October 20, 2019

Washington Nationals Game 29 Review: Bryce Harper vs. The World

HARPER HAS THREE HOMERS IN 7-5 VICTORY OVER MIAMI.

The Miami Marlins learned Wednesday afternoon what happens when you pitch to Bryce Harper. The 22-year-old phenom hit over 1,000 feet of home runs, going 3 for 4 with three home runs, five RBIs and three runs scored in a 7-5 victory in front of 31,417. Max Scherzer put together a solid start, going seven-plus innings with 10 strikeouts and no walks.

Scherzer’s strong start and Harper’s offensive explosion were nearly not enough for the victory. Despite going seven strong innings on 100-plus pitches, Scherzer came out to pitch the eighth inning and nearly lost it all. He gave up a pair of hits in front of Giancarlo Stanton, and that should have been the end of his day, but he talked Matt Williams into one more chance. Stanton made them both regret that, with a 3-2 moon shot deep into the left-field stands. [Read more…]

Washington Nationals Game 27 Review: Late Offense Lifts Nats Over Fish, 6-4

BATS WAKE LATE, POWER NATS OVER FISH

The Miami Marlins went blow-for-blow with the Washington Nationals on Monday night for eight innings. It wouldn’t be enough. Despite a strong seven inning outing from Jordan Zimmermann, in which he surrendered just two runs, the Nats’ bats fell silent until late on the game. The Nationals staged a comeback on the bats of Ian Desmond, who crushed a ball into the center field batter’s eye to tie the game in the eighth, and Yunel Escobar, who went 5 for 5 and drove in the go-ahead runs in the eighth.

All told, the Nats won 6-4, but it wasn’t decided until Tanner Roark — filling in for Drew Storen — punched out Giancarlo Stanton a runner on in the ninth.

What happens when two hot teams collide? After a 3-11 start, the Miami Marlins have gone 9-2, and their defensive lock on the infield was in full display Monday night against the surging Washington Nationals. The home team, on a 5-1 tear themselves, was just as ready to put on a defensive show themselves.

Adeiny Hechevarria for the Marlins and Denard Span for the Nationals each made highlight reel plays to rob their opponents of runs and perpetuate the pitchers’ duel.

Jordan Zimmermann was impressive on Monday night, working through six innings on just 65 pitches. The one run he did give up in the first was unearned, as Jayson Werth misread a bullet off the bat of Giancarlo Stanton, which allowed Martin Prado to advance on his way around the basepaths.

Zimmermann’s only mistake of the night came in the seventh inning against Justin Bour, who took a 3-2 four-seamer just out of the park to left field, landing just past the flower beds atop the wall. His 7IP, 6H, 2R, 1ER, 4K, 0BB performance went just 81 pitches before he gave way to Clint Robinson as a pinch hitter in the seventh.

Down 2-1 in the bottom of the seventh, the Nationals staged an unlikely comeback. Robinson, batting for Zimmermann, drew a four-pitch walk with one out. Michael A. Taylor came on to pinch run for Robinson as Matt Williams opted for speed on the basepaths. It almost came back to bite him. Yunel Escobar singled to right, notching his fourth hit for the night, and on the hit-and-run, Taylor didn’t pick up third base coach Bob Hendley and missed an opportunity to score, and had to settle for third as Stanton booted the ball ten feet. It would’ve been a tight play had Taylor gone full bore from the get-go.

Jayson Werth, at the time 0-for-3 on the night, and with many wondering exactly what he was doing in the three hole for the Nationals, poked a timely single to right to score Taylor from third. Bryce Harper wasted an opportunity with runners at the corner on a pop-up to end the inning with the game just tied at two.

With Zimmermann gone, the Nationals turned to Blake Treinen in relief. Rolaids were in evidence all over Nationals Park as he came in. Almost immediately, he was in over his head.

A five-pitch walk to Dee Gordon, followed by a stolen base, put Treinen in a nearly untenable position. The Nats opted to give Stanton a free pass to setup the best force play, and that was it for Treinen. Matt Grace came in to face Jeff Baker, who promptly put the Marlins ahead 4-2 on a single down the right field line. The bullpen had collapsed a touch and all looked lost.

Neither Ian Desmond nor Yunel Escobar were ready to let things go quietly into the May evening. Ryan Zimmerman lead off the eighth with a full-count walk, Ian Desmond just crushed the ball into the batter’s eye in dead center, about 420 feet from home to tie the game at four.

The Nats weren’t done yet.

Tyler Moore, pinch-hitting for Grace, singled to right, and went first-to-third on a double from Denard Span, which set up the critical at-bat. Escobar was the only National who hit all night long, with five singles off Marlins pitching, and he took 1-1 slider to right field, which plated both Moore and Span.

That meant the Nats took a 6-4 lead into the ninth against the Marlins who’d nickeled and dimed them all night long. With Drew Storen unavailable, having pitched three games of the last four, Matt Williams turned to Tanner Roark, in his first ever save situation. He did not disappoint.

Roark quickly retired Reid Brignac on a brutal curve, a strikeout victim. Dee Gordon racked his first hit of the night on a single up the middle, and that setup the evening’s most dramatic moment. You can’t ignore Giancarlo Stanton when he’s anywhere but ninth in rolling order. You especially can’t ignore him when he’s in the on-deck circle.

