Clippard wants to end season strong

NEW YORK  — Right-hander Tyler Clippard is clearly the Nationals’ best reliever this year. Entering Sunday’s action against the Mets, Clippard was 6-2 with a 1.94 ERA and led the National League with 28 holds.

One thing Clippard doesn’t want to do is end the season on a bad note, like he did last year. During the final month of the 2012 season, Clippard allowed 12 runs in 13 1/3 innings.

Clippard is motivated to show that he can be consistent for a whole season, including the month of September.

“It’s all about how you finish in this game. I felt like I was part of the reason everything happened like it did [toward the end of the 2012 season and the postseason],” Clippard said. “I didn’t want that to happen again. It motivated me to finish strong. We still have a month left, but I’m still working hard.”

Q&A with Orioles outfielder Michael Morse

Michael Morse was known as “The Beast,” and what a player he was when he wore a Nationals uniform. He was one of the big reasons they won the National League East title in 2012.

After coming back from a lat muscle strain last season, Morse made up for lost time by hitting .291 with 18 home runs and 62 RBIs in 102 games. He even played in the postseason with a hamstring injury, and managed to hit a home run and collect five hits against the Cardinals in the NL Division Series.   

After the season ended, the Nationals traded Morse to the Athletics for pitching prospects, including A.J. Cole and Ian Krol. Oakland then swapped Morse to the Mariners for catcher John Jaso.

After having a tough season in Seattle, Morse was dealt to the Orioles this weekend. His job is to provide power to an already formidable lineup.             

MLB.com caught up with Morse at Yankee Stadium on Sunday to talk about his trade to the Orioles and the possibility of returning to the Nationals. 

MLB.com: What do you think of your season so far? You have been with the Orioles for two days.

Michael Morse: For a guy who was hitting .220, getting an opportunity to come to a team like this is special. I’m getting a shot at getting to the postseason with a great ballclub. These guys have so much potential. They have so much swagger. It’s going to be fun and very special here.

MLB.com: When did you know that you were going to be traded?

Morse: The way the Mariners were going, I knew it was going to work out [as far as going to a contender]. There was always speculation, I might be getting traded here and there at the Deadline. When this trade happened, I was very excited. There isn’t another place I want to go to.

MLB.com: You will be a free agent after the season. Do you want to stay with the Orioles?

Morse: It’s too early to think about stuff like that. The one and only goal right now is help this team get to the postseason.

MLB.com: Starting Thursday, you will play in Camden Yards, a ballpark that suits Michael Morse.

Morse: It absolutely does. My main thing is, just fit in with the team, have fun like I always do and help them with their push.

MLB.com: Let’s talk about the Nationals. How surprised are you that they have been inconsistent this year?

Morse: Baseball is a funny game. You look at what Jayson Werth is doing. He is having a great year. Ian Desmond is also having a great year. These are guys I talk to almost on a daily basis. I still have a close-knit relationship with a lot of guys on that team.

What we had last year was special. I hope to get it back. I feel like you have something like that, you have to go for it.

MLB.com: What do you think the problem is with the Nationals?

Morse: I really don’t know. Like I said, baseball is a funny game. It looks like Atlanta has been pretty good all year.

MLB.com: A lot of Nationals fans would like to see you come back. Would you like to come back and play for the Nationals?

Morse: For me, the door is always open. D.C. is a special place. The Nationals gave me my first big break and I have a lot of memories there.

MLB.com: What made that 2012 team so special?

Morse: We knew we were good. How good? We didn’t know until the season kept going. We had one goal: get to the postseason and win the World Series. We all had each other’s back. That’s what good teams do. When you have a close knit family like that, special things started to happen. Not only did we win games, we were having fun — on and off the field. We were all together. It was sad when I had to leave, but baseball is baseball. That’s what happens.

MLB.com: I heard you cried after the Cardinals defeated the Nationals in the National League Division Series.

Morse: It was tough. I remember in the locker room, sitting there — no one moved for quite a long time. It was one of those surreal moments where the season is over and we didn’t think it was. We thought we had batting practice the next day, but literally, that was it. I think we were not ready [to call it a season].

