Sports Fix, The Features

Time To Get Excited, Nats Fans

Spring Training is upon us. It’s celebrated as a holiday in many a home and cheers up folks stuck in deep emotional slumps due to winter (and no baseball). It’s a time to look forward to the sweet summertime yet to come. It’s the time of year where rebirth is ever-present, in the weather and in state-of-mind. That’s why I’m looking forward to the 2013 Major League Baseball season in Washington, D.C. – home of the 2012 National League East Champions.

There’s a lot to be excited about if you’re a Nats fan. For example: a lead-off hitting hustler of a center fielder in Denard Span, no pitch limit for Stephen Strasburg, newly crowned National League Rookie of the Year Bryce Harper (and everything he does #fangirling), a starting rotation and bullpen worthy of evoking envy throughout all of baseball, and a roster that’s just as cohesive (if not more so) as Gordon Bombay’s Mighty Ducks from Minnesota. Continue reading

Sports Fix, The Features

Everything’s Not Lost: A Nats Postseason Reflection

2012 10 01 - 5478-5486 - DC - Nationals Ballpark
courtesy of thisisbossi

The 2012 Washington Nationals can and will be remembered in a few different ways. Some will see it as a successful season riddled with historic milestones achieved by a team who competed well beyond anyone’s spring training predictions. Others will remember it for the gut-wrenching two-run loss induced by a ninth inning collapse versus the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals in Game Five of the National League Division Series after being up 6-0.

But maybe there’s a happy medium between the two extremes?

Washington baseball in the modern era organically evolved into a devotion-based fan obsession upon the May inception of #Natitude. The play-on-words marketing strategy, endorsed by the Nationals’ Chief Operating Officer Andy Feffer, peaked people’s interest enough to follow the team on its journey toward becoming a contender. And this is all in addition to the incredibly devout season ticket holders and fans who’ve been supportive of the team since 2005 — the Nationals’ inaugural season.

Since that time, the already active community of voices in support of the team on Twitter has increased in size, seats in the ballpark were filled willingly, and a Photoshop trend became the norm for expressing one’s thoughts surrounding the team and its players. Record attendance numbers and television ratings were tallied. The Nats made it to the playoffs for the first time in team history. These are all positive changes when compared to season’s past.

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Sports Fix

What to look forward to at Nats Park

Photo courtesy of flipperman75
Nationals Park Sunset
courtesy of flipperman75

For baseball fans, the park is the compass that we orient ourselves with; it sets the stage, its orthogonal lines and sloping curves like a map before the spectator serving as guidepost and direction. As baseball returns to Nationals Park, some things are the same, some have changed, and we’re here to get you ready for Opening Day and beyond.  While much remains the same on South Capitol Street, there’ve been some changes that you should be ready for.

Half Street

First up is Half Street, most fans’ entrance to the park, and the home of the Metro. This winter, the western side of Half Street was revamped entirely and is now home to the Half Street Fairgrounds, which is patterned after Brooklyn’s Dekalb Market. The space that was formerly the Bullpen and Das Bullpen will be augmented by the presence of food trucks, beer stands, and places to congregate and relax ahead of, and following, each game. The industrial feel matches the construction that has languished in the area thanks to the economy’s slow recovery, and the decor includes shipping containers.  One friend said of the new architecture, though, that she was taking her evening job in the other direction, and on off-days I don’t expect this place looks quite the same. We’ll have to see what the season brings.

Photo courtesy of afagen
Nationals Park
courtesy of afagen

New Ticket Options

The Nationals have a couple new ticket options for fans this season. Weekends are big at Nats Park, and there are two options for weekend games to pique your interest.  Thursday and Fridays, Burger Pack tickets get you into the Upper Outfield Gallery and Outfield Reserve sections, as well as vouchers for a burger, some fries and a soda for $20-29 depending on where you seat and who’s in town.

Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays are Miller Light Party Nights in center field, with Scoreboard Pavilion seats running $25-27, but coming with a pair of drink coupons good for a soda, a bottled water, or a beer at the Scoreboard Walk bar.  Neither offer is good for games against the Yankees, but other than that the rest of the season is fair game. 

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Sports Fix, The Features

A Shutout Win, And A Glimpse Of The Future?

