September 2013

Improbabilities and Impossibilities

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by Noah Frank

“We would accomplish many more things if we did not think of them as impossible.” – Vince Lombardi

It is not impossible for the Nationals to make it to the postseason this year. The strange twists and turns of this season have left them looking up a steep hill, at tall odds stacked heavily against them. And while not impossible, the chance of them crashing the party remains highly improbable. Which is to say that they will need a number of improbabilities to swing their way, in succession, to defy those odds.

They got off to a good start on Tuesday.

Facing the prospects of a crushing loss in the opening game of the twinbill against the Braves, the Nationals did something no team has done in Craig Kimbrel’s 225 career appearances, scoring the three runs they needed to erase a two-run deficit to walk off with a 6-5 win. The Baseball Reference win probability chart had the Nats at eight percent to win in such a scenario entering the bottom of the ninth.

Leverage

The comeback was made even more amazing, and the result even more unlikely than the probabilities suggest, considering that Washington had yet to score against the Atlanta closer his 10 prior appearances against them this season. He had converted 37 straight save opportunities, a string that was going to end as soon as the ball left Denard Span’s bat, as his one-out grounder was going to be deep enough to score the tying run. But as Andrelton Simmons – the highest-rated defensive shortstop in baseball – pulled his glove up, the ball skipping untouched through his legs, the Nationals found themselves celebrating an even more unbelievable victory.

Denard Span keyed another improbable Nationals victory.

Denard Span keyed another improbable Nationals victory in game one.

The long odds didn’t end in game one, though. After Tanner Roark, perhaps the unlikeliest figure in this late season charge, delivered seven scoreless frames in the nightcap, Washington clung to a 1-0 lead heading to the bottom of the eighth. The Braves turned to Jordan Walden, who had allowed just one run in eight prior appearances against the Nats, coming on a solo shot by Ryan Zimmerman. The Z-Man took an encore roundtripper to double the lead, then Bryce Harper, Ian Desmond and Adam LaRoche combined to plate two more runs as the Nationals put the game away.

Against the two relievers who had dominated them the most this season, the Nationals suddenly broke through for three runs apiece. Coming in, Walden and Kimbrel had combined to go 2-0 with a 0.50 ERA (1 ER/18.0 IP), four walks, 22 strikeouts and a perfect 7-for-7 in save chances in the season series. On Tuesday, they were 0-1 with a 22.50 ERA (5 ER/2.0 IP), with two walks, no strikeouts and a blown save.

While Washington has no realistic chance to catch Atlanta in the division, the two wins ensured the Braves could not clinch the NL East in Washington this week. Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Reds have continued to win in Houston, lowering the Nationals postseason chances to 3.3 percent, according to Baseball Prospectus, heading into play on Wednesday. However, the Pittsburgh Pirates have lost two straight, bringing them back into the picture as well. In order to tie the Reds or Pirates and force a one-game playoff to get to the Wild Card game, the Nationals would need to play out their remaining games with one of the following combinations from their opponents:

Improbabilities

While it seems unlikely that teams like Cincinnati or Pittsburgh, clubs which have played well all season, will collapse entirely, any of the top three combinations seem possible. Yes, it would require the Nationals to keep playing at the same rate they have over their last 12 games (in which they are 11-1) against stronger competition, including three games in St. Louis.

These are not probable outcomes. But, then again, after what happened on Tuesday at Nationals Park, we know that improbable does not equal impossible.

Highlights: 9.17.13

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9.17.13 Game One – Nationals 6, Braves 5

Stat of the Game: The Nationals became the first team to score three runs against Craig Kimbrel in his 225 career appearances.

Under-the-Radar Performance: Dan Haren twirled six strong innings of one-run ball and left with a 3-1 lead.

It Was Over When: Denard Span‘s grounder up the middle split the wickets on Andrelton Simmons to score the winning run.

9.17.13 Game Two – Nationals 4, Braves 0

Stat of the Game: Tanner Roark dominated once again, tossing seven scoreless frames en rout to his seventh win, lowering his ERA to 1.08.

Under-the-Radar Performance: Ryan Zimmerman blasted his 10th home run in his last 15 games, giving him 25 on the season for the fourth time in his career.

It Was Over When: Washington added three insurance runs in the ninth inning to put the game away.

