball in there at 98 mph with some good sink,” Williams said afterward. “I’m happy with the way he went about it tonight. Certainly be more opportunities for him.”

Uggla: ‘Braves are going in right direction’

WASHINGTON – Nationals second baseman Dan Uggla has watched the Braves from afar, and he believes with all the moves they have made recently, they are going in the right direction.

Uggla, who played for Atlanta from 2011-14, said he wasn’t too shocked that Atlanta traded closer Craig Kimbrel to the Padres. Uggla is most impressed by how the Braves have revamped their farm system.

“[Braves general manager] John Hart has a plan over there, and they have revamped their Minor League system,” Uggla said. “The trades they have made, the prospects they have received, they have revamped their farm system. They are going to be a force to be reckoned with probably sooner than expected.”

Uggla also said the Braves have good people in the organization and he is glad they acquired protection for his friend, Freddie Freeman.

“They needed to clean a lot of things up from what’s been going on the last five years,” Uggla said. “I’m happy to see them go in the right direction. I’m excited for them. I’m happy to see Freddie [Freeman] has a big power guy [Nick Markakis] to hit behind him. I know [Freeman] lost a lot of friends to trades this offseason. He’ll be fine.

“I grew up a Braves fan. I hope nothing but the best for them, except when they play us, of course. I met a lot of great people in that organization. I’m happy to see they are getting back on track. “

Nats’ Span could be back earlier than expected

WASHINGTON — It looks like center fielder Denard Span will be back with the Nationals sooner than expected. Span, who is on the disabled list because of a torn rectus abdominis muscle, could be back on the field by late April. Originally, he thought he would return to action sometime in May.

Early Monday afternoon, Span was doing hard sprints on the outfield grass. He already played two Minor League games –defense only—and will play a simulated game on Tuesday at Nationals Park. He is expected to swing the bat that day.  Span then will return to the team’s Spring Training complex in Viera, Fla., later this week and continue to his rehab assignment.

“I feel pretty good,” Span said. “I still have a lot of work to do. I have to get in real game situations as far as hitting, stealing bases, going first to third. Starting next week, we are going to start doing that stuff. If I continue to get well, I think I will be back before May.”

Being in the best of shape is one of the reasons Span is optimistic that he can come back earlier than expected.

“I’ve taken pride in my work ethic. So I’m sure that’s why I’m in the position I’m in now,” Span said. “I’ve taken the rehab process very seriously. I haven’t cut any corners. So that is the big reasons I’m feeling pretty good.”

Outfielder Jayson Werth was hoping that he could play in the Opening Day game against the Mets on Monday, but after deciding not to play in a Minor League game at 9:00a.m on Sunday, he decided not to rush back. Werth still needs more at-bats and he has mild discomfort in his right shoulder.

Werth is still shooting to play his first Major League game of the season on April 13 against the Red Sox. He is on the disabled list because of shoulder surgery he had in his right AC joint in January.

Werth is expected to be in a rehab assignment once the Minor League season starts April 9th.

“We talked about playing today, but I’m not quite ready,” Werth said. “But we are coming along. It’s definitely progressing. I’ve been playing in the Minor Leagues [during Spring Training]. I wanted to be here today. I have a couple of more hurdles to cross before I’m ready to go.”

 

Nats’ Barrett making sure he doesn’t get tired

VIERA, Fla. — Nationals right-hander Aaron Barrett is making sure that he doesn’t get tired like he did during the middle of the season last year. Barrett was a rookie and wasn’t used to the Major League schedule.

This offseason, however, Barrett did a little more throwing and made sure that he strengthened his shoulder and legs. He doesn’t expect to get tired at no time this season.

“I’m ready for a full season,” Barrett said. “Last year was a long season for me. It was my first year up. I had a lot of appearances, a lot of warm-ups and stuff like that. I think that is part of the process of coming up and working on that. I did as much training as I possibly could for this year.”

Nats’ Williams impressed with Cole

The Nationals had their first session of live batting practice Sunday and Williams was impressed with what he saw from right-hander A.J. Cole.

“He had a great live session today,” Williams said. “For me, he is growing into body. He is a young player. He is tall. He has great leverage and is getting stronger certainly by the year. This year he came into Spring Training looking great. Of course, we know about his fastball and curveball. Depending on the day, he can touch mid-to-high 90s with his fastball. He is a very promising prospects for us and still very young.  … I know he wants to pitch and loves taking the ball that for sure.”

Cole, the Nationals’ No. 2 overall prospect according to MLB.com, had arguably his best season in professional baseball in 2014, going a combined 13-3 with a 3.16 ERA for Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse. He pitched 134 innings and struck out 111 batters. At 22, Cole features a mid-to-upper-90s fastball and front-end-of-the-rotation potential. He owns a career strikeout-to-walk ratio of 4.24 and has struck out 9.1 batters per nine innings over the course of his career.

 

Nats’ Taylor dealing with neck issues

VIERA, Fla. — Nationals outfielder Michael Taylor is dealing with a twinge in his neck, according manager Matt Williams. But that didn’t stop Taylor from participating in workouts Sunday.

