. . . And Here Come The Giants

August 22nd, 2014  / Author: Mark

MLB: San Francisco Giants at San Diego Padres

The San Francisco Giants were our pick to win the National League West, and we had good reason to suppose so. The Giants had a snappy starting rotation, we thought that Tim Lincecum would recover some of the velocity on his fastball, and the team could hit — not least because they added Michael Morse to their mix.

For much of the season our prediction looked solid. The Giants appeared to be running away with the West, the Dodgers were struggling (and Clayton Kershaw was on the disabled list for a short time), and Morse was hitting the snot out of the ball, and still is.

But starting in late June and extending well into mid-August, the Giants were hit by a series of devastating injuries: Matt Cain went down for the season, Brandon Belt and Hector Sanchez were hit with concussions, Marco Scutaro went down with a bad back and a stiff neck and the McCoverys spiraled out of first place.

But the real loss for the Giants came in late June when center fielder Angel Pagan was hit with a back injury that refused to heal. Pagan is San Francisco’s spark and had led the Giants in BA and OBP prior to sitting out an eight game streak in late June. Finally, realizing that he just wasn’t healing, the Giants took Pagan off the bench and put him on the disabled list.

The Giants went 19-26 without Pagan, though G.M. Brian Sabean did his best to back-and-fill off the Pagan injury. Sabean signed struggling second sacker Dan Uggla to a contract on July 25, then swapped two minor leaguers for Red Sox starter and veteran tosser Jake Peavy the next day.

Sabean’s moves haven’t worked out. Uggla went 0-11 with six strikeouts in two weeks of work for the Giants (who then outrighted him, putting him back on the street) and Peavy has been just so-so. The former San Diego righty began his time in San Francisco by going 0-3, though he’s recovered lately, authoring two key wins in his last two outings.

It hasn’t been enough. While the Giants have been able to patch together a workable starting rotation and supplemented it with a solid, very solid, bullpen, the Giants are just middling run scorers. The McCoveys offense is not only not as good as L.A.’s, it’s probably worse than Arizona’s, with a sorry .305 team OBP.

Yes, we know: the Giants have heavyweights Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval and Morse in their line-up. But the guy the Giants really have to have (they’re 21st in runs and 21st in BA) is Angel Pagan — who needs to get healthy and stay healthy. Pagan is the key, the one guy that makes it all work. Without him, they’re just not the same team.

Nats Edge Rattlers In Another Walk-Off, Streak At Ten

August 22nd, 2014  / Author: Mark

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Denard Span scored on a throwing error from Arizona D’Back’s third baseman Jordan Pacheco in the bottom of the 9th inning, as Washington authored another dramatic walk-off win, 1-0 on Thursday evening. It was the Nationals tenth win in a row.

The Nationals were unable to push across a run against Arizona pitching the entire game, with Washington starter Gio Gonzalez also effective against Arizona’s bats. Arizona starter Wade Miley scattered eight Nationals hits, while Gonzalez threw seven complete while holding the D’Backs to a measly four hits. Gonzalez walked three.

The Nationals were victorious despite going 0-13 with runners in scoring position, and squandering numerous opportunities to score. Span, Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos each had two hits for the Nats, but Adam LaRoche grounded into two double plays, while Danny Espinosa grounded into one.

The Gonzalez start reversed a series of bad outings for the Washington lefty, who was pleased with his performance. “It was fun just being a part of something that is going on,” Gonzalez said. “We had such great pitching lately. Our bullpen has been fantastic. Again, Nats win on a walk off. I just wanted try to blend in with the rest of the rotation, try not to stick out like a sore thumb.”

The victory on Thursday was Washington’s fifth walk-off win in the last six games; the last team to do that were the 1986 Houston Astros. The normally phlegmatic Matt Williams remained so after the dramatic win, insisting that the Nationals had to keep playing game-to-game, with the same effort.

“I’ve experienced a lot in my time in baseball, certainly not as much as other folks,” Williams said after the victory. “But I understand appreciating what you have and working hard to get what you want. That’s important to me and it’s important to those guys, so that’s how we approach it.

