August 2012

What to Watch For: 8/24

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Washington Nationals (77-47) vs. Philadelphia Phillies (58-67)

RHP Edwin Jackson (7-8, 3.69) vs. RHP Kyle Kendrick (6-9, 4.20)

Following an off day, the Nationals travel to Philadelphia to open a three-game set with the Phillies as part of a five-game road trip. Edwin Jackson looks to get back in the win column as he follows up on his season-high 11 strikeouts in his last outing.

NATIONALS LINEUP

1. Lombardozzi 2B

2. Harper CF

3. Zimmerman 3B

4. Morse LF

5. LaRoche 1B

6. Werth RF

7. Espinosa SS

8. Suzuki C

9. Jackson RHP

PAST, PRESENT, FUTURE
The Nationals tonight begin a shorter-than-usual two-city, five-game road trip with the first of three weekend contests at Citizens Bank Park. Following Sunday’s finale, the Nationals are slated to jet south to enjoy an off day (Monday) and a two-game series in Miami. However, Tropical Storm Isaac could potentially affect Washington’s travel plans. The Nationals are fresh off a 4-2 homestand that included series wins over the Braves (2-1) and Mets (2-1). Washington outscored their two opponents on the homestand, 21-18.

START ME UP
Coming off a dominating performance in his last outing, albeit a tough-luck loss in which he fanned 11 in 7.0 innings, Edwin Jackson accepts the starting assignment tonight against the Phillies. It is his fourth-career start against the NL East rivals, and third of the season. Note that Jackson has won games against 25 MLB teams and in 21 ballparks, but has yet to do so against either Philadelphia or at Citizens Bank Park.

NOTES OF NOTE
One year ago today (entering play on August 24, 2011), the third-place Nationals trailed the first-place Phillies in the NL East standing by 21.0 games. This year, the two clubs have swapped spots in the standings as Washington holds a 19.5-game advantage over the third-place Phillies in the NL East. Washington is 12-6 against the Phillies since Davey Johnson became manager, including a 4-1 mark in one-run games. Before going 10-8 against the Phillies in ‘11, the Nationals/Expos had won only two season series from PHI the previous 14 years (the Nationals went 10-9 in ’06; the Expos went 11-8 in ‘02). In four seasons (2007-‘10) as a Phillie, Jayson Werth hit .282 with 99 doubles, 95 homers, 300 RBI and 60 stolen bases. He earned a World Series ring as a member of the 2008 Phillies. Johnson played parts of two seasons for the Phillies (1977-‘78) and batted .273 with 10 home runs and 50 RBI in 122 games.

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A Week Off the Field

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Recently, the Nationals played a total of 35 games in just a 34-day span, a brutal stretch of the schedule with little to no opportunity for rest. With only one off day and a pair of doubleheaders during that span, the team still managed to go 24-11 over that stretch, all while finding time to make a number of off-the-field appearances around the Washington D.C. area. Here is just a sampling of a few of the events players participated in over the last week that the team was in town.

Shortly after the Nationals completed an 8-2, three-city road trip in Houston, Arizona and San Francisco, the team boarded their flight back across the country to Washington. Their flight home landed after 2:00 a.m., and players did not get back to the ballpark, then home, until after 3:00. Nevertheless, Bryce Harper – on the first off day after that aforementioned 34-day stretch – arrived at Fairfax High School before 10:00 a.m. that same morning to help out at a free baseball clinic for 200 local area youth, including 50 from the Greater Washington Urban Baseball League. In addition to making a donation to the league, he also took the time to share hitting and fielding tips and throw some batting practice to the kids.

Bryce Harper poses with 200 local area youth at a baseball camp.

On the morning of August 18, following a 6-4 win over the New York Mets the night before, the Nationals coaching staff provided instruction to a group of 150 local children comprised of military families and Prince George’s County youth at the Medstar Health Youth Baseball Clinic at Nationals Park. The kids had a chance to pitch in the Nationals bullpen with Nationals Pitching Coach Steve McCatty, hit in the batting cage with Nationals Hitting Coach Rick Eckstein, and take part in outfield drills. After a morning of baseball on the field, relief pitcher Ryan Mattheus stopped by during lunch to meet everyone and sign autographs.

