Results tagged ‘ Davey Johnson ’

Harper’s big bunt: Nats surprise, reap benefits

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Bryce Harper owns one of baseball’s most violent and dangerous swings, so when he walks to the plate in a crucial situation with a runner in scoring position, he is expected to use it.

The Nationals defied those expectations during a key moment in Saturday night’s 8-5 comeback win against the Phillies.

It was Harper’s run-scoring bunt in the seventh inning that tied the game and set up Jayson Werth’s dramatic go-ahead home run one batter later. Asked to grade the bunt after the game, Werth gave it an “S for surprising,” and it certainly was that.

The Nationals entered the seventh training, 4-3. Phillies manager Charlie Manuel replaced starting pitcher Cliff Lee with another left-hander, Jake Diekman, and Nats skipper Davey Johnson sent up pinch hitter Steve Lombardozzi.

Lombardozzi got things started with a walk, moved to second on Denard Span’s sacrifice and then boldly stole third to move 90 feet from tying the game with Ryan Zimmerman at the plate.

“Well, [Diekman’s] real slow to the plate,” Johnson said. “He’s like 1.6, 1.7 [seconds]. That’s what you do. But [Lombardozzi’s] a smart baserunner. He had a good jump and he got in pretty easy.”

Zimmerman walked to put runners on the corners for Harper. On one hand, the 20-year-old is one of Washington’s deadliest hitters, not your usual candidate for a bunt. In his career, Harper had never driven home a run with a bunt, and he had used them for five sacrifices and one hit.

But a couple of factors, other than the element of surprise, made the bunt a more appealing proposition. For one thing, Harper hasn’t been the same offensive threat he was early in the year, entering Saturday hitting .225 with a .734 OPS since April 28. He went into that at-bat hitting .174 against lefties, with 26 strikeouts in 101 plate appearances. And lefties are 6-for-35 (.171) with 10 Ks against Diekman this year.

Johnson called for the bunt, later saying his reasoning was simply to, “get a run in.” Third base coach Trent Jewett passed Harper the signal to safety squeeze, meaning he only tries to bunt on a strike, and Lombardozzi only breaks for home if Harper gets it down.

Harper took a slider just inside for ball one. He later said Jewett took the bunt off on the 1-0 pitch, a slider down and away that Harper swung through. Jewett signaled for it again on the next pitch, and Harper hung with a slider up and inside. He got it in the air, but in the right spot, the ball shooting toward second base and reaching Chase Utley on one hop. With no play at home, and no chance for a double play, Utley took the force at second, and the game was tied.

“I mean, he hung a slider, so it kind of caught me off-guard a little bit,” Harper said. “I think if it was a fastball, it would’ve gone straight into the ground, because he has pretty good two-seam action on his fastball. The slider, I tried to hit it into right field, it looked like. Thankfully it fell in front of Utley and we got that run.”

Of getting called on to squeeze in that spot, Harper said, “I love it. I think it’s great.” It may have been a surprising call, but it worked.

“The last thing you want to do right there is hit into a double play,” Werth said. “Sometimes, first and third with one out and the game on the line like that, a bunt’s a good play if it works out. But a guy like Bryce, you want to see Bryce swing the bat. But when the guy he’s facing is a nasty lefty, Charlie Manuel would always talk about being creative in the moment. Bryce was definitely creative in the moment right there.”

A look at Dan Haren’s resurgence

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — It took four months and a stint on the disabled list, but the Nationals finally seem to have found the Dan Haren they thought they were getting for a one-year, $13 million contract this winter.

The veteran right-hander went 4-9 with a 6.15 ERA in his first 15 starts through June 22, a performance that he believes left him, “a bad start of two away from getting released.” Then he went on the disabled list with a sore right shoulder and returned July 8 as a new pitcher.

Haren held the Phillies to two runs on four hits over seven innings in Friday’s win over the Phillies, his third straight victory. In six starts since his DL stint, he has a 2.43 ERA.

“This is definitely more like it,” Haren said. “I felt really good out there today. Really comfortable. The ball was moving pretty good. And obviously getting all the runs made it pretty easy. It’s just kind of unfortunate that it didn’t start off like this, but at least I’m showing that’s in there.”

The question facing Haren and the Nats is, why the sudden turnaround? And can it continue for the rest of the season?