Photo courtesy of
courtesy of ‘oddlittlebird.’

On a warm Sunday afternoon on the final weekend of September, the Washington Nationals shut out a division opponent in a game with major playoff implications. The starting pitcher, a high draft pick and source of occasional frustration, pitched six shutout innings; Washington’s best offensive player smashed a two-run home run to break the game open in the late innings; and the team’s sterling bullpen pitched three perfect innings to secure the win.

OK, so the only team who had their playoff chances affected was the hapless Atlanta Braves, for whom the 3-0 loss was their 15th of the month of September. Atlanta’s lackluster performance, combined with the St. Louis Cardinals’ 3-2 win over the Chicago Cubs, cut the Braves’ lead in the National League wild card race down to a single game with three still to play. Continue reading

Sports Fix, The Features

Strasburg Stumbles, Nats Bumped Off By Braves

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courtesy of ‘NDwas’
Now that Stephen Strasburg has made a full recovery from Tommy John surgery, all that’s left for fans of the Washington Nationals to hope for is that his starts in 2012 go a lot better than his start on Friday night, when Strasburg’s disastrous first inning turned out to be the difference in a 7-4 loss to the playoff-chasing Atlanta Braves (89-68).

The start was officially delayed by 14 minutes while the field was given extra time to recover from the day-long rains that soaked the District. Whether it was this minor disruption of routine or the generally damp and humid conditions that affected Strasburg is not clear. However, he had trouble locating the strike zone in a 38-pitch first inning, and when either his four-seam or two-seam fastball did find the zone, it was carted all over the Nationals Park outfield.

After Strasburg struck out Michael Bourn on a changeup to lead off the game, Martin Prado lined a single off the glove of Danny Espinosa. Chipper Jones followed by pulling a two-seam fastball into right field on a full count, sending Prado to third. Dan Uggla fisted another four-seam fastball into center field to score Prado, the game’s first run. After Brian McCann swung through a 97-mile-an-hour fastball, Freddie Freeman doubled Atlanta’s advantage by singling to right before Jack Wilson pulled a ground ball that should have gone straight into Ryan Zimmerman’s glove and ended the inning. However, the ball took a fat hop, nicked the heel of Zimmerman’s glove, and bounced to left field as Uggla crossed the plate to make it 3-0. Strasburg managed to retire Jason Heyward to end the inning, but the out came in the form of a 395-foot fly ball that drove Rick Ankiel to the warning track in dead center field and nearly ended the competitive portion of the game right then and there.

Strasburg retired 9 of the next 10 batters and exited after the 4th inning with the Nationals trailing 3-1 thanks to an RBI single by Wilson Ramos in the second inning. However, Washington’s middle relief let them down. In particular, Collin Balester, who relieved Strasburg, made his predecessor’s performance seem masterful. Davey Johnson, trying to prolong his team’s five-game winning streak, pulled Balester after three batters and brought in Atahualpa Severino, who allowed both of his inherited runners to score on a double by Uggla, who came around himself on an RBI double by McCann.
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Sports Fix, The Features

Neutered Nats Flop Against Fish, Lose 3-0

Friday night was never going to be easy for the Washington Nationals. A letdown of some kind had to be expected after an emphatic four-game road sweep of the New York Mets earlier this week, and the red flags waved even more frantically when Davey Johnson announced that he was giving both Michael Morse and Jayson Werth a day off. (And he meant it; Alex Cora was first off the bench to pinch-hit.) And that was before anyone bothered to check the statistics and note that Florida had had the Indian sign over Washington this season, with an 8-4 head-to-head record entering this three-game weekend series, the next-to-last of the season between these two clubs.

But no one expected the Nats to go down as meekly as they did in the 3-0 loss. Javier Vazquez, a pitcher who has generally been mediocre to below-average since being traded by the Montreal Expos to the New York Yankees prior to the 2004 season (exceptional outliers in 2007 and 2009 notwithstanding), recorded his first complete game since September 25, 2009 (when his Braves defeated, yes, the Nationals), and he needed only 104 pitches to do it. True to form, there was nothing particularly special about what Vazquez was doing. He threw his fastball for strikes, got ahead in the count, and took advantage of a Nationals lineup that seemed completely uninterested in working the count. Of the 30 batters that Vazquez faced, 17 either took a first-pitch strike or swung at the first pitch.

