May 2013

What to Watch for: 5.21.13

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Washington Nationals (23-22) vs. San Francisco Giants (25-20)

RHP Stephen Strasburg (2-5, 2.83) vs. RHP Matt Cain (3-2, 5.43)

Washington sends Stephen Strasburg to the hill against Matt Cain in a battle of Opening Day starters. The Nationals look to bounce back after dropping the series opener, as Strasburg aims to build off his career-long eight-inning stint in San Diego last Thursday.

NATIONALS LINEUP:

1. Span CF

2. Harper RF

3. Zimmerman 3B

4. LaRoche 1B

5. Desmond SS

6. Espinosa 2B

7. Bernadina LF

8. Suzuki C

9. Strasburg RHP

MERRY STRASMAS

Dating back to his MLB debut (5-2 win vs. Pittsburgh, 6/8/10), Washington is 21-11 when Strasburg starts a game following a loss and 9-6 when he starts a game looking to end a losing streak of two or more (5-4 when attempting to end a losing streak of three or more games). The only other time these two starters faced off, Strasburg (6.0 IP, 3 H, ER, BB, 8 K) outdueled Cain in an 8-1 victory, July 9, 2010 at Nationals Park. Strasburg is 2-0 with a 2.25 ERA in two career starts vs. the Giants.

STARTING BLOCKS

Washington’s starting pitchers have been touched for 11 earned runs in the last two games, after putting together a stretch of nine consecutive starts allowing two or fewer earned runs (1.83 ERA in 59.0 starting innings from May 10-18). For the season, the Nationals starting staff ranks third in MLB/NL with a 3.34 ERA (102 ER/275.0 IP).

KURT HANGS 10

Kurt Suzuki has hit in 10 straight games, matching a career-best hit streak (July 1-12, 2009). During his current streak, which began on May 3, the catcher has batted .303 (10-for-33) with two walks, a double, two runs scored and two RBI.

What to Watch for: 5.20.13

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Washington Nationals (23-21) vs. San Francisco Giants (24-20)

LHP Zach Duke (0-0, 8.40) vs. RHP Ryan Vogelsong (1-4, 8.06)

The Nationals enter the third and final leg of their 10-game California road trip as they take on the Giants in San Francisco. Washington has won the opening contest of each stop of its road trip so far, 5-2 over Los Angeles last Monday and 5-2 again over San Diego on Thursday.

NATIONALS LINEUP:

1. Span CF

2. Lombardozzi 2B

3. Harper RF

4. Zimmerman 3B

5. LaRoche 1B

6. Desmond SS

7. Bernadina LF

8. Solano C

9. Duke LHP

ADAM’S SWEET 16

Adam LaRoche enters tonight’s action riding a 16-game hit streak, his career long and the longest by a Nationals player since Ryan Zimmerman hit in 16 straight from August 26-September 12, 2012. During the stretch, which began on May 2, LaRoche has gone 21-for-55 (.382) with nine walks, wo doubles, four homers, nine runs scored and 12 RBI, posting a .462 OBP & 1.098 OPS. His hit streak, which is the second-longest active streak in MLB (Giants Marco Scutaro, 17 games), has raised his average 100 points after hitting just .129 (11-for-85) in his initial 25 games this season.

KURT HANGS 10

Kurt Suzuki has hit in 10 straight games, matching a career-best hit streak (July 1-12, 2009). During his current streak, which began on May 3, the catcher has batted .303 (10-for-33) with two walks, a double, two runs scored and two RBI.

THE SERIES

The Nationals are 9-4 against the Giants over the last three seasons (‘11-current), including a 5-1 record last season. Washington went 2-1 last year at AT&T Park, marking their first series win in San Francisco since 2006. The AL Nationals and the New York Giants met twice in the World Series (1924, ‘33). Washington won its only World Championship in ‘24 via a 12-inning, 4-3 victory in Game 7. With 4.0 scoreless innings of relief, Hall-of-Famer Walter Johnson earned the Game 7 win.

What to Watch for: 5.19.13

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Washington Nationals (23-20) vs. San Diego Padres (19-23)

RHP Dan Haren (4-4, 4.76) vs. RHP Andrew Cashner (2-2, 2.84)

Washington goes for the series win in San Diego as the Nationals send Dan Haren to the mound in a battle of right-handers. Haren is 3-2 with a 3.38 ERA in his last five outings, which include three quality starts.

