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.

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.”

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