Harper’s base-running woes continue in loss to Giants

By Daniel Popper 

WASHINGTON – On Friday night against the Giants, Bryce Harper led off the bottom of the second inning with a rocket single up the middle. But as he has done many times this season, the 21-year-old slugger spoiled his hit by getting thrown out on the bases because of a mental error.

Harper took too big a secondary lead off first base with Wilson Ramos at the dish, and veteran catcher Buster Posey took advantage, firing a snap throw down the line that beat Harper to the bag in plenty of time. It marked the 13th time this season that Harper either made an out on base during a base-running play — not counting force plays — or was picked off.

Those 13 outs rank third-worst in the Major Leagues this season, which by itself is an alarming fact. But when you consider Harper missed 57 games with a torn left thumb ligament, the outfielder’s base-running errors start to stick out like a…sore thumb.

Dodgers outfielder Yasiel Puig, who is two years older than Harper, has made a league-worst 17 outs on the bases, but he’s done it 118 games. Pirates outfielder Starling Marte is second-worst with 15, and he’s played 103 games. Twins second baseman Brian Dozier is tied with Harper at 13. He’s done it in 124 games.

Harper, meanwhile, has compiled his total in 68 games. Not to mention, he’s made those 13 outs having been on base 95 times all season. That means Harper is making an out during a base-running play or via pick off roughly 14 percent of the time he’s on base.

“It’s not alarming. I think that it’s a maturation process. We discuss every time something goes haywire,” manager Matt Williams said. “He does some good things, as well. We make sure we let him know that, and we make sure we discuss the things that don’t go so well. And he learns and moves forward like the rest of us. …He’s an aggressive player, and he’ll continue to be that way.”

Fister OK after skin-cancer removal in neck

By Daniel Popper

WASHINGTON — Nationals starter Doug Fister told the media Friday night that the stitches on the right side of his neck resulted from skin-cancer removal he underwent “a couple days ago.”

Fister surrendered four earned runs over six innings in Washington’s 10-3 loss to Giants on Friday — the most runs he’s allowed since June 15. But the right-hander said after the game that the procedure and subsequent wound on his neck did not influence his performance, and he’s “good” moving forward.

“It had no effect tonight,” Fister said.

Werth stays in after fouling pitch off leg

By Daniel Popper

WASHINGTON — In the bottom of the fifth inning Thursday against the D-backs, Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth fouled a 3-2 slider from left-hander Wade Miley off his left shin bone. Werth collapsed in a heap near home plate and rested there for around 10 seconds before rising to one knee.

Manager Matt Williams and assistant trainer Steve Gober jogged onto the field to check on the right-handed slugger as he rose to his feet. Werth remained in the game and drew a walk in the at-bat.

“He’s good. It was right off the shin bone” Williams said. “That’s a stinger that gets you for a little while, but he’s okay. It will be a little sore tomorrow, I’m sure. No issues.”

Williams: With Harper’s approach, homers ‘will come’

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — When Bryce Harper led off the bottom of the ninth inning on Wednesday night with a line-drive single to center field, it set up the Nationals for their ninth straight victory and fourth walk-off in five games. But it also could be a sign that Harper is setting himself up for a big stretch run.

Harper’s hit off D-backs reliever Evan Marshall was his third of the night. More important, in the opinion of manager Matt Williams, is the fact that Harper sent the ball back through the middle of the field in each of his four at-bats.

“If he stays through the middle like that, the home runs will come,” Williams said. “They will come. They will come on hanging breaking balls and changeups left up in the zone if he can stay middle of the diamond. And he’s working hard on that, so I’m proud of his approach tonight.”

It’s been a trying season for Harper, who hasn’t enjoyed a sustained hot streak at the plate since last April, before injuries sidetracked what was shaping up to be an MVP-caliber campaign.

He began 2014 by hitting .289/.352/.422 in 22 games before tearing a thumb ligament and missing a little more than two months. After returning, he struggled to get comfortable at the plate, tinkering with his stance and posting a .220/.324/.322 line over his first 35 games back.

But Wednesday was Harper’s fifth multi-hit effort in his last 13 games, and he’s 15-for-49 (.306) over that span, with five walks and three home runs.

