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Nats Blast New York, 7-1

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

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Washington homered four times, Doug Fister notched his twelfth win (against just three losses) and the Nationals went on to down the New York Mets at Citi Field, 7-1. This was Washington’s ninth win in a row in New York, with the team extending their N.L. East Division lead to five games over Atlanta in the N.L. East.

Fister was the key to the win. The former Detroit righty stymied the Mets offense, throwing seven innings of shutout baseball while allowing New York seven hits. Fister struck out three. The Nats righty threw 107 pitches, 71 of them for strikes and didn’t walk anyone.

“Doug throws what he wants when he wants and where he wants,” Mets manager Terry Collins said after his team’s loss. “When you go up there, especially when you’re looking at our lineup four through nine, they’re all pretty young, and he can carve you up and he does.”

Most of Washington’s runs came on round trippers, with Bryce Harper, Anthony Rendon, Ian Desmond and rookie Michael Taylor each hitting home runs. Taylor, subbing for right fielder Jayson Werth, also notched his first career hit in his first time at bat in the major leagues in the second inning.

Newly acquired second sacker Asdrubal Cabrera also had a big night for the Nationals, going 3-5 while stroking two doubles. Harper, Desmond (who hit his 20th home run) and Taylor each had two RBIs for the Nationals, who put six runs on three home runs on the board in the five run fifth inning.

Desmond’s 20th home run marked the third season in a row the young shortstop has hit at least twenty round trippers. “It’s difficult to do,” Nats manager Matt Williams said of Desmond’s accomplishment. “He also steals some bases for us and his defense has been fantastic. So, he is certainly one of our leaders on the club and he wants to play every day.”

But the biggest celebration of the night was reserved for Taylor, the 23-year-old Fort Lauderdale, Florida native who was seeing his first big league action. It was a memorable start for the Nats newbie, who was 2-4 on the night with his first big league home run.

“It’s fantastic. He has worked really hard. He has taken all the BP and worked his way to get here,” Williams said of the youngster. “It’s gratifying for everybody. The bench was excited on the first base hit, and the homer, even more excited. Good for the kid and certainly a memory he’ll remember forever.”

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Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: The Mets pitching future is on the DL and, if recent reports are any indication, likely to remain there. The team recently announced that young righty Jeremy Hefner, recovering from Tommy John surgery, has had a setback in his rehab and may have to have surgery yet again . . .

It was devastating news for the New Yorkers, who once believed that Hefner and Matt Harvey, who’s also recovering from Tommy John surgery, would lead a 2014 Mets renaissance. Now it appears that the Mets front office will stick to their guns and slow Harvey’s return, waiting to put him on the mound for the start of the next season . . .

This is actually a double-wammy, as the Mets put rookie of the year candidate Jacob deGrom on the disabled list on Monday with shoulder tendinitis. Righty deGrom has been a find for New York, and is 6-5 on the year with a 2.87 ERA. The Nationals faced deGrom last Thursday, and the youngster threw an effective six innings against the home towners . . .

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Nats Notes: The Road To October Still Goes Through Atlanta

Saturday, August 9th, 2014

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The Washington Nationals might have lost in Atlanta last night, but they’re still sitting on a solid lead in the National League East. And their lead is now the second largest in the majors (the Baltimore Orioles’ lead is just a tad more impressive). The recent homestand against the Philadelphia Phillies, the Fighting Showalters, and the New York Mets delivered everything the Nats have been doing well and (let’s admit it) everything they haven’t.

The Nats were given a chance to set the pace for the NL pennant run, but they let two blowouts and a scraper to two sub-.500 teams get past them. As much as we like to complain about how well they should have done, we can take heart that the hated Atlanta Braves fared even worse. The Barves were swept on their West Coast road trip and returned to Atlanta reeling from an eight game dip.