A double play would avoid Stanton coming to the plate as the tying run — perhaps one of my own worst nightmares — but that did not come to pass. Martin Prado popped out, bringing Stanton to the dish to face Roark as the tying run. At first, it appeared that Roark would issue an unintentional intentional pass to Stanton, falling behind 3-0. But Roark dialed in a two-seamer for strike one, before fooling Stanton consecutive 87 mph sliders for his first ever save.

HERO: Yunel Escobar was on fire tonight, going 5-for-5, and his eighth inning single drove in two to put the Nats ahead for good. Ian Desmond, honorable mention for his two-run bomb in the eighth.

GOAT: Blake Treinen, for the walk to Dee Gordon, where they needed an out. Treinen has struggled in his eighth inning role, and the Nationals are going to need to streamline the roles in the bullpen.

NATS NOTES:

  • Anthony Rendon was in DC today to see the team doctor. He has been sidelined with left oblique tightness for the last few rehab starts, and it was announced after the game he would be shut down with a strain.
  • Casey Janssen will begin a rehab assignment later this week and could join the Nationals late next week.
  • Reed Johnson is possibly done with the season after undergoing foot surgery to repair a ruptured tendon.

NEXT UP: Nationals/Marlins continues Tuesday night at 7:05pm, Latos (0-3, 6.86) vs. Strasburg (2-2, 4.60)

Washington Nationals Game 23 Review: Nats trump Mets again at Citifield

With the Washington Capitals playing across town at Madison Square Garden in Game 1 of their second round matchup with the New York Rangers, the Washington Nationals took the field in Queens to faceoff against the New York Mets at Citifield, a ballpark that they’ve had quite a bit of success at the past two years.

Game 1 of this four-game series found the Nats having success once again. Stephen Strasburg settled down from a tough second inning, and the offense bailed him out and more as the Nats handed the Mets an 8-2 loss while the Caps got a goal with 1.3 seconds remaining to take their Game 1 against the Rangers.

Strasburg really had the fastball going in this one, routinely hitting 95-96-87 on the radar gun, but the big righty had trouble locating his changeup all night and eventually relied almost solely on the fastball against the Mets, who repeatedly had trouble catching up to it.

The Mets got to Strasburg in the second, who labored all night throwing a lot of pitches. With one out, Wilmer Flroes doubled to left, then scored on Kevin Plawecki’s double to center. Plawecki scored on Curtis Granderson’s two-out single to right to make it 2-0.

But the suddenly resurgent Nats offense got that back — and more — in the fourth against Mets starter Jacob deGrom. Denard Span walked following a seven-pitch at bat and moved up when Flores botched a routine ground ball off the bat of Yunel Escobar. Jayson Werth reached down and lined a single to left which scored Span and send Escobar to second.

Bryce Harper walked to lead the bases, and when Ryan Zimmerman’s long fly ball to right was caught, Escobar walked home with the Nats second run. Wilson Ramos then grounded out to short, but Werth came home on the play to make it 3-2.

Washington (10-13) added on in the sixth. Escobar reached on a single, went to third on Harper’s double into the right field corner, and came home when a ground ball from Zimmerman bounced through the middle of the infield for a single. Ramos followed with his own single up the middle, and the Nats went up 5-2 and chased deGrom from the game. Ian Desmond walked against reliever Erik Goeddel, but Danny Espinosa flied to medium center, and Zimmerman was gunned down by Juan Lagares trying to score on the out.

The Mets got men on the corners with one out against Strasburg in the sixth, and with his pitch count high already, manager Matt Williams went to Aaron Barrett. Barrett used a wicked slider to retire Eric Campbell on strikes and got Flores to line out to left to quash the rally.

Strasburg finished 5 1/3 innings and allowed just the two earned runs on six hits and one walk, striking out seven, to earn his second win of the season.

Sammy Solis came on in the seventh for his MLB debut and was impressive. The lefty induced Plawecki to ground to short, pinch-hitter John Mayberry Jr lined out to left, and Curtis Granderson looked at strike three to end the frame.

The Nats tacked on three more in the ninth. Clint Robinson led off with a single and went to second on Escobar’s single. Jayson Werth loaded the bases with a single and Bryce Harper cleared the bases with a double to the left center gap.

HERO: Several hitters had good nights, including multi-hit performances by Escobar (3 for 5), andWerth, harper and Zimmerman all with two hits apiece. But let’s go with Solis, in his MLB debut, with two scoreless innings of relief in what was a 5-2 ballgame at the time.

GOAT: Mets reliever Buddy Carlyle. Carlyle got the save opening day against the Nats when Jenrry Mejia came up lame, but he was lit up in this one in the eighth inning. Three earned runs on four hits in 1 1/3 innings.

NATS NOTES:

  • According to the Elias Sports Bureau, this is the first time the Nationals have had at least four players make their Major League debuts in April since 2007, when Levale Speigner, Kory Casto, Matt Chico and Jesus Flores all made the jump.
  • The last time the Nationals had four-plus players debut in the same month was Sept. 2011: Tommy Milone, Corey Brown, Steve Lombardozzi, Brad Peacock and Atahualpa Severino.
  • Bryce Harper finishes April hitting .286/.440/.545 with 5 doubles, 5 homers, 15 RBI and 22 walks. In case you forgot, he’s 22 years old.