The obvious explanation is that Haren is healthier now. Manager Davey Johnson said Friday that he pitched through some arm problems during the first half of the season. But Haren continues to insist that he had no physical ailment before going on the DL, only that, “Mentally I was pretty messed up.” Having a couple of weeks off might have given Haren a needed opportunity to step back, regroup and catch his breath, but it wouldn’t seem to account for his massive jump in performance. If his arm is any stronger, it hasn’t been reflected in his velocity.

After Friday’s start, Haren gave a lot of the credit to his improved ability to keep the ball down, especially with his splitter. He had surrendered a whopping 19 home runs in his first 15 outings but only two since, and both of those came in his one poor post-DL start, July 22 against the Pirates.

Haren has worked on a new grip for the split, in an effort to slow down the pitch and gain greater separation from his fastball. It appears to have worked. According to data from brooksbaseball.net, Haren’s splitter velocity has dropped significantly over the past two months. He was throwing the pitch in the 84-86 mph range early in the season; on Friday, it averaged 82.3 mph. Along with that, the data shows that since Haren came off the DL, batters are swinging at the splitter at about the same rate but putting it in play much less.

According to Haren, the key has been both the pitch itself and his concerted effort to keep the ball down in crucial situations, to be, “a little more concerned with location, rather than just concerned with throwing strikes.”

“My split has been really good since coming off the DL, but really it’s just keeping the ball down,” Haren said. “I really focus on that, trying to keep the ball in the ballpark. I mean, the home runs really burned me all year.”

As Haren admitted, there probably is some good luck involved as well, just as there probably was some bad luck involved in his earlier struggles. His opponents’ batting average on balls in play was .333 before his DL stint and .267 since, which could indicate weaker contact, but also more batted balls finding their way to Nats fielders. Some fly balls that barely were clearing the fence before might be staying in the yard now.

There also is the issue of who Haren has faced. Since returning, he has seen the Phillies twice, plus the Brewers, Marlins, Mets and Pirates. All of those clubs rank in the bottom half of the Majors in runs scored, batting average and OPS.

Haren’s next scheduled start is Thursday against the Giants, another weaker offensive club, so he’ll have a good chance to continue his surge.

Lefties in bullpen going through rough patch

By Andrew Simon 

WASHINGTON — Twice during Wednesday night’s 6-3 loss to the Braves, Nationals manager Davey Johnson called on a left-handed reliever in a crucial spot. Both times, that pitcher did not get the job done, highlighting an issue that has plagued the team throughout much of the season and caused problems again of late.

During last year’s run to a division title, Sean Burnett, Mike Gonzalez and Tom Gorzelanny gave Johnson three effective bullpen options from the left side. Each posted an ERA of 3.03 or lower and each left the team via free agency.

The Nats began 2013 with long reliever Zach Duke as their only lefty reliever, but that experiment fizzled. The situation improved in late May, however, when Washington dug into its Minor League system. Fernando Abad, signed this offseason, was called up from Triple-A Syracuse on May 21. Ian Krol, acquired in a trade from the A’s, arrived from Double-A Harrisburg on June 4.

Both started out hot. Both have been struggling for an extended period of time, even if their ERAs don’t show the extent of the damage. The following numbers are based around arbitrary cutoff points but give an idea as to how the situation has been trending.

Abad and Krol’s first 18 combined games:

17.1 IP, 5 H, 2 BB, 21 K, .089 opp. avg., 0.40 WHIP, 0 of 6 inherited runners scored

Last 32 combined games:

28.2 IP, 43 H, 7 BB, 19 K, .341 opp. avg., 1.74 WHIP, 11 of 15 inherited runners scored

“It was really good,” Nats manager Davey Johnson said of his left-handed relief, “and now when we’re leaning on them, they’re having a few blips on the radar screen.”

The latest came on Wednesday. Abad entered a tie game in the seventh inning and served up a rocket of a home run to Justin Upton. Krol entered a tie game in the eighth, in a perilous situation, with runners on first and second, two outs and Jason Heyward at the plate. The 22-year-old rookie got Heyward into an 0-2 count but left a breaking ball over the plate, something Johnson called, “an inexperienced, bad mistake.” Krol paid for it with the go-ahead RBI single, and Upton followed with a two-run double.

