The key to Zimmerman’s power surge

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.

His explanation?

“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.”

Strasburg scratched with right forearm tightness

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.”

Span extends hitting streak to 20 games

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.

[Updated] Left hip issue sidelines Harper two games

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.”

Nats claim Gomez off waivers

PHILADELPHIA — The Nationals claimed first baseman/third baseman Mauro Gomez off waivers from the Toronto Blue Jays on Thursday afternoon. He will not report to the Major League team.

Gomez, 28, joins the Nationals organization after hitting .249 with 29 home runs, 73 RBIs and a .843 OPS in 110 games this season for Triple A Buffalo.

The right-handed hitting Gomez, who is listed at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, tied current Nationals shortstop Zach Walters for the Triple-A lead with 29 home runs.

In seven seasons dating to 2007, Gomez has hit 150 homers/21.4 long balls per campaign, in the Minor Leagues.

Gomez made his big-league debut in 2011 with the Red Sox and hit .275 (28-for-102) with two home runs and 17 RBI in 37 games.

Harper dealing with hip injury

PHILADELPHIA — After Sunday’s 6-5 victory over the Mets,  Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper declined to say what was ailing him. But after Monday’s  3-2 loss to the Phillies, manager Davey Johnson revealed that Harper was dealing with a hip injury.

The skipper was upset that he wasn’t informed about Harper getting treatment on the hip until right before the game. But Harper told teammates such as Jayson Werth that he could play.

“I was really disturbed I wasn’t informed that he was having some treatment on his hip,” Johnson said. “But every time someone talks to Harp, he said, ‘I’m fine.’”

Harper, who was running the bases gingerly during Monday’s game, had a single and walk against the Phillies.

Johnson said he believes Harper will start Tuesday night against the Phillies.

Harper wouldn’t say much about his injury. He plans on playing as many games as he can before the season comes to an end.

“We have a month left . I’m going to play as hard as I can. I’ll worry about [the hip] in the end,” Harper said. “If I was hurting I would come out of the game. I feel good.”

It has not been an injury free season for Harper. He missed more than a month because of a left knee injury after banging into the wall at Dodger Stadium on May 13th.

‘The Shark’ faces Nats in Philly

PHILADELPHIA — Former Nationals outfielder Roger Bernadina was in the starting lineup for the Phillies on Monday, hitting eighth and playing right field.

The Nationals released Bernadina on Aug. 19 to make room for outfielder David DeJesus</span>. At the time of his release, Bernadina was hitting .178 with two home runs and six RBIs. His hitting wasn’t the only thing that disappointed the Nationals. He was also known to make baserunning mistakes.

“I like him. He just didn’t get much playing time early because we had a set lineup,” manager Davey Johnson said. “But he should have been used to that. Early on, it looked like he was guessing for pitches because he wasn’t aggressive.

“Again, all things come back to you having to stay aggressive in the box. First pitch may be the best pitch you get. They threw a lot of changeups and offspeed stuff. I think he missed a lot of fastballs, because he started getting into that guessing game.”</p>

Asked if was he surprised that the Nationals released him, Bernadina said: “You never want to get released, of course. I will say I was a little bit shocked. I wasn’t performing well. … It’s a business. I understand that part. I wish it had been a better ending, but I understand it’s part of business.

“I think they wanted me for a long time. I wouldn’t be in that organization for that long. In the end, it didn’t work out like I wanted it to.”

Bernadina was a popular figure with the D.C. fans and his teammates. He was lovingly known as “The Shark” because of the handful of great catches he made in the outfield.

“I love my teammates. I love the fans in D.C. I’m looking forward to going over there to see my teammates again,” Bernadina said.

Bernadina has been with the Phillies for the last two weeks and his hitting didn’t get any better, but he has made some nice plays in the outfield.

“Ever since I came here, they really want me. It’s a new opportunity to play somewhere, play more,” Bernadina said. “They have given me the chance to play. I think the teammates are great, coaches, everything is great.”

Knorr would like to be manager of Nats

PHILADELPHIA — With Davey Johnson retiring at the end of the 2013 season, bench coach Randy Knorr said Monday he would like to be considered as the next manager of the Nationals.

“I would like [the Nationals] to consider me. But I know [general manager] Mike [Rizzo] has a bunch of people in mind, also,” Knorr said. “It would be an honor to be considered for that job. … I try not to think too far ahead. I like to take things day by day.”