NEXT GAME: Friday night at 7:10 pm Eastern. Max Scherzer (1-2, 1.26) faces Matt Harvey (4-0, 3.04).

Washington Nationals Game 15 Review: Opposing Homers and Shaky Pitching Hurt The Nats in Loss To Cardinals

The Washington Nationals dropped game two of a three-game series with the St. Louis Cardinals 7-5 on Wednesday night in front of a crowd of 25,771 bundled up baseball fans. Right-handed starting pitcher Doug Fister took the mound for Washington in his second career appearance against the Cardinals, who went right to work on offense.

The Cardinals’ third baseman Matt Carpenter crushed his sixth career leadoff home run against Fister before Washington’s starter settled in and escaped the first inning with two strikeouts and Carpenter’s one run scored.

St. Louis continued their offensive output with a two-out, two-run homer by second baseman Kolten Wong off Fister in the second inning making it a 3-0 ballgame. The Cardinals tacked on another pair of runs one inning later, putting the Nats down by five runs, but Fister and the Nats gained offensive momentum in the bottom half of the third.

Fister’s single with one out in the third inning off right-handed starting pitcher John Lackey was the Nats’ second hit of the night and helped spark the rally that tied up the game at five runs each. Washington tallied five runs on five hits, a walk, and a sacrifice fly hit by outfielder Jayson Werth in the third inning against Lackey. Outfielder Denard Span, shortstop Ian Desmond, outfielder Bryce Harper, and first baseman Ryan Zimmerman all managed to hit singles off of Lackey, but third baseman Yunel Escobar’s three-run, two-out double is the reason Washington tied the game up at five runs each.

Once he found a groove, Fister — with the help of a productive defense — held the Cardinals to five runs. Fister gave up seven hits, five runs (four earned), and two home runs while striking out three and walking two batters. Fister threw 104 pitches and 69 strikes.

Left-handed relief pitcher Matt Grace replaced Fister in the seventh inning for the Nats. Grace flew in from Syracuse, NY on Wednesday and was a last-minute addition to the roster. According to Manager Matt Williams, Grace’s plane landed just about an hour before the evening’s scheduled game time. But Grace made it in time to pitch in his Major League debut at Nationals Park.

Grace pitched one inning and walked one batter while fending off an aggressive Cardinals lineup, but Washington’s bullpen couldn’t hold on to the lead after that despite his quality performance.

Right-handed reliever Blake Treinen was charged with the loss and pitched the eighth inning for Washington. Treinen gave up the lead after walking outfielder Jon Jay with one out and giving up back-to-back hits — including a single to catcher Yadier Molina and a double to Wong — which resulted in St. Louis taking a 6-5 lead.

The Cardinals gained a cushion run in the ninth inning when first baseman Mike Adams hit a solo home run off right-handed reliever Rafael Martin. St. Louis maintained their two-run, 7-5 lead over Washington and shutdown their offensive line to end the game.

HERO: Escobar for his two-out double in the third inning that tied up the game but also to Werth for his one-out sacrifice fly to right field that kept the momentum of that sole Nats rally moving steady.

GOAT: Treinin for blowing a win opportunity for Fister, especially after Grace pitch so well one inning prior and seeing Fister settle into a place where he’s inducing groundballs.

NATS NOTES:

  • The introduction of Matt Grace to the bullpen made for the third MLB debut for a Nats reliever this week.
  • Zimmerman’s hustle down the first baseline was like watching a gazelle do what it’s meant to do. He beat out two tight plays at first with a final stride that imitated a first baseman’s stretch.

UP NEXT: Michael Wacha (2-0, 1.35) and the St. Louis Cardinals face Max Scherzer (1-1, 0.83) and the Washington Nationals in D.C. at 4:05 p.m. to close out their three-game series.

Washington Nationals Game 14 Review: Nats need extras, but beat Cardinals 2-1

Yunel Escobar homered in the bottom of the 10th inning, delivering the Washington Nationals a hard-earned win over the burgeoning rival St. Louis, 2-1, before a raucous but depleted Nationals Park, on a night when both the Washington Capitals and Wizards were playing road playoff games.

All three teams won in dramatic fashion, with the Caps taking an overtime win over the New York Islanders to even their series at two games apiece, and the Wizards blowing away the Toronto Raptors to go up 2-0 in their first round matchup.

Starting pitchers Gio Gonzalez and Lance Lynn battled pitch for pitch in Tuesday night’s season-series opener between the Washington Nationals and St. Louis Cardinals at Nationals Park. Both pitchers were impressive, gathering 11 strikeouts between them, though neither factored in the final decision.

The Nationals struck first in the third inning. Ian Desmond smacked a double off the wall in right field, followed by a walk to Jayson Werth on five pitches. That brought Bryce Harper to the plate with two men on and just one out, and Harper delivered a single to left, scoring Desmond and giving the Nationals a 1-0 lead.

That’s when things went off the rails a bit for the home team. Ryan Zimmerman hit a long fly ball to right center, where center fielder John Jay went a country mile to make the play. Both runners had advanced, and returned to their bags, but Bryce Harper appeared not to have re-touched second base having just stepped off the bag before retreating. On appeal, the Cardinals threw him out at second base for not tagging properly. Though there was some argument as to whether or not Harper had left the bag at all, he turned toward the shortstop, and that was enough for second base umpire Adam Hamari, who punched out Harper on appeal.

