By Andrew Simon
Sunday afternoon’s loss to the Marlins was Dan Haren’s final start of the season at Nationals Park. By his own admission, it probably was his last there, period, as a member of the Nationals.
Haren signed a one-year deal with Washington last offseason, and despite a second-half rebound, the overall results have been rocky. At 9-14 with a 4.87 ERA, the veteran right-hander admits, “I was part of the reason we were so many games down,” in the playoff race.
Yet even if Haren doesn’t return, he sees a bright future for the Nats — as long as they stay the course. In his opinion, the club shouldn’t take this year’s likely disappointing finish as a sign to make radical changes. He pointed to his last team, the Angels, who went 89-73 but missed the playoffs with Haren in 2012. An altered roster, including big free agent signing Josh Hamilton, was 76-78 going into Sunday.
“This area has a lot to look forward to,” Haren said. “I think last year in L.A., we won 89-90 games and they kind of blew up the team, and I think they’ve struggled most of the year and got on track late in the year. I think that was the wrong thing to do.
“I know there’ll be some subtle changes, me probably being one of them. But I think the most important thing is to keep this group together. This could be a building block. Last year they had a great year and this year we’ve shown a lot of fight here the last few months. I think as close as things could stay to the guys in this room, I think the better.”
That means keeping the roster largely intact. But, as Haren said, it’s also “top-down, manager-wise.”
The Nationals, of course, must find a replacement for the retiring Davey Johnson, who has voiced support for bench coach Randy Knorr, in addition to third base coach Trent Jewett. The organization also figures to consider outside candidates, but Haren thinks Knorr would be a good choice.
“Randy I think could step in and do a real good job,” Haren said. “I think the guys overall really like him. So it just kind of goes into the organization not really needing to do that much. We got off to a slow start, but I think we’ve learned a lot of things.”
By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter
Jordan Zimmermann doesn’t care about reaching 20 wins. At least, he downplayed the milestone Friday night after blanking the Marlins, 8-0.
After battling through neck stiffness during the middle of the season, Zimmermann again looked like the first-half All-Star that he was on Friday. He struck out nine, allowed just two hits and only walked one. His fastball hovered around 95 mph and his slider touched 90 mph. Zimmermann became the first pitcher in the National League to reach 19 wins, but that doesn’t mean he’s thinking about No. 20.
“I mean, I just want the team to win, to be honest with you,” Zimmermann said. “If that means me going six, seven innings of no runs and I get the no decision, as long as we win, that’s the main thing.”
Zimmermann’s teammates know better.
“I don’t believe him,” Denard Span said, smiling, “but OK.
“He’s a modest guy,” Anthony Rendon added. “He’s not going to be like, ‘I’m trying to get to 20.’ But yeah, it would be awesome. Twenty games, that’s a lot.”
Most people in the baseball world have devalued wins as a measure of a pitcher’s effectiveness. Take the Nationals’ rotation this season as an example. Stephen Strasburg has 16 quality starts in 28 outings and is 7-9. Jordan Zimmermann has 21 quality starts in 30 outings and is 19-8.
But regardless of statistical preference, everyone can agree that a 20-win season is impressive.
“I think 20 wins for a pitcher is like 20 home runs for a position player,” Span explained. “A position player tells you 20 home runs is not important, they’re probably not telling the truth. So yeah, 20 wins for a starting pitcher, it seems to be like the milestone … the standard of a good, powerful, quality starting pitcher.”
Eclipsing 20 wins would also bolster Zimmermann’s case for the NL Cy Young Award. Jayson Werth thinks that Zimmermann’s chances at winning the award are good, but it’s important to keep everything in perspective.
“I think they get a lot better if we make it to the postseason,” Werth said.
By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter
Nationals starter Ross Ohlendorf should share the blame for Wednesday night’s loss to the Braves, which all but crushed Washington’s slim playoff hopes. However, he also deserves his share of credit for helping keep the Nationals in the race in the first place.
Without the efforts of Ohlendorf, Taylor Jordan and Tanner Roark this season, the Nationals would not be in a last-gasp push for the second Wild Card in the National League. Together, they have exceeded expectations while filling in for Ross Detwiler, who has been on and off the disabled list with back issues. Ohlendorf, a 31-year-old journeyman, and two rookies have posted a combined 12-4 record and 2.80 ERA this year.
“We knew going in that’s one of the areas we didn’t have a lot of depth,” manager Davey Johnson said. “So hopefully, with Detwiler getting healthy and what these guys have done, and some other arms we’ve got coming, this organization will be in great shape.”
