April 19, 2014

Washington Nationals Game 12 Review: Nats blasted by Braves 10-2

The Washington Nationals would just as soon forget about the past weekend and get the heck out of Atlanta.

For the third day in a row, the Atlanta Braves took charge early and knocked off the visiting Nats. On Sunday, the Braves scored six run off Gio Gonzalez in the first two innings and cruised to a 10-2 win.

Gonzalez (L, 2-1, 3.50) gave up six earned runs on nine hits and four walks, striking out six. Atlanta scored three runs in both the first and second innings, including Justin Upton’s fourth home run of the season in the first inning, and Freddie Freeman’s fourth of the season in the second. Upton went 8-for-10 with two homers and five RBIs in the three-game sweep.

Gonzalez gutted out another four innings, going six total. Ross Detwiler took over in the seventh, and promptly allowed four more runs — through just two were earned — on two hits and a walk, and Andrelton Simmons’ first homer of the season.

The Nats got a run in the fifth inning. Kevin Frandsen doubled to lead off, took third on Danny Espinosa’s bunt single, and scored on Jose Lobaton’s ground out.

Adam LaRoche homered in the ninth inning off reliever Gus Schlosser.

The Nats move to Miami to face the Marlins on Monday. Jordan Zimmermann (0-0, 8.10) takes on Brad Hand (0-0, 3.24) at 7:10 pm.

Washington Nationals Game 1 Recap: Nats comeback against Mets pen, win 9-7

If Opening Day was any indication, this will be a wild season of baseball for the Washington Nationals.

Stephen Strasburg allowed a three-run homer in the first inning, settled down to strike out 10 batters, and the Washington Nationals then came back against a porous New York Mets bullpen, capped by Anthony Rendon’s three-run homer off John Lannan in the top of the tenth inning to win 9-7 at Citifield.

The bad news: according to reports during the game, catcher Wilson Ramos broke a bone in his left hand and will miss up to six weeks. [edit -- After the game, manager Matt Williams indicated the x-rays taken on Ramos were "negative" and he would see a specialist in D.C. on Tuesday.]

The Mets got to Strasburg in their very first ups. Strasburg struck out Eric Young to start off the first, but Juan Lagares and David Wright singled back-to-back to put runners on the corners. Strasburg got Andrew Brown to 2-2, but a fastball that was designed to hit the outside corner tailed back into Brown, and he crushed it to left center for a three-run homer.

The Nationals got two back in the top of the second. Bryce Harper drew a lead-off walk and was erased on a fielder’s choice to short by Ian Desmond that would have been a double play were it not for Harper’s late, hard take-out slide. Harper was kicked in the head by Young for his troubles and stayed on the field for a few moments, but left the field under his own power and stayed in the game.

The next batter, Adam LaRoche, crushed an 89-MPH fastball 10 rows deep into the upper deck in right field to make it 3-2 Mets.

The Mets picked up another run in the bottom half. Travis d’Arnaud walked to lead off and Ruben Tejada singled. Dillon Gee’s sacrifice mived both runners up, and Young’s fly ball to right was dep enough to plate d’Arnaud.

After that, it was a pitcher’s duel, with both hurlers trading outs for the next three innings, until Strasburg departed after the sixth. The big righty settled down nicely, retiring his final 10 batters and 12 of his last 14. He finished with five hits, four earned runs, two walks and 10 strikeouts, with 64 of his 102 pitches for strikes.

Meanwhile, Gee carved up the Nats, retiring 15 in a row until Harper reached on a hard-hit single off the glove at Young at second base. Desmond forced him again, but LaRoche followed with a walk. Anthony Rendon delivered a run-scoring double to the right field corner to plate Desmond, but the slow LaRoche was held at third.

Pinch-hitter Nate McLouth drew a four-pitch walk to set up a bases loaded, two out situation for Denard Span against reliever Scott Rice.

Rice couldn’t find the plate. Four straight balls handed Span first base and the Nats their fourth run of the day, tying the game. Jose Valverde was summonsed to pitch to Ryan Zimmerman, and the big righty got Zim to swing through a ball fro strike three.

The Mets breathed life back into the Citifield faithful in the bottom of the eighth, as Juan Lagares homered off Tyler Clippard leading off the frame.