You might as well call Gio Gonzalez by his nickname after tonight. Houdini made it through six full innings, scattering eight hits and four walks, allowing no runs. The Nationals’ defense outperformed tonight, slicing and dicing the infield on 10 groundouts, with a pair of double plays, and some great play that stranded 12 Cardinals runners aboard. The Cards went 0 for 8 with runners in scoring position tonight.

After six full — and 107 pitches — Gonzalez was done for the night, and duties fell to Tanner Roark, Matt Thornton and Drew Storen to finish up the night. Roark gave up a hit in the seventh, but worked around it to notch another scoreless inning. With lefties due to bat, Matt Thornton came on to pitch the eighth, and made short work of John Jay, Yadier Molina and Matt Adams, allowing only Kolten Wong to get aboard on a single.

The Nationals made a go of it in the late innings, but couldn’t get the runners across. In the eighth, Ryan Zimmerman was dismissed on strikes on a ball that was down around his ankles, with Jayson Werth at second. The death of that rally would seem costly in the ninth, when Drew Storen blew his first save of the year.

Storen gave up a single to Matt Carpenter to lead off the ninth, and a pair of wild pitches during Jason Heyward’s at-bat sent Carpenter to third without much of a challenge. Matt Holliday, who went 4 for 4 with a walk, singled him in to tie the game.

The bottom of the ninth was as full of drama as any April game could be. Danny Espinosa drew a five-pitch walk after Wilson Ramos struck out to start the action. Dan Uggla, pinch-hitting for the pitcher’s spot, put together the second best at-bat of the night, drawing a walk on eight pitches and battling hard against Matt Belisle. That was enough to bring out Mike Matheny from the dugout, and bring in Jordan Walden to face Denard Span.

Span’s at-bat was by far the best of the night. He fought Walden tooth and claw, with five fouls, before a loping grounder couldn’t be fielded cleanly by defensive replacement Matt Adams at first. Span would be safe on the play, bringing Desmond to the plate with the bags all full and one out. Desmond’s at-bat was the polar opposite from Span’s, and he strike out on five pitches. Desmond had just misread Walden’s entire approach.

It looked like the game might end on a deep fly ball from Jayson Werth, but for the third time Tuesday night, Jon Jay was right where he needed to be. Jay dove, laying out completely flat, to scoop the ball up before it hit the ground, and it was on to extra innings.

Aaron Barrett worked a scoreless 10th for the Nationals, putting them in the position to be the victors. The bats of Bryce Harper and Mr. Walkoff, Ryan Zimmerman, were leading off the 10th against Carlos Villanueva, but both remained silent. Bryce Harper struck out swinging, and Ryan Zimmerman lined out to rally-killer Jon Jay, leaving everything on Yunel Escobar. He delivered.

Escobar launched the very first pitch into the Cardinal bullpen, and Nats Park exploded. On a night when the Caps battled back into overtime, and scored a winner off the stick of Nicklas Backstrom, the Nats win might have been the second most impressive of the evening.

HERO: Yunel Escobar has his first walk-off in a Nationals uniform, with a yard shot in the 10th inning. Honorable mention: Ian Desmond, for his outstanding defense. Yes, that sentence is English. Desmond made a series of excellent picks from shortstop tonight, and a pair of double plays hinged on his relays. Maybe his April woes end early?

GOAT: Drew Storen, for blowing the save in the ninth. After giving up a base hit to Carpenter, two wild pitches gave Carpenter third, and let him score on a single by Matt Holliday.

NATS NOTES:

  • Storen’s blown save was his first in five save situations. He converted the other four.
  • Gio Gonzalez’s 107 pitches is the most from a Nats starter in 2015.
  • Escobar’s walkoff is his first since April of 2011 with the Jays.

UP NEXT: Rematch vs. the Cards tomorrow at 7:05pm, Doug Fister (1-0, 0.69) vs. John Lackey (1-0, 2.77).

Washington Nationals Game 11 Review: Nats top Phils on strength of Harper and Espinosa homers.

The Washington Nationals made it three straight wins, picking up a 7-2 victory over the Philadelphia Phillies on an overcast and occasionally rainy Friday night in Washington. Max Scherzer made short work of the Philadelphia offense, and Bryce Harper and Danny Espinosa each went yard as the Nats topped a divisional foe.

Max Scherzer took it to a depleted Philly lineup tonight, making quick work of their order. Through eight, Scherzer threw 100 pitches, scattered five hits, and struck out nine. The Phillies’ only run came in the third, as an Odubel Herrera double to right field became a triple as Harper tried to leap for it in vain. Herrera would come around on a grounder from Freddy Galvis on the next pitch. Had Harper played the ball off the carom, it’s entirely possible Herrera never would have scored.

Bryce Harper once again made waves in the first with a crushing blast. With Escobar (single) and Desmond (hit by pitch) aboard in the first, Harper would absolutely crush a ball to dead center field over the 400-foot sign. Danny Espinosa would join the party in the 4th with a blast to right center just next to where Harper hit his homer in the first.