For all their unmet expectations this season, the Nationals’ organizational depth at pitcher has lived up to the hype. First it was Ohlendorf, who debuted an old-school windup in a spot start in Colorado and has provided stability ever since, both as a long reliever and starter. Then it was Jordan, who jumped from Double-A to the Majors in his first season off Tommy John surgery.
Now, Johnson believes that he has found another potential contributor in Roark, who was 6-17 at Triple-A Syracuse last season. On Tuesday night, after Roark’s seventh consecutive win, Johnson compared the right-hander to all-time great Greg Maddux.
“[Minor League pitching coordinator] Spin [Williams] was really high on him this year and all through spring during the year. He certainly has reason to be,” Johnson said of Roark. “Once I saw him pitch up here out of the ‘pen, how he located the ball and used all his pitches, I said, ‘Yeah, he’s going to be good.”
Jordan and Roark both have the potential to earn a long-term role on the Nationals in Spring Training, but they are just two of the many talented arms that will join the rotation in the next couple of years. Stephen Strasburg is only 24. Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Detwiler are 27. Lucas Giolito, A.J. Cole, Nathan Karns, Robbie Ray, Sammy Solis and Jake Johansen are among the many talented arms working their way through the farm system.
Not many teams have that kind of depth at pitcher.
“Great arms,” Johnson said. “Pitching comes fast. They’re all going to be pitching in Double-A or up. When you get them to that level, I think you can come from AA to the big leagues just as easy as coming from AAA.”
By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter
WASHINGTON — After Wednesday night’s 5-2 loss to the Braves, Nationals manager Davey Johnson announced that Stephen Strasburg would miss his scheduled start Thursday against the Marlins. Gio Gonzalez will start Thursday, Jordan Zimmermann will start Friday and Strasburg will return Saturday, barring any further setbacks.
Strasburg was unexpectedly scratched from his previous start on Friday with right forearm tightness, which might have occurred when the right-hander was experimenting with a new pitch last Thursday in New York. The right-hander rested for two days, threw a “great” bullpen session on Monday and said Tuesday that he was prepared to start Thursday’s series-opener as planned.
However, Strasburg had trouble getting loose Wednesday afternoon and still felt some tightness.
“He felt a little something there [in the forearm] but he wanted to pitch,” Johnson said. “I said, ‘Well, no way. I got guys on full rest. I’ll pitch them and you can be in the lineup for Saturday.’ So it’s my decision.”
Strasburg described the feeling as a “strong cramp” that bothered him when he was warming up Wednesday afternoon. He felt the tightness and took a break, moving his hand and squeezing it a bit. Then the feeling dissipated and he returned to the field and felt fine.
“I don’t really know why it’s happening,” Strasburg said. “When it happens, it happens. It’s like a strong cramp, so I just think I would put us in a bind if I went out there and felt it. We’d definitely be down some pitchers.”
Johnson said last week that Strasburg’s injury is not related to the surgically-repaired ligament in the right-hander’s elbow. Strasburg was examined by team doctor Wiemi Douoguih, who assured him that the arm is structurally sound.
“I wouldn’t say I’m too concerned because when I get nice and loose it feels 100 percent. The tough thing is getting loose,” Strasburg said. “I think it’s just part of it being September and that’s pretty much it.”
Johnson said that Strasburg wanted to pitch Thursday, but the skipper ultimately decided to hold him back as a precaution.
“It’s just not worth the risks,” Johnson said. “He wanted to go tomorrow, I said no.”
By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter
With their all-important doubleheader sweep of the Braves on Tuesday, the Nationals have won 10 of 11, 21 of 27 and 27 of 37.
But with only 11 games remaining, their playoff odds have not improved much.
CoolStandings.com pegs Washington’s chances of reaching the postseason at 3.8 percent. Baseball Prospectus has them even lower, at 3.3 percent.
The Reds have a 4 1/2-game lead in the National League Wild Card race, which is fairly significant with less than two weeks left in the season. Their magic number to clinch the Wild Card is seven, meaning a combined seven Reds wins and Nats losses.
“I mean, we’ve still got a lot of work to do,” Denard Span said. “We haven’t gotten over any humps yet. [The Braves] are in the playoffs. We’re not. So it feels good for today … but that’s all I’m concerned about right now.”
Yes, long odds like these have been overcome before. In 2011, St. Louis went 8-3 and passed the Braves, who finished 2-8. That same year, the Rays trailed Boston by four games with 12 to play and won the Wild Card. But it doesn’t happen often.
For a team that has struggled with expectations all season, however, that might be a good thing.
