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Nats Hold Off Astros, Back In The Win Column

Wednesday, June 18th, 2014

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Dallas Keuchel is probably the best pitcher you’ve never heard of. Entering Tuesday’s game at Nationals Park, the Houston southpaw (at 8-3 and with a snappy 2.38 ERA) was known for two things: getting great hitters to hit groundballs and getting good hitters to miss them.

But on Tuesday, the Nationals got to Houston’s young lefty, mixing line-drives with a raft of doubles to give the All Star-bound Keuchel his fourth loss of the season. In all, the resurgent Nationals (coming off a four game slump and a sweep in St. Louis) banged out six runs and nine hits on Houston pitching, downing the ‘Stros 6-5.

While the victory propelled Washington back into first place in the N.L. East (but just by a scootch), the win wasn’t as decisive as it might have been. Starter Tanner Roark could not locate his fastball (“my bailout was my curveball tonight,” he confirmed after his outing), while Houston’s impressive array of young hitters rallied against reliever Tyler Clippard, scoring four in the 8th.

Washington starter Tanner Roark lasted just five innings, but took the win, his sixth of the season. “It was a grind. Just one of those nights,” Roark said. “I couldn’t get ahead, but came up with some big pitches. And of course we come out early and score runs so it takes a lot of weight off.”

Washington’s anemic offense, on full display in St. Louis, got hot on Tuesday, with both Ryan Zimmerman and Anthony Rendon accounting for five of Washington’s six runs. Rendon doubled twice to drive in three runs, while Zimmerman added two doubles and two RBIs.

Tuesday night’s negative came from Tyler Clippard who had an unusual (which is to say — unheard of) meltdown in the 8th. Following on solid outings from relievers Craig Stammen and Drew Storen, Clippard gave up five hits and four runs in pitching just two-thirds of an inning.

In truth, however, some of Clippard’s difficulties came from facing a Houston line-up that has the best record in baseball since May 22. The 8th showed why so many in the game are suddenly paying attention to the Astros, with Houston’s line-up stacked with a budding superstar second sacker (Jose Altuve) a long ball rookie in George Springer and a left handed hitting gapper in Jon Singleton.

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Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: If the Miami Marlins played all of their games at home they’d walk away with the National League East. On Tuesday night, after losing to the Cubs the night before (and after falling to the Bucs in two of three games), the Marlins rallied for a 6-5 victory behind a three run homer from Garrett Jones . . .

The Marlins are 24-14 at Marlins Park, where it’s still possible to overhear private conversations — and where home runs hit to left field can be picked up by the cleaning crew at the end of a game. Last night, the Marlins played in front of 20,000 fans, not bad (actually) for a team that’s 26th in attendance . . .

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A Lousy 7th Dooms The Nats

Sunday, June 15th, 2014

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A lead off home run from Matt Adams and a rare breakdown in the Nationals bullpen spelled the difference between victory and defeat on Saturday, as Washington dropped its second straight game to St. Louis, 4-1. Washington starter Stephen Strasburg paid the price for the team’s poor showing in the 7th inning, after throwing what looked to be his standard starting gem.

The 7th was the difference. After Matt Adams led off the inning with a home run, giving the Cardinals a 2-1 lead, St. Louis outfielder Jon Jay singled — which marked the end of Strasburg’s night after a solid 95 pitching outing. With reliever Jerry Blevins on the mound, Jose Lobaton allowed a passed ball and Blevins walked Matt Carpenter.

Even with men on first and second, Washington might well have survived the St. Louis surge. But usually lights-out reliever Drew Storen then hit second sacker Mark Ellis and (with the bases loaded), Storen walked Matt Holliday, which scored a  St. Louis run, giving the Cardinals a 3-1 lead. An Allen Craig single then plated the third run of the inning, giving St. Louis the 4-1 victory.

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“The ball slipped out of his [Storen's] hand on a curveball and then he hit him and then he kind of got all over the place,” manager Matt Williams said of his reliever’s outing. “We got out of the inning, but the damage was done at that point. They’ve been good. The bullpen’s been very good. It’s going to have a hiccup every once in a while.”

While the 7th inning was the talk of both clubhouses after the Nationals defeat, Washington’s inability to hit St. Louis pitching was a major subtext of the series. The Nationals banged out a measly four hits against St. Louis pitching on Saturday and were unable to get to St. Louis starter Shelby Miller.

Miller, a first round pick of St. Louis in 2009 — the year that Strasburg was the MLB player draft’s first overall pick (and Storen was ninth) — struck out seven Nationals hitters in sealing the St. Louis win. “What can you say?” Nationals catcher Jose Lobaton acknowledged after the defeat. “They’ve been throwing good and today was one of those days.”

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: Saturday was a tough day for the National League East. The Nationals, Braves, Mets and Marlins were all losers, with the Phillies the only team to come away with a win . . .