What to Watch for: 9.17.13 – Game Two

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Atlanta Braves (89-61) vs. Washington Nationals (80-70)

RHP Freddy Garcia (1-1, 1.32) vs. RHP Tanner Roark (6-0, 1.30)

(Note: Garcia is 4-6, 4.86 overall on the year)

In Game One of today’s twin bill, the Nationals jumped out to an early lead, only to watch Atlanta storm back to take a 5-3 advantage heading into the bottom of the ninth. Winless in six tries at home against the Braves this season, the Nationals put themselves in a position where they needed at least two runs to keep the game alive. Instead, they got three, becoming the first team in 225 tries to do as much damage against Braves closer Craig Kimbrel.

Adam LaRoche led off with a walk and Wilson Ramos followed by grinding out an eight-pitch at-bat, fighting back from 0-2 to drive a ball up the middle that second baseman Elliot Johnson got a glove to, but could not flip accurately to second base for the force. Jeff Kobernus ran for Ramos at first and Anthony Rendon drew another walk to load the bases with no outs for pinch-hitter Chad Tracy. The left-handed hitter pulled a hard chopper to first base, allowing LaRoche to score and cut the lead to one, the runners moving up to second and third.

Enter, Denard Span.

The center fielder had already extended his hitting streak to a career-high 27 games earlier in the afternoon, matching the longest streak in baseball this season. After taking ball one, he hit a grounder back up the middle, where the Braves defense was not playing in – playing not to lose, rather than to win. While the tying run would have scored on the play regardless, shortstop Andrelton Simmons pulled up on the ball, as it skipped through his legs untouched. Rendon motored around third to score behind Kobernus, and the Nationals snagged an enormous, 6-5 victory.

“I knew when I hit the ball, the game was tied for sure,” said Span after the raucous celebration on the Nationals Park infield. “For us to be able to get a win like that against their closer, and on our home field, it just felt really good.”

The win improved Washington’s record to 80-70, putting the Nats 10 games above .500 for the first time all season. It also staved off Atlanta’s chance to clinch the division title for another day, the NL East Magic Number remaining at four and the Reds second Wild Card elimination number still at eight.

Right-hander Tanner Roark will take the hill against veteran Freddy Garcia in the nightcap of the doubleheader.

NATIONALS LINEUP:

1. Denard Span CF

2. Ryan Zimmerman 3B

3. Jayson Werth RF

4. Bryce Harper LF

5. Ian Desmond SS

6. Adam LaRoche  1B

7. Steve Lombardozzi 2B

8. Jhonatan Solano C

9. Tanner Roark RHP

HEAR ME, ROARK

Tanner Roark has been brilliant since his call up from Triple-A Syracuse, posting a 6-0 record in 11 appearances. Roark has won each of his first two starts, allowing two earned runs in 12.0 innings of work. He sports a 1.30 ERA overall (5 ER/34.2 IP) with 26 strikeouts and just eight walks.

WE’RE GOING STREAKING

Denard Span extended his career-best hitting streak to 27 straight games in Game One, matching Colorado’s Michael Cuddyer for the longest in Major League Baseball this year

Meanwhile, Wilson Ramos will see his stretch of consecutive starts behind the plate come to an end a 24 games with Jhonatan Solano in at catcher in Game Two. The streak is two games longer than the next closest in baseball this season (Yadier Molina, 22).

Patriotic Jersey Auction to Benefit Victims of the Navy Yard Shooting

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When a senseless tragedy occurs, it can be hard to return to a routine; the same can be said for professional athletes, even those playing baseball in the heat of a last-minute postseason chase.

Stephen Straburg and other Nationals players and coaches wore Navy hats in support of those affected by Monday's tragedy.

Stephen Straburg and other Nationals players and coaches wore Navy hats in support of those affected by Monday’s tragedy.

As the Nationals returned to the field on Tuesday, the team made clear that their thoughts were on those affected by the previous day’s events at the Washington Navy Yard. Reminders of the tragedy that occurred only blocks from Nationals Park could be seen throughout the day, from the flags flying at half-staff to the moment of silence before each game of the day’s doubleheader. On the field, the players donned U.S. Navy caps during batting practice and wore their patriotic jerseys featuring the stars and stripes Curly “W” during their win in game one of the doubleheader. But these were more than symbolic gestures – they will directly benefit those affected by the tragedy at the Navy Yard.