MLB.com:  The song “Take On Me” by Aha is popular during the seventh inning at Nationals Park.  That used to be your walkup song to the plate. What is your reaction that the song is still popular in D.C.?

Morse: That says a lot about the fans in D.C. I think it’s great. I wouldn’t want them any other way. I love the fact that the song still makes them happy.

MLB.com:  Do you think the Nationals miss you?

Morse: It’s tough to say. I surely miss them, the players. Like I said, we were a close knit group. We keep in touch. Maybe down the stretch here, who knows, we might be playing against them [in the postseason].

Small mistake looms large in playoff push

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

The Nationals’ road to the playoffs is actually more like a tightrope. They have little room for error as they try to catch Arizona and Cincinnati in the Wild Card race, and every mistake over the next month will be magnified.

Such was the case on Friday, when the Mets scored the deciding run in a 3-2 ball game on a questionable throw and missed scoop.

In the top of the eighth inning with two outs and Daniel Murphy on second base, Andrew Brown hit a chopper to Ryan Zimmerman at third. Zimmerman, who has a team-high 19 errors this season, tried to make a difficult play and skipped a throw to first. First baseman Adam LaRoche couldn’t field the ball cleanly and Murphy ran around to score.

Given the situation, it probably would have been wise for Zimmerman to hold the ball. Though if LaRoche had been able to scoop the ball on an awkward hop, Murphy wouldn’t have scored and it probably wouldn’t have been a big issue.

“I’ll throw that every time,” Zimmerman said. “I got the ball clean and threw it. When I’m off-balance like that, I usually just bounce it. Rochie made a good play. I think the guy would’ve been safe. He came off the bag and unfortunately it took a funny hop and he couldn’t come up with it. But if he catches it clean, the guy’s out at home by a mile.”

Bench coach Randy Knorr, who took over for Davey Johnson in the fourth inning because the skipper was feeling light-headed, gave Murphy credit for rounding third base without hesitation. Shortstop Ian Desmond said that he trusts Zimmerman in that situation, regardless of his throwing woes this season.

“It’s easy to say, ‘Yeah, put it in your pocket,’” Desmond said. “But at the same time, that’s a big play if he makes that play. I’ll take my chances on Zim making that play every time.”

In a vacuum, Zimmerman’s decision to throw and LaRoche’s inability to field the ball were not major blunders. The game could have turned on a number of other plays. But given the situation — both the Reds and Diamondbacks also lost Friday, giving the Nationals a chance to gain ground — those small mistakes suddenly look much larger.

 

Randy Knorr questions Harper’s hustle

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

Bryce Harper has become one of the most popular players in baseball because of the intensity that he brings to every play. But with two on and two out in the eighth inning on Friday, that intensity was lacking.

Harper fouled a 3-0 pitch from left-hander Scott Rice before hitting a routine ground ball to second base. The All-Star’s jog to first base would have gone unnoticed, except for the fact that Daniel Murphy bobbled the ball. Harper was easily thrown out and slammed his helmet on the ground.

After the game, bench coach Randy Knorr questioned Harper’s effort on the play.

“The thing about Bryce right now that’s tough [is] he gets frustrated,” said Knorr, who took over for Davey Johnson in the fourth inning Friday when the skipper left the dugout with an illness. “I don’t think he does it intentionally, but he’s going to have to start picking it up a little bit, because we’ve got everybody else doing it. He gets frustrated at times, and it just comes out of him. It’s something we’ve got to fix.”

Harper, who missed 31 games with bursitis in his left knee earlier this season, said he was confident that Murphy would have thrown him out on the play.

“I mean, ground out to Murphy. He’s pretty good over there, so in that situation I think he makes that play every single day,” Harper said.

Knorr agreed that Harper would’ve been thrown out on the play, even with maximum effort. But the bench coach also said that play was indicative of a larger trend this season.

“[It’s] something that we’ve got to get to the bottom of and keep talking to him, because eventually we’re just going to have to take him out of the game,” Knorr said. “He’s been trying, but it just shows up at times. Like in that situation, he’s got a chance to tie the ballgame up or go ahead and he doesn’t get it done. He knows he’s out, and it just comes out of him.”

