September 2012

Awards Season

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We’ve mentioned in this space before that being the face of a franchise means more than just showing up every day and hitting third in the lineup. For Ryan Zimmerman, who holds that title for the Nationals, the team’s rise in prominence has coincided with increased recognition of the off-the-field work in which he has invested so much of his time and energy over the years. Already the first ever Expo/National to win the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award, Zimmerman officially accepted his bid as the Nationals nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award before tonight’s doubleheader.

Zimmerman accepts his nomination before Wednesday’s doubleheader.

Previously the Nationals nominee once before back in 2007, Zimmerman’s commitment to the community is best illustrated through his work with the ziMS Foundation, which he founded in 2006, his first full season in the Major Leagues. His annual Golf and Gala fundraiser celebrates its seventh year in 2012, while the Night at the Park took place for the third year in a row this summer, helping raise more than $200,000 through ticket sales, donations and both live and silent auctions.

“You always get recognized for what you do on the field,” explained Zimmerman Wednesday afternoon before accepting the award. “Nowadays, a majority of athletes are doing things off the field. It’s important, not so much for us to get recognition, but for things that we’re supporting to get recognition. We’re in this good position to promote or help out a cause that means a lot to us.”

As the Nationals have performed better on the field in 2012, those efforts have gained more notoriety. Zimmerman understands that this is the natural ebb and flow of the game and the attention given to winning teams, and he is taking it all in stride.

“A lot of times those things go hand-in-hand,” he said. “The better you do on the field, the better things are.”

However, the added attention from the media regarding his exploits on the field has not taken Zimmerman’s focus away from his efforts in the community. He has still spent time during the everyday grind of the season helping both his Foundation and other causes, including a visit to Children’s National Medical Center a few weeks ago. Congratulations to Ryan – this is a well-deserved thanks for everything he does off the field.

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What to Watch For: 9/19 – Game 2

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Los Angeles Dodgers (76-72) vs. Washington Nationals (90-57)

RHP Josh Beckett (6-13, 4.94) vs. LHP John Lannan (3-0, 2.41)

The Nationals took the opening game of the doubleheader, the series and the homestand with a 3-1 victory over the Dodgers earlier this afternoon. Washington reduced its NL East Magic Number to nine and its postseason Magic Number to one, and can earn a playoff berth with a win behind John Lannan in Game 2.

NATIONALS LINEUP

1. Werth RF

2. Harper CF

3. Zimmerman 3B

4. LaRoche 1B

5. Morse LF

6. Desmond SS

7. Lombardozzi 2B

8. Flores C

9. Lannan LHP

WHAT’S 79 YEARS BETWEEN FRIENDS?

With a Game 1 victory, The Nationals have become the first baseball team from the Nation’s Capital to reach the 90-win threshold since the 99-win ‘33 AL Nationals 79 years ago. Those ‘33 AL Nationals posted win No. 90 via a 7-3 home victory on September 10 vs. Cleveland.

LANNAN’S CANNON
Taking the ball in game two of today’s doubleheader, John Lannan looks to become the first Nationals pitcher ever to earn the win in each of his first four starts in a single season. In his last outing one week ago, he spun 5.2 scoreless innings, allowing five hits while striking out nine along the way in Washington’s 2-0 win over the Mets. While he has yet to face Los Angeles yet in 2012, Lannan is 4-1 with a 2.64 ERA (9 ER/30.2 IP) in five career starts versus the Dodgers.

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What to Watch For: 9/19 – Game 1

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Los Angeles Dodgers (76-71)Washington Nationals (89-57)

RHP Aaron Harang (9-9, 3.79) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (10-8, 3.01)

The Nationals and Dodgers match up for a pair of games this afternoon and evening in D.C. to kick off Washington’s seven-game homestand. Right-handers Jordan Zimmermann and Aaron Harang match up in the opener.

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. Zimmermann RHP

MAGIC MOMENT

The Nationals currently sport a Magic Number of three in their pursuit of a D.C.’s first berth in MLB’s postseason since 1933. The Nationals/Expos franchise has only one post-season berth (1981: Expos lost to the Dodgers in a five-game NLCS) on its 44-year resume. Washington’s Magic Number to clinch the NL East is 10 games.