The Nationals will auction off the patriotic jerseys from game one, with proceeds benefiting the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS). TAPS has a memorandum of agreement in place with the U.S. Navy to provide bereavement support to the families of those who die in service to America. Just as they did after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack on the Pentagon, TAPS will provide support and care for the families of Department of Defense civilian workers or defense contractors who died in this terrible tragedy. All of them were on duty for America.

Fans can go to nationals.com/auction to purchase the patriotic jerseys beginning Thursday, September 19. In the meantime, fans who would like to support the loved ones of those who lost their lives at the Washington Navy Yard can donate to TAPS at www.taps.org. A $10 donation can also be made by texting TAPS to 50555 (you will be asked to confirm your donation).

What to Watch for: 9.17.13 – Game One

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Atlanta Braves (89-60) vs. Washington Nationals (79-70)

LHP Mike Minor (13-7, 3.15) vs. RHP Dan Haren (9-13, 5.02)

After tying a season-high with 18 hits in an 11-2 victory over the Phillies on Sunday, the Nationals look to continue their hot hitting in the first game of today’s twin bill with the Braves. Dan Haren takes the mound for Washington, one start removed from claiming a 3-0 victory over the Mets in which he allowed just one hit and struck out eight in 6.0 innings.

NATIONALS LINEUP:

1. Denard Span CF

2. Ryan Zimmerman 3B

3. Jayson Werth RF

4. Bryce Harper LF

5. Ian Desmond SS

6. Adam LaRoche  1B

7. Wilson Ramos C

8. Anthony Rendon 2B

9. Dan Haren RHP

BEST BALL

Washington owns Major League Baseball’s best record dating to August 9 (25-10, .714). In that span, the Nationals lead the National League in runs scored (191) and run differential (+60). The Nats have won seven of eight series since taking three of four games at Wrigley Field, August 19-22.

HOMER HAPPY

At the completion of play on September 1, when the Nationals departed for their most-recent road trip, Ryan Zimmerman was tied for 38th in the NL with 15 home runs. In the two weeks and 13 games later, Zimmerman has tallied nine long balls and is currently ranked eighth in the NL with a team-best 24 homers. Zimmerman’s nine September homers are tied with San Francisco’s Hunter Pence for the MLB lead. Wilson Ramos (six) ranks third on that same September list, while no other big leaguer has more than five.

STRINGING ‘EM TOGETHER

Denard Span has hit safely in a career-high 26 straight games at a .387 (43-for-111) clip with six walks, five doubles, two triples, two homers, 18 runs scored, eight RBI and five stolen bases. His streak is both the second longest in MLB this year (Colorado’s Michael Cuddyer, 27 games) and in the nine-year history of the Nationals (Ryan Zimmerman, 30-games, April 8-May 12, 2009). Meanwhile, Wilson Ramos has started a Nationals record and MLB season-high 23 consecutive games behind the plate. Ramos is batting .261 (23-for-88) with seven home runs and 24 RBI during his string of starts, which began on August 22 at Wrigley Field. Washington is playing .739 (17-6) ball during that stretch.

Details on Today’s Doubleheader

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Due to the tragic events yesterday at the Navy Yard, last night’s game was postponed and will be made up as part of a split doubleheader, with the make-up game beginning at 1:05 p.m. today.

The Nationals will wear their Patriotic Blue jerseys for the first game of today’s doubleheader. We will hold a moment of silence to remember the victims of yesterday’s tragedy prior to the start of both games. Additionally, in accordance with the directive of the President of the United States, flags at Nationals Park will fly at half-staff beginning today through sunset on Friday.

Ticketing:

Today’s games will be played as a split doubleheader, with each game requiring separate admission. Gates will open for Game Two 1.5 hours after the conclusion of Game One or at 6:00 p.m., whichever comes later.

If you had a ticket to Monday night’s postponed game, you may redeem it for today’s 1:05 p.m. game, any other remaining 2013 regular season home game, OR any 2014 regular season Value Game.

For any additional ticket information, please call the Nationals Park Box Office at 202.675.NATS(6287).

Nationals Official Statement About Navy Yard Tragedy

All of us here in the Nationals organization were deeply saddened to learn of the tragic events that occurred this morning only a few blocks from Nationals Park. Our thoughts and prayers go out to the victims and their families.

In light of the circumstances, we have decided to postpone tonight’s game against the Atlanta Braves. Additional information will be distributed in the coming hours.

The safety of our fans is our utmost priority. As we have throughout the day, the Nationals security personnel will continue to work closely with all levels of law enforcement to reinforce the already high level of security in place at Nationals Park.

