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Wrapping up the Arizona Fall League

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by Mike Feigen

The Mesa Solar Sox, featuring seven members of the Nationals’ organization, wrapped up their Arizona Fall League schedule this past Thursday with a tie in the final game of the season. Catcher Spencer Kieboom went 2-for-5 at the plate in the contest, raising his average to .324, best among Nationals prospects on the club.

farm graphicMesa, which finished the year with a record of 15-14-2, was comprised of prospects from the Chicago Cubs, Los Angeles Angels, Oakland Athletics, Toronto Blue Jays and Nationals. Washington provided catchers Pedro Severino and Kieboom, second baseman Tony Renda and four pitchers: Matt Grace, Neil Holland, Felipe Rivero and Derek Self.

The AFL gives future young stars a chance to showcase their skills following the conclusion of the regular season, with members of all 30 Major League organizations representing their parent clubs on six competing teams. The Salt River Rafters (ARI, COL, HOU, MIA and MIN) defeated the Peoria Javelinas (ATL, CLE, KC, STL, TB) in the league championship game Saturday.

MATT GRACE | LHP | 6-4 210 | 12.14.88

Final stats: 11.1 IP, 10 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 5 BB, 8 SO, 3.18 ERA, 1.324 WHIP

The big lefty out of UCLA compiled six scoreless relief appearances in his final seven appearances, holding right-handed hitters to a .167 average. His work against left-handed hitters could be the key to his success at the next level.

“I am working on throwing more off-speed pitches during my time here, especially my slider,” Grace said in a recent interview with Curly W Live. “I feel very comfortable with where my fastball is at right now, but I’m trying to have a more consistent slider. I know I will be facing a lot of left-handers out of the ‘pen, so I’m trying to do a better job of throwing sliders off my fastball, and vice-versa.”

NEIL HOLLAND | RHP | 6-0 190 | 8.14.88

Final stats: 11.2 IP, 20 H, 14 R, 14 ER, 8 BB, 8 SO, 10.80 ERA, 2.400 WHIP

Holland owns a career 23-10 record with a 2.49 ERA in 182 Minor League games pitched, but ran into some tough luck in Arizona. The 25-year-old former 11th round draft pick, featuring a deceptive sidearm delivery, could find himself in the bullpen at Triple-A Syracuse during the 2015 season.

“There are a lot of good hitters are out here with good approaches at such a young age,” Holland said in a recent interview. “One big thing, being a sidearmer, is getting ground balls. I’ve learned to throw down in the zone to create ground balls.”

SPENCER KIEBOOM | C | 6-0 220 | 3.16.91

Final stats:.324/.390/.471 (11-for-34), 2 2B, 1 HR, 7 RBI, 3 R, 5 BB

One of the top offensive catchers in the Minor Leagues, Kieboom recovered from Tommy John surgery to have a big season in Hagerstown of the South Atlantic League. The 6-0, 200-pound backstop had a remarkable .852 OPS this season (.352 OBP, .500 SLG), setting the stage for what could be a promising season at Potomac or Harrisburg this upcoming year.

Kieboom said he was looking for big-picture experience in Arizona during an interview with Curly W Live earlier this AFL season.

“My goals from this experience have been to take something away from this that I can use to further my career,” he said. “There are a lot of talented players around me. Seeing what someone else does or how they prepare could help me as well down the road.”

TONY RENDA | IF | 5-8 180 | 1.24.91

Final stats:.200/.233/.259 (17-for-85), 3 2B, 1 3B, 7 RBI, 12 R, 3 BB, 1 SB

Following a season in which he hit .307 with a .381 on-base percentage at High-A Potomac, Renda received valuable experience facing the league’s more advanced pitchers. The former second round pick was named to the AFL’s Fall Stars team and flashed promise at the plate.

“I am using the AFL to get ready for the next level and prepare me to make the jump to Double-A next year,” Renda said. “Getting to face top-notch pitching every day is going to prepare me for that. My swing was long when I got here, and you can’t be long vs. high velocity, which is pretty much every guy here.”