NATIONALS & DODGERS

Davey Johnson posted a 163-161 (.503) record in two seasons as Dodgers manager (1999-2000). Washington’s 7-2 series-opening win on July 22, 2011 marked Don Mattingly’s first career “game of record” as a player or manager against the Nationals/Expos franchise. Dodgers President and CEO Stan Kasten served as Nationals President for five seasons from 2006-10. Hall-of-Fame voice of the Dodgers, Vin Scully, began his broadcasting career at WTOP radio in D.C. shortly after graduating from Fordham University. October 19, 1981 is still to this day known as “Blue Monday” in Montreal, as Rick Monday’s ninth-inning solo home run off Steve Rogers gave the Dodgers a 2-1 win in Game 5 of the NLCS and halted the franchise’s lone post-season appearance.

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Happy Birthday, Nat Gio

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Although he doesn’t pitch again until this weekend, thereby delaying any chance of earning his 20th win until later in the homestand, Gio Gonzalez has something else to celebrate today: his 27th birthday. To celebrate, we’ve put him on the cover on Inside Pitch, free at Nats Park. Make sure to pick up a copy this homestand. Happy birthday Gio!

The Big Picture

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As September wears on, the Nationals are looking at plenty of firsts, as well as plenty of lasts. One victory from their first-ever 90-win season, the club enjoyed its last scheduled off day of the regular season on Monday, then got an unexpected breather with Tuesday’s rainout. Coming off an up-and-down road trip, it was the final day without a scheduled game for the Nats before what they hope is their first playoff appearance.

Davey Johnson can make good on his preseason prediction by clinching a postseason spot as soon as tonight.

With the Magic Number to reach the postseason at three – but still 10 to win the National League East outright – it’s easy to get greedy. And, to be honest, with the evolving playoff structure and added importance of avoiding the new play-in game, it’s not a bad idea. So while it can be tempting to rue the missed opportunity to shave that figure to single digits over the weekend in Atlanta, it is important to remember to look at the big picture when it comes to the regular season.

Even just one win would have made the entire series and road trip feel better, but this simple fact remains: the Nationals woke up Wednesday 5.5 games ahead of the Braves – the exact margin they held over second place when the road trip began – with six games fewer remaining on the schedule. In comparison, after the Nationals dropped five straight in late August, they sat just 4.0 games up on Atlanta. The team is still well in control of its own destiny, which is all you can really ask for at this point in the season. For Davey Johnson, that means not being content with hitting that first Magic Number (which the Nats could do with a doubleheader sweep tonight), but rather maintaining focus on a division crown with the NL East title set squarely in his sights.

“The extra Wild Card just put a burden on me, because nobody wants (to be) it,” he explained over the weekend in Atlanta. “Celebrating a one-game playoff has no appeal to me.”

Ryan Zimmerman will see a new NL East Champion rise this season.

Of course, like any of the successes in this tremendous season, nothing will be easy. In fact, each of the Nationals final 16 games will be played against teams with playoff aspirations, with all four teams (the Dodgers, Brewers, Phillies and Cardinals) likely fighting for that fifth and final spot. Any one of them might be a postseason preview, depending on how everything plays out.

However, one thing is for sure, after a notable event quietly occurred over the weekend. The Phillies dropped three-of-four to the worst team in baseball, the Houston Astros, officially eliminating them from contention for the National League East title. That means that there will be a new champion of the division for the first time since the Mets won 97 games in 2006 before falling to the eventual champion Cardinals in the playoffs.

But with six of the Nationals final 10 games against the Phillies, including the last three games of the regular season in D.C., questions of playoff eligibility and seeding may not be answered until the very last series, or even the last game, of the year.

Hey, that’s September baseball. Isn’t it fun?

What to Watch For: 9/16

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Washington Nationals (89-56) vs. Atlanta Braves (83-63)

LHP Gio Gonzalez (19-7, 2.93) vs. LHP Mike Minor (8-10, 4.42)

Gio Gonzalez has a chance to become the first 20-game winner in the Major Leagues this season and the first ever in Nationals history as Washington looks to salvage the finale of their three-game set in Atlanta and head home with a winning road trip. The game is being televised nationally for ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, with first pitch at 8:05 p.m.