Nice as it is that Washington is in first place, the Washington 9 get blown away whenever their starter has a meltdown — or can’t make it past the third inning. And they drop one and two run games whenever the bullpen can’t lock it down or the defense is sloppy. Conversely, they win squeakers when the pitching is on point, the defense is tight, and their baserunning is smart. And they blow away the other guys when everything is firing on all cylinders.

We admit — that’s pretty standard stuff for any team. When the Braves, Marlins, Mets or Phillies can’t “lock it down,” they look as bad as (or worse than) anyone.

But wouldn’t it be nice if the Nats could (just once) author a blow-out of the Chops (as they did with the Phillies) that would leave Fredi Gonzalez reeling, and the Upton Brothers wondering what hit ‘em. That’s the kind of win the Nationals need just now to seal the feeling of inevitability that’s the hallmark of a champ.

Pointing out the positives from the homestand, Bryce Harper’s two-run opposite-field walk-off homer in the 13th inning against the Mets was well timed, both for him and the team. Each of the outfielders (Harper, Denard Span, and Jayson Werth) notched at least one outfield assist, and Span is working on a 34 game on-base streak, a definite plus for a lead-off hitter.

And there’s this: New acquisition Asdrubal Cabrera (2B) slotted right into the defense and even Danny Espinosa (2B) demonstrated that he shouldn’t be counted out of the lineup, at least when he’s batting right-handed.

That said, the team did some things that are still a cause for concern. Jayson Werth has been playing through tweaky knees and a sore ankle (“he’s pretty banged up,” the Post says) the past few weeks and it has shown in his defense. Lately, in right, it has taken him awhile to make it to balls down the line, in the corner, or blooped behind first. First-sacker Adam LaRoche, while healthy, has always been prone to streaks both hot and cold and, until his two-run homer on Wednesday, he’s been pretty cold.

So, was this the best homestand in Nats’ history? No, but neither was it the worst. All of the ingredients are there, a few nitpicks aside, and things should be trending up. A good test is the current series in Atlanta. The road to October always (always) goes through the Barves.

But never fear: this year, and thanks to the way the Chops are playing, that highway may actually be smoother than it’s been in a long time.

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Lost Opportunities Sink The Nats

Wednesday, August 6th, 2014

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The book on Zack Wheeler is that if you give him enough time he will implode — losing his command, walking hitters and giving up key hits. But after a mid-game tweak on Tuesday, New York’s young righty worked through his problems and delivered a strong outing to lead the Mets to a 6-1 victory against Washington at Nationals Park.

“I didn’t have my best stuff. And it wasn’t very fun. But you’ve got to find a way through it,” Wheeler, who picked up his seventh win said after his victory. “You’re mad at yourself, and you’re trying to figure out what it is. I wouldn’t say it’s mentally draining, but it’s just frustrating.”

Which is to say: while Wheeler pitched well when he needed to, the Nationals failed to take advantage of his weaknesses and were unable to score big in a tough second inning that might have knocked Wheeler from the game. The Nationals scattered eight hits on the Mets, with Adam LaRoche going 2-2.

The lost opportunities continued on into the third inning, when Washington again seemed poised to score. Denard Span and Anthony Rendon led off the inning with singles, but Jayson Werth grounded into a double play. After Adam LaRoche walked, Ian Desmond followed with a ground out.

The Mets victory came against Washington starter Gio Gonzalez, who had difficulties of his own. The southpaw pitched through six complete innings, but gave up four runs on six hits. While Tuesday marked an improvement over Gio’s last outing (a 3.2 inning eight hit disaster against Philadelphia), Gonzalez has not returned to the form the Nationals expect.

The Mets got a big night from Daniel Murphy who was 3-4 and pushed across two runs. Murphy has been the big bat this year for the Madoffs and last night raised his season batting average to an even .300. Murphy has shown he’s one of the best contact hitters in the league, leading the N.L. in hits with 137. At the age of 29, he’s arrived.