But that only set up the Nats heroics in the top of the ninth. Ian Desmond led off with a single and went to second on Danny Espinosa’s tow-out, pinch-hit, eight-pitch base on balls. Denard Span then ripped a double to left center, which scored Desmond from second to tie the game at five.

For the second inning in a row though, Zimmerman ended a rally with a fly ball to center.

After a 1-2-3 MLB debut with two strikeouts for Aaron Barrett in the bottom  of the ninth, the Nats went back to work against reliever Jeurys Familia. Jayson werth led off with a sky-high fly ball that eluded the Mets in short left center, then Jose Lobaton (in for injured Wilson Ramos) sent a broken bat liner past second base.

Ian Desmond fought through an eight pitch at bat before delivering a fly to medium right that allowed Werth to walk home with the go-ahead run.

The Nats weren’t done. The Mets brought in old friend John Lannan to face LaRoche, and issued a five-pitch base on balls. Anthony Rendon then greeted Lannan’s first offering with a huge clout to left center. The three-run shot made it 9-5.

Jerry Blevins coughed up a two-run, two-out gopherball to David Wright in the bottom half, but it was too little, too late for the Mets.

Washington Nationals 2014 Season Preview: Five biggest issues to watch

Here we go again.

The Washington Nationals, despite not qualifying for the playoffs last season and spending the first three-quarters of the season in the bottom-three in the N.L. generating base runners, are preseason favorites in the N.L. East and a popular pick again for the World Series.

The Nats are a talented team with a nice blend of veteran leadership and youthful exuberance. With big paydays ahead for Ian Desmond and Jordan Zimmermann (with Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper not too far behind), the time is now for the Nats to really start making noise on the national level.

Most of the prognosticators are ignoring all the warning signs and putting their reputations on the line for the Nats. Are they capable of making a long playoff run? Yes. But simply ignoring warning signs from last season and expecting another near-perfect run in the regular season like 2012 would be foolish.

GM Mike Rizzo had a nice offseason. The addition of Doug Fister (presuming health) was enough to merit a good grade, but they also added veteran outfielder Nate McLouth to strengthen the bench and mitigate the inevitable Jayson Werth trip to the disabled list or Bryce Harper crashing into an outfield wall. The cherry on top was picking up lefty Jerry Blevins, who’s useful against righties just as well, for the bullpen.

Last week, Rizzo picked up UTL Kevin Frandsen off the waiver wire from the Phillies. This may prove to be a key addition to the bench as well.

But there are still plenty of question marks heading into the 2014 season. What are the top five issues Nats fans need to watch for? At the end of last season, I wrote a couple of columns on what went wrong in 2013. That’s a good place to start since many of the same issues still exist.

This might seem like I’m down on the Nats chances. Not so. The bar for this team is set around 91-92 wins. Best case scenario sees Harper bust out instead of incremental improvement, Werth’s normalization from last season’s overachieving isn’t a free-fall, and LaRoche recovers to career-average production instead of sliding further.

They could get reach the 95-96 win total without injury. Either way, I’m predicting first in the N.L. East by default. Atlanta was crippled by injuries to its rotation and the rest of the division is either too old (Philly), not ready (Mets) or flat-out lacking in talent (Miami). Of course, worst-case scenario sees all of the below scenarios blowing up and derailing another promising season.

GETTING ON BASE

Overall, the team carried a .313 OBP, in the bottom third of the league and it could have been worse if not for a hot stretch the last five weeks of the season — as late as mid-August they were next-to-last in total baserunners and finished just 12th in the league. They have to be better setting the table to truly contend.

But the starting roster is intact from last season, when the Nats needed a scorching hot final seven weeks to climb out of the cellar of run scoring and putting runners on base. That stretch coincided with Denard Span’s hot streak, so maybe Rizzo figures Span’s adjustment period to the N.L. is over and he’ll contribute a his career average .350 OBP at the top of the order all season long.

Span bottomed out on Aug. 16 at .258/.310/.353, nowhere near what’s necessary in the top spot in the batting order. For the next 39 games, he hit .338/.375/.459, instrumental in the Nats late resurgence. It was too little, too late to save the Nats playoff aspirations, but the Nats have to get more near his career line (.283/.351/.387) on a more consistent basis to make this offense work.