Ryan Mattheus signs autographs after a clinic at Nationals Park.

Finally, on August 20, after the Nationals had waited out a two-and-a-half hour rain delay the previous day against the Mets, winning the series’ rubber game, 5-2, Ryan Zimmerman made a visit to Children’s National Medical Center. In addition to visiting with children being treated for cancer and life-threatening blood disease, he autographed baseballs and hats and hand-delivered pizza and cupcakes. Zimmerman returned to the ballpark in time to reach base four times in Washington’s crucial, 13-inning win over the division-rival Braves that evening.

Ryan Zimmerman recently visited Children’s National Medical Center between games.

The Nationals enjoyed a rare off day at home Thursday before entering the final stretch of the regular season that has them slated to play 38 games in 41 days beginning Friday in Philadelphia. But despite the marathon, even the best team in baseball has found time to give back away from the diamond.

Sending Him Off

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Ever since Larry Wayne Jones, better known around the baseball world as “Chipper,” announced his plans to retire following the 2012 season, his final campaign has become something of a celebratory sendoff in every city in which he has played. Wednesday night’s game in The District marked the final regular season game that he would play in Washington, a place where he certainly made his presence felt since the franchise moved to town. Jones hit the first-ever home run in the inaugural game at Nationals Park in 2008, a fact often overshadowed by Ryan Zimmerman’s indelible game-winning blast later that same evening. Not forgotten, though, especially by Nationals pitchers, is that Jones’ 23 longballs against Washington trails only Ryan Howard and Hanley Ramirez for the most by any single player.

Former teammates Mark DeRosa (middle) and Adam LaRoche (right) celebrate with Chipper Jones.

Prior to Wednesday night’s contest, Jones was honored in a pregame ceremony on the field, one that included a video tribute from former teammates Mark DeRosa and Adam LaRoche, who were joined on the field by Zimmerman. They presented Jones with the third-base bag from Monday’s matchup, as well as a framed, signed photo with DeRosa and LaRoche. Nationals EVP of Baseball Operations and GM Mike Rizzo joined the party to present the framed bat with which he hit the first home run at the ballpark.

Prior to the gift-giving, the video below played on Nats HD, and when it reached the :30 mark noting that Jones finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting in 1995, Zimmerman turned to Jones, an incredulous look on his face, and asked, “Who won?” That the answer was Hideo Nomo is of no real importance for this story – all that matters is that Zimmerman couldn’t believe the honor had gone to anyone else.

Carroll Rogers, who covers the Braves for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and who has seen every team’s ceremony for Jones to date this season, called the tribute, “The most personal pregame sendoff ceremony yet.” Jones was clearly moved, and shared hugs with his old teammates, doffing his cap to the crowd of fans behind the visiting dugout before taking the field.

Of course, even though Atlanta won the finale, the Nationals did send the Braves away with another series defeat and another game to make up in the standings from when the three-game showdown began. Washington’s 10-5 head-to-head record against their rivals to the south has comprised nearly the entirety of the six games of separation between the clubs as we enter the season’s final five weeks. And while it would be great for baseball to see Jones get one last shot at the postseason, the Nationals will be far happier to see him get it as part of a Wild Card team.

Battery Power

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On a night in which the thermometer read 77 degrees at a 7:07 p.m. first pitch with number 37 on the mound for the Nationals, perhaps it seemed inevitable that Washington was on its way to its 77th victory, opening up a season-high seven-game lead over the division-rival Braves. Stephen Strasburg reduced a potent Braves lineup to a collection of swinging and looking strikes, including a breaking ball so sharp it sent Martin Prado, a good breaking-ball hitter, lurching backwards as it spun back across the plate.

Ian Desmond has already set a franchise record with 19 home runs.