Ryan Zimmerman was running to second base at the time and had his back turned to Harper. While he couldn’t say whether the 20-year-old went all-out in that instant, Zimmerman said that Harper plays hard every game like everyone else. Ian Desmond saw the play from the dugout steps.

“I know that when he got 3-0 and he let it go, I know that takes a lot of guts in that situation, lefty-lefty. Those same guts are going to be what makes us give this final push in this last month,” Desmond said. “As far as the baserunning goes, it takes guts also to run out the ones that you think are going to be outs. He does it 95, 99, almost 100 percent of the time, and I think this one might’ve just got pointed out because the guy made a bobble or whatever.

“I mean, he’s 20 years old and I think he’s still dealing with some emotions of the game,” Desmond continued. “It’s hard to remember a lot of the time that he is 20. What most of us were doing at 20 wasn’t this.”

Aaron Boone’s take on Nats

Aaron Boone played one year for the Nationals, in 2008. However, he is best remembered for hitting the game-winning home run that helped Yankees win the 2003 American League pennant.

Now a baseball analyst for ESPN, Boone, 40, spoke with MLB.com on Friday about the 2013 Nationals and their chances of making the postseason.

MLB.com: What do you think of the Nationals’ latest run?

Aaron Boone: I think it’s too little, too late, but stranger things have happened over the last couple of seasons. Obviously, they are going to try to continue it at a lights out level during the final month of the season.

Obviously, you have to go on a 20-5 run, but then they need help from other teams. Those things have happened over time. No question. But they are still well behind at this point.

MLB.com: How surprised were you that the Nationals were inconsistent for most of the season?

Boone: I was. I thought, provided their pitching stayed healthy, it would carry them and [they'd] be in a position to win the division or at least get a wild card. [The pitching] hasn’t been as overwhelming as we anticipated. The bullpen is very average – at best. I think what has hurt them this year is that the bench hasn’t been very good. It seems they don’t have anybody they can plug in or step in during the course of the season. That adds up.

MLB.com: The overall offense hasn’t been good for most of the season.

Boone: I still think this offense is solid all around, but when your starting nine aren’t completely healthy and you don’t have pieces to plug in — they haven’t had a guy off the bench that’s had a big year for them, a person they can plug in for a week or two. There has been a really big drop off that I’ve noticed. Outside of the main core guys, they’ve had some struggles.

MLB.com: Do you think the Nationals made a mistake by letting lefty relievers like Tom Gorzelanny go?

Boone: When I looked at this team in Spring Training, … everyone felt like, well, their starting pitching is so good and then with [Tyler]Clippard, [Drew] Storen and [Craig] Stammen and adding Soriano in the back end, [the Nationals] have guys who can neutralize the lefties – how Clippard has been over his career [against lefties]. They thought they could get away with it. … I think going in, it’s the one area I thought they would have a concern, but I thought the overall strength of the bullpen would be able to counter it. It is something that has bit them a little bit.

MLB.com: What do you think about the way Jayson Werth has carried the Nationals the last two months?

Boone: It has been really awesome. He has been a beast. This is what they’ve signed him to do. You have to tip your cap for what he has done and what he has been able to put together. Obviously, he is right in the middle of being on a nice little run and giving them a fighter’s chance down the stretch.

MLB.com: How are things going with you health-wise?

Boone: I’m doing really well. I’m enjoying my gig. It’s a lot of fun to be able to cover game that I love and have a small part in the sport. It has been a blessed transition for me.

Tuesday’s lineup for Nats

Nationals
——————
1. Span–CF
2. Zimmerman–3B
3. Harper–LF
4. Werth–RF
5. Desmond–SS
6. LaRoche–1B
7. Ramos–C
8. Rendon–4
9. Ohlendorf–9

Harper homers despite having bad foot

KANSAS CITY — It looked like Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper was going to leave Sunday’s game against the Royals in the sixth inning after he fouled a ball off his left foot.

Harper was slow getting up, but he remained in the game and singled to left field in the same inning.

“In a situation like that, I want to stay in there. I want to get some knocks and try to win that ballgame,” Harper said.

An inning later, Harper’s foot was still “throbbing” when he hit a two-run homer of Ervin Santana to tie the score at 4.