The Nationals weren’t content at 4-1, and pressed hard into the Phillies’ bullpen in the seventh inning. Ian Desmond would get things going with an infield single (ruled an error) that he was able to beat out on the basepaths. With two out, the Phillies saw a chance to get Harper with a lefty, and brought in Jake Diekman. Harper, whose career approach against lefties would best be considered a struggle, showed some of the discipline and focus we’ve seen in his early season, and drew a critical walk. Ryan Zimmerman would lace one down the right field line to score both Desmond and Harper, and Wilson Ramos would drive a run in with a well-hit ball that just caught Chase Utley off-balance, and he’d throw it away to let Zimmerman score.

Yunel Escobar would leave the game after running out a grounder in the fourth. The ball was hit deep into the pocket at short, and Escobar was hustling up the line to beat the throw. As he reached the bag at first, he came up short, putting his hand along his inner thigh at the groin. After being attended to by trainers, he left the game. Dan Uggla took over at second, with Danny Espinosa moving to third.

The Nationals have moved to 5-6, just 2.5 games back of the division-leading Mets.

GOAT – Sorry, no goat tonight. While Ian Desmond’s 7th error was less than pleasing, his 3-for-4 night at the plate, reaching on an error and a hit-by-pitch, I can’t give him the goat for this one.

HERO – Let’s give this one to Ryan Zimmmerman for a combination of incredible defense and a 2-run double in the 7th to put this one away. His diving plays today saved runs for the Nats, and his late double put the game out of reach.

NATS NOTES

  • Felipe Rivero made his MLB debut for the Nats in the 9th, going 1 full, with a strikeout, and giving up three hits and a run.
  • Matt Williams’ 100th win was last night, and he was the fifth fastest to the century mark. Congratulations, Matt!
  • Depending on the results of Yunel Escobar’s examination, the Nats may need to call up another infielder tomorrow, and the only one on the 40-man roster is Wilmer Difo. Could it be Difomas? Difo Day? Difotacular? One of those. Could be.

Washington Nationals Spring Training: Will Dan Uggla make this team?

One of the more interesting (okay, perhaps only interesting) position battles this spring in the Washington Nationals camp centers around second base, considering the guy they traded for to play the spot, Yunel Escobar, hasn’t taken a swing in a game yet due to “general soreness” and back issues since he got here.

Considering the back issues were one of the lingering things that plagued him all season last year, it’s not a good start to his Nats career and could very well be an indication of the value the Nats are going to get for him.

The guys that have been playing the position while Escobar convalesces are incumbent Danny Espinosa, who’s attempting to turn himself into a right-handed only hitter, and Dan Uggla, who was last seen in the bigs hitting .149/.229/.213 last season between Atlanta and 12 appearances for San Francisco.

Uggla, now 35, doesn’t seem to be that worthy of a reclamation project — he hasn’t hit above .233 since 2010. But he did hit 22 homers as recently as 2013, and Nats GM Mike Rizzo loves the guy, so the Nats took a shot.

According to Uggla, he played through an undiagnosed oculomotor dysfunction as a result of getting hit in the head twice and is now fully healthy. His spring results thus far are encouraging: he’s hitting .333 with an OBP over .450 and hit his second homer Saturday against the Marlins.

The Nats are playing with found money with regards to Uggla, as the Braves are on the hook for his ridiculous salary. If he can prove useful again at the big league level, it’s a double-bonus.

The problem is that if Uggla isn’t playing every day, his value is limited. Uggla has only played second base his entire career. He’s not a good defender or runner, so if he’s relegated to the bench, it’s almost exclusively as a right-handed pinch-hitter, effectively limiting manager Matt Williams to a three-man bench. He could probably serve at first base in an emergency basis.

Escobar is right-handed. Tyler Moore is out of options. If they don’t trade him, he’s a right-handed pinch-hitter. Kevin Frandsen is a right-handed pinch-hitter. Espinosa is now a right-handed pinch-hitter. You get where I’m going with this.

Espinosa is not out of options. Perhaps the most sensible thing — if Uggla’s hitting seems sustainable — is to send Espinosa to Syracuse to concentrate on hitting right-handed, and go with a bench of Moore, Escobar, Frandsen and Tony Gwynn Jr, at least until Denard Span or Jayson Werth is healthy to play again.

Of course, all this is dependent on Anthony Rendon getting healthy and getting back in the lineup at third base. If he’s not ready to start the season on the active roster, all bets are off.

Washington Nationals Spring Training Preview: The Infielders

This week, District Sports Page will review the players currently on the Washington Nationals 40-man roster and their potential contributions to the Major League roster this season.

Monday: Catchers
Tuesday: Infielders
Wednesday: Outfielders
Thursday: Starters
Friday: Bullpen

FIRST BASE

Ryan Zimmerman
2014: 240 PAs, .280/.342/.449 with 5 HRs, 184 RBIs (0.4 WAR). .948 FD% at 3B.

We’ve seen this coming for several season. With the expiration of Adam LaRoche’s tenure with the club, the Face of the Franchise ™ moves across the diamond to first base on a permanent basis. Some would say ‘about time.’ Now 30, Zimmerman’s throwing problems at third base were well-documented and his time in the outfield last season can be described as non-harmful at best. He made some plays, but the spectacular nature of some only outlined his lack of mobility for the wide open pastures of left field. It’s a shame, really, because before he injured his shoulder diving head-first into second base he really was one of the best defensive third basemen in the game. His bat will play at first, especially if he can get 500 plate appearances, but we’re all left wondering where he could have ranked on the all-time third base list if he could have stayed there.