Hopefully, Anthony Rendon will eventually settle into the second spot in the order. In his rookie season (while learning a brand new position at the Major League level), Rendon hit .265/.329/.396 with seven homers and 23 doubles. In his short minor league career, the now 23-year-old hit .269/.408/.531 and he’s always been lauded for his plate discipline.

If Rendon can handle the two-spot, it goes a long way in helping Matt Williams set the heart of the order and provide protection for the next bullet point.

HITTING AGAINST LEFTIES

The Nats lefty swingers were a combined .211/.283/.291 last season, including Span’s .223/.278/.261, Bryce Harper’s .214/.327/.321, Adam LaRoche’s .198/.254/.313. That’s fully one-third of the Nats’ everyday lineup that hit like a pitcher against lefties.

I have very little doubt Harper will figure it out. He’s a world class baseball talent and hitting against lefties is the last element from him absolutely exploding at the plate.

Span is still in the prime of his career and should bounce back closer to his career norms of .281/.358/.374 (including last season) against southpaws.

LaRoche is a completely different matter. He’s 34. He’s never been good against lefties to begin with (.244/.300/.430 career). In his career year of 2012 he only hit .268/.319/.506 vs. LHP. This is very much a player in steady decline and really should be relegated to platoon work at this stage in his career.

He’s still capable with the glove, but he’s overrated in this market with exactly how much value he brings defensively considering the stone hands the organization ran out there before him at the position. If LaRoche slides anymore from what he provided with the bat in ’13, it’ll be time to consider other options at the position (see below).

RYAN ZIMMERMAN’S SHOULDER

Ah yes. Here it is. I was speaking with DSP’s fantasy baseball contributor Chris Garosi the other day during an on-line draft, and he remarked that the most important Nats player this season is Zach Walters. His theory: Zimmerman’s shoulder (and defense in general) is so unreliable at this point that his move to first base is more imminent than anyone in D.C. wants to admit. With Danny Espinosa’s problems with the bat (more below), Walters could factor very big in D.C. mid-season.

While that might be gloom and doom, it’s probably not far off.

I’m not a doctor. But I have had my share of shoulder injuries. In fact, I had the same injury as Zim (tear of the Acromioclavicular joint). Mine was a complete tear. Obviously I don’t have access to Zim’s medical file, and he’s had it surgically repaired. But he spent most of last season still mired in the throwing problems and had a not-so-mysterious lack of power until late in the season. It’s entirely possible that it took that long for the joint to gain strength back.

Offensively, Zimmerman should be fine. His defense got better as the season went along, but we still saw some problems with his throwing in spring training. This situation bears close attention, as Zimmerman remains the most important National and the Face of the Franchise. He’s signed through 2019. He could very well outlast Desmond, Zimmermann, Strasburg and Harper.

His bat is much more valuable at third than first base. But if he can’t provide the defense, he’s going to have to move. If that move is predicated by ineffectiveness by LaRoche, or Zimmerman’s throwing woes, it’ll come sooner than later, and perhaps even this season.

BACK OF THE BULLPEN

Do you have confidence in Rafael Soriano?

According to Fangraphs, Soriano has lost speed off his fastball the past four seasons in a row. He’s walking less, but striking out shockingly less, as hitters are making much more contact on him on pitches inside — and outside – of the strike zone. Outside the strike zone, baters went from 22.9 percent contact rate in ’12 to 29.6 percent in ’13. On strikes, the contact rate went from 60.8 percent to 63.9 percent. He’s given up 12 hits in five inning in Florida.

His hits per nine innings jumped an alarming 1.5 hits from ’12 to ’13 (with normal .296 BABiP) while his K/9 rate fell to 6.9. His line drive rate and fly ball rate are going up, his ground ball rate is going down.

All of this is dangerous territory and a recipe for unmitigated disaster. This is a pitcher whose skills are eroding very quickly.

As for options, of course Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen remain. Both have 40-save seasons to their credit. Clippard continues to defy logic with his repertoire of high fastballs and disappearing changeups from his awkward delivery.

Storen, on the other hand, remains a mystery.