“It’s one of those things where you take off all that time, you’re trying to find something that works,” Harper said. “I’ve switched so many times, my stance and for my hand, for me knee, for so many things. So to be able to go in there every single day and feel good with my swing and where it’s at right now, not changing anything, stay with everything I’ve been doing, it feels very good.”

Harper benefited from a scoring change in the first inning, when D-backs second baseman Aaron Hill made a diving stop on his grounder up the middle but threw high to second while trying for a force. Initially ruled a fielder’s choice, it later became an infield single. Harper then singled up the middle on a grounder in the fourth, before Hill made a diving stop for a fielder’s choice in the sixth.

In the end, Harper had his fourth three-hit game of the season and first in more than a month.

“I’ve been battling every single day,” he said. “I’ve been trying to come in here and work my tail off, trying to get that rhythm, trying to get that feel of where I want to be. The next month-and-a-half, hopefully I can take off and help this team win some more ballgames.

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Soriano rebounds with perfect ninth inning

By Daniel Popper

WASHINGTON – In his previous nine appearances before Wednesday night, Nationals closer Rafael Soriano compiled a 13.06 ERA, surrendering nine earned runs on 12 hits over 6.2 innings. He blew two saves in six chances and saw his 2014 ERA skyrocket from 1.96 to 2.54, a season-worst for the right-hander.

The rough stretch prompted manager Matt Williams to give Soriano Monday and Tuesday off. And on Wednesday night against the D-backs, Soriano rebounded with a perfect top of the ninth inning in a tie ballgame.

The performance proved crucial, as the Nationals pulled out a walk-off, 3-2 victory in the bottom half on an RBI single from pinch-hitter Anthony Rendon.

“He had a really good fastball tonight, 92-93. Good slider,” Williams said. “Everything was crisp. A couple of days off really helped him.”

Cabrera, Desmond gelling as double-play partners

By Daniel Popper

WASHINGTON – Asdrubal Cabrera has been a member of the Nationals for less than a month, but he’s already made a huge impact on both sides of the ball. In the process, the second baseman has become increasingly comfortable playing alongside shortstop Ian Desmond.

The duo turned a sensational 4-6-3 double play in Sunday’s walk-off win over the Pirates. With no outs in the top of the eighth and reliever Tyler Clippard on the mound, Russell Martin ripped a line drive up the middle. Cabrera moved to his right, scooped it up off two hops, and flipped behind the back to second base. The delivery was a shade low, but Desmond was able to collect the ball, tag the base and fire to first for what ended up being the No. 1 play on SportsCenter’s Top 10 that night.

“The reputation that he has around the league, what the guys say when they come to second base and what the umpires have to say about him, it’s all great,” Desmond said of Cabrera. “Personally, when I get to establish myself in the league a little more, I want to be known as a professional and that’s what he is. He’s what you strive to be as a ballplayer. That’s just respected and appreciated and we definitely appreciate him here.”

Cabrera and Desmond turned another exquisite double play in Tuesday night’s 8-1 win over the D-backs at Nationals Park, this time on a rocket shot to shortstop. Desmond ranged left and picked a hotshot grounder up the middle before making the short throw to second, where Cabrera received the ball, turned and gunned out Mark Trumbo at first.

“He’s a great shortstop,” said Cabrera, who went 1-for-3 with a double and three RBIs Tuesday night. “I feel really comfortable at second, too. I think we no have to work too much together to get everything done. I think we do a great job and hope we still do what we’re doing now.”

Cabrera OK after nasty face-first collision

By Daniel Popper

WASHINGTON – There was a scary moment at Nationals Park in the bottom of the third inning Monday night when Asdrubel Cabrera smashed face-first into the leg of D-backs shortstop Didi Gregorious while sliding into second base. The incident proved not as serious as it originally appeared, though, as Cabrera stayed in the game for the remainder of the Nationals’ 5-4 extra-innings victory.

Cabrera reached on a one-out single before Jordan Zimmermann attempted a sacrifice bunt. Left-hander Vidal Nuno pounced off the mound, fielded and fired to second for the force out. The collision happened as Cabrera was trying to break up the double play. Gregorious’ shin connected flush with Cabrera’s nose and mouth.