But Tuesday night’s affair was about more than just Strasburg. Just as he had done the night before, Ian Desmond blasted a home run over the visitor’s bullpen in left field, to nearly the exact same spot. Later, Jesus Flores – who replaced Kurt Suzuki as the starter specifically due to his history of success against Braves starter Paul Maholm – drove a game-defining, three-run shot into the planters just over the left field wall. It was Flores’ first home run since June 29 at Turner Field in Atlanta in a game the Nats would win 5-4, and his first at Nationals Park since June 2, when he broke a scoreless tie with a blast off Brandon Beachy and, yes, the Braves. The catcher has hit just four home runs this season, but the last three have all come against Washington’s closest division rival and have all been a crucial factor in the outcome.

Amazingly, with Desmond and Flores both going deep in their victory Tuesday night, the Nationals have now won 20 straight games in which they have homered. That little nugget reminded us of a conversation we had with MLB Network’s Peter Gammons back in Spring Training. When we spoke with Gammons in the press box in Viera, we asked him of what team in recent memory these 2012 Nats reminded him. We expected an answer like the 2008 Rays or the 2010 Giants, clubs led by dominant starting pitching that could grind out a tight game every night. His answer surprised us.

Gammons and Strasburg chat before a Spring Training game in Viera this March.

“I would say Texas,” he said. Those Texas Rangers? The ones who could sneak up and lay a six-run inning on you at any time? The ones who had been to the past two World Series?

“Their pitching is very, very good,” he continued. “It’s young and it’s inexperienced. But they’ve got a lot of guys who can hit the ball eight miles, just like the Nationals do.”

Now, here in late August, with the Nationals lineup at last as healthy as it has been all year long, we finally understand. Washington now leads the National League in home run differential, having blasted 135 while surrendering just 95 (+39). That differential is 10 better than the St. Louis Cardinals, who own the league’s best overall offense. Considering the Nationals rash of injuries and games missed by middle-of-the-lineup bats this year, it’s an even more impressive statistic.

With those power bats back in the lineup, Gammons’ analysis makes a lot more sense. Of course, we’ll still take some credit for our own comparisons. After all, the last team to win 20 straight games in which they homered? The 2008 Tampa Bay Rays.

What to Watch For: 8/22

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Atlanta Braves (70-53) vs. Washington Nationals (77-46)

RHP Kris Medlen (4-1, 2.03) vs. LHP Ross Detwiler (7-5, 3.25)

The Nationals used the power of a pair of home runs and a dominant, 10-strikeout performance by Stephen Strasburg to dispatch the Braves for the second straight night by a score of 4-1 on Tuesday. Kris Medlen and Ross Detwiler, who have both pitched well of late, match up as the Nats go for the series sweep of Atlanta.

NATIONALS LINEUP

1. Werth RF

2. Harper CF

3. Zimmerman 3B

4. Morse LF

5. LaRoche 1B

6. Desmond SS

7. Espinosa 2B

8. Suzuki C

9. Detwiler LHP

BEARD IS BACK

Since Jayson Werth’s return from a broken left wrist, the Nationals are 14-2 when he is in the starting lineup, as he is tonight. Werth has posted a .381/.466/.544 slash line this month, with seven doubles, a triple, 11 runs scored, eight RBI and 10 walks against just five strikeouts in 18 games played.

ROSS IS BOSS

Ross Detwiler makes his second start of the homestand tonight versus Kris Medlen and the Atlanta Braves. Detwiler is 3-0 with a 1.33 ERA (4 ER/27.0 IP) and a 0.93 WHIP in four starts at Nationals Park since the All-Star break.

HOMER, HAPPY

Per Elias Sports Bureau, the Nationals have won 20 straight games in which they have hit at least one homer. This is the longest such streak in MLB this season, in Nationals (2005-present) history, and franchise annals. The last team with a homer-and-win streak to reach 20: the ’08 Rays won 20 straight games in which they homered, July 21-August 22.