Our Stuart Wallace took a look at Storen’s alarming rise in walk rate last week. Storen was fairly horrible the first couple months of last season, due to a large number of batted balls falling in and a higher walk rate (5.95 ERA, fueled by a .355 BABiP before demotion). After his exile in Syracuse, he came back with a more streamlined, natural delivery, rather than the unusual and clumsy straight leg kick he used. He had better command, kept the ball down and was pretty much his old self.

But he’s been back to getting lit up this spring. All caveats on spring training stats, but he’s walked six in 6 2/3 innings, while giving up nine hits and six earned runs. How long a leash does he have this season?

HELP FROM THE BENCH?

Last season the Nats bench was horrific. There’s no other way to say it. .207/.264/.351. Those are pitcher’s batting numbers.

They picked up Nate McLouth as a free agent to be the primary left-handed bat on the bench. McLouth is a capable fielder at all three outfield spots, so if the Nats have an injury there they at least have an MLB-caliber replacement, something they didn’t have last season in Steve Lombardozzi.

But for everyone’s fawning over the 32-year-old, let’s remember: prior to his career renaissance last season with Baltimore, McLouth had been simply waived by Pittsburgh (twice) and Atlanta.  In ’10 and ’11 with Atlanta he hit .190 and .228 with 10 homers combined. His first 34 games with Pittsburgh in ’12 were no better: .140/.210/.175, leading to his release. He’s never hit higher than .276 and is a career .250/.334/.418 hitter. He’s a capable backup, not more.

The other outfielder is Scott Hairston. Hairston is the right-handed hitting Yin to McLouth’s Yang. At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work on paper. But Hairston’s overall numbers last year (.191/.237/.414) and age (34) – not to mention his paltry .214/.259/.484 against LHPs, who he’s supposed to “mash” — signal the end is rapidly approaching for the once versatile and useful player.

It’s true, all 10 of Hairston’s homers last season came against lefties, but as his slash line indicates, it was literally all or nothing for Hairston. 10 of his 27 hits in 140 plate appearances against LHPs were home runs. Against righties? .097/.147/.276. Can this actually be the Nats primary right-handed bat off the bench? With a walk rate of 5 percent and contact rate of 72 percent, this a guy whose skills aren’t declining, they’ve just about evaporated.

Danny Espinosa “won” a utility job in spring training after hitting .226/.305/.415 in 59 plate appearances. Where to start with Espinosa?

The rotator cuff tear in 2012 that he never had surgically repaired? The broken wrist that he sustained in April only to be revealed/properly diagnosed in late May which allowed him to “hit” .158/.193/.272 in 167 PAs? The months of ineptitude in Triple-A (.216/.280/.286 in 75 games) after taking just two weeks off to let the wrist calm down?

Espinosa’s career is at a crossroads as his performance has fallen completely off the table as his injuries continued to mount. If Espinosa can return healthy — and that’s not a given — he can provide 20 homer power and speed with Gold Glove caliber defense. After spring training, and the waiver-wire pick-up of Kevin Frandsen, we’re still waiting to see him prove his health.

Frandsen can play all over the diamond and outfield, and he’s proven adept at pinch-hitting (which is a highly volatile “skill”), but he has no power and doesn’t run. He is the very definition of journeyman utility player.

Washington Nationals Spring Training: Nats top Marlins 10-3 in Fister’s debut

Washington Nationals prized off-season acquisition starter Doug Fister made his first appearance of the spring and veteran first baseman Adam LaRoche homered as the Nats walked over the Miami Marlins 10-3 at Space Coast Stadium in Viera.

LaRoche homered in the fourth inning off Marlins lefty Brian Flynn. LaRoche hit .198/.254/.313 against left-handers in 2013.

Fister worked two innings, allowing a run on two soft hits. He walked one and struck out two. In the second inning, Derrick Deitrich doubled on a broken bat flare and came home on a bloop single to center by Reed Johnson.

The Nats worked over Miami’s bullpen in the middle innings. In the fifth, Jeff Kobernus tripled, scoring Nate McLouth, then scored on an Ian Desmond groundout.

Then in the seventh, a walk to Brock Peterson forced home Zach Walters (2-for-2). Matt Skole doubled to plate two, then Peterson scored on a sac fly by Michael Taylor.