FELIPE RIVERO | LHP | 6-2 196 | 7.5.91

Final stats: 23.2 IP, 26 H, 18 R, 16 ER, 11 BB, 15 SO, 6.08 ERA, 1.563 WHIP

Rivero got off to a slow start in the AFL, but recovered in his final two starts to post solid numbers. The left-hander went 1-0 with a 0.90 ERA in his final two starts, allowing just seven hits and two walks in 10 innings of work. The former Tampa Bay product held left-handers to a .231/.333/308 slash line, while righties hit a more robust .303/.387/.500 with a pair of home runs against him.

DEREK SELF | RHP | 6-3 205 | 1.14.90

Final stats: 15.0 IP, 12 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 5 BB, 6 SO, 1.20 ERA, 1.133 WHIP

Reliever Derek Self emerged as a pleasant surprise in Fall League play, completing six appearances of two or more innings in a relief role. The right-hander from Cave City, Ky. was accustomed to that role, with 21 such appearances between Potomac and Harrisburg in the regular season.

“I’m really working on my new change-up and throwing it not only to lefties but right-handers as well,” Self said about his progress in the AFL earlier this month. “Also, making my slider sharper and working on having better control of it. Some of my main goals are just go out there and give it all I’ve got, become a better, sharper pitcher to carry over to the 2015 season.”

PEDRO SEVERINO | C | 6-1 180 | 7.20.93

Final stats:.250/.292/.341 (11-for-44), 2 2B, 1 3B, 5 RBI, 1 R, 2 BB

Severino, the third-youngest member of the Solar Sox roster at just 21 years of age, continued to impress as a part-time player in Arizona. The defensive-minded catcher played well above his age level this season at High-A Potomac, helping the P-Nats to a Carolina League Championship.

Nationals’ aces fill up NL Cy Young ballots

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by Mike Feigen

It came as no surprise that Clayton Kershaw of the Los Angeles Dodgers earned the National League Cy Young Award Wednesday, unanimously capturing all 30 first-place votes from the Baseball Writers’ Association of America. After all, the southpaw led all of baseball in ERA, wins, complete games, WHIP and FIP (fielding independent pitching).

cyyoungHowever, down the writers’ ballots, another storyline emerged.

Three members of the Washington Nationals’ starting rotation — Jordan Zimmermann (5th), Doug Fister (8th) and Stephen Strasburg (T-9th) — finished in the top 10 of the voting, making them the only team in either league to achieve that distinction in the past three years.

Zimmermann, 28, went 14-5 with a 2.66 ERA in 199.2 innings in 2014, concluding the season with the first no-hitter in Nationals history. The 6-foot-2 right-hander added a brilliant first-round performance in the NLDS against the San Francisco Giants, surrendering just three hits in Game 2. In total, Zimmermann allowed a total of three hits to the final 62 batters he faced dating back to his September 20 start against the Miami Marlins.

Fister, acquired last offseason in a deal with the Detroit Tigers, lived up to his billing as a dynamic, big-game pitcher. Standing 6-foot-8, the lanky right-hander used his power sinker and array of off-speed pitches to keep hitters off balance all season. Fister led the Nationals in ERA (2.41) and wins (16) during the regular season, then added a victory in Game 3 of the NLDS against Madison Bumgarner and the eventual World Series Champion San Francisco Giants.

If not for Zimmermann’s late-season heroics, Strasburg would have easily finished the season as the Nationals’ hottest pitcher. The 26-year-old righty went 7-2 in August and September, including a 3-0 record with a 0.00 ERA over his final three starts of the season. In those contests, the right-hander allowed 10 hits and three walks over 20.0 scoreless innings, striking out 19.

Including Tanner Roark (15-10, 2.85) and Gio Gonzalez (10-10, 3.57), the Nationals owned one of the finest starting rotations in all of baseball, with all five primary members deserving recognition for their excellent 2014 campaigns. Factoring in the excellent bullpen performances from relievers such as Drew Storen and Tyler Clippard, the entire staff led baseball in ERA (3.03), FIP (3.18), fewest home runs per fly ball (7.5%) and lowest walk rate (2.15 per 9 innings). The team also set a Major League record by striking out 3.66 batters for every walk issued, the best ratio in history.