NATIONALS LINEUP

1. Werth RF

2. Harper CF

3. Zimmerman 3B

4. LaRoche 1B

5. Desmond SS

6. Espinosa 2B

7. Moore LF

8. Suzuki C

9. Gonzalez LHP

VIEW FROM THE TOP

The Nationals own MLB’s best winning percentage at .614 thanks in part to a 40-22 (.645) mark since the All-Star break. Washington currently owns 2.5- and 3.0-game leads over the Reds and Rangers, respectively, in the race for the best record in Major League Baseball. The Nationals have either led the NL East or shared the top spot for 149 of the season’s 159 days. Only the Rangers (156) have enjoyed more days atop of their division in ‘12.

KEEPING SCORE ON THE SEASON

The Nationals currently pace MLB in run differential. The top 3: Washington (+132), Texas (+122), New York (AL) (+95). Washington has also allowed the fewest runs (520) in MLB.

TEENY BOPPER

Nineteen year-old Bryce Harper’s 19 homers hit as a teen are tied for second on the all-time list with Hall-of-Famer Mel Ott. Only a teenaged Tony Conigliaro (24) hit more. Harper turns 20 on October 16.

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20 Questions

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As the Nationals prepare for their nationally televised series finale with the Atlanta Braves, a pair of Washington players stand on the verge of milestone marks. While we don’t actually have 20 questions to ask regarding tonight’s game, we do have two big questions, both revolving around the number 20, which may come into play.

Will Bryce Harper hit his 20th home run?

Harper has recovered from a mid-season swoon, and is batting .354 with a .432 on-base percentage, seven home runs, 16 runs scored and 13 RBI over his last 17 games heading into Sunday night. He has already homered once in this series, and has shown a flair for the dramatic when the Nationals play in front of a national television audience on ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. He announced his presence to the baseball world by stealing home after being plunked by Cole Hamels in the first inning of the May 5 game. He then took Livan Hernandez deep to the right-center field bleachers to put the nail in the coffin of a 7-2 win right here in Atlanta back on May 27. Might his 20th home run come in this big, divisional matchup?

Will Gio Gonzalez win his 20th game?

Already the owner of the Nationals record for wins in a season, Gonzalez toes the rubber with the chance to be the first 20-game winner in Nats/Expos history since 1978. The lefty has pitched his best stretch of the season lately, winning six of his last seven starts and allowing just one earned run over 22.0 innings in his last three outings. The only 19-game winner in the big leagues, he would also be the first to 20 victories in the game this season.

If we know one thing about the 2012 Nationals, though, it is that they always keep us guessing. Will these be the compelling storylines at the end of the night, or will another face emerge as a hero?

What to Watch For: 9/15

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Washington Nationals (89-55) vs. Atlanta Braves (82-63)

RHP Edwin Jackson (9-10, 3.85) vs. RHP Tommy Hanson (12-8, 4.35)

The Nationals and Braves meet for the second of a three-game set for a mid-afternoon, 4:05 p.m. start time in Atlanta. Edwin Jackson looks for another strong outing against the Braves, against whom he allowed just one run over seven innings while fanning nine in his only other head-to-head start this season. The Nats offense meanwhile, looks to stay hot against Hanson, off whom they have plated 10 runs (including four homers) in 11 innings over two starts.

NATIONALS LINEUP

1. Werth RF

2. Harper CF

3. Zimmerman 3B

4. LaRoche 1B

5. Desmond SS

6. Espinosa 2B

7. Flores C

8. Lombardozzi LF

9. Jackson RHP

POWER PLAY

Beginning with an 8-4 win on August 29 at Marlins Park, the Nationals are 12-4 and have hit 24 more home runs than their opposition. In those 16 contests, Washington’s homered 37 times, been taken deep 13 times and outscored Miami, St. Louis, Chicago, New York and Atlanta by 41 runs (97-56).

2ND “HALF” POWER

The Nationals lead the NL and rank third in MLB having hit 82 home runs in the season’s second half. Those 82 post-All- Star break homers are the most hit by the Nationals (2005-pres.) or by any club in D.C.’s 79-year modern baseball history (since 1901), however, they are tied with the 1997 Expos for the franchise mark. The ‘12 Nationals have 18 games to pad their totals.