There’s little doubt that Washington has hit a rough patch, after performing well (and hitting well with runners on) against the hapless Phillies. The team has lost two in a row and is now just nine games over .500. Luckily, the Nationals have maintained their grip on the top spot in the N.L. East with the Braves losing seven in a row.

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Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: It was forever our intention to provide a longish piece on Atlanta’s chances in the second half, but it never seemed to quite happen. What we were going to say was that the Bravos had recovered nicely from injuries to their pitching staff, and were poised for a solid run as top team in the N.L. East . . .

We were also going to mention that the Braves are a streaky bunch, having accumulated nine wins in row just before the All Star break, before going on a short but pointed losing streaking. Staying consistent (we were going to say), was Atlanta’s big problem . . .

The Braves haven’t done anything recently to change our view. The pre-All Star nine game winning streak has been more than offset by a cripping seven game losing skeen, complete with a 10-1 pasting at the hands of the Padres last Friday. That embarrassment inaugurated a San Diego sweep of the Bravos, who suddenly looked like they would join the Mets and Phillies as N.L. also-rans . . .

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Strasburg Returns To Form, Blanks The Phillies

Monday, August 4th, 2014

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After a short stint at Cleveland’s Progressive Field (where we saw the Indians blank the lowly Rangers, 2-0), we returned just in time to see Washington righty Stephan Strasburg reclaim his rightful place as the Nat’s starting ace. On Sunday afternoon, Strasburg showed the form that he first exhibited in his first 14k game, taming the Phillies with 10 strikeouts and leading Washington to a 4-0 victory.

Strasburg was dominant: he threw 17 of 25 first strike pitches, tossed seven complete innings, walked a single batter and lowered his season ERA to 3.39 in notching his eighth win of the season. “Stephen was the guy we went to the first day of the season, he’s the guy we went to after the (All-Star) break, and he’s proven why he’s a really good pitcher,” Nats skipper Matt Williams said after the win.

While baseball analysts point to Strasburg’s fastball as the primary reason for his success, the flamethrower’s most effective weapon on Sunday was his curveball and change-up, which had Phillies right handed hitters chasing balls that were low and away and had left handed hitters flailing at inside pitches on their hands.

“He was focused on every hitter,” Washington backstop Jose Lobaton said. “He was just in the corner a lot. He was throwing the breaking ball, changeup, he was using everything today. Everything was good. He knew what he was doing. Today, he was pounding the zone. The fastball had more life today. The key was, he knew the hitters.”

Strasburg (and Washington’s) victory came against Phillie Cole Hamels, who finds himself still in a Philadelphia uniform after everyone had him heading to nearly every team in baseball at the trade deadline. Hamels was not nearly as effective as Strasburg, but he put up a seven inning fight to keep his team within one run of the Nats through seven innings.

This was another wasted game for Philadelphia, which saw their GM do nothing at the trading deadline to improve the team’s chance of lifting themselves out of the National League East cellar. “Tough games, it comes down to timely hitting and execution,” Hamels said after the loss, his sixth of the season. “I wasn’t able to execute the one pitch, and then we weren’t able to execute and get some timely hitting.”

Washington piled on three runs in the eighth inning, after center fielder Denard Span had put the Nationals on the board with an RBI single in the bottom of the third. Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon each had RBI doubles for Washington.

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Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: We’re gone for three days and what happens? The Nationals score eleven runs on fourteen hits in a romp against the Phils (and who wouldn’t want to see that?) and Washington extends their lead over Atlanta in the N.L. East . . .

But the trip to Asdrubal Cabrera’s former home city was worth it — as we were treated to a 2-0 Cleveland Indians shutout over the holy-cow-are-they-bad Texas Rangers . . .

Our stint at Cleveland’s Progressive Field provided us the opportunity to eyeball an Indians franchise that is gamely attempting to recreate the magic of the mid and late 1990s, when the Wahoos were the class of the American League and came itchy close to being the best team in the game . . .

