Results tagged ‘ Nationals ’

Unusual mound visit pays off for Williams, Nats

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — What’s in a mound visit?

Most of these meetings fall into a couple of categories. The pitching coach comes out to offer advice, talk strategy, give his pitcher a breather or perhaps stall for the bullpen. The manager tends to come out with his hook at the ready.

So when Nationals skipper Matt Williams hopped out of the dugout and made his way toward the hill with two outs in Monday’s seventh inning, it was reasonable to assume starter Doug Fister’s day was done. Clinging to a 1-0 lead over the Braves, he had two outs in the inning but had walked two, putting him at 101 pitches with Andrelton Simmons coming to the plate. The bullpen was active.

As it turned out, Williams had other plans.

“I wasn’t going to take him out,” Williams said. “I just wanted to go out there and let him know he had this guy.”

When Williams began his voyage to the mound, Fister had his back turned, so he couldn’t see if his manager had given the signal for a reliever.

But Williams hadn’t. As the entire Nats infield converged, Williams strode quickly to his destination, looked at his pitcher, had a brief exchange, then retreated. The whole visit lasted perhaps five seconds.

“I want to read him,” Williams said. “I want to make sure he’s feeling OK. And I asked him how he was, and he said he was good, so I turned around. I really had no plans on taking him out. But I want to read his eyes, too. He was intense and wanted that last hitter.”

Fister said that whenever his manager comes out, he hopes for a chance to continue. This time, he got it.

“We both have that sense about us that we kind of read personalities, and he looked at me on his way out there and asked me, ‘Hey, what do you got?’” Fister said. “And I said, ‘I want this guy.’ He was ready for that. He was ready for that answer.”

Certainly, the move could have backfired, in a close game against a team that has dominated their head-to-head matchups over the past two seasons. But Fister got ahead of Simmons 0-2, then induced a ground ball that shortstop Ian Desmond fielded and took to second for a force.

His manager’s faith had been rewarded, and the Nats hung on for a big victory.

“He came out there and gave me the option, and it’s greatly appreciated,” Fister said. “That’s the epitome of showing confidence. That’s what great managers do, show confidence in guys and trusting them, and that’s what he did tonight.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Hairston embraces challenge of Hamels matchups

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — Scott Hairston doesn’t start often for the Nationals, but when he does, there’s a good chance the Phillies’ Cole Hamels is on the mound.

After a trade from the Cubs, the veteran outfielder made his Nationals debut against Hamels last July 9. The two were paired up again on Sunday afternoon at Nats Park, where Hairston fell just short of hitting two home runs but still came away with the go-ahead sacrifice fly in a 3-2 victory.

As a powerful right-handed hitter with a history of doing damage against southpaws, Hairston fills a clear niche on the Nats’ roster. The result has been Hairston making four of his 11 starts this year against Hamels, with all of those opportunities coming in a six-start span since July 12.

“It’s a challenge, it really is,” Hairston said. “It’s not only Cole. I believe I’ve faced [Clayton] Kershaw a couple times and [Scott] Kazmir and a couple other lefties that are pretty dominant.

“Especially the role I’m in, I don’t really get everyday at-bats, and when I do get a start, it’s against either a former Cy Young Award winner or a future one. I take it as a challenge. Whenever I’m out there, I try to just have the best at-bats possible, just to help the team win, do my part.”

Hairston now has 53 career plate appearances against Hamels, 15 more than against any other pitcher. Since joining the Nats, he’s faced Hairston 20 times, with Kershaw the next closest, at eight.

Here is a breakdown of Hairston’s starts with Washington:

- 6 vs. Cole Hamels (PHI)

- 3 vs. Clayton Kershaw (LAD)

- 2 vs. Mike Minor (ATL)

- 2 vs. Jon Niese (NYM)

- 1 vs. nine other pitchers

- Includes Madison Bumgarner (SF), Francisco Liriano (PIT), Scott Kazmir (OAK)

Against Hamels, Hairston is a .375 career hitter (18-for-48), with five doubles, five homers and 10 RBI. With the Nats, he’s 6-for-18 (.333) with one RBI. Does seeing Hamels so often give Hairston any advantage?

“It’s really tough to say,” said Hairston, who first battled Hamels in 2008 with the Padres. “We’ve faced each other so many times. Like I’ve said before, I think this is the best I’ve ever seen him. … He’s always been good, but I don’t recall him pitching this good.”

In Sunday’s sixth inning, Hairston broke a 2-2 tie with a drive off Hamels that Phillies left fielder Grady Sizemore caught up against the wall, scoring Ian Desmond. It was the second time in three at-bats that an unkind wind seemed to turn a home run into a warning-track for Hairston

“I was just thankful that somebody was one base for that last one,” he said. “It would have stung a lot more if the bases were empty, and I could have tied the game or put us ahead with a home run.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter at @AndrewSimonMLB.