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What to Watch For: 8/21

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Atlanta Braves (70-52) vs. Washington Nationals (76-46)

LHP Paul Maholm (11-7, 3.39) vs. RHP Stephen Strasburg (14-5, 2.91)

The Nationals and Braves took a 4-4 tie into the 13th inning in the series opener on Monday night before Washington was able to finally push across the game-winning run on Chad Tracy’s infield single. Game two of this crucial series pits deadline acquisition southpaw Paul Maholm against All-Star Stephen Strasburg in another marquee pitching matchup.

NATIONALS LINEUP

1. Werth RF

2. Harper CF

3. Zimmerman 3B

4. Morse LF

5. LaRoche 1B

6. Desmond SS

7. Espinosa 2B

8. Flores C

9. Strasburg RHP

CATCHING UP ON LAST NIGHT/THIS MORNING

Chad Tracy plated Danny Espinosa with a pinch-hit, infield RBI-single to lift the Nationals to a tense, 5-4 victory in 13 innings over Atlanta on Monday at Nationals Park. With the win, the Nationals moved a season-high 30 games above .500 and 6.0 games ahead of second-place Atlanta in the NL East. The 6.0-game lead is the Nationals largest since landing in D.C. in 2005. Washington won its fifth straight extra-inning contest, and has played in a Major League-high 17 games that have gone past the regulation nine innings so far this season.

The game – which ended at 12:28 a.m., or five hours and 23 minutes after its scheduled start time – included 439 pitches/270 strikes, 37 players and 26 runners left on base.

HEY…YOU AGAIN

Stephen Strasburg will face the Braves for the fifth time in 16 starts and the first time since the Nationals squandered a 9-0 lead on July 20th in D.C. Strasburg is 2-1 against Atlanta so far in 2012, with the wins coming in back-to-back assignments on 5/26 in Atlanta and 6/2 at Nationals Park. He last pitched on 8/15 at San Francisco when he allowed two runs on four hits en route to the victory.

NOTABLE

Washington has scored at least five runs in 10 of 13 games against the Braves this season. Beginning with Ryan Zimmerman’s memorable game-ending homer on March 30, 2008 to open Nationals Park, the Nationals are 48-37 (.565) against the Braves. Since MLB returned to D.C. in 2005, Washington has more wins over Atlanta (72) than any other club (Mets, 2nd at 67). The Nationals are 9-2-1 in series play against the Braves in D.C. dating back to April 28, 2008. Meanwhile, Chipper Jones’ 23 homers against the Nationals (2005-present) rank third behind only Ryan Howard (35) and Hanley Ramirez (27).

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Finding A Way

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If there is a theme that has defined this season for the Washington Nationals, it may just be that no matter the opponent or the type of game, more likely than not the team seems to be able to find a way to end up on the right side of the final score. Following last night’s wild, 13-inning win over the division rival Braves, the Nats are now tied for second place in the Major Leagues with nine walk-off wins, which have come in nearly every manner one could imagine.

Danny Espinosa’s heads up baserunning helped win the game Monday night.

It all began on Opening Day, as Ryan Zimmerman scored on a wild pitch in extra innings. Since then, there have been clutch, game-winning, extra-inning hits by Jayson Werth, Wilson Ramos and Bryce Harper. Ian Desmond has sent the Nats home happy twice, once on a sacrifice fly, and once with a dramatic home run. Of course, there was the crazy, 4-6 fielder’s choice hit by Adam LaRoche against the Giants on July 5th that allowed Harper to score the winning run. Then, Zimmerman scored again to win on a wild pitch just 12 days later against the Mets. But were any of those endings as improbable as the one that took place Monday night?

Werth nearly (effectively) ended the game in the eighth, as his bid for a two-out, tie-breaking grand slam came up a few feet short in the left field corner. LaRoche just missed his own chance for walk-off glory in the 10th inning, his towering fly ball to right field coming to rest in Jason Heyward’s mitt a step in front of the wall. And Werth again nearly sent the crowd into a frenzy in the 11th, backing up Heyward again, who had to jump at the wall in right to corral the ball. And while a big hit nearly decided things on three separate occasions, in the end, it came down to the littlest of little things, which the Nationals got right and the Braves got wrong.