Knorr is more than qualified for the job. Of current players on the Major League roster, Knorr managed 11 of them, including Ryan Zimmerman and Stephen Strasburg, in the Minor Leagues.

In 2008, while managing Class A Potomac, Knorr guided the team to the Carolina League championship.

Knorr is also not afraid to speak his mind. While filling in for Johnson last Friday, Knorr called outfielder Bryce Harper out for not hustling against the Mets. In a game against the Pirates on July 26, Knorr quickly yanked Rafael Soriano out of the game in the ninth inning as he struggled with command.

“I think it’s very important to speak your mind,” Knorr said. “Your players will never be in the dark in what you believe in. I don’t have secrets with my players. They asked me a question, I’ll be as honest as I can with them. You have a better relationship with them. They are not always trying to figure you out. … They know where you are coming from, they have no problems with it.”

Nats’ Span on hot streak

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

Denard Span extended the best hitting streak of his career to 15 games on Sunday night with a pinch-hit single in the eighth inning. Entering Monday’s series opener against the Phillies, he had a .407 average over his past 15 games.

Span has been spending extra time in the batting cage  with hitting coach Rick Schu, who introduced a concept called “fluididity” to  the center fielder.

“I don’t know if it’s a word, but it is now,” Schu said over the weekend. “We’re just trying to get him some  rhythm and some flow. Really not a big overhaul — it’s tough because you’ve got  to compete every day — but we’re just trying to find some rhythm and get him a game plan every day.”

Span hit .265 in 90 games  before Schu’s arrival and is hitting .303 in 34 games since. Perhaps the most noticeable difference in Span’s approach is that he has been hitting for power. All three of his home runs this season have come since the All-Star break, in addition to five doubles and two triples.

“He’s a strong guy,” Schu said. “We don’t want him to go up and worry about hitting home runs, but he’s going to run into them and hit them. It’s just a matter of  getting through his front side and just staying through the baseball a little  bit longer.”

Schu praised Span as an all-around hitter with the ability of a perennial All-Star. He said that Span is not just a table-setter at the top of the lineup, but someone who could hit 10 home runs in a season as well.

“Not to take anything from conventional leadoff hitters, but I’ve never considered myself just a slap guy, or a singles guy,” Span said. “I’ve always considered myself a guy that can drive the ball in the gaps and hit some home runs. I’m confident in my ability. I know what God has blessed me with. It’s just a matter of putting it all together and just continuing to work.”

Harper: ‘I could care less what people think’

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

Bryce Harper is a No. 1 Draft pick, National League Rookie of the Year and All-Star Game starter. He’s also 20 years old. He’s still growing up.

Sunday capped an eventful three-game series for the Nationals’ wunderkind. On Friday, he drew criticism from bench coach Randy Knorr for not running out a ground ball at a pivotal stage of the game. On Saturday, he was thrown out trying to stretch a double into a triple in a blowout. And on Sunday, he dropped a sacrifice bunt that helped fuel a three-run rally in the eighth inning.

Harper showed maturity in more than one way Sunday. Facing a tough lefty in Scott Rice, the 20-year-old laid down a bunt with two runners on and nobody out, a team-first move, instead of trying to be the hero with one swing of the bat.

“In the moment, baseball players play baseball,” said Jayson Werth, who drove in the winning run, “and that’s what he was doing right there.”

Manager Davey Johnson said that he did not give Harper the sign for a sacrifice bunt. He did it on his own.

“As tough times as we’ve had with hitting with runners in scoring position,” Johnson said, “putting the tying run down there ain’t a bad idea.”

Harper also showed growth after the game. When asked about the potential backlash the Nationals would have received with a sweep, he said he could care less.

“Screw what people think,” he said. “Everybody talks about us all year long saying we’re not going to make this or do that. I could care less what they think. It’s all what we think. I could really care less what the media thinks or anybody else. It’s nice to get that W tonight and, like I said, I could care less what people think.”

Harper was seen limping earlier in the game and said that while his previously-injured left knee was fine, “some other things [are] hurting me.” He declined to elaborate. Whether the injury affected his decision to bunt is unclear.

Injury aside, the decision to put the team before potential glory was a good one. It was an important one, too, both within the context of the game and outside of it.  Harper was able to put the national headlines of his jog to first and the ESPN television cameras at Sunday’s game behind him and just play baseball. And for a 20-year-old phenom, that’s sometimes the toughest thing to do.

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