After the game, Krol talked about missing his spot and admitted he might have been better off going to an inside fastball. He’s been trying to adjust to the adjustments hitters have made to him, and it’s caused him to deviate from his strengths.

“They seem to be jumping on my fastball a little more early than usual,” Krol said. “I’ve been trying to pitch backward, and that’s not my game. My game is to go after them with fastballs and attacking the zone, so I need to get back to what I was doing before, and like I said, just clear my head and have a short memory.”

Nats need to make improvements

WASHINGTON  — Entering Tuesday action, the Nationals were 54-58, 13 ½ games behind the Braves in the National League East and seven games behind the Reds in the Wild Card race. While manager Davey Johnson continues to have a positive attitude about his team, it’s pretty clear why the Nationals may not play in the postseason this year.

They rank near the bottom in offense and defense. They have also had their share of injuries. The worst was Bryce Harper, who missed more than a month of action because of a left knee injury.

“All the little things add up and they can affect your performance,” Johnson said. “It’s my job to stay positive and hope, at some point, we get it all going.”

What improvements should the Nationals make to get better? They need a leadoff hitter. Center fielder Denard Span has hit first for most of the season, and he is hitting .251 with a .310 on-base percentage at the top spot.

Ryan Zimmerman is arguably having his worst year defensively, with a team-leading 17 errors. But that number doesn’t tell the whole story. He is still having throwing issues because of the surgery he had on his right shoulder. In fact in early June, Zimmerman said he expects the shoulder to be in rehab mode for the rest of the season, but it will not keep him out of the lineup.

Zimmerman had arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder last October. While there wasn’t any labrum or rotator cuff damage, Zimmerman needed to have his AC joint fixed, and the surgery revealed the injury to be more serious than anticipated.

It would not be surprising if the Nationals decided to move Zimmerman from third to first base in the future. That could possibly mean trading first baseman Adam LaRoche to make room for Zimmerman.

Asked if Zimmerman needed to play a different position, Johnson said, “With the work he is putting in, I thought it’d take until June. Obviously, it has taken longer. If you see him throw early [during batting practice], he throws deeper and throws the ball on the line.

“I don’t know if it’s physical or mental. I see him throw pretty good, and then in the game, he will want to get a lot of air under it. If that doesn’t get better, obviously, it’s not a good spot for him to be in. At one time, he had a cannon, and we are all waiting for him to come back. I think it’s more mental and not trusting it and cutting it lose. I see him working, and he throws the ball pretty good.”

The bench was one reason the Nationals won the division title last year.  This year, not one reserve is hitting above .250 or has provided the pop off the bench. Before the Trade Deadline, the Nationals made an attempt to acquire veteran players for the bench. They were able acquire Scott Hairston from the Cubs, but since he has been in Washington, Hairston has played only against left-handed pitching.

The Nationals may need to look for two starting pitchers. Right-hander Dan Haren said recently he most likely will not be coming back because he has not lived up to expectations. Left-hander Ross Detwiler has missed most of the season because of a back injury. It’s not known if he will be healthy for next year.

The Nationals have a lot of work to do after the season comes to an end.

Johnson, Span and Monday’s ninth-inning bunt

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

With Anthony Rendon standing on first base and nobody out on Monday night against the Braves, manager Davey Johnson relayed a sign to Denard Span asking the center fielder to bunt for a hit.

The Nationals have two different signs for bunts: one to bunt for a sacrifice, the other to bunt for a hit. Span knew that this was a bunt for a hit.  And that confused him.

“Why would he give me the base-hit bunt?” Span said after the Nationals’ 3-2 loss. “It’s not surprising anybody.”

Sure enough, the Braves saw the play building and crashed toward the plate. Span put down the bunt and safely advanced the runner to second base, but he was easily thrown out at first by third baseman Chris Johnson. The play was scored as a sacrifice.

“It was one of those things where, when he gave it to me, it was kind of tough, because you know it’s a bunt situation and both sides are crashing,” Span said. “I wasn’t expecting to get a hit, because they already were way in on the grass.”

That out proved costly as Scott Hairston and Chad Tracy popped out in the next two at-bats to end the game. Johnson said he would’ve liked to see Span go all-out for the hit.