With Zimmermann, Fister and Strasburg all earning BBWAA votes, the result doubled the number of times Nationals pitchers have received Cy Young votes since baseball returned to the nation’s capital in 2005. Previously receiving tallies were Chad Cordero (5th, 2005), Gonzalez (3rd, 2012) and Zimmermann (7th, 2013).

Arizona Fall League: Midseason update

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by Mike Feigen

With 19 of the Mesa Solar Sox’s 30 games complete in the Arizona Fall League season, each of the seven representatives of the Washington Nationals has thrown at least eight innings or come to the plate at least 25 times during the top prospect “finishing school.”

farm graphicAmong the standouts thus far are a pair of catchers with intriguing skill sets. Spencer Kieboom, the Nationals’ fifth-round selection in 2012 out of Clemson University, hit .309/.352/.500 with nine home runs for Single-A Hagerstown  in 2014, brandishing his credentials as one of the top offensive catchers in the organization. Meanwhile, 21-year-old backstop Pedro Severino — who has one of the top defensive reputations in the Minors — led the Potomac Nationals to a Carolina League title. He also blasted nine homers during the 2014 campaign.

Former third-round pick Tony Renda earned the club’s selection for the annual Fall Stars Game, which will be televised live on MLB Network on Saturday, Nov. 1 at 8 p.m. ET from Scottsdale, Arizona.

Here’s a rundown of how the Nationals’ prospects have done in the AFL to this point:

MATT GRACE | LHP | 6-4 210 | 12.14.88

8.0 IP, 6 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 5 BB, 8 SO, 3.38 ERA, 1.375 WHIP

After a bit of a slow start, Grace has turned in excellent numbers in his last four appearances for the Solar Sox. During that time he has fired 4.2 scoreless innings, allowing just two hits while striking out three. The big southpaw has found success against hitters from both sides of the plate, holding righties to just two hits in 13 at-bats.

NEIL HOLLAND | RHP | 6-0 190 | 8.14.88

8.0 IP, 13 H, 9 R, 9 ER, 4 BB, 4 SO, 10.13 ERA, 2.125 WHIP

Though Holland has struggled in the hitter-friendly Fall League, his excellent contributions over the course of the regular season earned him plaudits within the Nationals organization. The side-arm throwing right-hander was a midseason All-Star in the Double-A Eastern League and finished the season with a 0.59 ERA in his final nine appearances of the year.

SPENCER KIEBOOM | C | 6-0 220 | 3.16.91

.400/.440/.650 (8-for-20), 2 2B, 1 HR, 6 RBI, 2 R, 3 BB in 25 PA

In limited playing time, the right-handed hitting Kieboom has flashed the type of offensive potential that makes him one of the Nationals’ top prospects. He has three multi-hit games in six starts behind the plate, and powered a three-run home run in the eighth inning on October 16 to clinch a 6-2 Mesa victory.

TONY RENDA | IF | 5-8 180 | 1.24.91

.226/.250/.321 (12-for-53), 3 2B, 1 3B, 7 RBI, 8 R, 2 BB, 1 SB in 56 PA

Renda is currently riding a nine-game hitting streak (12-for-37) after starting the AFL season 0-for-16 in his first five games. The former Cal-Berkeley standout received the Washington Nationals inaugural  “Bob Boone Award,” in 2013, which is given to the farmhand who best exhibits professionalism, leadership, loyalty, passion, selflessness, durability, determination, and work ethic required to play the game the “Nationals Way.”

FELIPE RIVERO | LHP | 6-2 196 | 7.5.91

13.0 IP, 17 H, 14 R, 13 ER, 7 BB, 8 SO, 9.00 ERA, 1.846 WHIP

Best known by Nationals fans as one of the players acquired in the deal that brought Jose Lobaton to Washington, Rivero has a live arm and the potential to develop into either a starter or reliever at the next level. In his four Fall League starts, Rivero has allowed no runs and one hit in the first inning of those contests.