The Braves were defeated 11-6 in 13 innings in Atlanta, with the Halos scoring five runs in the top of the 13th inning on a bases loaded single from Kole Calhoun. The Braves deflating loss (after their 4-3 win against the Belinskys on Friday) kept the Nationals in a tie with Atlanta atop the division . . .

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Padres Are No Match For Zimmermann

Monday, June 9th, 2014

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The Padres saw the very best the Nationals have on Sunday, as Jordan Zimmermann had a perfect game going into the 6th inning and delivered a two hit shutout, leading the Nationals to a 6-0 win over San Diego. The Zimmermann gem captured the series 2-1 and provided the best antidote possible to the tough loss the team had suffered on Friday.

In the complete game shutout, Zimmermann threw 114 pitches, 83 of them for strikes. “For the most part he was down in the zone, painting corner to corner,” Padres first baseman Yonder Alonso, the Padres’ hero on Friday, said. “He commands the ball so well, gets ahead of guys really quick. We couldn’t really put any good swings on him.”

“I was throwing strikes and the guys got me some runs early,” Zimmermann said following his victory. “My mentality changed to pour strikes into the zone and fill it up. Big ballpark, just let them hit the ball and I had a lot of strikeouts today which means my fastball was pretty good and I was able to locate it pretty good.” Zimmermann is now 5-2 on the year.

Nationals skipper Matt Williams had nothing but praise for his young righty. “It’s good. Today helps our bullpen. They have been taxed until now,” he said after the victory. “Jordan has the ability to save your bullpen.” Williams called the Zimmermann performance “outstanding,” particularly coming after a tough loss.

“From the first pitch, he was in the strike zone again,” Williams added. “Strike one is important. He was able to do that today. Fastball command — he was throwing it exactly where he wanted to throw it.” In fact, Zimmermann faced just 29 batters during Sunday’s game and threw first strikes to 22 of them.

Ian Desmond continued to have the hot hand at the plate. He was 2-5 on Sunday with two RBIs and smoked a round tripper in the second inning off of San Diego southpaw starter Eric Stults. Danny Espinosa, who continues to surge, as well as Jayson Werth, each had two hits.

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Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: The stars seem to be aligning for the Nationals. The Bravos took a 2-0 lead into the 7th inning in Arizona on Sunday, but came away losers after the Diamondbacks put six on the board in the bottom of that frame. The rally was led by Paul Goldschmidt and rookie David Peralta, who homered for Arizona during the D-Backs comeback, victimizing Atlanta starter Aaron Harang . . .

Say what you will about Arizona (and we have a lot to say, not much of it good), they know how to win when the Nationals need them to. The D-Backs are desperately trying to climb back into the race in the N.L. West (frankly, we will give you better odds on The Second Coming), which means they have to win at home — where they’ve been (at an embarrassing 11-23) simply atrocious . . .

The Arizona win over the boys from Cobb County, when coupled with Miami’s win in Chicago, knots up the N.L. Least, where the Nats, Braves and Marlins are snarling and circling and in a dead tie . . .

Meanwhile, the San Francisco Giants (the team the Nationals, gulp, will face next), were busy wrapping up their series sweep against the New York Mets, who are slipping and sliding into fourth place, as they sprint to the bottom against the still hapless Phillies . . .

The Giants are almost mindlessly good, though we are left to wonder why. No one on San Francisco’s starting nine on Sunday was (or is) hitting over .300. Of course, Angel Pagan was out of the line-up (he’s at .323, good for fifth in the National League), but still. Their next best hitter is Hunter Pence, at .290. Pablo Sandoval, the Panda (gag) is only at .247, with just eight home runs . . .

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Padres Rally In 9th, Win In 11

Sunday, June 8th, 2014

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The Nationals glide to another win against San Diego on Saturday night was derailed with two outs and nobody on in the bottom of the 9th — and closer Rafael Soriano was cruising. That’s when Padres first sacker Yonder Alonso stepped to the plate and took a Soriano 90 mph fastball deep over the right field fence, tying the score.

The Padres went on to win the game on a Cameron Maybin bloop single in the 11th inning. The extra innings loss snapped a Washington four game winning streak and short-circuited the Nats attempt to gain ground on the Atlanta Braves in the National League East. The Braves lost in Arizona in extra innings, and by the same score as the Nationals.

The Alonso at bat had to be one of the most disheartening suffered by the Nationals all year, and certainly one of the most disheartening for Soriano. But this was only Soriano’s second blown save of the year and, after the game, Nationals manager Matt Williams gave his closer his vote of confidence.

“Sori’s been really good, so we’ll take our chances every day with him and a one-run lead in the ninth. Didn’t happen for us tonight,” Williams said following the loss.

