Nats’ Scherzer looking for perfection

By Bill Ladson
WASHINGTON – Even though he picked up a win and a no-decision in his last two starts, Nationals right-hander Max Scherzer is a perfectionist. 

After Tuesday’s 5-4 victory against the D-Backs, Scherzer was not pleased that he allowed a combined six walks in those starts.Prior to June 30, Scherzer never walked more than two batters in a game. He even went five consecutive games without walking a batter.

Scherzer believes he is not attacking hitters early in the count or throwing putaway pitches.

“That’s something I’ve been good at this whole year,” Scherzer said. “I’m constantly throwing first-pitch strikes, working ahead of the count. I’m always on the offensive. [Lately], it feels like I’m falling behind in the count just enough that it’s leading me into bad counts, which leads to walks. It’s nothing mechanical. I have to dial it in mentally.”

August 4, lineups for Diamondbacks at Nationals

by Jacob Emert

The Nationals fell into a big hole last night, and, despite a valiant 9th-inning rally, they were never able to climb out of it. They’ve dropped four games in a row and sit 1.0 games behind the Mets in the NL East.

Here are tonight’s lineups for game two of the series, accompanied by each player’s offensive Wins Above Replacement (other than pitchers), according to FanGraphs.com.

Washington Nationals (54-50)

Yunel Escobar – 3B (1.4)

Anthony Rendon – 2B (0.3)

Bryce Harper – RF (6.4)

Ryan Zimmerman – 1B (-0.5)

Jayson Werth – LF (-0.9)

Ian Desmond – SS (-0.5)

Wilson Ramos – C (0.3)

Michael Taylor – CF (1.6)

Max Scherzer – RHP (5.0)

Arizona Diamondbacks (51-53)

Ender Inciarte – RF (0.9)

A.J. Pollock – CF (4.4)

Paul Goldschmidt – 1B (5.2)

David Peralta – LF (2.5)

Jake Lamb – 3B (1.9)

Jarrod Saltalamacchia – C  (-0.2)

Chris Owings – 2B (-0.8)

Nick Ahmed – SS (1.4)

Patrick Corbin – LHP (0.3)

August 3, lineups for Diamondbacks at Nationals

by Jacob Emert

The Nationals and Diamondbacks open up a 4-game set in D.C. as Washington tries to retake sole possession of first place in NL East after being swept by the Mets over the weekend.

Here are today’s starting lineups, accompanied by each player’s triple-slash (average/OBP/slugging).

Washington Nationals (54-49)

Yunel Escobar – 3B (.314/.360/.417)

Anthony Rendon – 2B (.286/.363/.388)

Bryce Harper – RF (.331/.456/.672)

Ryan Zimmerman – 1B (.209/.266/.355)

Clint Robinson – LF (.267/.348/.406)

Ian Desmond – SS (.216/.264/.359)

Wilson Ramos – C (.234/.260/.363)

Michael Taylor – CF (.237/.456/.672)

Doug Fister – RHP (4-6, 4.39 ERA)

Arizona Diamondbacks (50-53)

Ender Inciarte – RF (.290/.317/.385)

A.J. Pollack – CF (.305/.361/.463)

Paul Goldschmidt – 1B (.342/.458/.592)

David Peralta – LF (.281/.351/.493)

Welington Castillo – C (.246/.321/.385)

Jake Lamb – 3B (.279/.340/.425)

Aaron Hill – 2B (.218/.290/.325)

Nick Ahmed – SS (.221/.280/.329)

Zack Godley – RHP (2-0, 2.25 ERA)

Espinosa could be Nationals’ version of Zobrist

By Bill Ladson

New York – It has been reported the Nationals were looking to strengthen their bench by trying to acquire the versatile Ben Zobrist, but the Nationals already have their version of Zobrist in Danny Espinosa.

Espinosa can play four infield positions and the corner outfield spots. Espinosa hasn’t started a game since Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth were activated from the disabled list on Tuesday. Espinosa is expected to see some time on the field soon when Anthony Rendon is given a day off.

“[Danny] has the ability to play the outfield. He doesn’t have a whole lot of experience out. If we give him the opportunity to put him out there, we can do that,” manager Matt Williams said. “The first two days [in Miami], he has been doing some extra work out there and getting prepared if need be. He is willing to play and able to play anywhere we want him to.”