In a season full of walk-offs, Chad Tracy’s may have been the most bizarre yet.

After Danny Espinosa was unable to advance Desmond – the runner at first following a leadoff single, who was forced out at second on a bunt attempt – he more than atoned for his poor small-ball execution. On a check-swing chopper off the plate by Kurt Suzuki, Espinosa raced to second base, and seeing that third baseman Chipper Jones and shortstop Paul Janish had both converged with catcher Brian McCann not covering, he continued all the way to third. That put runners at the corners with just one out, forcing the Braves to pull the infield in. That setup created an entirely different scenario as Chad Tracy stepped to the plate, the winning run just 90 feet away.

While the focus of what happened next will remain on Dan Uggla, Suzuki’s role in causing the moment of confusion needed for Espinosa to score should not be overlooked. Instead of running full bore towards second base, the Nationals catcher stopped just a couple of steps off the bag and waited. By not moving into Uggla’s line, he was able to take away any chance of a tag-and-throw double play. With the speed of Espinosa, that was really Uggla’s only play. In fact, if you watch the video, he never really squares himself to throw home, indicating that the double play was very much on his mind. But once Suzuki stalled, that became impossible, and the game was already over.

Lost in the madness is the fact that the Nationals became the first team in the Major Leagues to 76 wins, moving them 30 games over .500 for the first time in franchise history. They also expanded their NL East lead to 6.0 games over Atlanta, surpassing the 5.5-game advantage the 2005 Nationals held on July 3 for the largest division lead in franchise history since the team moved to Washington.

You don’t get to 30 games over .500 without finding new and creative ways to win. The Nationals have done just that to get where they are today.

What to Watch For: 8/20

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Atlanta Braves (70-51) vs. Washington Nationals (75-46)

RHP Tim Hudson (12-4, 3.59) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (9-7, 2.38)

The Nationals rode home runs from Danny Espinosa and Bryce Harper to another series victory over the Mets on Sunday, staking themselves to a 5.0-game lead in the NL East. Washington begins a crucial three-game set Monday night with the second-place Braves as Jordan Zimmermann puts his Major League-leading 2.38 ERA on the line against Atlanta’s Tim Hudson.

NATIONALS LINEUP

1. Werth RF

2. Harper CF

3. Zimmerman 3B

4. Morse LF

5. LaRoche 1B

6. Desmond SS

7. Espinosa 2B

8. Suzuki C

9. Zimmermann RHP

LONG TIME, NO SEE

Jordan Zimmermann gets the ball today against Tim Hudson and the Atlanta Braves. This will be J-Zimm’s  first start against the Braves in more than 15 months, with his last one coming on May 12, 2011 at Turner Field. In that outing, Zimmermann received the no-decision despite striking out 11 in 6.1 innings of work.

HAPPY TO HOMER

Per the Elias Sports Bureau, the Nationals have won 18 straight games in which they have hit at least one home run. This is the longest such streak in MLB this season, in Nationals (’05-present) history and franchise annals. The last team with a homer-and-win streak to reach 18:  the ’08 Rays, who won 20 straight games in which they homered, July 21-August 22.

D.C.’S DYNAMIC DUO

Thanks to DL stints, Ryan Zimmerman and Michael Morse have started only 67 games together, but in those 67, Washington is 45-22 (.672) and is averaging 5.0 runs per contest (334 runs in 67 games). When Zimmerman and/or Morse are not in Davey’s starting lineup this season, the Nationals are 30-24 (.556) and averaging 3.7 runs per game.

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Series Business

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As the Nationals prepare for the most important series in their brief history since relocating to the Nation’s Capital in 2005, it is important to look back at what they have done to get themselves to this point in the first place. Led by their quality pitching and clutch hitting, it is easy to lose sight of the way they have steadily chipped away at their schedule to become the first team in the game to 75 wins.

Danny Espinosa opened the scoring Sunday and is batting .312 with seven home runs since July 16.