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The Washington loss overshadowed a solid outing from rookie pitcher Blake Treinen, who dueled San Diego’s Andrew Cashner for six innings. Cashner was unhittable, but Treinen was nearly so: The rookie righty gave up just five hits in his third outing as a Nationals starter and was set for his first major league win when the Nationals face-planted in the 9th.

The game also featured one of the longest home runs from a Nats starter this season, and a round tripper that was the difference in the game until the 9th. In the three run top of the 7th, with a Ryan Zimmerman double already having plated a run, Ian Desmond took an 88 mph slider from reliever Nick Vincent deep to center field — a blast that measured 437 feet.

But the 3-2 lead did not hold up. San Diego tied the score in the 9th and a bloop single won it in the 11th, with Washington left to ponder another might-have-been win against a tough team with a tough pitching staff.

“That’s it, that was the game on one pitch,” a disappointed Rafael Soriano said of his 9th inning blown save. “I was trying to go sinker down and away and I see the pitch and it was high right in the middle and there was nothing I could do.”

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: While the Chicago Cubs front office continued to focus on the future (using nine consecutive picks in the MLB first year player draft on upside high school pitchers), their team continued to play in the here-and-now. And in the here-and-now the Cubs are winning . . .

Yesterday’s hero was Jeff Samardzija, the hard-luck righty who started the season by pitching well but losing. But yesterday Samardzija gave ample evidence of why so many other MLB teams covet him. The former Notre Dame quarterback (that phrase is a now a default line on my computer) threw seven complete innings in a 5-2 Chicago win . . .

Samardzija was brilliant on the mound yesterday, but the story in Chicago is the sudden come-to-life Cubs line-up. Outfielder Junior Lake added two home runs to the victory total, his seventh and eighth on the year. Lake is a helluva talent, but prior to Saturday he’d been struggling at the plate, going 2-16 over his last four games . . .

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Z & Z Are Tops Versus Philadelphia

Wednesday, June 4th, 2014

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There were two “returns” for the Nationals on Tuesday: Ryan Zimmerman returned from the disabled list and stroked two badly needed doubles in four at bats, while Jordan Zimmermann returned to the form that made him Washington’s winningest pitcher last year — and the Nationals downed the Phillies at Nationals Park, 7-0.

The new left fielder hit the ball like he’d never left, while his teammate threw eight complete inning while giving up just five hits. The return of the duo seemed to spark the Nationals. But it was Jordan Zimmermann, who had struggled in his last five starts, who was the big star of the night.

“May was a pretty rough month for me, and hopefully June has better things to come,” the Nats young ace said after the victory. “I wanted to go nine, but eight’ll be good enough.” Zimmermann was the model of pitching efficiency, throwing 102 pitches, 71 of them for strikes.

The difference for the Ace of Auburndale on Tuesday was that he was the master of command. Of the thirty batters he faced, 25 of them started with a strike, usually from a Zimmermann fastball. “I was hitting my location,” Zimmermann acknowledged. “When I wanted to throw a ball, I was throwing a ball and not leaving it over the middle. It was one of those nights where it was fun to be out there. I had everything working.”

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The return of Ryan Zimmerman to his new position in left field, meanwhile, added more than just an extra bat to a sometimes anemic line-up. The appearance of Zimmerman in the batter’s box seemed to spark the team.

“It’s nice to have it the way we wanted to have it initially. We are still missing a guy [Bryce Harper],” Nationals manager Matt Williams told the press after the 7-0 showing. “Our guys swung the bats tonight. It was all around good. It was a good victory for us.”

Center fielder Denard Span, who is hot at the plate (and 3-5 last night), agrees that having Zimmerman back in the line-up provides a heft for the Washington nine that the team has been missing for the last month. “He gives headaches for other teams,” he said. “You have Jayson, you have Ramos, LaRoche and you are adding ‘Z’ back in the lineup. It just makes the lineup a whole lot deeper. It doesn’t give the other pitchers a break.”

Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: Things aren’t going well for the Phillies, but we have a hard time believing that’s a surprise. 2014 was always viewed as a gamble, with G.M. Ruben Amaro calculating that his aging team had one last run-to-the-Series in them. Well (and in fairness), Amaro had to say that, because who was going to take all of those bloated contracts . . . ?

The Phillies are dead last in the N.L. Least, Cliff Lee is nursing an aching elbow (he has trouble opening doors because he can’t turn the knob), Reid Brignac is playing third base because Cody Asche is down with a tweaky hamstring and the Ashburn’s pitching staff sports a 4.15 ERA. Ugh . . .

Prior to facing off against the Nationals, the Phillies faced the Mets in five games in Philadelphia . . . and they looked awful. They were outhit, outpitched, ourscored and outplayed by the Mets who (in case you haven’t noticed) are hardly the class of the league. The Mets took four of five in Philadelphia, the last one (on Monday) an 11-2 evisceration . . .

