Results tagged ‘ Matt Williams ’

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.

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.

Struggling Gio Gonzalez searching for curveball

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — A bumpy season got bumpier for Nationals left-hander Gio Gonzalez on Saturday.

Although Washington rallied late to beat Pittsburgh, 4-3, Gonzalez lasted only five innings and surrendered three runs on seven hits. It was his his fourth straight non-quality start and the fourth time in his last six outings that he failed to pitch into the sixth inning.

Yet a little over a month ago, Gonzalez was rolling, with a streak of three straight scoreless starts. Here’s a look at that period, compared with Gonzalez’s recent struggles:

June 23-July 5

  • 3 starts, 21 IP, 9 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 7 BB, 19 K, 0 HR, 15.3 pitches/IP. Opponents hit .132/.213/.147

July 31-Aug. 16

  • 4 starts, 19.1 IP, 27 H, 14 R, 14 ER, 9 BB, 23 K, 1 HR, 19.6 pitches/IP. Opponents hit .321/.387/.417

So how did Gonzalez go from one to the other?

Before and after Saturday’s game, manager Matt Williams identified curveball command as a key for Gonzalez. If he can throw it for strikes and work ahead in counts, he can keep hitters guessing. And if not?

“If he doesn’t have it, the other team can just eliminate it from their thought process and it makes it more difficult for him to get guys out,” Williams said.

During that scoreless stretch, Gonzalez threw his curve 20.8 percent of the time according to BrooksBaseball.net. He threw 31.3 percent of them for strikes, including 17.9 percent whiffs. But during his recent downturn, Gonzalez has been able to spin the curve only 11.6 percent of the time, with 15.9 percent strikes and 6.8 percent whiffs.

“It’s just trying to find a feel for it,” Gonzalez said after Saturday’s outing, in which he threw seven of his 11 curves for balls and got one swing and miss. “It’s one of those pitches, almost like the changeup where you’ve got to get that touch and feel in the back of your head, just ‘Oh, there it is.’ That’s the pitch you wanted. But so far, it lands for a strike and then it has no clue where it’s going.”

Williams said that Gonzalez, who earlier this season spent time on the disabled list with left shoulder inflammation, feels good and hasn’t complained of any pain. His fastball velocity hasn’t dipped. It will be up to Gonzalez and pitching coach Steve McCatty to refine the curve during the pitcher’s next bullpen session, searching for the right arm slot.

Of course, luck also factors into any good or bad stretch in baseball. And while Gonzalez clearly hasn’t been sharp, he did strike out seven on Saturday while walking only two. He gave up one extra-base hit, a Starling Marte RBI double that flew just inches over the outstretched glove of third baseman Anthony Rendon. The Pirates grounded a few singles through the left side of the infield, and also collected an infield hit.

During Gonzalez’s three straight scoreless starts, batters hit a very low .184 on balls in play while smacking line drives 20 percent of the time. In his last four starts, batters have hit a scalding .433 on balls in play, with 23 percent line drives.

While Gonzalez now sports a 4.00 ERA, compared with 2.89 in 2012 and 3.36 last year, his Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) of 3.17 sits in between the 2.82 and 3.41 of the past two seasons.

“Just tough breaks,” Gonzalez said Saturday. “I got ground balls that I wanted — they just found a hole. I got broken bats, and they found hits. So that’s just baseball. That’s how it’s going for me this year. You got to keep grinding, keep grinding.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

With two strikes, Adam LaRoche remains a threat

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Nationals first baseman Adam LaRoche stepped in against Mets right-hander Dillon Gee in the first inning of Thursday’s game in New York, took one curveball for a strike, then fouled off another.

That situation means danger for a hitter. Through Friday’s action, all Major Leaguers had combined to bat .165/.194/.240 after falling behind 0-2.

But Gee came back with a fastball up and away, and LaRoche smacked it over the left-center field wall for a two-run homer. It was the veteran’s 17th homer of the season, and as pointed out by Beyond the Box Score, it was his 11th in a two-strike count to tie him with the Astros’ Chris Carter for the Major League lead. Among all big leaguers with at least 10 big flies this year, LaRoche leads the way with 64.7 percent coming with two strikes.


