Results tagged ‘ Nationals ’

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.

Souza leaves game with undisclosed injury

By Bill Ladson

ATLANTA — Nationals right fielder Steven Souza Jr. left Friday’s game in the bottom  of the third inning against the Braves because of an undisclosed injury.

The injury occurred in the bottom of the second inning.  With Atlanta leading, 4-0, Freddie Freeman swung at a 2-1 pitch from right-hander Steven Strasburg and hit a long fly ball to right field. Souza went after the ball and hit the wall extremely hard as the ball went over the fence for a two-run homer.

Souza was on the ground for at least a minute, while manager Matt Williams, athletic trainer Lee Kuntz and several teammates came to his aide. Souza got up on his own power and was able to get an at-bat in the top of the third inning. He lined out hard to shortstop Ramiro Pena before he was taken out of the game.

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.

Source: Nats have interest in Cotts

By Bill Ladson

WASHINGTON – Although the non-waiver trade deadline has past, the Nationals are still looking to improve their bullpen. According to a baseball source, the Nationals have interest in Rangers left-hander Neal Cotts. But, so far, the Rangers don’t like what teams have been offering for Cotts.

Cotts is a pitcher who can get all hitters out. Entering Monday’s action, left-handed hitters have a .265 batting average against Cotts, while right-handed hitters are hitting .246 against the left-hander. Cotts has appeared in 52 games for Rangers this season and has a respectable 3.38 ERA.

The Nationals have been looking for a left-handed reliever since before the non-waiver trade deadline. They had interest in left-hander Andrew Miller, but the Red Sox traded him to the Orioles for left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez.

Currently, the Nationals have two lefties in their bullpen. Jerry Blevins has been hit hard since June 14. He has allowed 13 runs in 14 2/3 innings. Ross Detwiler doesn’t have the experience of being a late-inning lefty, although manager Matt Williams said recently that Detwiler will be used in important situations.

Trying to trade for a player after the non-waiver deadline is nothing new for the Nationals. On Aug. 3, 2012, the Nationals acquired catcher Kurt Suzuki from the Athletics for Minor League catcher David Freitas. At the time, the Nationals were unhappy with Jesus Flores’ game calling behind the plate.

For Nats GM Rizzo, ‘there are no small trades’

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — A little more than a year after the D-backs selected him in the ninth round of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, Zach Walters was shipped to the Nationals at the ‘11 Trade Deadline for veteran pitcher Jason Marquis.

Three years of development later, Walters turned out to be the piece Nats general manager Mike Rizzo needed to acquire infielder Asdrubal Cabrera from the Indians ahead of Thursday’s 4 p.m. ET Deadline. The move signaled how every deal — even those considered to be minor — can send ripples well out into the future.

“If there’s one thing we’ve shown here, it’s that there are no small trades,” Rizzo said. “All the trades are important to us. They can be characterized at the time you make them as a small deal, but sometimes the small deals turn into gold.”

Walters, then 21, had only 166 Class A games under his belt when Washington acquired him. In his new organization, he worked his way up the ladder, getting brief tastes of the Majors each of the past two seasons. This year, at 24, he was tearing up International League pitching at Triple-A Syracuse, hitting .300/.358/.608 with 38 extra-base hits, including 15 homers, while playing four different positions.

“He’s played well coming up in our Minor League system,” Rizzo said. “Our developers did a great job with him. We [traded for] him as a young A-ball player that was really kind of unproven, but our scouts recognized something in him.”

But Walters is not the only example Rizzo can point to of a “minor” trade paying significant dividends.

At the 2010 deadline, Rizzo shipped veteran infielder Christian Guzman to the Rangers for a pair of prospects, including right-hander Tanner Roark. It took Roark some time to blossom, but after a strong debut in ‘13, he’s posted a 2.74 ERA in 21 starts this season.

Including Cabrera, the Nats will have a 25-man roster that includes 10 players acquired via trade. They range from blockbusters like the Doug Fister deal this past winter to swaps that only became huge later, like a December 2007 exchange of young pitchers that netted the Nats Tyler Clippard, a staple of their bullpen for the past six years.

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.

Soriano leads group of Nats’ All-Star snubs

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Rafael Soriano entered Sunday’s game against the Cubs with a one-run lead in the ninth inning, tossed six of his eight pitches for strikes and retired the side in order for his 21st save. It was a performance representative of the closer’s strong season, yet Soriano was not among the pitchers named to the National League All-Star team a couple of hours later.

Soriano headed the list of snubs for the Nats, who have only one guaranteed All-Star despite a 48-39 record that puts them a half-game behind the Braves in the NL East. While right-hander Jordan Zimmermann was selected for the second year in a row and infielder Anthony Rendon is one of five Final Vote candidates, Washington has at least a few other players who can argue reasonably for inclusion.

“I think there’s some guys that are deserving, Soriano being one of them,” Zimmermann said. “He’s having a great year. Hopefully we can get Rendon in there, too.”

In his second season with Washington, Soriano has converted 21 of 23 save opportunities and held the opposition scoreless in 32 of his 35 appearances. He boasts a 1.03 ERA and .154 opponents’ average in 35 innings, with 11 walks, 18 hits and only one home run allowed, along with 32 strikeouts.

Then there’s the set-up duo of Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard, which has been about as reliable getting leads to Soriano as he has been saving them. Storen allowed a run on Sunday, only his fourth in 27 innings this season, a 1.33 ERA to go along with a .204 opponents’ average. Clippard wiggled out of a jam in the eighth inning for his 29th scoreless appearance out of his past 30. He’s posted a 1.89 ERA, a .200 opponents’ average and 11.8 strikeouts per nine innings.

Clippard was asked if he was surprised the back end of the Nats’ bullpen came up empty in terms of All-Star nods.

“It’s a joke, to be honest with you,” he said. “I don’t know who’s gonna make it. I’m sure there’s a lot of worthy guys out there, but what Soriano’s done this year, there’s no way he doesn’t make the All-Star team, in my opinion. That guy’s got under a 1.00 ERA and 21 saves, and it’s incredible that he didn’t make it.”

Beyond Rendon and the bullpen, first baseman Adam LaRoche has an argument for making his first Midsummer Classic in his 11-year career. After going 0-for-2 with a pair of walks on Sunday, LaRoche is hitting .294/.401/.482, which would give him the second-highest OPS of his career and the eighth-best in the NL this season.

However, LaRoche also missed 14 games with a quad strain, which has cut into his counting stats (12 home runs, 45 RBIs). That hurts in a crowded field of NL first basemen.

Of course, the Nats’ All-Star contingent still could grow, either through the Final Vote or the usual flood of replacements due to injury or other factors.

“I think there’s a couple other guys that are deserving to go,” center fielder Denard Span said. “Rendy’s in the running for it, so hopefully he gets it. But I think he’s been an All-Star. You could argue for Soriano. He’s been lights-out. You could argue for Adam. There’s two or three guys extra that I think should be acknowledged, especially because we’ve been playing good baseball as a team. We’re pretty much a first-place team, and we only have one guy, so I think that’s a little odd.”

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