Washington’s ninth inning dramatics began with a Scott Hairston (hitting for Rafael Soriano) out on a fly ball, bringing Span to the plate. The fleet Nats center fielder singled for his second hit of the game then, with Anthony Rendon at the plate, stole second on southpaw reliever Oliver Perez. Span would later call it “the most important steal of my career.”

It was then that Arizona’s Pecheco committed his fatal error. Rendon hit the ball down the third base line and Pecheco threw the ball to first, but the ball bounced past first baseman Mark Trumbo and into the first base camera well. The umpires awarded Span home plate. Pacheco late said that he simply didn’t have a good grip on the ball.

The Nationals have now swept, in succession, the Mets, Pirates and Diamondbacks. Rafael Soriano came away with the win for the Nats. “We just feel confident that somehow, some way we’re going to find a way to inch off a victory,” Span said of his team’s win, but skipper Williams had a different take. “It’s not how you plan it,” he said.

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It’s Epic: Streaking Nats Walk Off Again

August 21st, 2014  / Author: Mark

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Pinch hitter Anthony Rendon, given a day off by skipper Matt Williams, singled home Bryce Harper with the winning run in the bottom of the 9th inning on Wednesday night, sealing Washington’s ninth victory in a row and downing the Arizona Diamondbacks, 3-2. It was the Nationals fourth walk off win in the last week.

“It’s absolutely epic. That’s the best word I can put out there,” Washington left fielder Bryce Harper said of the Nationals’ triumph. “It’s been incredible. This team has a lot of fight, a lot of heart. We never die.” Harper was a solid 3-4 in the victory and is 5-15 in the Arizona series.

The game began as a pitchers’ duel, with Washington’s Tanner Roark facing off against Arizona’s Trevor Cahill. Cahill, who has been inconsistent this year but has had a good August, allowed just two Washington runs in 6.1 innings of work. But Roark was even better, throwing seven shutout innings, albeit (as Matt Williams later admitted), without his best stuff.

At the end of seven innings, Roark exited the game in favor of reliever Tyler Clippard, having thrown 99 pitches while giving up just five hits. The young righty was supported by two Nats runs, one on a Wilson Ramos RBI fielders choice grounder in the 2nd, the other on consecutive doubles by Asdrubal Cabrera and Jayson Werth in the 6th.

“I felt good. I felt early on, the first two innings, I was nibbling a little bit on my fastball,” Roark said of his outing. “After that, I started attacking more and being aggressive.”

Roark’s outing assured the Nationals of a 2-0 edge at the end of seven, but the lead didn’t last long. Reliever Tyler Clippard, in his second shaky outing in as many appearances, walked Arizona’s Jordan Pecheco to start the 8th, then gave up a round tripper to promising rookie Ender Inciarte, allowing the D’Backs to tie the game.

Arizona’s failure to score in the top of the 9th (with Rafael Soriano throwing for the Nationals) set up Washington’s dramatic walk-off win in the bottom of the frame. With rookie reliever Evan Marshall on the mound for the D’Backs, Bryce Harper hit a line-drive up the middle and advanced to third on a Kevin Frandsen hit past a diving Aaron Hill.

It was then, with just one out in the inning and runners on first and third, that Matt Williams decided to pinch hit Rendon. With the count at 1-0, Rendon hit a streaking grounder past third sacker Cliff Pennington to score the winning run.

“It’s a good feeling. We are definitely rolling right now,” center fielder Denard Span said of the Nationals impressive victory. “It was very impressive for Rendon to kind of cut the switch on, having the day off and all of a sudden get thrown in the game and get the big hit for us. He has been doing it all year. So it really doesn’t surprise me.”

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Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: It’s been a season of dramatic wins for the Nationals, but no one has led the N.L. in late inning theatrics more than the Pittsburgh Pirates. Entering last night’s game in Pittsburgh against the Atlanta Braves, the Bucs had authored 31 come-from-behind victories in the 2014 campaign . . .

Veteran thespians, the Pirates have needed all the luck they can muster, particularly lately. The Pirates fought a tough away series in Washington (where they were swept), and hardly showed at all while facing the Braves at Turner Field. In the midst of a seven game plunge, and with their season on the line, the Stargells were in desperate need of a break . . .