The Nationals were compliant in their own demise as well, making two foolish mistakes on the basepaths. The first came in the second inning with the score still 1-0. After Rick Ankiel had singled to center with one out, Espinosa flicked a ball into left-center field. The ball was cut off quickly by center fielder Bryan Petersen, but Ankiel was still able to advance to third. However, Espinosa either underestimated Petersen’s arm or thought it was the right time to take the double play out of the equation. Regardless of his reasoning, he was easily cut down at second base for the second out of the inning. Chris Marrero flied out to right field to end the once-promising inning.

The other, less forgivable lapse came in the seventh inning, with the score 3-0 but Vazquez wobbling for the first time all night. Ryan Zimmerman and Laynce Nix singled to lead off the inning before Ankiel (fooled by a curveball) and Espinosa (unable to catch up to a fastball) struck out swinging. Then, with Marrero at the plate in search of a first home run of his term with the Nats, pinch-runner Brian Bixler was picked off of first, despite the fact that second base was already occupied by the less-than-speedy Zimmerman and it was unnecessary for Bixler to take undue risks on the basepaths with the tying run at the plate. The whole sequence summed up the lazy, haphazard approach the Nats offense brought to the ballpark last night.

Lannan wasn’t much better, though he managed to wring six innings and a quality start (in name only) out of his evening. He struggled to locate his fastball and changeup in the early going and gave up six of the eight hits recorded off him in the first three innings. The pitches that weren’t hit were taken outside of the strike zone, and this is what led to Florida’s first run of the game. Gaby Sanchez and Petersen worked one-out walks in the second inning and advanced to third and second on a wild pitch. Sanchez scored on John Buck’s single to center, and if Petersen hadn’t stopped between second and third base to make sure the ball would drop, he would have scored as well. As it was, Lannan got out of the inning with no further damage after Vazquez failed to get a squeeze bunt down and got Buck thrown out at second base and Emilio Bonifacio grounded into an inning-ending force play.

The Marlins added their other two runs in the third inning as Omar Infante and Mike Stanton opened the inning with back-to-back doubles before Stanton came home on Sanchez’s single to center. Again, the damage could have been worse, but Petersen went too far when turning first base after his two-out single and managed to get himself thrown out 7-6-3.

It was, in short, the type of game that was to be expected on a cool Friday night in September when both teams are eliminated from the playoff race (mathematically as well as realistically).  If there’s anything positive to be taken from it, it’s that Saturday’s game shouldn’t be nearly as somnolent. After all, Werth and Morse should be back, and some kid named Strasburg is on the mound.

Sports Fix, The Features

Mental Errors Doom Nats In 4-2 Loss To Arizona; In Memoriam Mike Flanagan

Photo courtesy of
‘Desmond touches ‘em all’
courtesy of ‘philliefan99′

Any Washington Nationals fan who bothered to sit through the entirety of Wednesday night’s 4-2 loss to the Arizona Diamondbacks would probably have felt a nasty shock of recognition. For one night, the Nationals of April and May re-emerged and reminded the 17,881 in attendance that there was a time when the team was in the bottom half of the National League table in every major offensive statistical category. They allowed 24-year-old Lynchburg native Daniel Hudson to come within one out of a complete-game shutout before back-to-back solo home runs by Laynce Nix and Jonny Gomes forced Hudson to yield to J.J. Putz, who forced Wilson Ramos to lift a foul popout to Lyle Overbay to end the game. Continue reading

Sports Fix, The Features

Detwiler And Werth Lead Nats Over Snakes, 4-1

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‘Curly W’
courtesy of ‘BrianMKA’

After the emotional Sturm und Drang that was this past weekend’s three-game series against the Phillies, the Washington Nationals needed a nice, quiet game that wouldn’t overly tax the bullpen. Luckily, they got just that kind of performance from Ross Detwiler, who allowed just one run on six hits over 6.2 innings as the Nationals defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks 4-1 Monday night at Nationals Park.

On a night when most of the focus of the Washington brass and media was on Stephen Strasburg’s third rehab start with Class-A Hagerstown (for the record, Strasburg went three innings and allowed one earned run on two hits, walked one and struck out six while throwing 60 pitches in front of Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo and principal owner Mark Lerner), the 25-year-old Detwiler continued to build on his impressive year, pitching into the seventh inning as a starter for the first time since June 20, 2009.