Washington does not boast the longest winning streak in the majors, or even in the National League this season. That distinction belongs to the Cincinnati Reds, who won 10 straight from July 19-29. The Nats did not earn a three-game sweep this year until taking all three at Atlanta in late May. No, this team has not won in attention-grabbing spurts. They have instead been a slow, steady force with remarkable consistency, one that has lead to the following impressive statistic. In series play in 2012, the Nationals are an eye-popping 25-8-6.

This all started at the very beginning of the season. Despite not achieving a sweep (other than a two-game set vs. Miami April 20-21 in which the third scheduled matchup was rained out), the Nationals won their first six series to open the 2012 campaign. Almost every time they have been faced with a tough test, whether it be the first matchup with the dreaded Phillies over NATITUDE Weekend, three road games in Cincinnati or at Fenway, or sets against the first-place Giants both at home and on the road, the Nationals have stepped forward and won the series.

Jordan Zimmermann faces the Braves for the first time in 2012 Monday night.

Now the Nats face the biggest threat remaining between them and a shot at their first-ever postseason berth, an Atlanta team that sits 5.0 games back entering play Monday night. A large part of the cushion that Washington enjoys as this series begins comes from their 8-4 head-to-head record against the Braves, a product of a 5-1 record at Turner Field. But the Nationals have only split the six games between the teams so far in D.C. If they find a way to take at least two of three this week, they’ll lock up a winning record both at home and overall in the season series with one more three-game bout in Atlanta still to come in mid-September.

For a city that has not seen an honest-to-goodness pennant race in 79 years, this week’s games are as close as the District has come to experiencing that feeling in quite some time. The first matchup will feature Tim Hudson – who has been traditionally tough on the Nats but less so this season – and Jordan Zimmermann, who has yet to face the Braves this season. Perhaps that sort of uncertainty in the outcome is fitting for a series like this one, in which one essentially throws away the history between the two teams. All that matters is the here and now. And all the Nationals can do is what they have done all year long – go out and try to win the series.

What to Watch For: 8/19

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New York Mets (57-63) vs. Washington Nationals (74-46)

RHP Jeremy Hefner (2-4, 4.76) vs. LHP Gio Gonzalez (15-6, 3.29)

Washington never got going as the New York Mets shut out the Nationals 2-0 Saturday night to even the series at a game apiece. In today’s rubber match, Gio Gonzalez will be opposed by righty Jeremy Hefner, who has suffered two of his four losses this year in his previous two starts against Washington, allowing five runs (and three home runs) in 12 innings of work.

NATIONALS LINEUP

1. Werth RF

2. Harper CF

3. Zimmerman 3B

4. LaRoche 1B

5. Morse LF

6. Desmond SS

7. Espinosa 2B

8. Suzuki C

9. Gonzalez LHP

THE STAKES AT HAND

Having split a pair here in D.C., the Nationals and Mets will settle the series outcome with today’s rubber game. The Nationals are 5-2 in rubber games this year, having won on August 15 at San Francisco (6-4), July 1 at Atlanta (8-4), June 21 vs. Tampa Bay (5-2), May 3 vs. Arizona (2-1) and April 11 at NYM (4-0).

HOMER HAPPY

Despite missing significant time due to injuries to Michael Morse, Jayson Werth, Ian Desmond, Ryan Zimmerman and Wilson Ramos, the Nationals have hit 129 homers in 120 games or 1.08 long balls per contest. In seven previous years in D.C., Washington hit more than 1.0 home run per game only once: in ‘06 the Nationals blasted 164 long balls in 162 games (1.01 per game).

D.C.’S DYNAMIC DUO

Thanks to DL stints for Morse and Zimmerman, Washington played the season’s first 50 games with only one or none of their middle-of-the-order bats. In those 50 games, the Nationals went 29-21 (.580) and averaged 3.8 runs per game. In 66 games with both in the lineup, Washington is 44-22 (.667) and is averaging 5.0 runs per contest (without either Morse or Zimmerman, Washington is 1-3 and averaging 2.5 runs per game since June 2).

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