DEREK SELF | RHP | 6-3 205 | 1.14.90

10.0 IP, 8 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 3 BB, 4 SO, 0.90 ERA, 1.100 WHIP

After splitting time between Single-A Potomac and Double-A Harrisburg in 2014, the right-handed reliever has continued his success in the Arizona Fall League. Since allowing a solo home run in his first appearance on October 7, Self has been lights out since, completing eight scoreless frames. The Kentucky native was the Nationals’ ninth-round pick in the 2012 draft.

PEDRO SEVERINO | C | 6-1 180 | 7.20.93

.280/.321/.360 (7-for-25), 1 3B, 3 RBI, 1 R, 1 BB, in 28 PA

The aforementioned Severino, a highly-touted youngster out of the Dominican Republic, may be on the fast track to the Majors thanks to his elite glove work. He has also demonstrated improved bat control, including a four-hit game on October 22 during a rout of the Scottsdale Scorpions. The youngster won’t turn 22 until July, but could catch at the Double-A level in 2015.

For more information on the Arizona Fall League, stay tuned to Curly W Live or visit MLBFallBall.com.

What to watch for: NLDS Game 4

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by Mike Feigen

San Francisco Giants lead Washington Nationals, 2-1

9:07 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1

The Scene

What a difference a day makes. After the Nationals fell behind two games to none at home, they forced their way back into the series with a 4-1 victory in Game 3. The key play of the game — and the Nationals hope the series — came on a bunt by catcher Wilson Ramos, which Giants’ starter Madison Bumgarner fired wide of third base, allowing Ian Desmond and Bryce Harper to score. Doug Fister threw seven shutout innings for the victory, while Harper added a solo homer deep over the right field wall in the ninth.

The Stakes

Despite losing some of its momentum, San Francisco still finds itself one win away from qualifying for the NLCS against the St. Louis Cardinals. The Nationals one-game-at-a-time approach won’t allow them to look past Game 4, so both teams should come out with matching levels of intensity. Like Game 3, the Nats will be facing a pitcher in Ryan Vogelsong with an incredible run of postseason success, so they’ll need to continue to have the type of good at-bats they put together toward the end of Monday’s contest.

Washington Lineup

CF Denard Span

3B Anthony Rendon

RF Jayson Werth

1B Adam LaRoche

SS Ian Desmond

LF Bryce Harper

C Wilson Ramos

2B Asdrubal Cabrera

LHP Gio Gonzalez

San Francisco Lineup

CF Gregor Blanco

2B Joe Panik

C Buster Posey

RF Hunter Pence

3B Pablo Sandoval

1B Brandon Belt

SS Brandon Crawford

LF Juan Perez

RHP Ryan Vogelsong

The Starters

Gio Gonzalez earns his third career postseason start Tuesday night, following his starts in Game 1 and Game 5 of the 2012 NLDS against the St. Louis Cardinals. Gonzalez allowed just six hits in 10 innings over those two starts, but walked 11 against just 10 strikeouts. The good news for Nats fans is the talented left-hander has exhibited an excellent level of control in 2014, posting a career-best 2.9-to-1 strikeout-to-walk rate — including a 6.2-to-1 rate in the month of September.

Right-hander Ryan Vogelsong has put up Fister-like numbers in the postseason, going 3-0 with a 1.09 in four career starts. However, he has not been nearly as good since the Giants’ 2012 World Series run, going 12-19 with a 4.62 ERA over 51 starts in the past two seasons. He allowed four runs or more in four of his five September starts, including losses to NL West foes Colorado, Arizona and San Diego (twice).

The Offenses

The Nationals put up four runs in the final three innings of Monday’s win, more than the three runs they pushed across in the series’ first 33 frames. They will look to keep the momentum going in Game 4, using the same lineup that appeared to finally wake up with several hard hit balls late in Game 3. They have shown success against Vogelsong in 2013, scoring six runs on nine hits against him on June 9 and another three runs on four hits and four walks on August 24.