Walters added a triple in the eighth inning, which scored Steven Souza.

Wilson Ramos went 2-for-3 with a run and an RBI earlier in the game.

Prospect Sammy Solis threw two shutout innings, allowing two hits and no walks.

The Nats travel to Tampa on Monday to face the New York Yankees at 1:05 pm ET.

Washington Nationals Spring Training 2014 Preview, Part I: The Infield

Ryan Zimmerman gets Matt Kemp out in top of 5th (third baseman Ryan Zimmerman to first baseman Adam LaRoche) - Los Angeles Dodgers v. Washington Nationals, Game One of Doubleheader on September 19, 2012 (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Ryan Zimmerman is a key component to Nats playoff hopes. (stock photo by Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page, Sept. 2012)

 

As a whole, the Washington Nationals return mostly intact from the teams that won 98 games in 2012 and 86 games in 2013. This is a veteran team with high aspirations of competing in the World Series. I hardly think rookie manager Matt Williams will boldly proclaim “World Series or Bust” as his predecessor did, but the implications are there.

If the team overachieved in ’12 and underachieved last season, what is the logical progression for 2014? If the ’12 and ‘13 results had been flipped, I think everyone would be riding the Nats as an odd-on favorite this season. They may be anyway.

With a rotation as solid No. 1 through No. 4 as any in baseball, a deep bullpen, an infield full of silver sluggers and a versatile outfield led by a burgeoning superstar, the Washington Nationals seem poised to make noise this season on a national level.

For the next two weeks, District Sports Page will preview the Washington Nationals 2014 season. This week, we’ll do profiles of the players on the 40-man roster and significant non-roster invitees, players that have a chance to make an impact on the Nats roster this season.

Here’s the schedule:

Monday: The Infield
Tuesday: The Outfield
Wednesday: The Catchers
Thursday: The Rotation
Friday: The Bullpen

In week two, we’ll profile the manager and front office, reveal our Top-25 minor leaguers and prospects, examine the “big picture” the Nats this season, and do a little statistical analysis and projecting.

With no further adieu… [Read more...]

Washington Nationals Game 131 Review: Ohlendorf leads Nats to 2-1 win over Fish

UNLIKELY HERO RUNS RECORD TO 3-0 IN ANOTHER STRONG LATE SEASON START

The Washington Nationals offensive attack has been near the bottom of the National League all season long, but there’s one team that’s been consistently worse: the Miami Marlins. Tuesday night, Ross Ohlendorf and four other Nats pitchers combined to allow just seen base runners, leading the Nats to a 2-1 win over the Marlins before 24,616 at Nationals Park.

The win is the Nats sixth in their last seven games and, coupled with Cincinnati’s 6-1 loss to the Cardinals, cuts the deficit in the Wild Card standings to seven games with just 31 games remaining in the regular season.

Ohlendorf (W. 3-0, 2.49) retired the first nine batters he faced before giving up a single to Marlins rookie outfielder Christina Yelich to lead off the fourth inning. The journeyman right-hander with the old-timey wind-up then allowed just one more hit and walk up to the leadoff batter in the sixth — Yelich again.

This time, however, after seeing four straight “changeups” Yelich finally got a hold of one he liked and ripped the offering into the Nats bullpen, where Tanner Roark was already warming up. Manager Davey Johnson decided the five terrific innings, on just 78 pitches, was all he needed to see out of Ohlendorf and he turned things over to the bullpen.

“He just kind of ran out of gas, like he did before [in the start that precipitated his trip to the D.L.],” Johnson said. “But you never know with him because he puts a lot on it. Other times, it’s like he’s changing up off his fastball. But when he takes 10 miles off, he gets to scaring me a little bit.”

Roark started off shaky. After getting Donovan Solano to fly out, he then walked the next two batters he faced. But the rookie reliever regained focus to strike out Ed Lucas and Justin Ruggiano to leave the runners stranded.

From there, the Nats cruised. Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano all pitched scoreless innings, with Soriano allowing the only base runner, what turned out to be a harmless two-out single before coaxing one more groundout to earn his 34th save of the season.