Espinosa has been arguably the team’s best bench player this season, hitting .253 with 10 home runs and 29 RBIs.

Nats’ Lobaton could get more playing time

By Bill Ladson

NEW YORK — Nationals catcher Jose Lobaton started Sunday’s game against the Mets. It marked the fourth time in the last eight games that Lobaton was inserted into the starting lineup.

Manager Matt Williams said recently said that he hasn’t ruled out Lobaton getting more playing time behind the plate. He is already Gio Gonzalez’s personal catcher. Wilson Ramos, the team’s starting catcher, is not having a good year defensively and in a 5-for-55 [.091] slump to drop his batting average to .234.

“It depends on where we are at, Williams said about the catching situation. “It depends on matchups, where we are at. The deeper lineup allows us to have more flexibility in that regard, too.”

Gonzalez good enough in Nats 7-2 win

by Jacob Emert

WASHINGTON – Gio Gonzalez was not dominant on Monday night, but provided with five runs and spectacular defense behind him against a beleaguered Mets offense, six solid innings were more than enough to record his seventh win of the season.

The only serious blemish against Gonzalez in the Nationals 7-2 win came in the fourth inning when he allowed a two-run single to pitcher Matt Harvey after getting ahead ahead 0-2.

Gonzalez responded with two more shutout innings.

“It means that (catcher Jose Lobaton) and I, we’re doing our job, just sticking together, just keeping our composure,” Gonzalez said. “Lobi wanted me to finish strong. I was just happy that (manager Matt Williams) gave me an extra inning and (to) not finish with five (innings).”

Gonzalez’s defense stole the show, saving multi-run innings in the first and fifth with swift stops and impressive catches.

“It’s fun to watch when these guys are playing their tails off,” Gonzalez said. “It makes it easier for a pitcher when these guys are making some great plays out there.”

The left-hander hadn’t pitched since July 10, and wasn’t as sharp as he had been in the three prior starts when he allowed two runs over 20 innings.

On Monday, Gonzalez walked three and allowed six hits.

“They were scrappy the whole time,” he said. “They didn’t give in. They were fighting all the way to the end. We managed to get a couple runs off Harvey and I was just trying to do my part to keep us right there.”

Gonzalez is now 7-4 with a 3.93 ERA.

Nationals Injury Update

by Jacob Emert

Prior to Sunday night’s series finale with the Giants, manager Matt Williams provided updates on several on Nationals players dealing with injuries.

– After being pulled from Saturday’s start in the fourth inning with “tightness in his left side,” Stephen Strasburg was placed on the 15-day DL Sunday with a left oblique strain. Williams said Strasburg underwent an MRI and that the decision to place Strasburg on the disabled list was an obvious one. “It’s something that we’ve got to do for his health and well-being and make sure that we get him well as quickly as possible,” Williams said. “He certainly wouldn’t be able to make his next turn (in the rotation). That’s for sure.”

– Aaron Barrett threw 16 pitches in one inning in his latest rehab start with High Class-A Potomac. Barrett went on the DL on June 12 with a right bicep strain. Williams said Barrett felt good after the last outing and if nothing changes he will pitch again Monday. Williams added that it was important for Barrett to be able to pitch on back-to-back days and feel good doing so before he makes his return to the Nationals. So, that could come on Monday and Tuesday if everything goes smoothly tomorrow.

– Ryan Zimmerman, who was placed on the DL on June 10 with plantar fasciitis in his left foot, in continuing his progression. He may do cage work on Sunday to “get any of that lingering soreness out of there,” Williams said, “and attempt to get him running again and going again.” He’s taken grounders and batting practice on the field, and “the last step is running.”

– Anthony Rendon is hitting in the cage and doing what he can “without stressing the muscle too much.” He’s been out since June 25 with a left quad strain and has not started to run yet. “We’re still very early in that process for him anyway,” Williams said.

– Jayson Werth is expected to be out until August will two small fractures in his left wrist but he is making good progress. He has been running and fielding fly balls during batting practice, and recently he started swinging a fungo bat — a thinner, lighter version compared to what players use in games. He’s also doing a “full lift” in the weight room, which Williams said is a good sign because “it means the bone is healthy.” “He’s itching to get going again,” Williams said. “He’ll progress through that, and somewhere in the near future, I’m sure he’ll get out to start going again with all of his work.”