Tyler Moore
2014: 100 PAs, .231/.300.385 with 4 HRs, 14 RBIs (0.4 WAR). .948 FD% at 1B.

Ah, Tyler Moore. Some saw his power numbers in the minors and salivated. Sure, he was old at every level and didn’t really have a position, but he kept hitting home runs — 31 two years running in Potomac and Harrisburg. Surely, the skill would translate as he ascended into the big leagues! Well, maybe, maybe not. Moore still has power, but more (Moore) often than not flails away at the better pitching in the big leagues. It’s a story told time and again about thick-bodied minor league sluggers without a natural position on the diamond (cough Steven Souza cough). Moore has hit 10 homers in both of the past two seasons at Syracuse and now represents little more than a bat off the bench and emergency starter. If Zimmerman can’t give them 500 plate appearances, the team could be in a little trouble.

SECOND BASE

Yunel Escobar
2014: 529 PAs, .258/.324/.340 with 7 HRs, 39 RBIs (-0.2 WAR) with TBY. .965 FD% at SS.

The Nats traded older prospect Steven Souza Jr Tyler Clippard for the much-traveled shortstop with the hopes of plugging him into the abyss at second base. Escobar was one of the worst fielding shortstops in all of baseball last season by any metric you’d like to use, so the move to second base should help him recover some value. GM Mike Rizzo said Escobar battled back and hamstring issues all season long which affected his fielding. While hamstrings heal, back issues are usually chronic in nature. All that aside, his bat is pretty meh, especially for a guy that stays in the lineup every day, apparently whether he’s healthy or injured. His last good year was in 2011 when he hit .290/.369/.413. But his average has been .253, .256, .258 in the three years since. It’s a shame Rizzo felt like he had to give up a prospect of value for this skill set.

Danny Espinosa
2014: 364 PAs, .219/.283/.351 with 8 HRs, 27 RBIs, 8 SB/1 CS (0.0 WAR). .990 FD% at 2B, .978 at SS.

The reason Rizzo felt like he had to trade for Escobar. Espinosa once tantalized with 20-20 capability with Gold Glove caliber defense. But after playing through shoulder and hand injuries, plus complete ineffectiveness from the left side, Espinosa is left trying to resurrect his career as a backup middle infielder. There’s a shred of hope that within his split against lefties last season (.301/.374/.485) there’s a serviceable right-handed hitter in there, as Rizzo said in the offseason Espinosa would abandon switch-hitting. But Espinosa hasn’t seen a breaking ball go away from him from a right-handed pitcher in 15 years, so it’ll be a fascinating transition should be become proficient at it. His defense is still very good at second and short, and at least we know he can still hit lefties, so there’s utility in that.

Wilmer Difo
2014 Low-A: 610 PAs, .315/.360/.470 with 14 HRs, 90 RBIs, 49 SB/9 CS.

Difo tore up the Sally last season at age 22 for Hagerstown. It came as a shock, since he’d hit a combined five home runs in his previous four minor league seasons and had hit above .265 once. He can run and is a decent fielder but has played all over the infield, so the Nats aren’t really sure where he’ll end up playing. Second base will probably be where he settles though, but he split duties just about down the middle between there and short last season. Difo’s eye-popping numbers from last year put him on the radar, now he’ll have to live up to his newly-minted “prospect” status. Double-A has a way of separating guys that had a good year in the Sally (a year old for the level) from true prospects.

THIRD BASE

Anthony Rendon
2014: 683 PAs, .287/.351/.473 with 21 HRs, 83 RBIs, 17 SB/3 CS (6.5 WAR). .958 FD% at 3B.

It’s hard to articulate how good a season Rendon had in 2014, and where his offensive game could still go. He was fifth in the N.L. in MVP balloting as a 24-year-old and won the Silver Slugger at third. He is, simply, one of the best offensive players in the league and a fine defender at two positions as well. The Nats have elected to keep him at third base, his natural position, choosing to acquire Yunel Escobar to play second base full-time. And oh yeah, still a couple of years yet before he hits “peak.”

SHORTSTOP

Ian Desmond
2014: 648 PAs, .255/.313/.430 with 24 HRs, 91 RBIs, 24 SB/5 CS (2.8 WAR). .963 FD% at SS.

Desmond turned in another 20-20 season, his third in a row and third consecutive Silver Slugger. The production isn’t the concern with Desmond, who’s turned himself into one of the most consistent offensive performers at shortstop in the Majors. The defense isn’t the problem either — though he made a few more errors last season, he makes up for that in range and arm. With Desmond, you know what you’re gonna get on the field. As everyone knows by now, though, he’s a free agent at the end of the season, was subject of trade rumors all winter long, and will probably test the open market once the season concludes. The Nats even took precaution against Desmond leaving by trading for not just one shortstop prospect, but two, over the winter. I’d say the Nats are preparing for the likelihood of Desmond playing elsewhere next season.