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Phillies Pile On The Nats, 10-4

Friday, August 1st, 2014

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The Phillies feasted on Nationals pitching at Nationals Park on Thursday night, knocking out 17 hits and scoring ten runs on route to a rout of Washington, 10-4. Washington southpaw starter Gio Gonzalez (who took the loss and is now 6-7) failed to make it through four innings. He allowed five runs and eight hits over 3.2 frames.

This might have been one of Washington’s worst performances, as the team was never in the game. The pitching, even from the bullpen, was notoriously bad and the infield defense shaky, at best. And while Washington scattered eight hits, the middle of their line-up looked weak against weak Philadelphia pitching.

Philadelphia, meanwhile, looked like the powerhouse team they’re not. Centerfielder Ben Revere smacked four hits in six at bats, shortstop Jimmy Rollins notched three (in a 3-5 night), and left fielder Grady Sizemore knocked in three. The bad news for the Phillies was that starter Cliff Lee left the game in the third inning with an elbow injury.

Lee’s injury put an exclamation point on the Phillies season, which has been disasterous, but it didn’t seem to affect their on field play on Thursday night. “The bullpen was big,” Phillies manager Ryne Sandberg noted. “It was good to see the offense come alive after Cliff was taken out. It was the whole lineup.”

The continued troubles of Gio Gonzalez have to be bothersome to both the Nationals and the lefty. The southpaw has looked poor in two of his last three outings. “A lot of pitches right in the middle of the zone,” catcher Wilson Ramos said. “That was a problem today. A lot of pitches up in the zone, too.”

The bullpen also looked shaky on Thursday, with Jerry Blevins and Craig Stammen both struggling. Blevins gave up two runs on two hits in a single inning of work, while the normally steady Stammen gave up three runs in two innings.

“I don’t think they’re worn down. I don’t think their innings are excessive or anything like that,” Nationals manager Matt Williams said of his relievers. “I think it’s just one of those little ruts.”

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Marlins Hook The Nats, 3-0

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014

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Henderson Alvarez pitched seven complete innings and Giancarlo Stanton had two hits and drove in two runs as the Miami Marlins shut out the Washington Nationals at Marlins Park on Tuesday night, 3-0. The victory was Miami’s sixth in a row and narrowed the gap separating them from first place in the National League East.

Alvarez showed why he’s one of Miami’s premier starters, particularly at home. Alvarez allowed just three hits while striking out four, outdueling Washington’s Stephen Strasburg. Strasburg matched Alvarez’s numbers, also allowing just four hits. The Washington righty also struck out four Marlins.

The Nationals had plenty of scoring opportunities against Alvarez, but couldn’t find a way to get their runners across the plate. The Nats had the bases loaded in the second inning with no outs, but failed to score, and then had Anthony Rendon on third and Bryce Harper on first in the fifth but couldn’t push a run across.

Alvarez admitted that he struggled in the early going, before finding his command. “I was in the bullpen and I didn’t feel like I always feel before I hit the field. I wasn’t into it. For several innings I had to fight through it,” Alvarez said of his performance. “When the bases loaded with nobody out, I started to find my control of my pitches and of the game.”

After showing a solid ability to push runners across the plate earlier in the current road trip, the Nationals reclaimed their inability to score with runners on base. Washington left 26 on base last night, threatening Miami’s lead in the last of the 9th, when they again failed to score with the bases loaded.

The game also marked a revival for the Marlins’ Giancarlo Stanton, who entered the game at zero for his last nine at bats. But Stanton certainly looked good against the Nationals, lacing a double to left against Strasburg in the bottom of the 6th, scoring Jordany Valdespin.

“I haven’t felt good for a while now,” Stanton said after last night’s victory. “I did a little setup pregame. Hopefully I’m feeling better and more comfortable at the plate. Today was a good plus to that.”