Joe Ross’ gem, by the numbers

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — It was a special night for Nationals right-hander Joe Ross on Friday, as he pitched his club to a much-needed 4-1 win over the Pirates. The 22-year-old, making only his third Major League start, held Pittsburgh to one run on seven hits over 7 1/3 innings, with one walk and 11 strikeouts.

Here are some things to know about Ross’ impressive effort:

  • The only Nationals pitcher younger than Ross to reach double-digit strikeouts in a game is Stephen Strasburg, who did it twice as a 21-year-old in 2010.
  • Ross is the second-youngest pitcher in the Majors this season to have such a game, behind only the Astros’ Lance McCullers.
  • The Nats have struggled to find consistent starting pitching behind ace Max Scherzer this season, but Ross has stepped up during his brief time with the club. His game score of 72 on Friday is tied for the second-best on the team by anyone other than Scherzer, and with a 67 in his previous outing, the rookie now accounts for two of the top five non-Scherzer starts.
  • Ross’ out-pitch on Friday was his slider, which he leaned on heavily. According to PITCHf/x data from BrooksBaseball.net, Ross threw the pitch 47 times (out of 102). Of those 47 pitches, 36 (or 77 percent) went for strikes, and the Pirates missed on 18 of the 32 swings they took at it while recording just one hit on six balls put in play. Ross recorded 10 of his 11 strikeouts on the slider
  • Ross, of course, is the younger brother of Padres right-hander Tyson Ross, a six-year big league veteran. Of all qualified pitchers this season, Tyson uses his slider the most, at 46.3 percent. Clearly, the pitch runs in the family.
  • Joe Ross’ 18 whiffs on sliders are the most by a Major League pitcher this year, besting Tyson’s 15 on May 25, according to BaseballSavant.com.
  • The 21 total swings and misses that Ross generated were the second-most for a Nats pitcher this season, behind Scherzer’s 25 during his recent 16-strikeout game at Milwaukee.

The Nationals’ two 2015 seasons

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — On April 27, the Nationals played their 20th game of the season and suffered an 8-4 loss to the Braves in Atlanta, falling to 7-13, eight games behind the Mets in the National League East.

On Tuesday night, the Nationals played their 40th game of the season and rallied for an 8-6 win over the Yankees in Washington. Ryan Zimmerman’s two-run walk-off homer in the 10th inning against Andrew Miller and his 0.00 ERA lifted the Nats to 23-17 and into a first-place tie with the Mets atop the division.

Entering Wednesday’s game against New York, the Nats have played two 20-game stretches that could not be much more different. The change began on April 28 in Atlanta, when Washington fell behind by eight runs after four innings but roared back to claim a 13-12 victory on Dan Uggla’s go-ahead three-run homer in the ninth.

“This definitely is the type of game that can change the spirits of a ballclub,” center fielder Denard Span said afterward. “I’m not saying it will. But we definitely needed something like tonight.”

The idea of momentum in baseball often is wildly overstated, but there’s no doubt something turned around that day, even if it was nothing more than a good team finding its level. Since then, the Nats are 16-4, tied for the best 20-game stretch in team history. So what’s been the difference?

It hasn’t been pitching:

First 20 games: 3.64 ERA, 11 HR, 2.6 BB per game, 7.5 K per game

Last 20 games: 3.94 ERA, 14 HR, 2.4 BB per game, 8.2 K per game

In fact, the club’s starting pitchers posted a 4.33 ERA over that second stretch, compared with 3.78 in the first, with five outings of five earned runs or more.

However, some better defense has dropped the number of unearned runs scored against the Nats from an unwieldy 18 to eight.

Still, the biggest difference between the first and second versions of the Nats has been the way the club has swung the bats.

First 20 games: 3.5 runs per game, .215/.289/.346 (AVG/OBP/SLG), 16 HR

Last 20 games: 6.7 runs per game, .307/.369/.494, 29 HR

The most impressive thing about the improvement is that it’s been a total team effort. Yes, Bryce Harper has embarked on one of the best offensive stretches in baseball history, but every Nats regular has raised his game, at least a bit.