The Nats got all the runs they needed in the bottom of the first inning off Nathan Eovaldi (L, 2-5, 3.76). Ryan Zimmerman and Bryce Harper both connected for one-out singles. Jayson Werth grounded out to third, but Zimmerman scored on the play. Ian Desmond followed with a single that plated Harper from second base, and that’s all the run support that Ohlendorf and the four relievers needed.

THE GOOD: Ohlendorf continues to amaze. After a shaky first start coming off the disabled list last week (4 ER in 4.1 IP) he got right back to doing what he’s done all season for the Nats. He has a career 4.87 ERA in 120 MLB games (and that includes his stellar 2.49 in 12 games this season), so who knows if it will continue, but the guy has resurrected his career and someone will give him a shot in a rotation next spring.

Honorable mention to Ian Desmond, who went 3-for-4 with an RBI, and Bryce Harper and Adam LaRoche both had two hits apiece.

Also, Denard Span went 1-for-4, which means he extended his season-high hitting streak to 10 games.

THE BAD: Jayson Werth has been the Nats offensive MVP this season, but even MVPs take the collar. 0-for-4 in this one.

THE UGLY: Wilson Ramos went 0-for-4 and stranded four in the process. Desmond and LaRoche were on base all night ahead of the Buffalo but it just wasn’t his night.

THE STATS: 9 hits, 2 BBs, 7 Ks. 1-for-8 with RISP, 8 LOB. No errors or double plays.

NEXT GAME: Wednesday at 7:05 pm against the Marlins. Stephen Strasburg (6-9, 3.00) hosts Henderson Alvarez (2-3, 3.86).

NATS NOTES: Before the game, the Nats recalled RHP Ryan Mattheus from AAA-Syracuse and returned LHP Xavier Cedeno to the Chiefs.

Washington Nationals Weekend Review: Nats drop series after HBP drama

The Washington Nationals, in dire need of a winning streak to spark any chance at catching Cincinnati for a wild card playoff spot, instead traded wins with the Atlanta Braves over the weekend to drop the series to the division front-runners. The Nats fell to 60-63 overall and 4-12 to the Braves this season. After play on Sunday, the Nationals trailed the Reds by 9 1/2 games for the final playoff spot with just 39 games to play.

SATURDAY: In a marathon, 15-inning affair, the Nats dropped the Braves 8-7, courtesy of Adam LaRoche’s 18th home run of the season leading off the 15th inning against the Braves’ Kris Medlin. Medlin (L, 10-11), who was slated to start Tuesday’s gave for Atlanta, was in his third inning of relief.

Both teams used nine pitchers and had to use a starter to pitch their final innings. For the Nats, Dan Haren came in to the bottom of the 15th and recorded the first save of his career, retiring the Braves allowing just one hit and striking out two.

The drama of extra innings would not have necessary were it not for the efforts of Rafael Soriano, who allowed two runs in the bottom of the ninth, letting the Braves tie it up to force extra time.

The game had a strange feel to it all night, as neither starter made it two innings. Braves starter Mike Minor was done after 1 2/3 after he allowed four earned runs on four hits and four walks to put the Braves in a hole early.

On the other side, Nats starter Stephen Strasburg was tossed two batter into the second inning, after throwing three wild pitches — the last two behind batter Andrelton Simmons. Were it any other game, Strasburg would have been allowed to work out whatever problems he was having with his control. But Strasburg plunked Braves outfielder Justin Upton on the behind with his first pitch after allowing a homer to Jason Heyward in the first inning and both benches were warned.

After the two pitches behind Simmons, home plate umpire Marvin Hudson took matters into his own hands and ejected Strasburg and manager Davey Johnson, as per the rule after benches have been warned. Both Strasburg and Johnson face fines and suspensions as well.

The Nats built a 6-2 lead in through the sixth inning and entered the bottom of the eighth with a 7-4 lead. But Freddie Freeman homered of Tyler Clippard in the eighth, and Heyward hit his second of the night, a two-run shot, off Soriano in the bottom of the ninth to tie things up.

There were heroes abound for the Nats bullpen though, as Tanner Roark, Drew Storen, Ian Krol, Craig Stammen and Haren combined to throw 11 scoreless innings of relief. Stammen, who earned the win (6-5), struck out five in three hitless extra innings.