How much of Detwiler’s improvement is genuine progress and how much is a product of mere year-to-year statistical variance is hard to gauge. His strikeouts per nine innings ratio has jumped to 6.61, up from 5.16 in 2010, though he only managed just three strikeouts Monday night after fanning seven in his previous start against Cincinnati. Detwiler’s also been getting more ground balls with his more effective sinker. 48.9 percent of all balls in play against him have been grounders this season, up from an even 43% in 2010. As a result, both Detwiler’s Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) and expected Fielding Independant Pitching (xFIP) have dropped by more than a run from 2010 (the FIP has fallen from 5.64 to 4.54, while his xFIP has fallen from 4.97 to 3.96).

But there’s no denying that the left-hander has gotten very lucky when it comes to stranding runners on base. Entering Monday night, Detwiler’s left on base percentage was an unsustainable 86.6 percent. Remarkably, he managed to bolster that number on Monday night, as Arizona stranded five of their seven runners while he was in the game. Indeed, the most crucial moment of Detwiler’s outing came in the top of sixth inning, when he allowed a single to Justin Upton and walked Chris Young to load the bases with two outs and Washington on top 4-0.  Henry Rodriguez was warming up in the Washington bullpen, and on another night, Nationals manager Davey Johnson might have pulled the trigger on a pitching change. But this time, he only visited the mound to have a word with Detwiler, and his faith was rewarded when Detwiler induced Paul Goldschmidt to ground into an inning-ending force play.

Along with Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann, the development of Detwiler will be fascinating to watch. The good news is that the Nationals and their fans will have plenty of time to make a determination. Detwiler has one more full season before being eligible for arbitration, and he won’t be a full-fledged free-agent until after the 2015 campaign.

On the other side of the coin, the Nationals offense didn’t make Arizona starter Joe Saunders work particularly hard (he had only thrown 90 pitches when he made way for a pinch-hitter after six innings), but the Nationals didn’t to have particular trouble hitting certain of his pitches. As it turned out, Saunders’ two-seam fastball was particularly ineffective, and it was responsible for all of Washington’s runs. In the bottom of the second, Jonny Gomes dropped a two-seamer into right field to drive in Jayson Werth for the first run of the game. Two innings later, after a Ryan Zimmerman infield single and a walk by Michael Morse, Werth hit another Saunders two-seamer quite a bit farther. The ball sailed into the front row of the right-field seats for a three-run home run that turned a 1-0 lead into a 4-0 cushion and capped off a fine night at the plate for Werth (2-for-4 with his other hit a pulled double into the left field corner in the second). The well-paid right fielder is very quietly having a fine second half to the season, with a .358 on-base percentage and a .778 OPS in 137 plate appearances since the All-Star Break entering Monday night’s game. While those numbers still don’t measure up to his outstanding statistics in Philadelphia, Nats fans can now expect, rather than hope, that Werth has got his feet under him in the nation’s capital.

Sports Fix, The Features

King Richard: Ankiel’s Slam Helps Nats Over Braves, 9-3

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courtesy of ‘oddlittlebird.’

A night after hitting two solo home runs in a series opening 5-3 win over the Atlanta Braves, Rick Ankiel struck an even bigger blow. His grand slam in the bottom of the fourth inning turned a 3-2 deficit into a 6-3 lead, and the Washington Nationals went on to beat Atlanta 9-3 in front of 24,326 fans at Nationals Park Tuesday night.

The grand slam was Ankiel’s only hit of the night (he finished 1-for-5), but it was the perfect capstone to a torrid homestand for the veteran pitcher-turned-center fielder. Ankiel entered Tuesday’s game with a .421 on-base percentage in 19 plate appearances during the homestand, while his two Monday night home runs goosed his slugging percentage up to .750. In the short term, Ankiel’s hot streak has been a timely contribution to Washington’s firepower while others have struggled. Most notably, Danny Espinosa has fallen off sharply from the giddy heights of, say, mid-July. The rookie second baseman’s one-out double in the bottom of the third was his first extra-base hit since July 17 (which also, coincidentally, came against the Braves). Between the next day’s 0-for-4 performance against the Houston Astros and the start of Tuesday night’s game, Espinosa –who went 2-for-5 on Tuesday night– had reached base just nine times in 57 plate appearances on four singles, four walks, and once taking first after being hit by a pitch. That worked out to  a .161 on-base percentage, while striking out 17 times.