OPINION: Escobar has tough task of making Nationals fans forget he was traded for Clippard

Tyler Clippard pitching at Nats Park, July 10, 2011 (Photo by Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Tyler Clippard pitching at Nats Park, July 10, 2011 (Photo by Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

The Washington Nationals traded two-time All-Star Tyler Clippard to the Oakland Athletics in exchange for much-traveled shortstop Yunel Escobar, the ninth time since he’s become general manager that Mike Rizzo has made a trade with his Oakland counterpart, Billy Beane. On paper, it’s the type of trade Major League general managers dream of making: trading an expensive, fungible asset — in this case, the most-used relief pitcher of the past four seasons — for an at-least average every day player, and saving money in the process.

But fans don’t root for teams on paper.

Escobar, 32, is the very definition of average big league shortstop. At least, he was up until last season. He owns a lifetime .276/.347/.381 slash line in eight seasons. He had been a positive WAR player every year of his career… up until last season, when he hit .258/.324/.340 with not even passable defense. In fact, he was one of the worst shortstops defensively in all of baseball.

Is that a blip? Is it signaling the beginning of the end for Escobar? We’ll have to wait and see. But considering his previous indefensible attitude problems — and the player he was traded for — Nats fans are going to have a hard time hoping for this guy to succeed.

Tyler Clippard was a fan-favorite. Actually, that’s stating it lightly. Acquired before the 2008 season for fellow reliever Jonathan Albaladejo (in what surely is Jim Bowden’s crowning achievement as Nats GM), Clippard arrived as a lightly regarded two-pitch starter with injury concerns. Soon, he would be sent to the bullpen, where his exploding fastball and damn-near unhittable changeup would wreak havoc on batters, first in the International League as a member of the Columbus Clippers and Syracuse Chiefs, then as a valuable member of the Nats pen.

Clippard went on to post All-Star seasons in 2011 and this past season, dominating on an almost nightly basis in his familiar eighth inning role, setting up for the likes of Matt Capps, Drew Storen and Rafael Soriano.

Clippard, behind those wonderfully goofy goggles, was a rarity — as affable and approachable off the field as he was dominant on it. The press loved him for his smart, engaging insights after games and during batting practice. Fans loved him for being approachable at the ballpark, at fan events and on social media. He was, succinctly, the perfect guy to have on your team.

Now, that team is the Oakland A’s. At least, for now. It’s no secret A’s GM Billy Beane is rebuilding and rebranding his team, and a veteran soon-to-be free agent like Clippard probably won’t call the Oakland Coliseum home for very long. He’ll probably be shipped off at midseason for a couple of middling prospects as Beane goes about his latest great rebuild.

The bottom line here is, as it so often is, money.

Clippard, in his last year of arbitration before becoming a free agent at the end of the year, will command around $10 million this season after his arbitration hearing. Two-time All-Stars don’t come cheap. Escobar is under contract for two more years, with a team option for a third, and is due a very reasonable $13 million, provided his defensive numbers last season were an aberration and he continues to hit.

2013 NatsFest, 1/26/2013: Pitcher Tyler Clippard signing autographs (Photo by Lisa Milisa)

2013 NatsFest, 1/26/2013: Pitcher Tyler Clippard signing autographs (Photo by Lisa Milisa)

There is another factor. Escobar will probably be slated to play second base for the Nats, a job he hasn’t filled since his rookie year in ’07. But since he’s under contract for two more year at least, he provides the team with insurance should they trade, or simply allow to walk, current shortstop Ian Desmond — like Clippard, a free agent at season’s end. The Nats are particularly vulnerable at middle infield, and most of Rizzo’s moves this offseason have been to address that glaring weakness. He traded one of his most reliable players, in fact, to address it.

And what of the bullpen? Drew Storen was already slated to become the closer. Now, Matt Williams is going to have to come up with another eighth inning guy. Aaron Barrett? Craig Stammen? Blake Treinen? Heaven forbid, Heath Bell??? Everyone of them slots back one inning, regardless of who gets the eighth. Veteran lefty Matt Thornton becomes a stabilizing force, and Rizzo’s ninja-like acquisition of Thornton last season looks that much more important at this point.

This is a tough business, and this isn’t an easy pill for Nats fans to swallow — sending away a universally liked player in his prime for a fairly unlikable one that is probably already past his. It was probably a tough call for Mike Rizzo, too. On paper, this move looks reasonable. More than reasonable, actually. Clippard was going to get prohibitively expensive. Escobar is an at-least average affordable every day player. GM’s make that trade 99 times out of 100.

But fans don’t play on paper.

Clippard was here through the darkest years of the Washington Nationals — he saw damn near 400 losses in four seasons — and made it through to the other side. If the Nats go on to win it all in the next year or two, there will be fans that won’t find it as sweet since Clippard won’t be a part of it.

No, even if Escobar performs up to his career OBP, fans aren’t going to recover from this one. And if Escobar slides any more from last season’s performance, or the bullpen becomes a liability instead of a strength, he’s going to have a tough time of it here in DC.

And for Nats fans, this is — perhaps — just the beginning. With Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Denard Span and Doug Fister all slated for free agency following the 2015 season, this could just be the first goodbye of many to come in the very near future.