“We’re playing with house money,” Ian Desmond said over the weekend. “Everyone kind of wrote us off, and we’re fighting our way back in. Just keep on playing and what will be will be.”
The easiest way to think about the race is in terms of that magic number: seven. If the Reds finish 7-3, they automatically clinch the Wild Card — even if the Nationals go 11-0. If the Reds go 5-5 and the Nationals finish 9-2 (which is still a tremendous stretch), the Reds still clinch.
All of that assumes, of course, that we have a two-team race for the second Wild Card spot. In reality, it is a fluid situation.
The Cardinals, Pirates and Reds are separated by 2 1/2 games in the NL Central. Pittsburgh and Cincinnati will play six of their final nine games against one another. The Nationals will open a three-game series in St. Louis at the beginning of next week. Depending on how those games shake out, the Nationals could find themselves targeting another NL Central team for that final Wild Card spot.
That said, it’s hard to overstate the importance of the Nationals’ sweep of the Braves on Tuesday. The Reds are in Houston beating up on Bo Porter and the Astros, so if the Nationals can win again Wednesday and merely keep up with Cincinnati over these three days, it will be a major victory.
Playoff implications aside, the Nationals are building momentum for a strong finish. They beat a Braves team that had bullied them at Nationals Park all season. It was about pride as much as anything else.
Sure, the odds say that the Nats will not make the playoffs. But they also seem poised to finish well above .500 with the confidence that this core group of players can still get the job done, even if they have to wait until next year to do so.
“By no means are we to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow yet,” Desmond said. “But we are playing better and I think that’s all of us in here really wanted to see us do, finish the season with some pride and put up the year people thought we were going to.”
Tonight’s Nationals-Braves game scheduled to begin at 7:05 p.m. at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C., has been postponed due to the tragic events that occurred earlier today.
The team will play a split doubleheader on Tuesday, with tonight’s make-up game beginning at 1:05 p.m. The second regularly scheduled game will begin at 7:05 p.m. All gates for the originally scheduled 7:05 p.m. game will open 1.5 hours after the last out of the 1:05 p.m. game or 6:00 p.m., whichever is later.* The two games against the Braves on September 17 will require separate admission.
Fans with game tickets to Monday’s postponed contest may use their original tickets for the 1:05 p.m. make-up game on September 17. Those unable to attend the 1:05 p.m. game on September 17 can exchange their tickets for any remaining home game during the 2013 regular season or any Value Game during the 2014 regular season. Exchanged tickets will be issued from available inventory in the closest pricing category of equal or lesser value to the original seats.
Season Plan Holders, whose Season Plan includes seats for tonight’s postponed game, will have their Card automatically activated for the September 17 contest at 1:05 p.m. Season Plan Holders who wish to transfer or forward seats for this make-up game should login to nationals.com/access to view their seats. Season Plan Holders who cannot attend the 1:05 p.m. game on September 17 may exchange their seats for any remaining home game during the 2013 regular season or any Value Game during the 2014 regular season at the Nationals Park Box Office.**
In the event that a seat for tonight’s game was forwarded from a Season Plan Holder Card to a print at home ticket, the print at home barcode will be active for the make-up game and will not return to the Card; as such, fans should retain their print at home tickets from tonight’s postponed game to gain entrance to the 1:05 p.m. contest on September 17.
By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter
When Ryan Zimmerman woke up on September 1, he had hit 15 home runs in 121 games this season.
When he woke up Saturday morning, he had hit nine home runs — in the first two weeks of the month.
Just how remarkable is this recent surge? In his past 11 games, Zimmerman has as many dingers as he had in June, July and August combined. He has already tied the club record for most homers in the month of September. Nine of his past 14 hits have left the park.
“I don’t know,” he said Friday night. “Just going with it. Come here and I do the same stuff I did all year. And that’s the way I’ve done it for years. Every now and then I get hot. Hopefully, I just try and kind of ride it as long as it will go and don’t try and think about it too much.”
Manager Davey Johnson, however, offered a more interesting explanation. In addition to Zimmerman’s improved performance in the field, the 70-year-old skipper attributed this recent performance to a change in batting practice.
About three weeks ago, Johnson noticed that Zimmerman was pulling the ball in BP. He was peppering hits to left field. Johnson likes to see hitters pull the ball and attack pitches on the inside part of the plate. He believes that this change in Zimmerman’s batting practice has spilled over to games.
And he might be right. Of Zimmerman’s nine home runs this month, seven have been to left or left-center field, one to straightaway center, and one to right.
“[This season] they’ve been getting him out early throwing him down and in, inside,” Johnson explained. “Now he’s hammering that ball. So I like it.”
Ian Desmond said the surge could be the result of mere inches in Zimmerman’s swing.
“I mean, this is the crazy thing about baseball,” Desmond said. “He’s been hitting low line drives that have been hard ground balls, low hard ground balls that if you’re one grain up turn into home runs. And now it’s happening.
“This game, you are what you are, and by the end of the day, we might look up and Zim might have 30 [homers] and 100 [RBI]. That is who he is.”
By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter
WASHINGTON — Nationals phenom Stephen Strasburg was a surprise scratch from his scheduled start Friday night because of tightness in his right forearm.
Manager Davey Johnson said that Strasburg originally felt the soreness before Thursday’s game against the Mets, when the right-hander was experimenting with a new pitch. Strasburg will rest for two days and take some medication, but he is expected to make his next start on Sept. 19 against the Marlins.
Johnson said the tightness is in the soft tissue of Strasburg’s arm, not the surgically-repaired ligament in his elbow.
“All of the doctors think it’s a non-issue,” Johnson said. “We’ll give him some rest. There might have been some inflammation in there or something from some new muscles being used on this new pitch. Who knows?”
Strasburg was examined by doctors in New York on Thursday and team doctor Wiemi Douoguih on Friday. Johnson said Strasburg had some tests, but the skipper did not think that the right-hander had an MRI.
Strasburg was not available for comment before Friday’s game. Johnson would not reveal the new pitch that the right-hander was working on. The Nationals’ manager did, however, admit that the news was initially worrisome.
“Yeah, I was concerned,” Johnson said. “Any time a pitcher tells you he can’t throw tomorrow, doesn’t want to play catch [is concerning]. He came in here and got treatment, the doctor in New York examined him and didn’t think it was anything serious. Probably just tight. So here we are. He’s not pitching. He’ll pitch the 19th.”
Right-hander Ross Ohlendorf, who has made sporadic starts for the Nationals this season, was slotted to start Friday in Strasburg’s place. Johnson said that Ohlendorf had been preparing as if he would start Thursday, so he effectively received an extra day of rest.
Strasburg, meanwhile, has made 28 starts this season, the same amount he made in 2012 before the Nationals elected to shut him down for precautionary reasons. In 2012, Strasburg went 15-6 with a 3.16 ERA over 159 1/3 innings. Though he is just 7-9 this season, he sports a 2.96 ERA over 170 innings of work.
While Strasburg’s shut down last year was carefully planned months in advance, his forearm tightness and missed start Friday were completely unexpected.
“Right out of the blue,” Johnson said. “But Stephen’s a perfectionist. He likes everything just perfect. So any time you’ve had an arm injury, any little discomfort and the alarm bells are going to go off.”
NEW YORK — Nationals center fielder Denard Span extended his hitting streak to 20 games by hitting a leadoff home run against the Mets on Monday night.
With right-hander Carlos Torres on the mound for New York, Span led off in the first inning and worked the count to 2-2, when he hit the ball over the right-field wall for his fourth home run of the season. It was also the first leadoff home run for the Nationals this season.
During the streak, Span is 32-for-79 [.405] with two home runs and seven RBIs. Span has a long way to go before he catches up to the Nats’ record set by third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, who had a 30-game hitting streak that went from April 8th to May 12th, 2009.
NEW YORK — Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper will miss the next two games against the Mets because of inflammation in his left hip, manager Davey Johnson said Monday.
After Saturday’s victory over the Marlins, Harper went back to Washington to get his hip checked out by the team doctors. Harper has had issues with the hip dating back to last Monday, when Johnson noticed that training assistant John Hsu was working on Harper. At the time, the trainers were treating it as if he had a sprained hip. Since then, Harper has missed three of the past five games.
It is currently unknown how Harper injured himself. With him out of action, Tyler Moore received the start in left field on Monday.
Harper has endured an injury-plagued 2013 season. He missed more than a month of action after banging his left knee into the right-field wall at Dodger Stadium on May 12.
Entering Monday, Harper was hitting .273 with 19 home runs and 49 RBIs. According to Johnson, Harper is expected to rejoin the team before Tuesday’s game. There isn’t any talk about shutting Harper down for the season.
“All the tests, the MRI and all that didn’t reveal any structural damage. There is just some inflammation in there. If you take care of that, he is good to go,” Johnson said. “He has been playing. There are times where it has acted up, other times it hasn’t. [The doctors] don’t know what caused it.”