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Nats Notes: Splitting With The Mets And Reds . . .

Friday, May 23rd, 2014

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The Washington Nationals split the homestand against the New York Mets and Cincinnati Reds three games to three, winning the first series and losing the second. It is tempting for the Nats Nation to blame this water-treading performance on having so many big bats out of commission: Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Adam LaRoche.

But we don’t buy it. Consider: when all three were healthy and just catcher Wilson Ramos and righty starter Doug Fister were on the DL, the longest winning streak the Nats put together lasted a measly four games.

Then too, Washington’s hitters won the series against the Madoffs in spite of the lengthy list of names on the DL. Starting pitchers Tanner Roark and Jordan Zimmermann were good, but not great, in their starts, and Gio Gonzalez tried to play through a sore shoulder and whiffed it.

The relief corps, as we’ve come to expect, did their jobs, giving up just four hits and no runs over thirteen total innings. Ian Desmond started to come alive at the plate, getting four hits, a walk, and four RBIs in the series, and Wilson Ramos notched five RBIs off a double, a single, and a sac fly.

The series loss against the Redlegs was a damn near thing, literally decided by inches (twice) in Game One. Credit where credit is due: Reds second-sacker Brandon Phillips and centerfielder Billy Hamilton made fantastic diving plays in the 12th and 15th innings to snuff potential Nats’ walk-offs. Ross Detwiler got the loss, but it’s hard to fault a guy (too much) for allowing a homer to arguably the Reds’ best infielder, Todd Frazier — who produced all series long.

Nats starters Stephen Strasburg and Fister were both great in their games, but Tanner Roark struggled. The Nats can take some satisfaction from having eaten Redlegs starter and best pitcher in the majors Johnny Cueto — plating eight runs against the now healthy (and now celebrated) righty. The Nats were good — yes — but the lineup was still milquetoast in the series.

Well, except for Denard Span who apparently heard all the criticisms being leveled at him — and responded by getting nine hits and four RBIs (including his first homer of the season) in the one game against Cincy that we can class a “laugher.”

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Ramos Keys Nats Win Over Mets

Monday, May 19th, 2014

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Washington’s Wilson Ramos was 2-3 and knocked in four runs on Sunday, sparking the Nationals to a 6-3 victory over the visiting Mets — and taking the three game series from the Kranepools. The catcher’s key hit was a bases loaded single in the 5th that put the game out of reach.

The Sunday win was a classic Nationals’ victory: solid hitting with runners in scoring position, steady starting pitching (Jordan Zimmermann threw six innings of eight hit baseball) and close-out stuff from three bullpen stalwarts –Drew Storen, Tyler Clippard and Rafael Soriano held the Mets hitless in three innings of relief.

The Washington win victimized New York youngster Zack Wheeler, who’s been shaky in his last two starts. Last week, against the Yankees, Wheeler gave out six free passes in just 4.1 innings against the Yankees, and yesterday the righty gave up big hits in clutch situations.

“Obviously, guys are starting to figure me out a little bit,” Wheeler said after the loss. “I was thinking after I came out, I might be a little predictable right now.” When asked about Washington’s Ramos, Wheeler just shook his head: “He got me today,” he said.

The Washington catcher wasn’t the only National who provided headlines on Sunday. The Nationals offense got rolling early on, with shortstop Ian Desmond getting the team on the board when he led off the top of the 2nd inning by taking a Wheeler offering deep to left center field. It was Desmond’s seventh home run of the year.

But all of the rest of the scoring came off the at-bats of Ramos, who doubled in Anthony Rendon and Jayson Werth in the bottom of the 3rd, then followed in the 5th with his bases loaded single, scoring Jordan Zimmermann and Denard Span. “We feel very confident,” reliever Tyler Clippard said of the Washington win. “We’re kind of in that mode right now of just, get us the lead and we’ll do our thing.”

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Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: This was going to be Cincinnati’s year. The Reds entered 2014 as the odds-on-favorite to give the Cardinals a run in the N.L. Central — with everyone else (the Brewers, Pirates and Cubs) battling it out in their rear view mirror . . .

The 2014 campaign, it was thought, might actually feature a replay of Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine: solid pitching with a middle-of-the-order set of mashers that could overpower even the best arms. It’s no secret, the key to Cincinnati’s attack was going to be first baseman Joey Votto, who drew more walks (and had a higher OBP) last year than anyone in the National League . . .

But entering their three games series on Friday in Philadelphia, the Reds were more offensive pip-squeaks than any kind of machine — ranked 28th in runs, 24th in batting average, 21st in on base percentage and 23rd in slugging. It’s not that the Reds haven’t hit on all cylinders, it’s that they haven’t hit at all . . .

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