Tyler Clippard struggled in the 10th inning - Miami Marlins v. Washington Nationals, 9/7/2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

Tyler Clippard pitching to the Miami Marlins 9/7/2012. (Cheryl Nichols/District Sports Page)

OPINION: Tough saying goodbye to fan-favorite in offseason trade

No sooner had I finished saying that this was one of the hardest times in the baseball year than events have proven that out. In a trade with the Oakland A’s, the Nationals have acquired SS Yunel Escobar, and sent Tyler Clippard westward. This is the sort of late winter bombshell that you so rarely see, but can be a part of the landscape when it feels farthest from the warm summer days with green fields and a scorebook.

Trades like this one are absolutely the most difficult on the fan when they’re done in mid-winter. All we’ll hear about in the Natosphere for the next week or two — or heaven forfend, longer — is the aftermath of the this trade, and all it will be is hot air until April. Sure there’s time in Florida where we’ll see how Escobar handles the move to second or third base and how Clippard adapts to the Cactus league, but none of that is very meaningful.

No, to see the results of this trade we have to wait painful months while the winter drags on and while the talk-radio-and-columnist crowd chew this parcel of information over and over, slicing and dicing the statistical lines, the story lines from off the field, and all the intangible little things that we spend our winters working with.

Perhaps that’s why I’ve come to so dread the off-season, when live data stops being a possible outlet, and we’re left purely to the world of forecasts. I’ll come right out and say that there is no good possible way to forecast a baseball season — if there were, it’d be patented and marketed and sold to teams who would all use it religiously — we’re left with the awkward and clumsy moments where all of us try to imagine what will be based on what has been.

Predicting the weather is an impossible job.

Predicting a baseball season makes that look easy.

And so we’re left picking up the pieces as one of the fan favorite stalwart Nationals is headed for Oakland gold and green, trying to make sense of what happens when one of your favorite ballplayers will suit up for someone else next year. One of the brilliantly irrational, yet utterly human, parts of baseball is the fan relationship with a player. You have favorites on the diamond and at the plate, and it goes back to the littlest human kindness at a fan event, or an autograph before the game.

When I was 11, my favorite Oakland Athletic for about half the season was a call-up named Billy Beane. I remember he got some favorable press in the Sacramento Bee, and then at the next game I went to, he signed my glove because I went to find him. Beane played 37 games in that 1989 season, and he was left off the post-season roster, but man he was my guy for those games. I’d cheer like he was a starter, and a key part of that team, even though he was a bench guy only up for part of the time.

There will come a time when I will have to explain to my crying son that the team he loves has traded the player he loves to another city, and that that’s part of the game. I’m really not looking forward to that day. I know that many parents throughout Natstown are in similar situations tonight and trying to figure out what they can say to their child who just lost their favorite summertime friend, and I find myself at a loss for what to say in this circumstance.

Sometimes, trades make sense. They hurt a little, but you can look at the balance sheet and figure this makes the team better. I’m not sure this trade fits that bill. Yes, the Nationals have a deep bullpen, and will be able to slot in someone like Blake Treinen into the eighth inning slot, or move to a collaborative late-innings effort if the Heath Bell signing turns into something viable.

Yes, they have a need at second, and Escobar can fill that need, and be an option at short if they can’t come to terms with Desmond. However, I don’t see that Clippard was going to be anything less than their eighth inning man this year, in for another 70+ appearances. If we look at Escobar’s past performance defensively, though, he took a major step backward in 2014, turning in the worst UZR/150 season at shortstop since the stat was invented, and his off-field disrespect, it’s hard to come away feeling good about this particular trade.

But we don’t know.

And we can’t know for months.

And that makes it all the worse right now, as all we have to stare at are numbers on screens and highlight reels.

I can’t wrap this up without saying thank you to Tyler Clippard, who was always a joy to watch out of the bullpen, and to listen to after the game. He always had something thoughtful and genuine to say, something that wasn’t just a stack of cliches.

It is the most beautifully irrational and human part of baseball that makes us love players as individual parts of the team that we watch and live and die by, and in that spirit I know that many Nationals fans across our fair city are hurting as they read these words. They are looking up flights to Oakland, and considering a trip to the Coliseum to see him in his new white cleats and golden stirrups. We get attached to players because they’re people, not parts, and that attachment is something that gives us joy in the season. We watch our favorite players go out there every night and put their heart and body into the fire, and they get traded and moved around, because baseball isn’t just a pastime, it’s a multi-billion dollar business, and that’s the sort of thing that happens.

It doesn’t make it easy, and it doesn’t always work out, but these are the sort of the business decisions that have to get made in baseball. It doesn’t hurt matters for the Nationals’ payroll that Escobar’s contract is about half of what Clippard’s would be this year after arbitration, and $10M relievers aren’t the sort of line item that make it past many budgets in MLB. After last season’s commentary on budgets, and no positive movement in the MASN case before the courts, the team would need to find $13M in savings to return to 2014 levels, and that’s before the final results of nine arbitration hearings are known. Should those hearings all end in favor of the players, the Nationals would be searching for additional savings to return to 2014 levels.

Overall, the Nationals have given up their rock-solid eighth inning reliever in exchange for a lifetime .276 hitter who had a rough season on the diamond last year, and who has had disciplinary problems related to problem behavior off the field.

That’s the sort of trade I dread this time of the year.

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