NATIONALS LINEUP:

1. Span CF

2. Lombardozzi 2B

3. Zimmerman 3B

4. LaRoche 1B

5. Moore LF

6. Bernadina RF

7. Espinosa SS

8. Suzuki C

9. Haren RHP

RECAPPING JORDAN’S GEM

Jordan Zimmermann took the loss in Saturday’s 2-1 setback at San Diego, but in doing so he registered his Major League-best third complete game this season and eighth quality start (tied for MLB lead). Zimmermann tossed just 85 pitches last night, establishing a new Nationals (‘05-present) record for fewest pitches thrown in a non-rain-shortened, complete-game start. He bettered the previous record of 89 pitches, set by Pedro Astacio in a 5-0 win vs. Atlanta on August 15, 2006.

BARK AND BITE AT PETCO

Thanks in part to three homers in three games this series, Adam LaRoche now has 10 career home runs at Petco Park, which is tops among all players who have never called the park “home” during its existence (Todd Helton, Andruw Jones & Justin Upton are tied for second on that list with nine HR). LaRoche is a career .328 (42-for-128) hitter with 13 doubles, 10 homers and 28 RBI in 35 games at Petco Park. LaRoche’s most career home runs by ballpark: Turner Field (37), PNC Park (36), Nationals Park (23), Chase Field (15), Petco Park (10).

MIDDLE MEN

The 3-4-5 hitters in Washington’s lineup have hit a combined .341 (45-for-132) with nine home runs and 27 RBI while pocketing 16 walks and scoring 26 runs in the team’s last 12 games. Those same spots in the order are batting a combined .274 (128-for-468) with 24 HR & 71 RBI overall this season.

Home Cooking

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“No, not really.”

The media huddle is always a little larger when Stephen Strasburg pitches, but with the right-hander making his first-ever Major League start in his hometown of San Diego, where he both grew up and attended college, the questions are a little more pointed. So, really, didn’t pitching here amp him up a little more, knowing that 50 family and friends were in attendance, along with countless others who watched him in his collegiate days?

“It’s just another place to me, to be honest,” continued Strasburg, downplaying the larger storyline. “It’s my hometown. I’m an Aztec. But I look forward to pitching in any place in the big leagues.”

Strasburg's college diamond at San Diego state is just a few miles up the road from Petco Park.

Strasburg’s college diamond at San Diego State is just a few miles up the road from Petco Park.

The Padres were coming home following a 17-hit parade in an 8-4 win at Baltimore on Wednesday. That offense came to a grinding halt against Strasburg, though, who allowed just three hits over his eight innings of work.

“It was a good homecoming for him,” said manager Davey Johnson, but he didn’t dwell too much on the significance of his return to San Diego either, choosing instead to focus on the rest of the team’s contribution. “It was nice to see the offense come alive, give him some run support.”

In fact, the Nationals plated six runs behind Strasburg, the most help he has received in a start all season. Otherwise, Strasburg was largely his normal self, pitching more to contact as he has done all year long, which allowed him to reach the eighth inning for the first time in his career. Of course, that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a little amped up.

“He was throwing hard,” said catcher Kurt Suzuki of how the hometown start may have shown through in Strasburg’s performance. “He wasn’t pitching 92-93 early. It was 96-97. It was coming in pretty firm.”

Strasburg is the most recent edition to the Aztec Wall of Fame, and is one of only two players with his number retired.

Strasburg is the most recent edition to the Aztec Wall of Fame, and is one of only two players with his number retired.

But that was not the only difference Suzuki noticed in his starter.

“He had a different mentality tonight,” Suzuki explained. “He wasn’t letting the little things bother him.”

That mentality, fittingly, is one he developed and refined just a few miles north of the waterfront up at San Diego State. It is something that Tony Gwynn, Strasburg’s college coach, saw in him before he ever became an All-American or the consensus number one pick in the Major League Baseball Draft.

“The stuff he does on the field, he really had to work at,” said the Hall of Fame outfielder on Friday, as he watched the highlights of Strasburg’s start from his office on campus. “All the other stuff, what you see now is what we saw when he came here as a freshman.”

Strasburg is only four years removed from his Aztec days, but it may seem like a lifetime ago to some who follow the sport. Bryce Harper’s own ascension amidst Strasburg’s rehab from Tommy John surgery shifted some of the attention away from the 24-year-old pitcher, at least until Sports Illustrated pasted him on the cover of their season preview issue in March. But all those accolades only came in the first place because of his off-the-charts work ethic, which had him beating coaches and players to the ballpark early Saturday mornings after his Friday night college starts.

The Golden Field Award - the counterpart to Strasburg's Golden Spikes Award, given to the school - sits in Tony Gwynn's office.