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Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: The St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers are in the hunt for starting pitchers, with both teams inquiring about Boston’s Jon Lester, who’s a free agent after the season. The Redbirds have kicked the tires on nearly everyone who’s even remotely available, according to baseball analysts . . .

The once-upon-a-time pitching rich Cardinals are mired right in the middle of the pack with their staff, at least statistically, with both Michael Wacha and Jaime Garcia sidelined with arm issues. Wacha has a tweaky shoulder while Garcia is out for the duration with nerve problems in his pitching arm . . .

The loss of Wacha and Garcia have not sent the Cardinals into a tailspin, but St. Louis will need to bolster its pitching to have a shot at another world title. Everyone is in play: the Redbirds have scouted Cole Hamels, Cliff Lee and A.j. Burnett of the Phillies, Ian Kennedy of the Padres and Cleveland’s Justin Masterson, in addition to Lester . . .

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Rockies Halt Streaking Nationals, 6-4

Thursday, July 24th, 2014

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The Nationals four game winning streak was stopped by the Rockies at Coors Field on Wednesday, as a 9th inning Washington rally fell short and Colorado went on to win, 6-4. The hero for Colorado was starter Jorge De La Rosa (now an impressive 11-6 on the year), who threw into the 8th inning and struck out 11.

Matt Williams had nothing but praise for the Colorado right hander, whose performance helped to end the Rockies seven game skid. “He knows how to pitch here,” Williams said. “He has a surprising fastball when he needs it, but he relies on his changeup a lot. That’s a great strategy here.”

While De La Rosa pitched one of his best games of the year, the Rockies needed help from their bullpen, and a little luck, to take the victory. The Nats rallied to score two runs in the 9th inning and had the bases loaded when Colorado veteran reliever LaTroy Hawkins fanned Washington shortstop Ian Desmond to end the threat, and the game.

The 9th inning was a key for the Nationals, who looked like they might actually catch and then pass Colorado. Hawkins registered two outs before allowing RBI singles to Jayson Werth and Anthony Rendon to make it a 6-4 game. But the Nationals came up just short, providing Rockies’ fans with a too rare win at home . . .

“Got scary there at the end,” Colorado third sacker Nolan Arenado admitted. “We have a lot of confidence in Hawk. He’s done a great job this year putting people away.”

Despite the loss and failed rally, Washington scrapped out twelves hits on the Rockies, who are viewed as one of the best offensive teams in the game. Denard Span had a second solid game at the plate, going 4-5, while Danny Espinosa (now, with the injury to Ryan Zimmerman, a regular fixture at second base), weighed in with a double . . .

The Colorado win not only marked an end to Washington’s four game winning streak, it gave Stephen Strasburg his eighth loss on the year, against seven wins. Strasburg had trouble out of the gate, giving up three runs in the 1st inning on doubles from Josh Rutledge and Corey Dickerson, and singles to Ben Paulsen and Michael McHenry.

Strasburg was not satisfied with his performance, but gave himself points for hanging in in the tough Colorado environment. “Giving up three runs early, I could’ve easily shut it down,” Strasburg said after the loss. “I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to keep it as close as possible. Give the guys a chance to come back — anything can happen here.”

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Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: The Nationals will have the day off on Thursday, before facing the Redlegs in Cincinnati on Friday. The Reds vaulted themselves into contention in the N.L, Central before the All Star break, but nothing has gone well for them since then. The six game spiral now finds the Reds just a single game over .500 . . .

The Reds were swept by the Brewers in a three game set in Milwaukee, losing the last of three on Wednesday, 5-1. Not surprisingly, the Reds have been hit hard by injuries to Brandon Phillips and Joey Votto, which provided much of the Reds punch to a now suddenly anemic line-up . . .

“Offensively, we averaged two runs a game. That’s not going to cut it,” All Star third baseman Todd Frazier said after the Milwaukee loss on Wednesday. “We depend on our pitchers, and they’re pitching great. When we depend on them, we have to also produce . . .”

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