Nats notes: Williams to ‘address’ closer situation

By Andrew Simon

WASHINGTON — After Rafael Soriano’s rough second half continued with a blown save in Friday’s loss to the Phillies, Nationals manager Matt Williams stopped short of announcing a change in closers but said he will “address” the situation.

“It’s not an easy decision,” Williams said, following Soriano’s three-run, two-homer ninth inning. “None of them are. But we want to be able to close those games out. Sori understands that — he’s been around the block.”

Williams said he will talk with the veteran and “see where we’re at,” on Saturday. The Nats used nine relievers in Wednesday’s crazy win over the Dodgers and then eight on Friday, so even with a 10-man bullpen thanks to expanded September rosters, options will be a bit limited for the second game of the series.

But if Williams wants to turn to someone other than Soriano, he has choices. Tyler Clippard saved 32 games in 2012, a year after Drew Storen saved 43. Lefty Matt Thornton has saved 23 over an 11-year career.

“We’ll address it,” Williams said. “Again, I’m not gonna let [the media] know exactly what’s gonna happen right now, but we have guys that have done it, so we have multiple options. I can give you that. Depends on who’s available, who’s fresh, who’s not. But we have multiple options, which is a good thing for us. Guys who have been there before.”

Soriano entered Friday’s ninth inning with a 7-4 lead but gave up a leadoff single to Domonic Brown before Carlos Ruiz mashed a two-run homer. Two outs later, Ben Revere tied the game with his only his second career homer, in nearly 2,000 plate appearances. Both long balls came on two-strike sliders up and out over the plate.

Since the All-Star break, Soriano has allowed 15 earned runs, 27 hits and seven walks over 19 1/3 innings, but he said he feels fine physically and with his fastball. He plans to watch video and sit down with pitching coach Steve McCatty on Saturday. He’ll also throw in the bullpen for McCatty in an effort to figure out what’s wrong.

Told of Williams’ comments, Soriano said he and his manager share “good communication.”

“I talk to him in Spring Training,” said Soriano, who has converted 31 of 38 chances this season. “That be my job in the ninth, and right now it not be too easy to do. I have to do it better. I gotta figure out what’s going on right now and do it better.”

Meanwhile, teammates Bryce Harper, Adam LaRoche and Denard Span all expressed support for Soriano.

“He’s our closer,” LaRoche said. “He’s done it for a long time, he knows what he’s doing and he knows how good he is. He’s put up some really good years. It’s really easy through a short stretch to second guess what somebody is doing.

“I think this will pass and nobody will think twice about it. He’s just going through one of those stretches where nothing is working out. Good pitches are getting fouled off. The ones that were getting hit right at somebody are hitting a gap or leaving the ballpark. He’ll be all right.”

 

A couple of other notes from a wild night at the ballpark:

– Harper and Span combined for a costly mistake in the 11th inning when they collided while going for Brown’s fly ball into the left-center gap, allowing it to drop for a two-base error. Brown later scored the go-ahead run.

“It got to the point where I thought I could get it, [Span] called it, and we bump into each other,” Harper said. “Center field priority, of course. I got to get out of there.”

Added Span: “I saw him in my peripheral [vision], but I thought he was going to veer off and just didn’t. I’m pretty positive he didn’t hear me. Just miscommunication, basically.”

– Span picked up his 1,000th career hit with a first-inning single and tipped his helmet to the crowd after receiving a big ovation.

“It was definitely touching, heartfelt, and just unbelievable,” he said. “The fans, they’ve embraced me, really since the second half of last year. It was just a good feeling when the fans acknowledge you for your hard work.”

Follow Andrew Simon on Twitter @AndrewSimonMLB.

Nats’ Fister ready to pitch in Philly

By Bill Ladson

PHILADELPHIA — Almost a week after he announced that he had skin cancer removed from his neck, Nationals right-hander Doug Fister will pitch against the Phillies on Wednesday at Citizens Bank Park.

On Tuesday, Fister said he felt fine and nothing has changed regarding how he goes about his business.

“I had a little procedure, nothing is serious,” Fister said.

Fister said he knew the cancer had to be removed from his neck for about a month. He wasn’t scared. It runs in his family and he assumed he had to deal with it at some point in his life.

“It was something that I needed to address,” he said.

Fister announced after Friday’s 10 -3 loss to the Giants that he had skin cancer removed from his neck. Fister also said the procedure had nothing to do with Friday’s outing in which he allowed four runs in six innings. In fact, in that same game, Fister singled to center field and tried to break up a double play in the third inning.

“I think I did well, but there are things I needed to work on. I’ll continue to get better and that’s a prime example of it,” Fister said. “I have to fine-tune myself and be on top of my game all the time. … I want to be able to locate the fastball and make sure it’s down.”

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.

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.

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