The Golden Field Award – the counterpart to Strasburg’s Golden Spikes Award, given to the school – sits in Tony Gwynn’s office.

“He outworked everyone in the country and it paid off on the diamond,” said Aztecs assistant coach Mark Martinez, who coached Strasburg for his three undergraduate seasons. “That’s very evident in how good he is.”

Strasburg acknowledged the difference in his approach Thursday night, one that showed flashes of his dominant self again. That should give Nationals fans hope, and should strike fear into the hearts of opponents around the league.

“I just wanted to do a better job of having a better mound presence out there.”

That presence was evident Thursday night, but reporters pushed Strasburg to explain a little more of what it meant to him.

“Just trying to go out there and let your teammates feed off of your confidence,” he elaborated. “When one thing doesn’t go the way you thought it would, don’t let it affect the next pitch. That’s what good pitchers do.”

Highlights: 5.18.13

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5.18.13 – Padres 2, Nationals 1

Stat of the Game: Jordan Zimmermann fired his third complete game of the season, needing just 85 pitches in an eight-inning effort. 

Under-the-Radar Performance: Steve Lombardozzi delivered the lone RBI for the Nationals, with a two-out single in the sixth.

It Was Over When: Washington got two baserunners, but could not score in the ninth.

What to Watch for: 5.18.13

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Washington Nationals (23-19) vs. San Diego Padres (18-23)

RHP Jordan Zimmermann (7-1, 1.69) vs. LHP Eric Stults (3-3, 4.57)

The Nationals can guarantee a series win as they send Jordan Zimmermann to the hill in search of his league-high eighth victory. Washington has won eight of its last 10 against the Padres, including season-series wins in both 2011 and 2012.

NATIONALS LINEUP:

1. Span CF

2. Lombardozzi LF

3. Zimmerman 3B

4. LaRoche 1B

5. Desmond SS

6. Moore RF

7. Espinosa 2B

8. Suzuki C

9. Zimmermann RHP

ADAM BOMBS

Adam LaRoche has homered in three consecutive contests, pocketing a total of four home runs during that stretch. With a homer tonight, LaRoche would match his career high with a four-game homer streak, accomplished when he hit five over straight games from September 3-6 vs. the Chicago Cubs last season.

START ME UP

Washington’s starting pitchers have rolled off a string of eight consecutive starts yielding two or fewer earned runs. The rotation has posted a 1.94 ERA (11 ER/51.0 IP) and 3.0/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio (33 K/11 BB) during that stretch. For the season, Nationals starting pitchers rank second in the NL/MLB with a 3.13 ERA (90 ER/258.2 IP).

GOON SQUAD IS HEATING UP

Washington’s bench, affectionately know as the “Goon Squad,” has gone a combined 3-for-7 in the last three contests. Chad Tracy’s game-winning homer in the 10th inning on Friday marked both the first pinch-home run and pinch-RBI for the Nationals this season.

Father of the Goon Squad

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After making the Nationals as a non-roster invitee in 2012, Chad Tracy took no time at all to make his presence felt. On April 7 in Chicago, he came in with the bases loaded, one out, and the Nats down a run in the top of the eighth, and promptly doubled home a pair to lead the club to victory. Thus began the Goon Squad, Washington’s fearsome and versatile bench, with its leader, the veteran Tracy.

Just as he did early in 2012, Tracy provided the Goon Squad’s biggest moment to date on Friday night. After the Nationals surrendered a two-run lead in the ninth inning in San Diego, the tide seemed to have turned against them. But with two outs in the top of the 10th, Tracy turned on a hanging, 1-1 change-up out of the right hand of Huston Street, depositing it over the right field wall at Petco Park for a go-ahead home run to put the Nationals back ahead for good, 6-5.

An increasingly productive bench could be a sign of good things to come for the Nationals.

An increasingly productive bench could be a sign of good things to come for the Nationals.

“He’s a really good hitter,” said Davey Johnson of Tracy. “Last year he started fast, this year he started slow. But (the home run) makes up for anything he’s done in the past.”

There is something about being at the right place at the right time that often defines success for a bench player like Tracy. But Friday night’s heroics were the continuation of a stunning trend, one which indicates the Padres are always the right opponent for the leader of the Goon Squad. With his blast off Street, each of Tracy’s last three pinch-homers have now come against the Padres. And of the seven he has hit in his career, five have come against San Diego.

Other Nationals like Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman have both hit well against the Padres in their careers as well, each notching double-digit home run totals. But both track records pale in comparison to Tracy’s.