“He gave me a pitch I could drive. I got something I could do with it,” Harper said.

During the 10-game road trip, Harper went 14-for-37 [.378] with one home run and six RBIs.

“I’m just trying to go out there and just try to have good [at-bats] and good things will happen,” he said.” I’m going to try to walk a little bit more, just try to get on base … and try to win some ballgames.”

DeRosa surprised by Nats’ disappointing season

NEW YORK — Blue Jays infielder Mark DeRosa said Tuesday that he is surprised the Nationals have been inconsistent this season.

Entering Tuesday’s action, the Nationals are 60-64, 16 games behind the Braves in the National League East and 10 ½ games behind the Reds in the second and final spot in the NL Wild Card race.

“As good as last year was, nothing is ever written in stone,” said DeRosa, who played on the 2012 Nationals. “But you get that vibe that it’s going to happen [for the Nationals] again. They are going to get on the track and they are going to roll toward the World Series [someday]. … The talent is there. Every season has a way of letting you know it’s not that easy.”

DeRosa didn’t play much for the Nationals last year because of injuries, but was a major influence on the young players such as Tyler Moore and Roger Bernadina. Both players credited DeRosa for their ability to be successful off the bench last year.

“I was a sounding board for a lot of guys. I wasn’t afraid to speak my mind, regardless of how poorly I played,” DeRosa said. “The same thing goes for Michael Morse, a guy who kept the clubhouse loose, a guy people enjoyed seeing. The same with Sean Burnett, the same with Tom Gorzelanny. These guys were significant pieces of the team.”

After the season ended, DeRosa, Morse, Gorzelanny, Burnett and Michael Gonzalez all left the Nationals. Asked who is missed the most, DeRosa said, “It’s a combination of all of us. To not have the lefties in the ‘pen to start the year was a situation that could haunt them. But they felt comfortable going out in getting [Rafael] Soriano and doing all those things. They have done an amazing job over there.

“I don’t want to say they took a step back. I still say that talent is there for them to win a World Series. But for whatever reason, it didn’t happen [this year].”

DeRosa is having a productive season off the bench, hitting seven home runs with 31 RBIs. He could become a free agent after the season if the Blue Jays don’t pick up his option.

“We haven’t discussed anything moving forward. I feel good. My wrist is healthy. I’m hitting the occasional home run. I’m doing my job, which is very rewarding. Last year, all I brought to the table was a voice and that was frustrating, but I did the best I could — given the circumstances,” DeRosa said.

Nationals manager Davey Johnson is planning to retire after this season. Would DeRosa be interested in the job?

“God, I haven’t even thought about that. You think Jayson Werth would listen to me? I don’t think so,” DeRosa said jokingly. “I’ve been asked that question quite a bit, but that’s down the road. I have to run it by my wife. She has been grinding it with me for so long that if I’m not going to play, I have to go home for a minute and be a dad.”

Wild weekend for Harper in Atlanta

ATLANTA — It was some kind of weekend for Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper at Turner Field.

On Friday against the Braves, Harper was hit twice by pitches and didn’t start the next game because of a left triceps injury, which occurred when he was hit by a Luis Avilan fastball.

“I really don’t want to comment on it,” Harper said on Sunday.

But right-hander Stephen Strasburg was able to get revenge for Harper on Saturday. Strasburg hit Justin Upton on the backside in the first inning after Jason Heyward’s leadoff home run, and warnings were issued to both benches.

Then with the Nationals leading, 4-1, Jordan Schafer led off the second inning and drew a walk. After that, Strasburg couldn’t throw a strike. With Andrelton Simmons at the plate, Strasburg threw three consecutive wild pitches, two of them behind Simmons’ back.

Home-plate umpire Marvin Hudson immediately threw Strasburg and manager Davey Johnson out of the game after the third wild pitch, which enabled Schafer to score.    Harper entered as a defensive replacement in the bottom of the ninth inning and played the rest of the game in left field, going 0-for-2 in the Nationals’ 8-7 win over the Braves in 15 innings.