Suddenly, the Giants are the club trying to find themselves at the plate, as they’ve scored just six runs in the series. Manager Bruce Bochy has shuffled his lineup for the first time since postseason play began, swapping Hunter Pence and Pablo Sandoval in the No. 4 and No. 5 spots in the order and inserting right-handed hitting left fielder Juan Perez into the No. 8 spot. Leadoff hitter Gregor Blanco has batted just 1-for-14 (.071) with one walk in the series.

The Best of the Rest

The Nationals again will rely on right-handed Ryan Zimmerman and lefty Nate Schierholtz as their primary bats off the bench. Each has a hit in the series, and the duo provides Matt Williams with matchup problems for the Giants. With Perez moving into the starting lineup, regular left fielder Travis Ishikawa (2-for-10) should be the primary bat off the bench in the late innings.

After Fister’s gem, Tyler Clippard and Drew Storen each pitched one inning in Game 3, with Storen surrendering a run prior to recording the final out. With the day off Sunday, the entire ‘pen should be available, including Tanner Roark and perhaps Stephen Strasburg. The Giants also have a stable of arms at their disposal, though long man Yusmeiro Petit may not yet be available after his six-inning performance in Game 2.

What to watch for: NLDS Game 3

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by Mike Feigen

San Francisco Giants lead Washington Nationals, 2-0

5:07 p.m. ET, MLB Network

The Scene

The city of San Francisco takes center stage as the series shifts to the Bay Area, with the Giants looking to finish off the Nationals and advance to the National League Championship Series. The AT&T Park crowd has yet to see their hometown team this postseason, but the Giants do own a five-game home postseason winning streak dating back to Game 2 of the 2012 NLCS. The Nationals won 3-of-4 games in San Francisco this year, including a 2-1 victory by Doug Fister over Madison Bumgarner on June 10 in front of a sellout crowd, so they won’t be intimidated by the atmosphere.

The Stakes

Trailing 2-0 in the series, the Nationals know they must win Game 3 to extend their season at least one more day. Having to accomplish that against Bumgarner presents a daunting challenge, but they have had success against top pitchers all season and have won three games in a row several times.

A little more than five weeks ago, the Nationals were swept by the Philadelphia Phillies and saw their lead in the NL East cut to just six games over the Atlanta Braves. A trip to face Felix Hernandez and the Seattle Mariners was on tap after a west coast off day, with Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers on the horizon just after that. The Nationals shocked the baseball community that day with four home runs off King Felix, carrying their long ball power to a series win over Seattle and another over Los Angeles. The power surge pushed the Nats to a 21-9 finish, setting up home field advantage in the NL postseason.

It isn’t likely that Bumgarner will surrender four homers on Monday night, but a big performance at the plate could send Washington into a similar trajectory.

Washington Lineup

CF Denard Span

3B Anthony Rendon

RF Jayson Werth

1B Adam LaRoche

SS Ian Desmond

LF Bryce Harper

C Wilson Ramos

2B Asdrubal Cabrera

RHP Doug Fister

San Francisco Lineup

CF Gregor Blanco

2B Joe Panik

C Buster Posey

3B Pablo Sandoval

RF Hunter Pence

1B Brandon Belt

SS Brandon Crawford

LF Travis Ishikawa

LHP Madison Bumgarner

The Starters

The Nationals will send Doug Fister (16-6, 2.41 ERA) to the mound to try to stave off elimination, a familiar position for the 6-foot-8 right-hander. Fister won Game 5 of the 2011 ALDS at Yankee Stadium in his first postseason start, and just last year helped the Tigers avoid a series loss to the Oakland Athletics in Game 4 of the ALDS. He later won Game 4 of the 2013 ALCS against the Boston Red Sox, the final game the Tigers would win in that series.