They finally got it on Wednesday night, in front of a raucous crowd of home town rooters, when usually sure-handed outfielder Justin Upton dropped a fly ball in the 9th inning in the midst of a 2-2 tie. The dropped fly (bobbled on a sprint in which Upton nearly collided with brother B.J.) allowed the Bucs to win on a walk-off sac fly from Gaby Sanchez, scoring Jordy Mercer . . .

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Strasburg, Cabrera Spark Eighth Straight Win

August 20th, 2014  / Author: Mark

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Stephen Strasburg threw eight complete innings of three hit baseball and newbie Nat Asdrubal Cabrera’s line drive double capped a six run third inning and the Washington Nine notched their eighth win in a row, in a convincing 8-1 rout of the Arizona Diamondbacks on Tuesday night at Nationals Park.

This was a dominant outing for Strasburg who notched his tenth win on the year. “I guess it’s what the doctor ordered,” Strasburg said after his win. “I just wanted to go out there and build off the last start and keep doing the things that I’ve been trying to work on. [Catcher Jose Lobaton] called a great game, we played great defense.”

Washington’s onslaught victimized Arizona starter Chase Anderson, who was pulled in the third inning after pitching to six batters, but without getting an out. The frame featured a single (and stolen base) from Denard Span, singles from Jayson Werth, Ian Desmond, and Bryce Harper, a walk to Adam LaRoche and Cabrera’s gap double that cleared the bases.

Cabrera has had key hits in each of the last four games, but notched three RBIs on Tuesday. “He’s a pro,” Manager Matt Williams said of his new second sacker. “His time at shortstop I think helps everything. Coming in, he hadn’t played second base in a while, but switch-hitting capabilities, been in situations like this, hitting in the middle of the order of a team, and a contending team, helps everything.”

Ian Desmond wielded the other big bat for the Nationals, going 3-4 on the night while accumulating four RBIs. “It’s one of those nights where I didn’t hit it super well, but I got some hits,” Desmond said. “Fortunately for me, guys were on base in front of me. They have been doing that all year long. I’ve been trying to do a better job getting on for Bryce [Harper].

The punchless D-Backs were powerless against Strasburg, but even less so against close-out lefty Jerry Blevins, who fanned two in a 1-2-3 bottom of the ninth. But the night was Strasburg’s.

“He had his fastball working, he was locating,” D-backs second baseman Aaron Hill said. “He’s one of the better fastball pitchers in the game, and we were hoping to maybe get his pitch count up a little bit and get into the bullpen, and it just didn’t happen.

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Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: We’re not inclined to give Baseball Tonight commenter and former major league righty Rick Sutcliffe any kind of love at all — his BT monologues are off-putting, long-winded and sometime incoherent. We loved him as a player, honestly, but . . .

But just this once we’ll give him credit. Back on August 8, Sutcliffe told Baseball Tonight aficionados that the reason Strasburg had authored such a lousy outing that day against the Braves was that he “wasn’t throwing the ball inside.” Strasburg’s inability to “control the inside part of the plate,” Sutcliffe said, was allowing hitters to lean into his outside pitches . . .

We’ve learned since then that Sutcliffe’s views reflected what the Nationals themselves were thinking. In the wake of the righty’s poor outing against the Braves, pitching guru Steve McCatty had an intense side session with Stras to polish his inside pitching. The results have been impressive . . .

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Nats Notes: Washington’s XBH Machine

August 19th, 2014  / Author: Jason Knobloch

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There are now less than 40 games to go in the regular season and we are one game into a home series against the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Washington Nationals are seventeen games over .500 and lead the division by six games on the back of a series loss in Atlanta and sweeps of the New York Mets and Pittsburgh Pirates.

The Nats are working on their longest winning streak of the season (currently seven games long), a good place to be in the home stretch.

The last three wins were each walk-offs, courtesy of catcher Wilson Ramos on Saturday, pinch hitter Scott Hairston on Sunday, and first sacker Adam LaRoche on Monday.

The compulsion to grind has been key over the streak. The Nats have pulled off multiple come-from-behind wins over the past ten games and came within a hair of doing so in the first game against the Barves.

Offensively, these wins were built not so much on the long ball, but on extra base hits and small ball. The addition of Asdrubal Cabrera and, most recently, Nate Schierholtz will only enhance that capacity: both of them are notorious gappers and Cabrera is a doubles machine.