“I don’t have an answer for that,” LaRoche said when informed of the stat. “I don’t know if maybe in those counts you’re not trying to do too much — you’re just trying to make solid contact and in turn end up putting a better swing on the ball.”

Of course, 2014 represents a small sample of LaRoche’s 11-year career, and plenty of fluctuations can occur in splits such as these.

LaRoche guessed that his recent two-strike power would be at odds with the rest of his career, and indeed, he hasn’t shown a consistent pattern in that regard. Of the 165 players to hit at least 100 homers since LaRoche’s rookie year of 2004, he ranks only 66th by hitting 30.8 percent of his long balls in two-strike counts (teammate Jayson Werth ranks third, at 41.1 percent).

Nats manager Matt Williams cited LaRoche’s experience and understanding of pitchers as reasons he might be more comfortable hitting in those situations, but LaRoche believes it’s something that “comes and goes” rather than improving over time.

“When you’re feeling good at the plate and when things are rolling, you really don’t care if there’s no strikes or two strikes,” he said. “It doesn’t bother you to work a count and potentially get to a two-strike count. And when you’re not feeling good, not seeing the ball well, you try to stay out of those two-strike counts.”

There is no doubt that the better the count, the better off a hitter is. For example, Major Leaguers have a .796 OPS after getting ahead 1-0 this year, compared with .593 after falling behind 0-1. They slug .262 with two strikes but .548 with none.

Furthermore, many hitters might shorten their swings when on the verge of a strikeout, in an effort to put the ball in play. But LaRoche theorized that in some cases that actually could help produce a home run.

“You’d think without two strikes, you’d have a little more powerful swing,” he said. “But again, baseball’s a lot like golf. The harder you try to swing, the ball doesn’t go as far. It’s kind of funny how that works. You think you’re putting a nice, easy swing on the ball, and then it just kind of jumps sometimes.”

Williams added that advantageous counts, such as 2-0 or 3-1, can lead a hitter to become anxious and swing too hard. But when LaRoche gets behind, as he did against Gee, “he simply puts the head of the bat on it.”

“He doesn’t panic when he gets to two strikes,” Williams said. “He’s done it a time or two.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Stammen snaps out of slump at crucial time for Nats

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Craig Stammen has established himself as a valuable piece of the Nationals bullpen over the past few seasons, the rare reliever capable of eating innings like a long man and with the effectiveness of a set-up man. From 2012-13, he threw 170 innings for Washington with a 2.54 ERA and 166 strikeouts.

For almost the first three months of 2014, it was business as usual for the right-hander, who had a 2.52 ERA in 23 outings through June 24. Then, things hit a snag: a stretch of 10 games in which he was torched for 14 earned runs on 26 hits in 16 innings. He took two losses, posted a 7.88 ERA and allowed a batting line of .388/.431/.597, as his work became infrequent.

But Stammen found himself at a critical time for the Nats on Thursday, pitching the final three scoreless innings of a 5-3, 13-inning walkoff victory. He allowed one hit, issued two walks (one intentional) and struck out two. It was his seventh career relief appearance of at least three scoreless frames, and third this year.

“It’s very valuable to have a guy like him, that can go that many pitches and run you through some innings and keep them where they’re at,” manager Matt Williams said.

Stammen’s outing not only gave the Nats the chance for a dramatic win, but also spared Williams from having to burn his final reliever (Ross Detwiler) and possibly a starting pitcher ahead of a crucial weekend series in Atlanta.

“It was just one of those things, I felt a little bit more comfortable out there,” Stammen said. “I’ve been working on a few things that kind of clicked. Made some good pitches, got some outs early, gave me a little bit of confidence that I could keep going.”

Stammen relies heavily on his sinker and threw it 27 times in 43 pitches Thursday, not counting the intentional pass. Starter Jordan Zimmermann called the pitch “really nasty,” and Stammen agreed he had it going.