Jayson Werth, who also went 2-for-5 Tuesday night  has been hot as well (.440 on-base percentage and 1.011 OPS on the homestand entering the game), and it was he who scored the first run of the game in the bottom of the second inning. Werth, showing the same aggressive baserunning that’s marked his game all season, led off the inning with a single to right and took off for second with Michael Morse at the plate. Morse struck out on a full count, but David Ross’ throw sailed into center field and Werth took third base before scoring on Ian Desmond’s sacrifice fly.

That lead only lasted until the top of the third inning, when John Lannan struggled for the only significant period in his 6.2 innings. Facing the bottom third of the Atlanta order, Lannan gave up singles to Ross and Jose Constanza. After Ross was retired on a failed sacrifice by starter Derek Lowe, Michael Bourn tied the game with a double down the right field line. Lowe himself came across when the next batter, Martin Prado, grounded out to Espinosa. The Braves increased their lead to 3-1 in the top of the fourth when Alex Gonzalez singled with one out, went to second on a single by Brooks Conrad, advanced to third on a deep fly ball by Ross, and scored when Constanzo drove a single over the leaping Ryan Zimmerman and into left field.

But in the fourth, it all fell apart for Lowe, who has been a consistent disappointment for Atlanta since signing a four-year, $60 million contract with the Braves after the 2008 season. On Tuesday night, his sinker wasn’t as effective as it should have been, and the Nats finally got the measure of him. After Jonny Gomes walked with one out, Desmond pulled a sinker into left field for a single. Wilson Ramos fouled off a changeup before lining a sinker the other way to load the bases. Lannan then chopped a ground ball to first baseman Freddie Freeman, whose throw home to force Gomes was much too high and forced Ross to come well in front of the plate to make the catch. Gomes finished the job by taking out Ross’ legs with his own. It was a violent, but legal, play by Gomes and it cut the margin to 3-2. Then Ankiel watched two cutters miss high and outside before driving a sinker into the storage area behind the center field wall. It happens that quickly sometimes.

Lowe made it out of the fourth without further damage to his ERA, but he only lasted two batters into the fifth. Left with no choice but to hope that his sinker would suddenly sink, Lowe kept throwing it, and the Nationals kept hitting. Specifically, Gomes lead off the fifth by tripling down the left field line and Desmond treated another thigh-high sinker with the contempt it deserved, lining it into the first row of the left field seats to make it 8-3.

Michael Morse rounded off the home run derby in style with a long home run into the first row of the right center field balcony off Christhian Martinez to provide the final margin of victory in the bottom of the sixth. But the story once again was Ankiel, who, while he is not likely to be back with the club in 2012, has given the club some very fine service in center field (a below-average bat, perhaps, but his defense has not been close to the disaster many feared it would be). On a team that is simultaneously building toward the future and struggling to put its offense together, performances like Ankiel’s on this homestand are so often the difference between winning and losing, progress and frustration.

Sports Fix, The Features

Ankiel’s Solo Shots Lead The Nats Over The Braves

Photo courtesy of
‘Teddy Didn’t Win…’
courtesy of ‘Tony DeFilippo’

Since Rick Ankiel returned from the purgatory that his pitching career had become and made his debut as an outfielder in August of 2007, he has hit 56 home runs. Prior to Monday night’s 5-3 Washington Nationals win over the Atlanta Braves, Ankiel had hit two home runs in a game on four occasions. Facing right-hander Jair Jurrjens, Ankiel took his career home run total to an even 60, hitting two solo shots into the right field seats as the Nats notched their third win in a row against a division opponent.

Ankiel’s first home run, a solo cannon shot into the right-center field seats to lead off the bottom of the first inning, was impressive enough. But it paled in comparison to his second homer, another solo job that was blasted into the second deck down the right field line. As anyone who makes a habit of watching games at Nationals Park can tell you, those seats aren’t reached cheaply.