Over the last ten games, these are the XBHs the Nats have tallied (not including the fourteen homers):

Denard Span: a triple, three doubles, and a stolen base
Anthony Rendon: a triple and a stolen base
Wilson Ramos: two doubles
Asdrubal Cabrera: a double and a sac fly
Kevin Frandsen: a double and a sac fly
Jayson Werth: a double and a sac fly
Adam LaRoche: a double and a stolen base
Bryce Harper: a sac fly
Scott Hairston: a sac fly
Ian Desmond: a stolen base
Stephen Strasburg: a sacrifice

In other words, over the past ten games, every member of the regular starting lineup, two bench guys, and a pitcher were getting in scoring position, driving in runs, and moving runners. That’s not only impressive, it’s been the key to the recent Nats surge.

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LaRoche Blast Lifts Nats, Streak Now At Seven

August 19th, 2014  / Author: Mark

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Adam LaRoche’s dramatic 11th inning home run lifted the Nats to their seventh straight victory (and their third walk-off win in a row), as Washington slid past the Arizona Diamondbacks on Monday night, 5-4. The round tripper came off of rookie reliever Will Harris and was the first walk off home run of LaRoche’s career.

The LaRoche homer hit off the facade of the upper deck in right field, as Nationals fans rose in a deafening cheer. “I got every bit of that one,” LaRoche said after the Nationals victory. “I don’t know how we got these walk-off situations the last few days, but we have. I managed to get my first one. It took me long enough. So it’s a good feeling.”

The walk off homer was the culmination of a strange night for the ball club, which found itself in a see-saw battle with a team that is nearly twenty games under .500. While Nats starter Jordan Zimmermann pitched well (seven innings, four hits and three earned runs), the D’Backs had victimized the righty on a pair of lead-off walks in the 5th and 8th innings. In both cases, Arizona was able to turn the walks into runs.

In the 5h inning, Zimmermann walked Mark Trumbo, who moved to third on a single and sacrifice bunt and then scored on a Jake Lamb sacrifice fly. In the 8th, Zimmermann walked Lamb, who then scored on a Didi Gregorius home run. The Nationals forfeited a 2-1 lead and were six outs away from a victory before the Gregorius homer.

“One pitch, and it looked a little worse than what it is. In that situation, I want to throw a strike,” Zimmermann said of his eighth inning troubles. “Everyone knows I don’t want to walk another guy. [Gregorius] was ready for it and got the bat on the ball.”

The strange night continued for the Nationals, who entered the 9th with a one run lead. But reliever Tyler Clippard, pitching in a closing role to give Rafael Soriano a rest, gave up a game-tying home run to David Peralta. It was the first home run given up by Clippard since mid-April and ended any chance the Nats had of ending the game in nine.

The Nationals kept pace with the D’Backs, but only just — waiting until the seventh inning to put their first two runs on the board (the result of an Ian Desmond walk and a Wilson Ramos home run blast to center), then following it up with two more in the eighth, when Denard Span doubled, Anthony Rendon tripled and Jayson Werth sacrificed Rendon home.

With the score knotted at four apiece and the game headed into extra innings, Nats skipper Matt Williams called on reliever Craig Stammen to keep the D’backs off the board. As usual, Stammen played Houdini for the Nationals crowd, loading the bases in the top of the 11th before striking out Lamb, Gregorius and inducing a Cliff Pennington ground out.

“It feels like every break is going our way,” Stammen said of the Nationals victory. “You don’t get out of a bases-loaded jam very often. It’s a 1-in-25 thing. Walk-off home run, two outs in the 11th inning. Coming back when we’re down and all that stuff. And giving up home runs and then coming back and scoring more runs, it’s just resiliency.”

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The Wisdom Of Section 1-2-9: There were just over 21,000 in attendance for Monday night’s theatrics, but the regulars of Section 1-2-9 didn’t seem to mind. “There’s a football game on, so there’s that,” one season ticket holder remarked. Another regular shook his head. “I’d rather be here,” he noted. “We can always see those other guys . . .”

Not surprisingly, the early innings of the game were taken up with verbal replays of the two weekend victories over the Pirates (“you shoulda been here, I’ve never seen anything like it,” one fan noted), and praise for a team that, as one regular noted, ” wasn’t nearly this good back in April or May . . .”