Meanwhile, Drew Storen survived a Padres rally in the bottom of the frame to notch his first save of the season, and the Cardiac Nats won the kind of gut-wrenching game on which they built their reputation last season. After a couple of close calls in low-scoring games in Los Angeles, the breakthrough may have meant just one win, but it may also have opened the door for a return of the Cardiac Nats, the team that went 27-21 in one-run games and 13-7 in a league-high 20 extra-inning affairs in 2012. This year’s club (7-3, 2-1) hasn’t seen nearly as many of the same opportunities, but a strong showing from the Goon Squad may change that in a hurry.

Highlights: 5.17.13

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5.17.13 – Nationals 6, Padres 5 (10 innings)

Stat of the Game: Chad Tracy launched his first home run of the season, a pinch-blast in the 10th to lift Washington to a 6-5 victory. 

Under-the-Radar Performance: Adam LaRoche‘s second two-homer game of the season and 21st of his career extended his hit streak to a career-best 14 games.

It Was Over When: Drew Storen stranded the tying run at third and winning run at first in the bottom of the 10th to lock down his first save of the year.

What to Watch for: 5.17.13

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Washington Nationals (22-19) vs. San Diego Padres (18-22)

LHP Gio Gonzalez (3-2, 4.20) vs. RHP Burch Smith (0-0, 54.00)

The Nationals look for a second victory in as many nights to open this four-game set in San Diego as the send lefty Gio Gonzalez to the mound. Gonzalez has turned in three quality starts in his last four outings, going 2-1 with a 2.88 ERA over that stretch. He’ll be opposed by Burch Smith, making his second career Major League start.

NATIONALS LINEUP:

1. Span CF

2. Lombardozzi LF

3. Harper RF

4. Zimmerman 3B

5. LaRoche 1B

6. Desmond SS

7. Espinosa 2B

8. Suzuki C

9. Gonzalez LHP

START ME UP

Washington’s starting pitchers have been dominant of late, rolling off a string of seven consecutive starts yielding two or fewer earned runs. The rotation has posted a 1.83 ERA (9 ER/44.1 IP) and a 3.5/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio (28 K/8 BB) during that stretch. For the season, Nationals starting pitchers rank second in the NL/MLB with a 3.14 ERA (88 ER/252.0 IP).

POWER OUTAGE

Washington’s pitching staff, which ranks second in the NL (third in MLB) having allowed just 32 home runs, has thrown 64.0 consecutive innings without surrendering a long ball, a stretch that has spanned seven-plus contests. The club record for consecutive games without allowing a homer is 11, accomplished September 5-16, 2011.

THRESHOLD OF THREE

The Nationals offense has averaged 3.5 runs/game this season, which ranks 13th in the NL/28th in MLB. The team is 19-2 when scoring three or more runs, compared to 3-17 when crossing the plate fewer than three times in a game.

Kindred Spirits of Hustle

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As the Nationals arrived at Petco Park to begin their four-game set with the San Diego Padres on Thursday, a special visitor awaited them. Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, the Texas A&M University quarterback, was in town for a training program with his personal coach and decided to drop by before the game.

Manziel and Harper chatted before Thursday's game.

Manziel and Harper chatted before Thursday’s game.

In addition to posing for a picture with fellow Aggie Davey Johnson, Manziel took batting practice with the Padres and appeared on the hometown broadcast that night. But Manziel was, in particular, also at this specific game for another reason: Bryce Harper.

Harper, who won the Golden Spikes Award in 2010 –baseball’s equivalent of the Heisman – had befriended the quarterback via Twitter. It’s only fitting that the two 20-year-olds got to know one another, considering that their all-out styles of play are what have put them in the national spotlight. Together, they are kindred spirits of hustle.

“You’re never going to see him not go all out,” said Manziel of Harper. “I play with my heart on my sleeve and he plays the same way.”

Of course, their paths to the top-ranked amateur players in their sports were wildly divergent. Several months after Harper found himself on the cover of Sports Illustrated dubbed “Baseball’s Chosen One,” Manziel was just beginning to turn heads as an undersized signal-caller at tiny Kerville-Tivy High School in central Texas. And while they are the same age, Manziel recognizes that he still has plenty of work ahead of him to ascend to Harper’s level on the professional stage.

“He’s at the top,” said Manziel. “He’s at the highest level. I’m still working my way up there.”

As he often does, Harper shone brightly with the extra attention of the evening. And although Stephen Strasburg ruled the day with his solid start in front of family and friends in his hometown, Harper found a way to steal a bit of the spotlight with a 432-foot home run to center field.

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