SUNDAY: The Nats went 1-for-13 with runners in scoring position, stranding 11 runners total, in a 2-1 loss to the Braves in the series finale. Despite putting two runners on with less than two outs in each of the first three innings, the Nats were never able to dent Julio Teheran’s ERA.

The offensive woes made a loser of Gio Gonzalez, who allowed two first inning runs before shutting the Braves down for the rest of his seven innings pitched. Gonzalez (L, 7-6), struck out nine in seven frames. He had his share of issues all day long, allowing five hits and four walks, but after Saturday’s marathon, the bullpen was fried and Gio was able to gut through 120 pitches, giving the Nats a chance to stay in the game.

Unfortunately, the hitters weren’t up to the task. The Nats got good days from Denard Span (3-for-5) Bryce Harper (2-for-4) and surprise starter Chad Tracy (2-for-4, subbing for Ryan Zimmerman who took a hard foul of fhis lower leg in the Saturday marathon). But they weren’t able to sustain an attack, as only one other hitter in the lineup was able to hit safely.

That one other hit belonged to Jayson Werth (19-for-39 in his last 10 games, .334/.407/.531 for the season), who drove in the Nats only run with a single in the seventh off reliever Scott Downs, which plated Anthony Rendon, who walked earlier in the inning.

Drew Storen pitched a perfect eighth inning, needing just five pitches to retire the side. Since returning from the minor leagues, Storen has pitched three scoreless innings, allowing one hit and no walks while striking out five.

Washington Nationals Game 118 Review: LaRoche homer powers Nats past struggling Giants

The Washington Nationals may be a long run away from playoff contention, but their 4-2 victory over the San Francisco Giants Tuesday night marked their fourth straight win and narrowed their deficit in the NL Wild Card race to 8 ½ games.

It was all made possible by Adam LaRoche’s sixth-inning two-run shot, which put the Nats out in front after both Washington and San Francisco had only mustered one run apiece through the first five innings of a contest that featured a 77 minute rain delay.

Starter Gio Gonzalez was sharp through four scoreless innings pitched. He allowed just four hits and two walks on 69 total pitches but was pulled from the game after the delay due to soreness in his back. Before his day was done, Gonzalez held a one-run advantage after Ian Desmond doubled, LaRoche singled and Wilson Ramos grounded in Desmond.

Hidden gem Tanner Roark (W, 2-0) held things together for Gonzalez and the Nats, providing two innings of relief.

In the top of the fifth, Roark forced Gregor Blanco and Andres Torres to ground out before Joaquin Arias and Brandon Belt hit back-to-back singles to put pressure on the 26-year-old right-hander. Roark got Buster Posey to chop to short, but Desmond booted it, allowing Arias to tie the game 1-1. [Read more...]

Washington Nationals can’t hit lefties: The Numbers

The Washington Nationals are getting a lot of ink lately regarding their struggles against left-handed pitching. It’s on the front burner since the first three games of the four-game set with the Phillies, with two losses so far, are against lefties. Monday, the Nats were completely dominated by former teammate John Lannan. Tuesday, it was Cole Hamels that held the Nats hitless for five innings until scratching a few hits out in the eighth.

Wednesday, they face the stiffest competition of all, Cliff Lee, who is 10-2 this season so far with a 2.73 ERA and limiting left-handed batters to a .268/.318/.341 slash line.

What looked like a grand opportunity after sweeping the Padres over the weekend and getting to four games behind the Braves now looks like an impending disaster, as the Braves have won both their games this week to be back to six games ahead of the Nats, and it’s all due to their ineffectiveness against left-handed pitching.

The Nationals are an N.L. worst against lefties, with a team slash line of .215/.281/.336. For a reference point, that’s not much better than Livan Hernandez’ career hitting line of .221/.231/.295. Reminder: Livan was a big, slow pitcher. And they’re doing that as a team.

GM Mike Rizzo went on the radio Wednesday and tried to explain his team’s utter failure to hit lefties. “We just haven’t done it,” Rizzo concluded. “We haven’t gotten it done. And against left-handed pitching, it’s your right-handed part of your lineup that’s got to get it done.”