“He just decided to sacrifice,” Johnson said. “I would’ve rather seen him try to bunt and get on. That’s something he hasn’t done a lot of. But I didn’t want a straight sacrifice.”

Storen not feeling well vs. Mets

On Friday morning, Nationals manager Davey Johnson announced that reliever Drew Storen had the flu and needed to dramatically recover from the illness in order to play in the day-night doubleheader against the Mets.

But in the top of the ninth inning of the first game, Storen entered the game with one out in the ninth inning and was hit hard, allowing three runs in two-thirds of an inning during an 11-0 loss to New York. The biggest blow came when Ike Davis hit the first pitch for a three-run homer.

Why did Johnson bring in Storen even though he was sick?

“Well, he got to feeling a little better,” Manager Davey Johnson said. “Had to use him. Tried to get by with Ryan Mattheus, but [it] took him as many pitches as he could throw without taking a chance on hurting him. He had a new look, saw this new look. High leg-kick. Just left the ball up. That’s all.”

But according to two baseball sources, Storen was still under the weather when he entered the game in the ninth inning. Johnson informed the media that bullpen coach Jimmy Lett informed the skipper that Storen was feeling better.

“I know Drew is not feeling very well,” teammate Ryan Mattheus said. “That’s just tough, but I bet if you ask him, he would take the ball again. He is a tough kid. You have to commend him for going out there.”

Storen is having the worst year of his career. In 47 games, he is 3-2 with a 5.95 ERA. He was Washington’s closer until this offseason when the team acquired right-hander Rafael Soriano this offseason.

Does Davey agree with Knorr’s decision?

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

One of the Nationals’ most controversial managerial decisions of the season occurred in the ninth inning of Thursday’s win against the Pirates. And manager Davey Johnson wasn’t the one who made it.

After Johnson was ejected in the fifth inning, bench coach Randy Knorr assumed the team’s managerial duties and decided to remove closer Rafael Soriano from the game in the ninth. Knorr put in rookie Ian Krol, who walked Pedro Alvarez, struck out Jose Tabata and then allowed a two-run single that tied the game.

“In the past, I’ve seen [Soriano] pitch and when it’s not a save opportunity, he doesn’t have the same effect when he’s pitching,” Knorr explained. “He wasn’t throwing the ball over the plate and a couple lefties were coming up. I like the way Krol throws the ball. Figured if you don’t want to be in that mode to shut the game down, I’ll bring somebody else in.”

When asked Friday morning if he agreed with Knorr’s decision, Johnson said that he didn’t know.

“I know I was watching in my office, and I don’t try to control things from my office. Once I get ejected, I’m done,” Johnson said.  “I [would] want to see it coming out of his hand and the way hitters are reacting. But, a good baseball man trusts whatever they do.”

Friday’s ninth inning marked the first time that Soriano has pitched less than one inning all season, but Johnson doesn’t think that will affect him.

“No, I mean, he’s a professional,” he said. “Strange things happen in a baseball season. He’s been hooked before.”

After tough loss, Nats aren’t concerned about morale

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

This weekend’s series against the Dodgers was supposed to represent a fresh start, a time for the Nationals to turn the corner on their disappointing first half and go on a run after the All-Star break.

But after Rafael Soriano gave up a solo home run in the ninth inning of a 3-2 loss Friday night, the Nationals suffered another crushing defeat on Saturday night. They collected 10 hits but only scored one run, going 1-for-12 with runners in scoring position and squandering six scoreless innings by Gio Gonzalez.

“I’m sure everyone’s sick of hearing it, but it’s got to turn around at some point,” shortstop Ian Desmond said. “And if it doesn’t, then we’re going to keep on trying until we run out of time.”

As the Nationals continue to tread water around the .500 mark, questions have surfaced about the team’s morale. But Desmond, for one, isn’t worried.

“I think we’re doing fine,” he said. “I don’t think you could do any better than what we’re doing. I think a lot of teams under the situation that we’re in would probably be a little bit more distressed inside the clubhouse than what we’ve been. I think we’re doing a pretty good job, and I think that will pay off in the end.”

Manager Davey Johnson offered a different view.

“The only thing that helps morale is when you do the things you’re capable of doing,” he said. “It’s kind of hard to be happy if you’re not doing what you’re capable of doing. I mean, loud music and jumping up and down [won't help] … the only cure for it is to go out and express that talent. Make it happen.”