Madison Bumgarner (18-10, 2.98 ERA) is also no stranger to postseason success, including his two World Series victories — including a 2-0 win over Fister and the Tigers in the 2012 Fall Classic — and a dominant, shutout performance in the 2014 Wild Card Game win over the Pittsburgh Pirates just five days ago. The big lefty, still just 25 years old, struck out 219 batters and walked just 43 in 217.1 innings of work this season, the best strikeout rate and lowest walk rate of his big-league career.

The Offenses

After scoring just three runs in 27 innings at Nationals Park in Games 1 and 2, Washington has no choice but to execute better against a difficult pitcher in a road environment. While that seems like a tall task, the Nationals have proven time and again they’ve got the talent and fortitude to score runs in bunches, beating the likes of Hernandez (2.14 ERA), Johnny Cueto (2.25 ERA) and Bumgarner already this season. Matt Williams will stick with the same lineup that got the Nationals to this point, a group that finished strong throughout the final two months of the season.

Like the Nationals, the Giants didn’t score many runs in the first two games of the series, putting just five total runs on the board. They will also stick with the same lineup in Game 3, hoping the continuity of the same order will provide them a series sweep. After Jordan Zimmermann retired 20 straight beginning in the third inning of Game 2, San Francisco scratched out the tying run in the ninth when Joe Panik drew a two-out walk, Buster Posey ripped a single to center and Pablo Sandoval doubled home Panik on a slicing liner down the left field line.

The Best of the Rest

The Nationals have put together quality at-bats off the bench, with top right-handed option Ryan Zimmerman going 1-for-2 with a pair of well-hit balls and lefty Nate Schierholtz going 1-for-1 with a double and an intentional walk. The Giants’ young bench has gone 0-for-8 with one walk so far in the series, with reserve outfielder Juan Perez seeing action in left field throughout extra innings on Saturday night.

In the bullpen, the Nationals have shown remarkable success from the left side against the predominantly left-handed hitting Giants, with Jerry Blevins and Matt Thornton dominating the competition in the first two games of the series. San Francisco’s bullpen was nearly flawless in Game 2, combining with right-hander Tim Hudson to set the Washington lineup down in 15 consecutive innings in the 2-1, 18-inning contest.

Nothing But Comebacks

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by Mike Feigen

When the Nationals take on the San Francisco Giants in Game 3 of the NLDS Monday evening, they’ll face an uphill battle that will test their resolve as a team. The good news is they’ve already won three straight games against the Giants this year, including a head-to-head victory by Doug Fister over Madison Bumgarner at San Francisco’s AT&T Park.

Should they rally and move on to the NLCS, they also won’t be the first team to battle back from down 2-0 in a five-game series. In fact, there have been eight teams in MLB history to trail 2-0 in a best-of-five series and come back to win. Those eight are:

1981 Dodgers (NLDS)

1982 Brewers (ALCS)

1984 Padres (NLCS)

1995 Mariners (ALDS)

1999 Red Sox (ALDS)

2001 Yankees (ALDS)

2003 Red Sox (ALDS)

2012 Giants (NLDS)

Among those eight, five played in the World Series that season, with the 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers and 2012 San Francisco Giants each winning it all.

The Dodgers, led by excellent starting pitching, went all the way after scoring just one total run in their first two games of the NLDS against the Houston Astros, including an extra-inning loss in Game 2 that ended on a home run. They battled back and won Game 5 at home against Astros’ starter Nolan Ryan, then went on to knock off the Montreal Expos in the NLCS and the New York Yankees in the Fall Classic.

San Francisco, also led by great starting pitching, lost its first two games at home to the Cincinnati Reds in the 2012 NLDS, scoring just two total runs, then won three straight in Cincinnati when the bats got hot. The Giants kept the magic alive, beating the St. Louis Cardinals in the NLCS after trailing, 3-1, and eventually swept the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.

In 1995, the Seattle Mariners lost Game 1 against the New York Yankees, then lost in 15 innings in Game 2 on a home run. That game coincidentally included a Yankee RBI double to tie the game with two outs and Seattle one out away from winning, with the go-ahead runner getting thrown out at the plate on a relay from the left fielder to shortstop to catcher. The Mariners eventually won the series on a walk-off in Game 5.