The pitching match-up certainly didn’t favor the home side. Jurrjens, a 25-year-old from Curacao, had not lost a start since June 14, and is surely on the watch list for the National League Cy Young Award. By contrast, Livan Hernandez had not won a start since June 26, and hadn’t even made it past the 4th inning in two of his previous three appearances. In the first inning, the Cuban looked to be continuing his poor run of form. After giving up a lead-off single to Michael Bourn on the second pitch of the game, Martin Prado turned on a curveball that missed the left field foul pole by, at most, a foot. The next pitch was scalded to Ryan Zimmerman, who snagged the line drive on the back hand and threw to first in plenty of time to double off Bourn, who was left standing at second wondering how on earth the ball hadn’t gone for extra bases.

The themes of danger and escape recurred throughout Hernandez’s six-inning, six-hit, one-run outing. In the third, he gave up a one-out single to Jose Constanza, who was promptly thrown out trying to steal second by Wilson Ramos. In the next inning, Hernandez allowed back-to-back one-out singles by Freddie Freeman and Dan Uggla before hitting  Jason Heyward on  the leg with a pitch to load the bases. The next batter, David Ross, grounded into a 6-4-3 double play to end the inning.

Hernandez helped his own cause considerably on two occasions. In the second inning, Hernandez gave his team a lead that they never relinquished when his two-out single to right field scored Jayson Werth to put Washington on top 2-1. But his most spectacular moment came in the fifth. After a lead-off single by Alex Gonzalez, Jurrjens (batting in the 8th spot) dropped a very well-placed bunt in front of the plate. Springing off the mound with alacrity, Hernandez spun and fired a bullet to the covering Desmond at second to start the 1-6-3 twin killing, the third double play turned by the Nats on the evening.

The only mistake Hernandez made was in the second inning, when he left a sinking fastball up in the zone for Uggla to catapult into the right-center field bleachers to tie the game 1-1. But even in this, Hernandez could commiserate with closer Drew Storen, who gave up Uggla’s second home run of the night with one out in the ninth inning. That made the score 5-3, and when Heyward followed with a single to right, nerves were jangling in the crowd of 19,940. But Storen managed to blow a full-count fastball by Ross and induce Gonzalez to ground into a 5-4 force-out to end the game.

Sports Fix, The Features

Nats Fall To Fish As Zimmermann Can’t Right The Ship

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‘not too happy’
courtesy of ‘philliefan99′

The Washington Nationals are last in the National League East for the first time since June 14. They descended to this low point after losing 11-2 to the Florida Marlins Tuesday night in front of 24,650 on a relatively pleasant night (in meteorological terms, anyway) at Nationals Park. The loss is the seventh the Nats have suffered in their ten games since the All-Star break and this particular performance should choke out whatever life was left in any hope that Washington could make a surprise run up the National League Wild Card standings. It is true that the Nationals only have the sixth-worst record in the National League and are still only four games under .500 (49-53 after Tuesday night), but if their recent run of form is any guide, the relatively fertile period of mid-June has turned out to be a mirage and the club is regressing dangerously.

The tone for the evening was set by starter Jordan Zimmermann, who gave up a triple to the second batter of the game, Omar Infante. The Florida second baseman went on to score on an RBI groundout by Greg Dobbs, the first of five runs that Dobbs would drive in over the course of the evening. Zimmermann has been very, very good throughout this season for the Nationals, but he was off tonight, particularly in the first five innings. He was leaving far too many of his pitches up in the strike zone, and the Marlins treated his offerings with the contempt they deserved, banging out seven hits in the first five innings, with four going for extra bases. Even more disconcerting were the two hit batsmen on Zimmermann’s record, as many as he’d hit all season entering Tuesday night. Arguably the biggest moment in the game came with two out in the third inning, when Zimmermann hit Hanley Ramirez with an 0-1 fastball with the score already 2-0 in Florida’s favor after Zimmermann had coaxed a 4-6-3 double play out of Dobbs, with Emilio Bonifacio crossing the plate in the process. Two pitches to Logan Morrison later, the Nationals were behind 4-0 and Morrison was circling the bases after depositing his 16th home run of the season into the Nationals bullpen.