“That’s my bread and butter,” he said. “When it’s working, I usually have decent success, and for the past couple weeks it might have been struggling, but you just keep going after it and do the best you can, and hopefully it comes back.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Aggressive baserunning backfires on Werth, Nats

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Trailing the Mets 2-1 in the sixth inning on Tuesday night, the Nationals got a leadoff double from Jayson Werth before Adam LaRoche slapped a single to left field. Werth, getting the wave from third base coach Bob Henley, steamed around to try to score the tying run but was beaten by left fielder Eric Campbell’s nearly perfect one-hop throw.

In a game filled with missed opportunities, this was one that stood out. Instead of having runners at the corners with no outs, the Nats were left with a runner at first with one out. Two batters later, the inning was over, and Washington never scored another run.

So did Henley err by sending Werth in that situation? After the game, both Werth and manager Matt Williams defended the decision, for two main reasons.

1) The Mets’ defense was shifted against the left-handed LaRoche, putting three infielders to the right side of second base, with no shortstop in position to hold Werth close to the bag. Therefore, Werth was able to take a good lead, and was about halfway to third base when the ball reached the outfield grass.

“I thought Jayson had a good jump,” Williams said. “He knows they’re not playing behind him. He knows they’re swung over. The shortstop is to his left, and there’s nobody there.”

Plus, neither Henley nor Werth probably figured that Campbell — making his second Major League start in the outfield — would throw an on-target seed to the plate. But he did.

“It would take a perfect throw, and that’s what happened,” Werth said.

2) Back on July 20 at Nationals Park, the Nats took a walk-off victory against the Brewers when Henley waved around Anthony Rendon from first on Werth’s double down the left field line, prompting Werth to refer to the third base coach as “Old No Stop Sign Henley.”

From the first day of Spring Training, Williams has wanted a team that goes for it on the basepaths, and the approach has worked. The Nats entered Tuesday second in the Majors in FanGraphs’ baserunning metric and fifth in the one calculated by Baseball Prospectus.

“That’s the way we play,” Williams said. “We’re aggressive. We have been all year and we can’t stop now.”

Werth agreed that the club will “stay aggressive on the bases.”

“That’s part of our game,” he said. “That’s part of who we are. So sometimes it works out for us, sometimes it doesn’t.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Henley helps ‘send’ Nats to walk-off win

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Third base coach is one of those mostly thankless jobs that tends to draws notice only in the form of blame when something goes wrong.

“That’s part of it,” the Nationals’ Bob Henley said. “I don’t worry about that.”

Henley’s willingness to take a risk helped the Nationals pull out a dramatic 5-4 over the Brewers on Sunday at Nationals Park, as he waved home Anthony Rendon for the walk-off run in the bottom of the ninth inning.

Washington had Rendon — who offers decent if unspectacular speed — at first base with two outs when Jayson Werth ripped Rob Wooten’s pitch for a line drive down the left field line. Stationed past third base on contact, Henley began moving toward home plate, turning around and backpedaling so he could watch left fielder Khris Davis’ pursuit into the left field corner. Henley got perhaps a third of the way between the base and the plate, and by that time, the decision was completely in his hands.

“He’s the one watching the play,” Rendon said. “Once I turn and go to third base, the play’s behind me, so I have to trust him.”

All kinds of factors must be considered, including the game situation, the speed of the runner and the arm of the fielder.

When Davis reached the ball on the warning track, Rendon was about halfway to third. At that point, Henley said, he had made up his mind.

“With two outs, you know [Rendon’s] going to be running on contact, and as soon as it was hit, I was thinking about sending him,” Henley said. “As soon as it went to the wall, I knew I was. Great hitting, great baserunning — it really has nothing to do with me at all. I send everybody.”

“Old No Stop Sign Henley,” as Werth referred to him, began waving his arm — the universal third base coach signal for “Go” — when Davis double-clutched and Rendon got about 5-to-7 steps from the bag.

“We knew we were going to have a play at the plate, and either we were or we weren’t [going to score], but we were going to send him,” Henley said.

What could have and perhaps should have been a close play turned out to be no play at all. With Davis slow to get off a throw and then airmailing his cutoff man, the Brewers never even got the ball to the plate.

“We’ve got to try to win the game there,” manager Matt Williams said. “If ‘Hen’ stops him there, then we’re banking on another base hit. We’ve got to take a chance there.”