The 2001 New York Yankees followed the exact first-round path the Nats are aiming for. They lost the first two games at home to the Wild Card Oakland Athletics, scoring three total runs. Facing elimination, they traveled across the country to face a Bay Area team featuring a tough left-handed pitcher, Barry Zito. In the seventh inning, clinging to a 1-0 lead, Derek Jeter’s famous “flip” play saved the season, and the Yankees won the game, took Game 4 the next night, then traveled back to New York and won Game 5. They made it all the way to Game 7 of the World Series, where they lost to the Arizona Diamondbacks — a team featuring cleanup hitter Matt Williams.

What to watch for: NLDS Game 2

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by Mike Feigen

San Francisco Giants lead Washington Nationals, 1-0

5:37 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1

zimmermann-IG-sizeThe Scene

After dropping Game 1 to the Giants, 3-2, the Nationals will look to build on the late-game energy that saw them reach base safely seven times in the sixth through eighth innings on Friday — including monster home runs by No. 6 hitter Bryce Harper and No. 8 man Asdrubal Cabrera. Meanwhile, the Giants hope to receive another strong start from a veteran right-hander, as Tim Hudson takes the hill for the 11th time in his postseason career.

The Stakes

The Nationals’ mission in Game 2 is clear: find a way to even the series at 1-1 before departing for San Francisco to face ace left-hander Madison Bumgarner. The only two teams in MLB history to fall behind 0-2 at home before winning a five-game series are the 2001 Yankees (with an assist from the famous Derek Jeter “flip” play) and the 2012 Giants (winning three straight at Cincinnati and eventually claiming the World Series title).

San Francisco Lineup

CF Gregor Blanco

2B Joe Panik

C Buster Posey

3B Pablo Sandoval

RF Hunter Pence

1B Brandon Belt

SS Brandon Crawford

LF Travis Ishikawa

RHP Tim Hudson

Washington Lineup

CF Denard Span

3B Anthony Rendon

RF Jayson Werth

1B Adam LaRoche

SS Ian Desmond

LF Bryce Harper

C Wilson Ramos

2B Asdrubal Cabrera

RHP Jordan Zimmermann

The Starters

One of two diametrically opposing trends has a chance to change course when 39-year-old right-hander Tim Hudson takes the mound for the Giants on Saturday evening at Nationals Park. He could either put an end to his personal postseason misery, which has seen his teams go 2-8 in his 10 appearances (plus zero NLDS series wins), or his spell over the Nationals (18-5, 2.35 ERA lifetime) could be broken. Unlike Game 1 starter Jake Peavy, who came into the series red hot, Hudson stumbled down the stretch, going 0-5 with an 8.72 ERA in five September starts.

Jordan Zimmermann resides on the other end of the spectrum, after posting a 4-0 record with a 1.32 ERA in five September outings including a no-hitter on the final day of the regular season. The Nationals are a remarkable 11-0 in Zimmermann’s last 11 starts since the beginning of August, providing the right-hander with an average of 5.4 runs of support. The last time the Auburndale, Wisc. native took the hill in October, he struck out the side in an electric relief appearance against the St. Louis Cardinals in Game 4 of the 2012 NLDS.

The Offenses

The Giants scratched out eight hits — all singles — against Game 1 starter Stephen Strasburg, and will look to do more of the same against Zimmermann. Second baseman Joe Panik, first baseman Brandon Belt and shortstop Brandon Crawford continued their success after the Wild Card round, collecting multi-hit games, while each of the other five starting position players added at least one hit as well. San Francisco Manager Bruce Bochy is sticking with the same lineup for the third straight postseason game, after his club collected 23 hits and a pair of wins in its first two October contests.

Matt Williams also penciled in the same starting eight as Game 1 in front of Zimmermann, but will look for a few members of the lineup to find their stride at the plate. Leadoff man Denard Span and shortstop Ian Desmond were both saddled with 0-for-4  afternoons on Friday, but Span hasn’t gone multiple games without a hit since August and Desmond is a .288 (15-for-52) hitter against Hudson. