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Nats’ Harper back in lineup

By Bill Ladson

WASHINGTON — The Nationals activated outfielder Bryce Harper from the 15-day disabled list ahead of Monday night’s game against the Rockies. He will be in the lineup playing left field and hitting sixth.

“I’m excited. I come in here and I’m able to get back out there for a team that is in contention,” Harper said. “It’s a lot of fun. I’m excited to be back.”

Harper hasn’t played a Major League game since April 25, when he tore an ulnar collateral ligament in the left thumb while sliding headfirst into third base against the Padres. A little over two months later, Harper said he is not going to change his running style. He plans to slide into the bases headfirst and feet first.

“Sliding headfirst is what I’m comfortable doing. I’m going to keep doing it,” Harper said.

Before he was activated, Harper played five Minor League games this past week and went a combined 9-for-14 [.643] with four home runs and 10 RBIs for Class A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg. His best game was on Saturday, when he hit three home runs for Harrisburg. Harper had the day off Sunday.

“I felt good at the plate,” Harper said. “That’s the only thing I really cared about. I cared less about being on base or in the outfield or anything like that. It’s always a process. With my swing, I felt pretty good. It was where I needed to be. I’m very excited to come back and hopefully help this team win.”

With Harper coming back to the Major Leagues, it means that Ryan Zimmerman will go from left field to third base, while third baseman Anthony Rendon will return to second base. Danny Espinosa will return to the bench.

Harper said Zimmerman should stay in left, while Rendon should stay at third.

“Rendon is a great third baseman and should be playing third and we have one of the best [defensive] second baseman in Danny Espinosa,” Harper said. “Of course you want the best hitting lineup in there. I think Rendon playing third and Zim playing left is something that would be good for this team.”

It will be interesting to see how this new arrangement works out, as Zimmerman, who has won a Gold Glove at third, said recently that he is more comfortable in left field and that Rendon is the best man to play third base. Rendon has been playing Gold Glove-caliber defense at third.

“Going out to left field gave us the best chance to win. It’s a good problem to have. Too many good players and not enough spots,” Zimmerman said recently. “I’ll see what happens. I’m pretty comfortable in left and I think Anthony is a hell of a third baseman. I think there is no doubt right now he is better over there than me. But you have to have your best players in the lineup somehow. Whatever [manager] Matt [Williams] needs me to do, that’s what I’ll do.”

As one source said, “the team needs to get better offensively.”

Harper improves a lineup that has been sputtering since he went on the disabled list. During Harper’s absence, the Nationals hit .237 with a .304 on-base percentage. The team also went 30-27 during his absence.

Harper is expected to balance a lineup that was mostly right-handed. Harper and Adam LaRoche and Denard Span are expected to be the left-handed hitters in the lineup.

“Just his mere presence in the lineup is going to be huge,” an American League scout said about Harper’s return. “I think [the Nationals] will become even better because you have to respect Harper’s bat. [When] you have Wilson Ramos [behind the plate], the Nationals should be clicking on all cylinders.”

One baseball source also said that some of the starting players will rotate on occasion. Not only will Zimmerman play third base, he will continue to see playing time in left field and at first base. Harper could see time in all three outfield spots, while Span and Jayson Werth could get days off.

With Harper back on the team, the Nationals optioned Xavier Cedeno to Triple A Syracuse.

Nats’ LaRoche was ready to pitch

MILWAUKEE — After the Nationals defeated the Brewers, 4-2, in a 16-inning marathon Tuesday night at Miller Park, Nationals manager Matt Williams said had the game remained tied going into the bottom of the 16th, first baseman Adam LaRoche would have made his Major League debut as a pitcher.

The last time LaRoche pitched in a professional game was in 2003, when he was with Double-A Greenville, a Braves affiliate.

“I was ready” LaRoche said. “It’s about the 10th time I’ve been like an out or two away from being the next pitcher. Right before that, we scored.”

LaRoche was pumped when he received that word late in the game he was going to pitch.

“I have to be little crafty now. I can’t blow them away like I used to,” he said.

 

Williams: ‘Desmond and Werth need day off’

By Bill Ladson

WASHINGTON – After Sunday’s 4-1 victory over the Braves, Nationals manager Matt Williams acknowledged that shortstop Ian Desmond and right fielder Jayson Werth needed a day off during the team’s road trip, which starts Monday.

Both players are currently in slumps. During the four game series against Atlanta, Desmond went 2-for -16 [.125] with 10 strikeouts.  In the last two games combined, Desmond struck out six straight times.

“It’s a long road trip, a very tough couple of games against the Astros and all the expectations of this series [against the Braves]. Guys get mentally tired. So to answer your question, [Desmond] needs a day,” Williams said.

Werth is 4-for-37 in his last 10 games and has seen his batting average dip to .271. On June 12, Werth was at .296.

“We need to look long and hard about Jayson. We’ll spend a couple of hours on the plane talking about that one,” Williams said.

Nats’ Zimmerman prefers to play left field

By Bill Ladson

WASHINGTON — With Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper expected to be activated from the disabled list by July 1st, manager Matt Williams announced that left fielder Ryan Zimmerman would be moving back to third base, while Anthony Rendon would make the switch from third to second base.

There isn’t any talk about trading a player like Denard Span to make room for Zimmerman and Harper. But after Sunday’s 4-1 victory over the Braves, Zimmerman sounded like a guy that didn’t want to go back to third base. He seems comfortable in left field and he reiterated that Rendon is the best person to play third.

Because of a bad right shoulder, Zimmerman knows he has to play a couple of different places in order to help the team win. Besides third and left field, Zimmerman has also seen time at first base this year. While the team is on the road, Zimmerman will work out at third base. As a third baseman, Zimmerman can no longer throw overhand to first base because of the pain in his shoulder. To avoid pain, he has to throw sidearm.

“Going out to left field, gave us the best chance to win. It’s a good problem to have. Too many good players and not enough spots,” Zimmerman said. “I’ll see what happens. I’m pretty comfortable in left and I think Anthony is a hell of a third baseman. I think there is no doubt right now he is better over there than me. But you have to have your best players in the lineup somehow. Whatever [manager] Matt [Williams] needs me to do, that’s what I’ll do.”

Zimmerman admitted that he has a lot to learn as far as playing the outfield, but he is still having fun out there.

“It’s fun out there. It has taken some of the burden off of what I was feeling at third base,” Zimmerman said.

Asked if he would be having fun playing third base, Zimmerman said, “If we continue to win, yeah. Winning makes everything fun. The last couple of years have been tough. Unfortunately, it is what it is. I don’t know what we can do to make it better. The only way to find out is just to see what happens.”

Source: Harper to begin rehab assignment Monday

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper will begin a Minor League rehabilitation assignment at Class A Advanced Potomac on Monday, according to a baseball source. The club has not confirmed that schedule, however, and manager Matt Williams said on Saturday that he wasn’t aware that was the plan.

“I heard a vicious rumor going around that he’s going out Monday,” Williams said. “Is that his plan? I don’t know, because nobody’s told me. But sometime during the next road trip, he’ll go out. He did some early work today — no hitting today. We don’t have anything on the field tomorrow as of right now, so he won’t get back on the field tomorrow, either. I’m sure he’ll hit in the cage tomorrow and then see how he feels and then make a decision.”

After finishing their home series against the Braves on Sunday, the Nats will begin a seven-game trip in Milwaukee on Monday. Their next home stand will begin June 30 against the Rockies, with Harper potentially returning from the disabled list during that eight-game block.

Harper hasn’t played since April 25, when he suffered a torn ligament in his left thumb. Williams said he likely will play about seven rehab games, starting with five innings in the field and two at-bats. He will see time at all three outfield positions and also serve as a designated hitter at least once.

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Nats bullpen strong again, but eventually snaps

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Nationals relievers came into Friday with a 2.56 ERA that ranked first in the Majors, and after Drew Storen surrendered a leadoff double to the Braves’ Tommy La Stella in the seventh inning, the bullpen set down the next 18 in a row.

That performance set the stage for Washington to rally and send the game into extra innings, but eventually, manager Matt Williams found himself backed into a corner.

When the 13th inning rolled around, Williams already had used Storen, Craig Stammen, Rafael Soriano, Tyler Clippard and Jerry Blevins. His options at that point were to send Blevins out for a second frame, use rookie Aaron Barrett for a fourth consecutive day or turn to Ross Detwiler, who threw 45 pitches on Wednesday and has allowed 16 runs and 35 baserunners in his last 16 2/3 innings. As such, Williams admitted he felt he needed to stick with Blevins.

“You could go to Barrett four days in a row, but that’s dangerous,” Williams said.

A second inning probably wasn’t ideal for Blevins, either. The lefty had allowed a run on three hits in two-thirds of an inning on Thursday, throwing 18 pitches and taking a comebacker off his knee. He then used another 12 pitches during a 1-2-3 12th inning on Friday.

Blevins issued a leadoff walk to B.J. Upton, then gave up two consecutive hits and eventually two runs. Still, he didn’t offer any excuses.

“Everybody’s tired,” he said. “We’re in the 13th inning. Their guys have been going the whole time our guys have. Gotta step up, but I didn’t get the job done. Gave up a couple runs, didn’t get it done.”

Looking ahead, the bullpen could be in some trouble for the rest of the series if it needs to soak up significant innings. Blevins and Stammen both have worked on consecutive nights, while Clippard, Soriano and Barrett have pitched in three out of four. That leaves Storen and Detwiler as the freshest arms available, barring a roster move.

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

 

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.

 

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