BRYCE HARPER

First 20 games: .262/.424/.508

Last 20 games: .403/.522/.944

DENARD SPAN

First 20 games: .207/.250/.207 (7 games)

Last 20 games: .377/.421/.638

DANNY ESPINOSA

First 20 games: .205/.340/.436

Last 20 games: .303/.387/.500

WILSON RAMOS

First 20 games: .250/.258/.328

Last 20 games: .379/.413/.500

YUNEL ESCOBAR

First 20 games: .284/.351/.418

Last 20 games: .378/.420/.392

RYAN ZIMMERMAN

First 20 games: .205/.279/.385

Last 20 games: .280/.310/.453

JAYSON WERTH

First 20 games: .156/.250/.200 (12 games)

Last 20 games: .250/.328/.357 (placed on DL Tuesday)

IAN DESMOND

First 20 games: .238/.297/.357

Last 20 games: .250/.296/.382

Even a couple of members of the bench have made huge contributions over the last 20 games. Backup catcher Jose Lobaton is 6-for-17 with two homers, five RBIs, four walks and a 1.182 OPS. And Uggla, whose homer against his former team ignited this surge, is 7-for-20 with a double, a triple, a homer, nine RBIs, four walks and a 1.108 OPS.

So which Nats team will show up for the next 20 games? Logic states the offense, and the club in general, will find a middle ground. But we’ll soon find out, starting Wednesday night.

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Wilmer Difo’s suddenly rapid rise

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — For much of his professional career, Wilmer Difo has not been a fast-moving prospect. That changed dramatically on Monday, when the Nationals called up the 23-year-old infielder as they placed Jayson Werth on the disabled list.

The move was the result of several circumstances. Difo was one of the organization’s few Minor League position players who already was on the 40-man roster, and manager Matt Williams said the the club already had enough options available for the outfield. Difo, meanwhile, offers extra middle-infield defense and speed on the bases.

While Difo’s stay could be short, Williams said he doesn’t believe the promotion straight from Double-A Harrisburg will affect Difo’s development.

“I know he’s excited to be here,” Williams said. “He’s already been on the field for early grounders and early hitting, and he’s working hard. We don’t know exactly what the game is going to provide for us on any day, but he’s got a lot of tools, can do a lot of things for us.”

Still, it’s worth looking at Difo’s gradual — then suddenly rapid — ascent up the ladder.

— 2010 (age 18): 45 games in Dominican Summer League … .570 OPS

— 2011 (age 19): 64 games in DSL and rookie-level Gulf Coast League … .794 OPS

— 2012 (age 20): 54 games in GCL … .703 OPS

— 2013 (age 21): 61 games in GCL and three Class-A affiliates … .644 OPS

— 2014 (age 22): 136 games at Class A Hagerstown … .831 OPS

— 2015 (age 23): 33 games at high Class A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg … .887 OPS

Difo attributed his progress over the past couple of years to staying healthy, and this spring he was able to play with the big league club in 13 Grapefruit League games, batting .318 and impressing Williams with his aggressiveness.

Now, after only 14 games above Class A, he’s in Washington. It’s certainly an unusual trajectory. Let’s see how that compares to the games other current Nats position players spent in the high Minors before their Major League debuts.

— Anthony Rendon, 35

— Bryce Harper, 58

— Ryan Zimmerman, 63

— Wilson Ramos, 71 (Twins)

— Michael Taylor, 102

— Danny Espinosa, 123

— Jose Lobaton, 131 (Padres)

— Tyler Moore, 160

— Yunel Escobar, 167 (Braves)

— Dan Uggla, 218 (D-backs)

— Ian Desmond, 227

— Clint Robinson, 323 (Royals)

— Denard Span, 343 (Twins)

— Jayson Werth, 356 (Orioles/Blue Jays)

And how about some high-profile position players from other teams?

— Albert Pujols, 3 (Cardinals)

— Alex Rodriguez, 17 (Mariners)

— Buster Posey, 35 (Giants)

— Miguel Cabrera, 69 (Marlins)

— Joe Mauer, 73 (Twins)

— Mike Trout, 75 (Angels)

— David Wright, 91 (Mets)

— Ryan Braun, 93 (Brewers)

— Paul Goldschmidt, 103 (D-backs)

— Troy Tulowitzki, 104 (Rockies)

— Giancarlo Stanton, 132 (Marlins)

— Andrew McCutchen, 339 (Pirates)

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