In fairness to Zimmermann, he has now pitched 126.2 innings this season, by far the most in his major league career, and with his much-noted 160-inning limit fast-approaching, it would not be in the least surprising to either see more outings like this one or to see him handled much more gently and with a much shorter leash.

The Nationals offense, true to usual form, was about as exciting to watch as molasses. Continue reading

Sports Fix, The Features

Nats Break Even, Beat Rockies 2-0

Photo courtesy of
‘First Pitch: Rockies v. Nationals — Nationals Park (DC) July 10, 2011′
courtesy of ‘Ron Cogswell’

In the long-term plans of the Washington Nationals, Jordan Zimmermann will be a No. 2 guy, a complementary left hook to the right-hand lead represented by a healthy Stephen Strasburg. But with Strasburg on the shelf until at least September, Zimmermann became the de facto No. 1 starter entering the 2011 season despite the fact that he would be pitching under a 160-inning limit.

After a very strong 6.1-inning performance in Sunday afternoon’s 2-0 win over the Colorado Rockies, which sent the Nationals into the All-Star Break with a record of 46-46 and halted a particularly morale-sapping three-game losing streak, Zimmermann has pitched 115 of his allotted 160 innings. He extended his streak of pitching six innings or more in his starts to 13 and dropped his ERA from 2.82 to 2.66. He was, in short, exactly the man the Nats needed. His slider and curveball were particularly effective on this day, exploding down and away from Colorado’s right-handed hitters and, more often than not, finding the outside corner of home plate umpire Brian Knight’s strike zone.

Zimmermann’s (and Washington’s) win didn’t come easily, as the Nationals offense continued to struggle. This time, it was Jhoulys Chacin who caused the trouble as he retired the first 11 Nationals he faced before giving up a two-out single to Ryan Zimmerman in the bottom of the fourth inning. That was Washington’s last hit before Ian Desmond led off the bottom of the sixth with a laser that deflected off the glove of third baseman Ian Stewart and reached shortstop Troy Tulowitzki far to late for Colorado’s All-Star to do anything about it. Zimmermann, proving himself doubly indispensible, laid down a beautiful sacrifice bunt and Roger Bernadina did the rest, driving in the only run the Nats would need with a shattered-bat single to right field. Rick Ankiel, who had entered the game in the eight inning as a defensive replacement, provided the icing in the bottom of that inning with a solo home run into the first row of the right field seats off left-hander Matt Reynolds. It was Ankiel’s first home run off a left-handed pitcher since 2008.

Other members of the Nats were not so lucky. Jayson Werth, for one, went 0-for-3 at the plate to drop his average to .215 entering the All-Star Break. The big-money right fielder was greeted with applause by most of the 21,186 at Nationals Park when he was announced for his first at-bat in the bottom of the second inning. The fans held their collective tongues when Werth flied out to center field and left field in his first two at-bats (both times on first-pitch swings), but could restrain themselves no longer when he lifted a meager foul pop-up in the bottom of the seventh inning with Michael Morse standing on second base after a one-out double. At that point, the boos hailed down on Werth all the way back to the dugout.

As the season winds to its conclusion, and as the Nationals (likely) continue to drift around the fringes of the National League wild card race, Werth’s ongoing offensive struggles will continue to be the story, at least until he snaps out of it. But unlike on Saturday night, when Werth grounded into a game-ending double play with the tying run at third base, his struggles were only a footnote to Zimmermann’s great performance. It’s doubtful Werth will take any consolation from this as he prepares for his three days off, but at this point, he’ll take any consolation he can get.

Sports Fix, The Features

Rockies Hurt Lannan, Stifle Nats 3-2

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‘not too happy’
courtesy of ‘philliefan99′

If Thursday night’s 10-9 loss to the Chicago Cubs was a spectacular defeat for the Washington Nationals, Friday night’s 3-2 loss to the Colorado Rockies was more in keeping with past defeats this season, complete with offensive incompetence and a pinch of bad luck.

In this case, actually, the bad luck was a hammer blow in the form of a baseball off the bat of Ty Wigginton in the top of the fourth inning with Washington on top 1-0. John Lannan had started his outing crisply, and had made it through the first three innings without allowing a single baserunner. After Carlos Gonzalez struck out swinging at a two-seam fastball to lead off the fourth, however, things fell apart quickly for Lannan. Jonathan Herrera lined a four-seam fastball back up the middle for Colorado’s first hit (and base) of the night. Todd Helton pulled a two-seam fastball over the inner half of the plate into right field to put runners on first and second base. And then Wigginton lined another two-seamer straight at Lannan’s skull.