IN(FIELD) DEEP

Collectively, the Nationals infield (excluding pitcher and catcher) has hit an MLB-best 97 home runs this season. The Yankees (92) and Brewers (81) rank second and third on this list, respectively. Individually, Adam LaRoche (29) and Ian Desmond (23) pace their positions in home runs, while both Ryan Zimmerman (fourth in NL, 22) and Danny Espinosa (sixth, 11) rank among the Senior Circuit’s top half at their positions.

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A National Audience

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The Nationals and Braves continue their final regular season meeting Saturday afternoon in Atlanta as Edwin Jackson and Tommy Hanson square off. When the season began, many in the baseball world were likely looking at the Giants/D-backs series in Arizona as the premiere National League matchup this weekend. But with the Nationals taking the NL East by storm in 2012, entering Saturday’s contest with a 7.5-game advantage over the dangerous, second-place Braves, all eyes will literally be focused on Atlanta, as FOX has picked up the Saturday game (4:05 p.m. first pitch) and Sunday’s affair has been moved to 8:05 p.m. EDT as the Sunday Night Baseball feature on ESPN.

There were plenty of cameras filling the Nationals dugout before Saturday’s game.

While both telecasts will bring national exposure for this Washington club as it rolls towards October, Sunday’s game signifies an especially telling change in the way the club is viewed outside the Beltway. Prior to this season, ESPN had not aired a single Nationals game in their Sunday night slot since the opening night of Nationals Park, on March 30, 2008. Four years later, this will be the third game given the royal treatment in 2012, and the second here in Atlanta, where a budding rivalry between two good young teams is blossoming before our eyes. This weekend, the rest of the country will get to see what Washington fans have been experiencing since early April.

Make sure you’re following us on Twitter for live coverage including in-game updates, stats and quotes from the clubhouse.

What to Watch For: 9/14

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Washington Nationals (89-54) vs. Atlanta Braves (81-63)

LHP Ross Detwiler (9-6, 3.23) vs. RHP Kris Medlen (8-1, 1.64)

The Nationals are coming off an off day following their three-game sweep of the Mets at Citi Field. Tonight, they open their final regular season matchup against the division-rival Braves in Atlanta as Ross Detwiler looks to join the double-digit wins club.

NATIONALS LINEUP

1. Werth RF

2. Harper CF

3. Zimmerman 3B

4. LaRoche 1B

5. Desmond SS

6. Espinosa 2B

7. Bernadina LF

8. Suzuki C

9. Detwiler LHP

REMEMBER WHEN…

John Lannan earned his third win in three big league starts this season as Washington completed a three-game road sweep of Mets with a 2-0 victory on Wednesday night at Citi Field. After a 24-start stint with Triple-A Syracuse, Lannan jumped back into the Nationals rotation and fired 5.2 scoreless Innings. Ryan Zimmerman and Ian Desmond hit solo shots to provide the offense for Lannan and five relievers, who combined on Washington’s ninth shutout of the season. With the win, the Nationals improved to a season-high 35 games above .500 and their lead in the NL East rose to a franchise-best 8.5 games.

WHAT’S 79 YEARS BETWEEN FRIENDS?

The Nationals next victory will be their 90th of the season. The last team from the Nation’s Capital to reach the 90-win threshold was the 99-win ‘33 AL Nationals, 79 years ago.

SERIESLY NOTABLE

Washington has scored at least five runs in 10 of 15 games against Atlanta this year. Having already clinched the ‘12 season series, the Nationals are 3-1-1 in season series play against the Braves dating to ‘08. Beginning with Ryan Zimmerman’s memorable game-ending homer on March 30, 2008 to open Nationals Park, Washington is 49-38 (.563) overall against Atlanta. Since landing in D.C. in ‘05, Washington has more wins over the Braves (73) than any other club (Mets, 70). Washington has also won 17 of 28 games at Turner Field dating to Oct. 2009. Chipper Jones’ 23 homers against the Nationals (2005-pres.) rank third behind only Ryan Howard (35) and Hanley Ramirez (27).

DATE IN DC BASEBALL

September 14, 1947: In the first game of doubleheader sweep, Detroit’s Vic Wertz hits for the cycle as Detroit thumps the AL Nationals, 16-6, at Griffith Stadium.

September 14, 2011: The Nationals blank the Mets, 2-0, at Citi Field as Brad Peacock tosses five scoreless innings to garner the win in his second big league start.

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