But is that the case? Are the Nats RHBs really not getting it done? A quick glance at the numbers doesn’t support Mr. Rizzo’s assessment, despite particularly bad at bats by Ryan Zimmerman (0-for-4 with 2 Ks vs. Hamels) and Jayson Werth Tuesday with the bases loaded in the eighth inning.

This first table we’ll look at the Nats RHBs with the largest sample sizes, and the guys Rizzo counts on to drive in runs. We’ll examine their overall 2013 slash line and compare their 2013 vs. LHPs against their career numbers vs. LHPs.

PLAYER SAMPLE AVERAGE ON-BASE SLUGGING
ZIMMERMAN 2013-TOTAL .279 .358 .464
  2013-LHP .291 .404 .494
  CAREER LHP .316 .400 .506
 
WERTH 2013-TOTAL .288 .353 .451
  2013-LHP .273 .344 .542
  CAREER-LHP .287 .387 .527
 
DESMOND 2013-TOTAL .278 .322 .493
  2013-LHP .272 .318 .469
  CAREER-LHP .274 .321 .457

Upon inspection, I don’t see any of these three players suffering any statistically meaningful drop-off from their career norms against left-handed pitching. Werth’s OBP has dipped about 40 points, but his slugging is better. But even then, not much change.

Now, let’s examine the Nats left-handed batters against southpaws this season, using the same data.

PLAYER SAMPLE AVERAGE ON-BASE SLUGGING
SPAN 2013-TOTAL .264 .319 .359
  2013-LHP .154 .222 .176
  CAREER-LHP .278 .358 .373
 
HARPER 2013-TOTAL .276 .380 .541
  2013-LHP .196 .313 .333
  CAREER-LHP .240 .300 .415
 
LAROCHE 2013-TOTAL .256 .340 .440
  2013-LHP .193 .253 .337
  CAREER-LHP .246 .301 .437

Across the board, the three left-handed batters that, to this point, have stayed in the lineup when facing a LHP are all hitting significantly worse than their career averages against lefties. Span’s on-base is over 100 points lower than his career norm, his slugging almost 200 points. It’s no wonder Rizzo went out and traded for Scott Hairston to give Span the day off against lefties in the future.

Hairston’s career .269/.318/.499 isn’t all that much to write home about, but he does deliver some pop against left-handed pitchers and is a capable defensive outfielder, opposed to Tyler Moore or Steve Lombardozzi, the Nats other options for a right-handed bat in the outfield.

Harper’s sample size, obviously, is the smallest, but might be the most troubling. He’s 50 points down in average and almost 100 points in slugging. At least his OBP is hovering around the same, so he’s being a bit more selective, drawing more walks against LHPs but making less contact and weaker contact.

There’s nothing that can be done about LaRoche. His on-base is 50 points lower and slugging 100 points lower that career norms. The Nats have to hope he rebounds as the summer chugs along. There is no viable replacement for him, unless they sacrifice a relief pitcher to bring Chris Marrero back up and institute a platoon.

What’s the bottom line? With all due respect, I disagree with Rizzo’s assessment that it’s the Nats right-handed bats that are letting the Nats down against left-handed pitching. The players the Nats count on are all performing according to their career morns.

It’s the left-handed bats that are killing the Nats, more than normal: their prized off-season trade acquisition “everyday” center fielder, the aging first baseman who signed a two-year deal, and the phenom 20-year old. They seem to have accepted Span’s shortcomings in the Hairston acquisition, but Harper and LaRoche are on their own to figure things out.

Washington Nationals Game 72 Review: Zimmermann tallies 10th win in Nats’ victory over Rockies

In case there were lingering doubts about whether or not the Washington Nationals’ offense would produce, Jordan Zimmermann took matters into his own hands Thursday night, leading Washington to a 5-1 win over the Colorado Rockies.

Zimmermann’s two biggest mistakes – two sharply hit singles – came in the first inning. From there, he dominated, allowing the Nationals’ slow-to-awaken offense to come alive earlier than it has in recent outings.

After pulling off a 5-5 stretch on the road, the Nationals looked to carry momentum from Wednesday night’s extra-inning rally fueled by Ian Desmond’s 11th inning grand slam.

Who then should Washington look to start things off in the batting rotation? [Read more...]

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