“Anytime that happens, especially early in the spring, we make sure that we take it easy on him. He is full go. He is ready to play,” Williams said.

Taylor, the third best prospect in the Nationals according to MLB.com, is expected to get a lot of playing time during Spring Training because of the shoulder injury to Jayson Werth.

Set to close, Storen appreciates Nats’ confidence

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Another playoff disappointment put a damper on an otherwise strong 2014 for Drew Storen, but the Nationals right-hander hasn’t spent his offseason dwelling on it.

“It’s just part of it. You understand when you’ve been there before,” Storen said Saturday at NatsFest. “Tough taste in your mouth to end the year, but that’s what fuels you for the next. We have a great team coming into this year, and like I said, you just build off that experience more than anything else.”

Storen posted a 1.12 ERA during the regular season, took over as closer for Rafael Soriano in September and converted all 11 of his chances. Then came the National League Division Series, and for the second time in three years, Storen stumbled. He blew a save against the Giants in Game 2 and gave up a run in a shaky Game 3 outing.

But a few things have helped the 27-year-old ease his mind this offseason. For one thing, he’s been through this type of experience before and come back from it as strong as ever. For another, he got married and went on a relaxing, sun-filled honeymoon. And finally, he’s received vocal support from manager Matt Williams and general manager Mike Rizzo, with the latter telling reporters at last week’s Winter Meetings that, “We trust Drew,” and that Storen is “penciled into the ninth inning” for 2015.

“Any guy throwing late in the game wants to be the closer,” said Storen, who also saved 43 games for Washington in ‘11. “But I think more importantly, to have that vote of confidence from Matt and management, for me it’s great. It means a lot. But it doesn’t change my approach to anything, and I’m not going to go out there and do anything different than last year.”

Tyler Clippard and Matt Thornton do give the Nats other ninth-inning options, but they are both in line to become free agents after this season, one year earlier than Storen. At the same time, Storen also  understands “that things can change quickly.”

After he blew a save and took a loss in Game 5 of the ‘12 NLDS against the Cardinals, he saw Rizzo swoop in late to sign Soriano to a two-year deal in January ‘13. Soriano, now a free agent again, spent most of the next two seasons as closer.

“It doesn’t change my job whether they came out and said, ‘We’re going to do this, Plan A, B, or C.’ It doesn’t matter,” Storen said. “I still have to be ready and do my job. It doesn’t change too much, but like I said, it’s nice to have someone say positive comments about you.”

Closer or not, the most important thing for Storen has been his resurgence following a brief demotion to Triple-A in August ‘13. Since returning with a revamped delivery, he owns a 1.19 ERA, the lowest of any Major League pitcher with at least 50 innings over that span.

“It’s really just kind of simplifying things,” he said. “I wasn’t trying to go out there and do too much. Outings went by kind of quick, which is good. You go out there and attack guys and utilize the defense we had.”

Moore getting ready for one more chance

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON – Tyler Moore is well aware that this spring could be his last chance to stick with the Nationals, and he’s hoping that an offseason that included a productive stint in the Dominican Winter League will help his cause.

The soon-to-be 28-year-old first baseman/outfielder played a major part in the Nats’ 2012 division title run as a rookie, hitting 10 homers with an .840 OPS in 75 games, but has struggled over the past two years. Going back and forth between starting at Triple-A and mostly coming off the bench in the Majors, he’s produced eight homers and a .635 OPS over 105 games for Washington.

What’s forcing the issue this spring is that Moore is out of Minor League options. That means the Nats can’t send him down without passing him through waivers, which would give the other 29 teams a chance to claim him.

“This year’s kind of a crucial year for me, and I’m just ready for an opportunity,” Moore said. “I’m going to come in and help this team win, and we’ll see what happens.

“I’m out of options, and obviously they have to make a decision, and I feel like I can play for this team.”

Moore played 22 games in the Dominican Republic earlier this offseason with Toros del Este, hitting .299/.429/.584 with six homers. He found the experience valuable, he said, getting extra at-bats against quality pitching and working on his discipline at the plate.  It’s something he expects to have him more prepared for Spring Training than in years past.

“I really do, because I really hadn’t put the bat down since I got done playing,” Moore said. “Usually I put the bat down for three months and then pick it back up, but I just hit the other day. I feel good. Hopefully it continues on to the season.”

Still, Moore’s potential role is murky, even with first baseman Adam LaRoche leaving as a free agent. The outfield is full, and Ryan Zimmerman is expected to get the bulk of the playing time at first. Unlike LaRoche, Zimmerman is right-handed, meaning Moore wouldn’t fit as a platoon partner, and the Nats still could look to add to their bench through free agency.

Barring injuries, Moore likely would be looking at a pinch-hitting-heavy role, or he could get squeezed off the roster and find an opportunity somewhere else. But for now, he’s hoping things can work out in Washington.

“I feel like I need to come in and have a good consistent spring and play good baseball, and hopefully they’ll give me the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “We’ll see what happens.”

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