What to Watch for: 9.15.13

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Philadelphia Phillies (69-79) vs. Washington Nationals (78-70)

RHP Tyler Cloyd (2-4, 4.56) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (17-8, 3.36)

The Nationals saw their season-high seven-game winning streak come to an end Saturday night, but they can still take the series with a Sunday victory over the Phillies in the teams’ final meeting this season. Washington has already claimed the season series and owns a 26-19 record against their closest geographical division rivals under manager Davey Johnson. Jordan Zimmermann takes aim at his National League-leading 18th win against fellow right-hander Tyler Cloyd.

NATIONALS LINEUP:

1. Denard Span CF

2. Ryan Zimmerman 3B

3. Jayson Werth RF

4. Bryce Harper LF

5. Ian Desmond SS

6. Adam LaRoche 1B

7. Wilson Ramos C

8. Steve Lombardozzi 2B

9. Jordan Zimmermann RHP

ATTENTION: SPAN

Denard Span went 3-for-5 with a career-high three stolen bases to extend his hitting streak to 25 straight games. Over that stretch, he is batting .387 with six walks, five doubles, two triples, two homers, 18 runs scored and seven RBI. Of Span’s eight multi-hit performances during the streak, he has tallied a four-hit game, six three-hit games, and a single two-hit effort. The streak is both the second longest in Major League Baseball this year (Michael Cuddyer, 27 games) and in the nine-year history of the Nationals (Ryan Zimmerman, 30-games, April 8-May 12, 2009).

NAT WERTH

Jayson Werth currently ranks among the National League’s top five in OPS (second, .933), slugging percentage (second, .536), batting average (fourth, .321) and on-base percentage (fifth, .397). Werth joins Andrew McCutchen as the only NL players to rank among the league’s top five in each of those four categories. Werth has hit better than .300 in July (.367), August (.380) and September (.308).

IRON MAN WITH THE MASK

Wilson Ramos has started a Nationals record 22 consecutive games behind the plate. With today’s start in the series finale against the Phillies, he will surpass Cardinals backstop Yadier Molina for the longest stretch of consecutive games started by a catcher in Major League Baseball this season.

Linked Through Service

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Prior to the Third Annual Wounded Warrior Celebrity Softball Classic this Sunday, members of the team joined with celebrity participants and Nationals pitcher Craig Stammen to go help their fellow heroes. Omar Miller (CSI: Miami), Brian Dietzen (NCIS) and Sakina Jaffrey (House of Cards) joined the Wounded Warrior team on a trip to Ft. Belvoir, where they met with groups of veterans using another sport – golf – to help them reacclimate to life after combat. Much like softball, the sport helps bring a measure of normalcy and serenity back to these soldiers’ lives.

Steve Griner is the head PGA Professional of the Ft. Belvoir Wounded Warrior Golf Program, which currently enrolls about 80 veterans and family members.

A group of wounded warriors with Omar Miller and Ft. Belvoir program participants.

A group of wounded warriors with Omar Miller and Ft. Belvoir program participants.

“I guess one would say, unfortunately, the numbers keep growing,” said Griner of the program’s enrollment. “But we’re helping more and more people. It’s always unfortunate that there are people that have been injured serving their country. But, if that work has to be done, for me to have a part in that, it’s just inspiring.”

After greeting and getting to know many of the members of the program over lunch, the group took to the driving range to hit some balls. While Stammen, a 3.5 handicap, showed off his talent in a second sport (he even grooved an iron shot left-handed), some of the most impressive hits of the day came from Wounded Warrior Greg Reynolds. The WWAST member is missing his entire right arm, but was still smacking shots deep into the range with just his lead arm to provide the power and stability.

For Dietzen, the opportunity to come out and play on a Major League field was certainly a perk, but the reward of getting to know the stories of the Wounded Warriors and playing with them side-by-side provided a greater gift.

The wounded warriors and celebrities chat over lunch before hitting the driving range.

The wounded warriors and celebrities chat over lunch before hitting the driving range.

“These guys that go out and do everything for us,” said Dietzen, who had previously worked with wounded veterans during a benefit golf tournament out in Los Angeles. “The very least we can do as a country is look after them when they come home, and that doesn’t just mean give them a job and go back to work.”