The first thing Cabrera did was check to make sure he hadn’t lost any teeth. After that, he laid on his stomach for a brief moment before trainer Lee Kuntz trotted onto the field to attend to the injured second baseman. Cabrera eventually walked off the field under his own power.

“As soon as he hit me, I just touched my teeth to see if they were still there or not,” Cabrera said. “I had a headache for the first two innings after that. But after that, I was fine.”

Struggling Gio Gonzalez searching for curveball

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — A bumpy season got bumpier for Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez on Saturday.

Although Washington rallied late to beat Pittsburgh, 4-3, Gonzalez lasted only five innings and surrendered three runs on seven hits. It was his his fourth straight non-quality start and the fourth time in his last six outings that he failed to pitch into the sixth inning.

Yet a little over a month ago, Gonzalez was rolling, with a streak of three straight scoreless starts. Here’s a look at that period, compared with Gonzalez’s recent struggles:

June 23-July 5

  • 3 starts, 21 IP, 9 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 7 BB, 19 K, 0 HR, 15.3 pitches/IP. Opponents hit .132/.213/.147

July 31-Aug. 16

  • 4 starts, 19.1 IP, 27 H, 14 R, 14 ER, 9 BB, 23 K, 1 HR, 19.6 pitches/IP. Opponents hit .321/.387/.417

So how did Gonzalez go from one to the other?

Before and after Saturday’s game, manager Matt Williams identified curveball command as a key for Gonzalez. If he can throw it for strikes and work ahead in counts, he can keep hitters guessing. And if not?

“If he doesn’t have it, the other team can just eliminate it from their thought process and it makes it more difficult for him to get guys out,” Williams said.

During that scoreless stretch, Gonzalez threw his curve 20.8 percent of the time according to BrooksBaseball.net. He threw 31.3 percent of them for strikes, including 17.9 percent whiffs. But during his recent downturn, Gonzalez has been able to spin the curve only 11.6 percent of the time, with 15.9 percent strikes and 6.8 percent whiffs.

“It’s just trying to find a feel for it,” Gonzalez said after Saturday’s outing, in which he threw seven of his 11 curves for balls and got one swing and miss. “It’s one of those pitches, almost like the changeup where you’ve got to get that touch and feel in the back of your head, just ‘Oh, there it is.’ That’s the pitch you wanted. But so far, it lands for a strike and then it has no clue where it’s going.”

Williams said that Gonzalez, who earlier this season spent time on the disabled list with left shoulder inflammation, feels good and hasn’t complained of any pain. His fastball velocity hasn’t dipped. It will be up to Gonzalez and pitching coach Steve McCatty to refine the curve during the pitcher’s next bullpen session, searching for the right arm slot.

Of course, luck also factors into any good or bad stretch in baseball. And while Gonzalez clearly hasn’t been sharp, he did strike out seven on Saturday while walking only two. He gave up one extra-base hit, a Starling Marte RBI double that flew just inches over the outstretched glove of third baseman Anthony Rendon. The Pirates grounded a few singles through the left side of the infield, and also collected an infield hit.

During Gonzalez’s three straight scoreless starts, batters hit a very low .184 on balls in play while smacking line drives 20 percent of the time. In his last four starts, batters have hit a scalding .433 on balls in play, with 23 percent line drives.

While Gonzalez now sports a 4.00 ERA, compared with 2.89 in 2012 and 3.36 last year, his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) of 3.17 sits in between the 2.82 and 3.41 of the past two seasons.

“Just tough breaks,” Gonzalez said Saturday. “I got ground balls that I wanted — they just found a hole. I got broken bats, and they found hits. So that’s just baseball. That’s how it’s going for me this year. You got to keep grinding, keep grinding.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

With two strikes, Adam LaRoche remains a threat

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche stepped in against Mets right-hander Dillon Gee in the first inning of Thursday’s game in New York, took one curveball for a strike, then fouled off another.

That situation means danger for a hitter. Through Friday’s action, all Major Leaguers had combined to bat .165/.194/.240 after falling behind 0-2.

