While most of DC was at the Verizon Center (or camping out in front of their television sets) watching game three of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Nationals fans turned up at ballpark for Stephen Strasburg’s 2012 home debut against the Houston Astros. The park wasn’t packed but that didn’t stop Strasburg from continuing to prove his worth as a young, reliable baseball talent. Continue reading
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
One swing of Rick Ankiel’s bat made John Lannan and the Nationals winners for the first time in 2011 on Saturday as Washington beat the Braves 6-3 in a soggy affair at Nationals Park.
Ankiel took a 91 mile-per-hour four-seam fastball from Braves starter Tommy Hanson to right field above the out-of-town scoreboard in the third inning to give the Nats a 4-1 lead, all they would need to sink Atlanta on another chilly day at the ballpark.
Ankiel also layed down a perfect squeeze bunt in bottom of the seventh inning with the bases loaded to score third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and make the score 5-2 Nats. Catcher Wilson Ramos (three singles) and right fielder Jayson Werth (two doubles and an infield single) both had three hits to pace the Nats 10-hit performance.