Replays were inconclusive as to whether the ball deflected off Lannan’s glove. What was more definitive was the ball striking Lannan in roughly the place where nose and left cheek come together. As the ball continued into center field and Herrera raced home to tie the game at 1-1, Lannan staggered to his knees for a few seconds before picking himself up and walking to the clubhouse under his own power, holding his cap to his face to staunch any bleeding. The official diagnosis was a nose contusion, and there remains a possibility that Lannan could make his next scheduled start after the All-Star Game.

Despite being allotted as much time as he needed to warm up, Ryan Mattheus seemed rattled by his early appearance in the game. He induced Mark Ellis to ground back to the mound, but double-clutched on the throw to second and only an apparently generous out call from Brian Knight gave the Nationals the second out of the inning. Mattheus was then called for a balk by home plate umpire Bob Davidson, which forced Helton home with the go-ahead run. That in turn was followed by an RBI single for rookie Cole Garner, which made the score 3-1 and was all the scoring Colorado would do or need.

The rest of the night was, for the most part, an exercise in futility by the Nats offense, beginning in the first inning, when they loaded the bases with nobody out against Jason Hammel on a Roger Bernadina double, a walk to Danny Espinosa and an infield single by Ryan Zimmerman. Hammel kept it together, allowing only a sacrifice fly by Michael Morse (which scored Bernadina to give Washington their early lead) before striking out Jayson Werth and inducing Rick Ankiel to pop out to second base. In the rest of his outing, Hammel faced 20 batters, and allowed just four of them to reach base (a walk to Espinosa in the third inning, a solo home run by Wilson Ramos that made the score 3-2 to Colorado, a two-out single to right by Werth in the sixth, and a single to right by Desmond in the bottom of the seventh that precipitated Hammel’s removal).

Hammel’s removal did not turn the tide in Washington’s favor. With newly-recalled Jesus Flores pinch-hitting in the seventh inning against Matt Reynolds, Desmond was picked off and caught trying to steal second. And the offensive ineptitude reached its climax in the 9th inning after a leadoff single by Morse. After Werth struck out flailing wildly at a pitch in the dirt, pinch-runner Brian Bixler, seeing the ball get away briefly from catcher Chris Iannetta decided to try to scamper over to second base. Iannetta recovered the ball in plenty of time to throw out Bixler, and Ankiel’s swinging strikeout ensured that the Nats would drop back to the .500 mark entering the final weekend of the season’s first half.

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Werth’s Hustle Starts Holiday Party as Nats Beat Cubs 5-4 in 10

‘Jayson Werth, where is you’re head at?!?’
courtesy of ‘Tony DeFilippo’

Jayson Werth, the focus of so much agonized discussion among Washington Nationals fans over the last few weeks, didn’t get the big hit in this 4th of July thriller. But he did score the winning run, drove in two more, walked twice, and helped cut down a runner at the plate as the Nationals scrambled back to the .500 mark, defeating the Chicago Cubs 5-4 in 10 innings in front of most of an announced crowd of 32,937 at Nationals Park.

Washington’s winning sequence was classic National League baseball. After Werth worked a walk off losing pitcher Marcos Mateo, he was bunted over to 2nd base by pinch-hitter Livan Hernandez. Hernandez was actually the second pitcher to pinch-hit in the game as Nationals manager Davey Johnson was forced to creatively manage his shortened bench in the absence of Michael Morse (hairline fracture of the forearm). After Mateo was forced to depart with an injury in favor of Carlos Marmol, Werth caught the Cubs infield defense napping and stole third without even drawing a throw. Finally, when Marmol’s 2-2 pitch slipped past Geovany Soto and bounced around the backstop, Werth raced home with the winning run.

It was the perfect end to an up-and-down day for the $126 million man. Werth’s broken-bat single in the bottom of the first drove home Danny Espinosa and made the score 2-0, Washington. But Werth was  also a supporting player in one of the worst defensive plays seen from the Nationals at any point in their history. Continue reading