But Gee came back with a fastball up and away, and LaRoche smacked it over the left-center field wall for a two-run homer. It was the veteran’s 17th homer of the season, and as pointed out by Beyond the Box Score, it was his 11th in a two-strike count to tie him with the Astros’ Chris Carter for the Major League lead. Among all big leaguers with at least 10 big flies this year, LaRoche leads the way with 64.7 percent coming with two strikes.


“I don’t have an answer for that,” LaRoche said when informed of the stat. “I don’t know if maybe in those counts you’re not trying to do too much — you’re just trying to make solid contact and in turn end up putting a better swing on the ball.”

Of course, 2014 represents a small sample of LaRoche’s 11-year career, and plenty of fluctuations can occur in splits such as these.

LaRoche guessed that his recent two-strike power would be at odds with the rest of his career, and indeed, he hasn’t shown a consistent pattern in that regard. Of the 165 players to hit at least 100 homers since LaRoche’s rookie year of 2004, he ranks only 66th by hitting 30.8 percent of his long balls in two-strike counts (teammate Jayson Werth ranks third, at 41.1 percent).

Nats manager Matt Williams cited LaRoche’s experience and understanding of pitchers as reasons he might be more comfortable hitting in those situations, but LaRoche believes it’s something that “comes and goes” rather than improving over time.

“When you’re feeling good at the plate and when things are rolling, you really don’t care if there’s no strikes or two strikes,” he said. “It doesn’t bother you to work a count and potentially get to a two-strike count. And when you’re not feeling good, not seeing the ball well, you try to stay out of those two-strike counts.”

There is no doubt that the better the count, the better off a hitter is. For example, Major Leaguers have a .796 OPS after getting ahead 1-0 this year, compared with .593 after falling behind 0-1. They slug .262 with two strikes but .548 with none.

Furthermore, many hitters might shorten their swings when on the verge of a strikeout, in an effort to put the ball in play. But LaRoche theorized that in some cases that actually could help produce a home run.

“You’d think without two strikes, you’d have a little more powerful swing,” he said. “But again, baseball’s a lot like golf. The harder you try to swing, the ball doesn’t go as far. It’s kind of funny how that works. You think you’re putting a nice, easy swing on the ball, and then it just kind of jumps sometimes.”

Williams added that advantageous counts, such as 2-0 or 3-1, can lead a hitter to become anxious and swing too hard. But when LaRoche gets behind, as he did against Gee, “he simply puts the head of the bat on it.”

“He doesn’t panic when he gets to two strikes,” Williams said. “He’s done it a time or two.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Soriano records 28th save in unconvincing fashion

By Daniel Popper

WASHINGTON – Rafael Soriano earned his third save in as many nights Friday against the Pirates at Nationals Park, but the performance was not without some drama.

Pittsburgh rallied against the right-hander in the ninth, bringing one run home on a Pedro Alvarez single before the third hit of the inning put the tying run on third base with two outs. Soriano then forced Josh Harrison into a game-ending popup that catcher Wilson Ramos secured behind the plate, clinching the closer’s 28th save of the season.

Nonetheless, the outing marked the second time in the last three games that Soriano entered a contest with a two-run lead and surrendered a run on three hits. On Wednesday, he gave up a leadoff home run to Travis d’Arnaud of the Mets in the final inning but rebounded to close the game out thanks to a botched bunt from Juan Lagares.

Still, despite Soriano’s recent scuffles — his ERA has risen to above 2.00 for the first time all season — manager Matt Williams sees no reason to panic.

“It is part of the season, it’s part of things that pitchers go through,” Williams said. “It doesn’t mean that next time out, he isn’t going to go 1-2-3. We’ve got confidence in him that he can do that, and he’s certainly got confidence in himself that he can do that. So the next time it presents itself, he’ll have the ball again.”

Wednesday was Soriano’s first appearance in four days. After the lackluster performance, the closer commented on how he needs a more consistent workload and to pitch at least every two or three days.

Fast-forward to Friday, which was Soriano’s third straight night on the mound. He still struggled, though, leaving mistakes up in the zone to a number of Pirates’ hitters.

So the question becomes: is too much or too little rest the actual issue?

“He’s got the job done for us all year,” Williams said. “That’s three and a row for him, so that’s a pretty heavy workload, but he got through it tonight. We’ll see how he feels tomorrow.”

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