This time, the chance paid off, not that Henley wanted any credit for it.

“We’re trying to win ball games, and the boys did an unbelievable job to win,” he said. “I just try to stay out of their way.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Williams: ‘Desmond and Werth need day off’

By Bill Ladson

WASHINGTON – After Sunday’s 4-1 victory over the Braves, Nationals manager Matt Williams acknowledged that shortstop Ian Desmond and right fielder Jayson Werth needed a day off during the team’s road trip, which starts Monday.

Both players are currently in slumps. During the four game series against Atlanta, Desmond went 2-for -16 [.125] with 10 strikeouts.  In the last two games combined, Desmond struck out six straight times.

“It’s a long road trip, a very tough couple of games against the Astros and all the expectations of this series [against the Braves]. Guys get mentally tired. So to answer your question, [Desmond] needs a day,” Williams said.

Werth is 4-for-37 in his last 10 games and has seen his batting average dip to .271. On June 12, Werth was at .296.

“We need to look long and hard about Jayson. We’ll spend a couple of hours on the plane talking about that one,” Williams said.

Source: Harper to begin rehab assignment Monday

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Nationals outfielder Bryce Harper will begin a Minor League rehabilitation assignment at Class A Advanced Potomac on Monday, according to a baseball source. The club has not confirmed that schedule, however, and manager Matt Williams said on Saturday that he wasn’t aware that was the plan.

“I heard a vicious rumor going around that he’s going out Monday,” Williams said. “Is that his plan? I don’t know, because nobody’s told me. But sometime during the next road trip, he’ll go out. He did some early work today — no hitting today. We don’t have anything on the field tomorrow as of right now, so he won’t get back on the field tomorrow, either. I’m sure he’ll hit in the cage tomorrow and then see how he feels and then make a decision.”

After finishing their home series against the Braves on Sunday, the Nats will begin a seven-game trip in Milwaukee on Monday. Their next home stand will begin June 30 against the Rockies, with Harper potentially returning from the disabled list during that eight-game block.

Harper hasn’t played since April 25, when he suffered a torn ligament in his left thumb. Williams said he likely will play about seven rehab games, starting with five innings in the field and two at-bats. He will see time at all three outfield positions and also serve as a designated hitter at least once.

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Nats bullpen strong again, but eventually snaps

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Nationals relievers came into Friday with a 2.56 ERA that ranked first in the Majors, and after Drew Storen surrendered a leadoff double to the Braves’ Tommy La Stella in the seventh inning, the bullpen set down the next 18 in a row.

That performance set the stage for Washington to rally and send the game into extra innings, but eventually, manager Matt Williams found himself backed into a corner.

When the 13th inning rolled around, Williams already had used Storen, Craig Stammen, Rafael Soriano, Tyler Clippard and Jerry Blevins. His options at that point were to send Blevins out for a second frame, use rookie Aaron Barrett for a fourth consecutive day or turn to Ross Detwiler, who threw 45 pitches on Wednesday and has allowed 16 runs and 35 baserunners in his last 16 2/3 innings. As such, Williams admitted he felt he needed to stick with Blevins.

“You could go to Barrett four days in a row, but that’s dangerous,” Williams said.

A second inning probably wasn’t ideal for Blevins, either. The lefty had allowed a run on three hits in two-thirds of an inning on Thursday, throwing 18 pitches and taking a comebacker off his knee. He then used another 12 pitches during a 1-2-3 12th inning on Friday.

Blevins issued a leadoff walk to B.J. Upton, then gave up two consecutive hits and eventually two runs. Still, he didn’t offer any excuses.

“Everybody’s tired,” he said. “We’re in the 13th inning. Their guys have been going the whole time our guys have. Gotta step up, but I didn’t get the job done. Gave up a couple runs, didn’t get it done.”

Looking ahead, the bullpen could be in some trouble for the rest of the series if it needs to soak up significant innings. Blevins and Stammen both have worked on consecutive nights, while Clippard, Soriano and Barrett have pitched in three out of four. That leaves Storen and Detwiler as the freshest arms available, barring a roster move.

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

 

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