In Washington’s 3-2 loss on Sunday, Harper went 2-for-4, but struck out to end the game. With a 1-2 count, Braves closer Craig Kimbrel threw a pitch and it appeared Harper checked his swing, but Hudson, the third-base umpire in this contest, said he swung at the pitch, ending the game. Harper was clearly upset and was arguing with the umpires until teammate Jayson Werth told Harper to walk away.

“The home-plate umpire [Wally Bell] said no three times. He doesn’t want to check,” Harper said. “They obviously check and they bang me. That’s one less pitch I see against [Kimbrel]. He is a great closer. Trying to see as many pitches [as I can] is huge.”

Throughout the weekend, Braves fans were jeering Harper. How did he feel about being the most hated member of the Nationals?

“I love these fans, I really do,” Harper said. “These people are absolutely unbelievable for their team. If I was playing for a team like this and a crowd like that, I’d be stoked to play every night, too.

“But I love playing in Nats Park, too. We have a great crowd, too. Going to Philly, going [to Atlanta], Fenway, New York, there are so many great crowds. This is a baseball organization that really loves the Braves.”

Taking stock of the Nats’ dwindling playoff hopes

By Andrew Simon

The Nationals saw a victory slip through their fingers in agonizing fashion on Thursday against the Giants, who snapped their five-game winning streak and put a damper on their flight to Atlanta for Friday’s series opener against the Braves.

On one hand, the Nats had righted themselves after a sweep by the Braves and closed their homestand on a 5-1 run. Catcher Kurt Suzuki felt the momentum was still there.

“We won two series in a row, going to Atlanta feeling good about ourselves,” he said. “Hey, you never know.”

With baseball, one never does know. Strange things happen. But at this point in the season, with the Nats clinging for dear life to the fringes of the playoff chase, every game takes on monumental importance. Washington can’t afford to have many more slip away.

Just how dire is the situation?

At 59-61, the Nats trail the Reds by 9 1/2 games and the D-backs by 3 1/2 for the second NL Wild Card spot (the Cardinals hold the first Wild Card and are only a half-game in front of Cincinnati). Odds calculated by Baseball Prospectus give the Nats a 1.7 percent chance to make the postseason, while the website coolstandings.com figures about the same, at 1.9 percent.

Of course, teams have come back from long odds before. Take the breathtaking 2011 season, which came down to the final day. The Rays’ playoff odds dipped as low as 0.5 percent on September 3, while the Cardinals’ chances fell to 1.1 percent on Aug. 27. Both teams stormed back to claim Wild Card berths, and St. Louis won the World Series. Even if it’s faint, there is hope.

If the Nats were to stage their own miraculous comeback, what would it look like? They have 42 games remaining, one more than the Reds. Putting aside the D-backs and assuming the Reds remain the team to catch for the second Wild Card, here are a handful of scenarios that would result in a tie:

Reds go 25-16 (.610)… Nats go 35-7 (.833)

Reds go 21-20 (.512) … Nats go 31-11 (.738)

Reds go 20-21 (.487) … Nats go 30-12 (.714)

Reds go 16-25 (.390)… Nats go 26-16 (.619)

There are several other factors to keep in mind as Washington tries to make this a reality.

  • The Nats still haven’t won more than five straight all season and they have only three four-game winning streaks. Their best 10-game stretch is 7-3, and they’ve done that only a few times.
  • They have limited chances to gain ground directly. Their season series with Cincinnati is finished. They do close their schedule with three against St. Louis and three against Arizona, games that could wind up being do or die.
  • They just finished a nine-game homestand, part of a stretch in which they played 20 of 25 at Nationals Park. That leaves them with 26 road games and only 16 home contests remaining, not good news for a club with a 23-32 road record.
  • They will need to take advantage of their 23 remaining games against the Mets, Phillies and Marlins, the three teams behind them in the division. The Nats are 20-14 so far in those season series. They also get four against the 52-68 Cubs. On the other hand, they’ll need to figure out a way to beat the Braves over six more meetings after starting 3-10 against them.
  • The Reds play 23 of their final 41 at home, where they are 37-21. About half of their remaining schedule is against teams with winning records, including four against the D-backs and seven against the Cardinals. The D-backs play 24 of 43 on the road, where they are 26-31, but have only 14 left against winning teams.
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