Miller has been a part of a USO Tour, much like Stammen and fellow Nationals pitcher Ross Detwiler. While he had never worked with wounded veterans before, he realized the significance of the opportunity when it was presented to him, putting this weekend’s events above his own personal schedule.

“I was actually on my way to Vegas for the fight,” said Benson Miller, referencing the championship boxing match taking place this weekend. “And I said, ‘No, you know what? Let me prioritize. This is a lot more important.’ It’s great to come out, hang out, and have fellowship with the guys.”

Everyone hit the range at the beautiful Ft. Belvoir course.

Everyone hit the range at the beautiful Ft. Belvoir course.

Stammen, as many know, accompanied the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, on a USO tour last winter. That experience combined with his life as a professional ballplayer and avid golfer made him a perfect candidate to be able to appreciate and understand how both sports can help enrich lives.

“It’s just another way to get away from the aspects of real life, and it puts your mind on something else for about three or four hours,” said Stammen, referencing golf, though he might as well have been talking about baseball.

As for the Wounded Warrior Amputee Softball Team, Stammen has seen them up close and personal each of the last two seasons, as well as in visits to Nationals Spring Training. He’s looking forward to seeing them again after the Nationals finish their series with the Phillies.

“They’re really good at what they do,” he said of the team’s success. “It’s inspiring what they do, and I think it’s going to be an enjoyable evening for everybody.”

What to Watch for: 9.14.13

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Philadelphia Phillies (68-79) vs. Washington Nationals (78-69)

LHP Cole Hamels (7-13, 3.45) vs. LHP Gio Gonzalez (10-6, 3.31)

When pretty much everything goes right – the offense, defense and pitching all clicking at once – good things usually happen. The Nationals have had all three aspects of the game working at the same time for arguably the first time all season over the past week, leading to their seven-game win streak entering Saturday night’s game with the Phillies. And if the last week has seemed particularly fun for Nationals fans, there’s a reason why.

Yes, Washington scored in each of the first two innings in three of their last four games. Yes, the Nats have out-homered their opponents 19-0 over the streak. But even more impressively, they have not trailed following an at-bat since the ninth inning of their last loss, last Friday night in Miami.

Really think about that. The only two times the Nationals have found themselves behind in the last week – down 1-0 after the top of the first inning Friday night against the Phillies, and 3-1 after the bottom of the second last Sunday in Miami – they have erased the deficit in the very next half inning, never to trail again. Since the beginning of play last Saturday, Washington has held a lead at the end of 51 of the 63 innings played.

The Nationals would love another quick start tonight, as they face off against Cole Hamels in a matchup of premier NL lefties, with Gio Gonzalez going for Washington. They will need another win to stay within four games in the loss column of Cincinnati, a 7-3 winner at Milwaukee earlier this afternoon.

NATIONALS LINEUP:

1. Denard Span CF

2. Ryan Zimmerman 3B

3. Jayson Werth RF

4. Ian Desmond SS

5. Bryce Harper LF

6. Wilson Ramos C

7. Tyler Moore 1B

8. Anthony Rendon 2B

9. Gio Gonzalez LHP

HOMER HAPPY

Ryan Zimmerman has homered nine times in his last 11 games, and has already matched the club record for home runs in the month of September. Adam LaRoche set that mark last season, but Zimmerman will have 15 more games this month to set a new mark. Zimmerman also now leads the Nationals in homers, something he has done outright only once before (24 in 2007). He also shared the team lead with 14 homers in ‘08.

20-20 VISION

Ian Desmond sits just a single steal shy of recording his second consecutive 20-20 season. He would be the first National to accomplish the feat more than once. Washington’s previous two 20-20 campaigns came from Desmond (25 HR, 21 SB) in ‘12 and Alfonso Soriano (46 HR, 41 SB) in ‘06. Only Carlos Gonzalez (26 HR, 21 SB), Mike Trout (23 HR, 32 SB) and Hunter Pence (22 HR, 21 SB) have already attained 20-20 status in ‘13.

NATS BY THE NUMBERS

Washington has homered in a season-high seven straight games. Jim Lett’s bullpen has tossed 19.0 consecutive scoreless innings. Washington is 14-7 (.667) in games not started by their original starting rotation (Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann, Dan Haren and Ross Detwiler) in ‘13. Wilson Ramos has started a Nationals record 21 consecutive games behind the plate and is one game shy of matching the longest such streak of the season (Yadier Molina, 22) in Major League Baseball.

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