The Nationals are a young team, with eight of their 25 players under the age of 25. But with Desmond, Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche and others, they also have a significant veteran presence.

“I think this is a clubhouse put together on gamers, and gamers don’t just throw the towel in,” Desmond said. “I don’t think there’s a guy in here that’s ready to surrender the season or do anything like that. We’ve got some winners, we’ve got some grinders, and we’ve got some really good ball players. It’s just a matter of time.”

Nationals need production at No. 2

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

At 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Nationals manager Davey Johnson had an epiphany. He called Ian Desmond and told the shortstop that he would be swapping spots in the lineup with right fielder Jayson Werth. Desmond would hit second, Werth sixth.

When asked why he made the switch, Johnson didn’t have much of an answer.

“I don’t know,” he said. “Because I’m supposed to do something.”

On Thursday, Desmond and Werth went a combined 6-for-7 with four runs scored. On Friday, they went 4-for-8.

“I like the energy Desi brings down there,” Johnson said, “and Jayson seems to relish where he’s hitting, too.”

It was a subtle change, but an important one. Entering Friday’s game, the Nationals had gotten the least production out of the No. 2 spot in the order in club history. No. 2 hitters are batting .222 this year with a .268 on-base percentage and a .608 OPS. Since the franchise arrived in Washington in 2005, those marks rank second to last, last and last in team history.

Johnson said Friday that this lineup probably isn’t permanent, but it should be. Desmond, a career .273 hitter, has hit .285 in the No. 2 spot while in the Majors. Werth’s average in the No. 2 hole, however, is significantly lower than his career norm. When he bats second, his average is .243 compared to .268 overall.

Johnson admits that Werth has a different approach when he hits lower in the lineup.

“I think he likes that. I think he also likes the fact that five or six, you generally have a lot of guys on,” Johnson said. “He’s more aggressive when he’s in that spot. And I like that about him.”

Davey goes in-depth on the lineup

By Tom Schad | Associate Reporter

For the second straight night, Nationals manager Davey Johnson was able to fill out a lineup card on Tuesday that was just a catcher short of the ideal order that he has envisioned for weeks. He again slid Jayson Werth into the No. 2 slot and dropped Anthony Rendon to seventh.

As with most managerial decisions, Johnson’s shuffle of the order brought plenty of questions. And as with most good baseball questions, Johnson had an honest and in-depth response.

He took a few minutes before Tuesday night’s 4-0 loss to the Brewers to fully explain his lineup philosophy, the result of more than 48 years in professional baseball. While much of what Johnson said wasn’t earth-shattering, it was the most complete explanation of the topic that he’s given all season.

Here’s what he had to say:

“You want your guys who get on base a lot to lead off, hit second. Ideally, you’d have your highest on-base guy hitting first. But then you’ve got to factor in run-producers, the guys who hit the ball out of the ballpark, get the extra-base hits. So when you put together a lineup, a lot of times the guy who walks and bunts and has a smaller strike zone will have a higher on-base percentage, so those are generally the guys you hit one or two, get them on base. And also, you can get them in motion. Then the category is run-producers.

“It changes. Jayson Werth last year with the bad hand was more of a table-setter than a run-producer, and so he was ideally a leadoff-type guy. I think he was on base about 35 percent of the time. And this year, hitting No. 2, his wrist is back, he’ll have more power. But if he’s doing his thing, he’ll still get on base a lot. And then there’s some run-producers behind him. And also, when you have a bunch of left-handers in the lineup, you want to break them up. You go by the on-base percentage a lot.

“It just depends obviously if you don’t have guys in the lineup that can get on base. The worst thing that can happen is when you’ve got a guy hitting .240 and he’s on base 26 percent of the time and you have him leading off because he can run. It ain’t going to help if he’s never on. And the guys — it’s pretty easy — the guys that don’t get on base and don’t produce runs I classify as kind of second division players.

“I’ve put together a lot of teams just by looking at numbers. I don’t have to look at the player, I can look at his number — putting together an Olympic team, a U.S. team for the World Cup or whatever — you can pretty much look at the statistics on a guy and know [whether] he’s a one-two hitter, he’s a three-four hitter and such before you even see the guy swing.”

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