Soon enough, and predictably, the talk turned to the struggles of Bryce Harper, a common theme among Nationals fans who think it’s past time that he broke out. “It must bug him that he’s not the face of the franchise,” one 1-2-9 veteran commenter noted. And so who is? he was asked. There was only a moment’s hesitation: “Right now, it’s Denard Span . . .”

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Nats Walk Off (Again), This Time In Extras — And In “A Classic”

August 18th, 2014  / Author: Mark

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Think of all the baseball cliches, and you will almost certainly touch on one that describes Washington’s 6-5 eleven inning walk-off triumph over the Pittsburgh Pirates: If you didn’t see it, you should have — if you weren’t there you should have been. Indeed, the Bucs-Nats tilt of August 17 will go down in D.C. baseball history as “a classic,” the kind of win remembered for a long time.

The game began modestly enough, with Washington’s Doug Fister facing off against Pirate ace Edinson Volquez. Fister had his usual ace stuff, allowing just five hits and no earned runs (the Pirates scored two in the 6th on two D.C. errors), while striking out five before being lifted after seven complete for 8th inning relief whiz Tyler Clippard.

Volquez was nearly as good (he’s 10-7 on the season, and is a workhorse), though he gave up a single earned run through 6.1 innings, while notching five strikeouts. But in the bottom of the 7th frame, the Nationals put three runs on the board, when Michael Taylor was hit by a pitch, Kevin Frandsen and Denard Span singled — and the Nationals plated three runs on fielders choice singles off the bats of Asdrubal Cabrera and Anthony Rendon.

Then, with the Nationals leading 4-2 in the 9th inning (and coasting to a seemingly assured victory), it all fell apart for the home towners. With Rafael Soriano on the mound to close the game (and searching for his 30th save), the Pirates struck for three runs.

Soriano’s troubled 9th began when the big righty hit Pirates outfielder Starling Marte. Soriano then gave up a single to Travis Snider, then allowed Marte to score and pinch runner Michael Martinez to advance to second on a wild pitch. Ike Davis was then walked. And although the Nats picked up an out on a Gaby Sanchez fielders’ choice, rookie sensation Gregory Polanco doubled to center to score sprinting pinch runner Jordy Mercer and Sanchez.

With Soriano slumping on the bench, reliever Matt Thornton got the Nationals out of the 9th, but the Nationals seemed deflated by the blown save — and headed for defeat. It was then that the fireworks began, courtesy of Jayson Werth, who’d been sidelined for the last week with a tweeky shoulder.

With one out in the 9th, Werth (who was hitting for Thornton) drew a walk from Pirates reliever Mark Melancon. Werth’s reappearance in the Nationals line-up reenergized the Nationals, with the right fielder advancing to third on a Denard Span single and scoring on a clutch fielders choice off the bat of Asdrubal Cabrera. Unaccountably, but dramatically, the Nationals had knotted the game at 5.

The dramatic Nationals fall, and rise, lasted through the scoreless 10th, with lefty reliever Ross Detwiler holding the Pirates scoreless. Then, in the bottom of the 11th, the Nationals walked off in dramatic fashion: on a Werth double, a move-em-over grounder to the right side from Denard Span and a game-winning sacrifice fly off the bat of uber-sub Scott Hairston.

“Today was a tribute to just the team mentality in general,” starter Doug Fister said of his team’s victory. “That’s a lesson learned for us, knowing that [if] something goes wrong, there’s 24 guys right behind you that pick you up. Whether it’s offense, whether it’s defense, guys are playing well together.”

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Those Are The Details, Now For The Headlines: The Pirates came into Washington with high hopes, but have now dropped five games in a row. “We get to play in front of 120,000 people over the weekend, playing a good team,” Pirates skipper Clint Hurdle said of his team’s effort. “Got to keep battling, score one more run than they — that didn’t happen for us this weekend . . .”

The three game Washington-Pirates set was worthy of October, with two walk-off Nationals wins and each game decided by a single run. The Nationals were saved from their sloppy play (two errors on Sunday that allowed two Pittsburgh runs, both in the 6th inning), by clutch at bats from Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos, Denard Span and Scott Hairston . . .

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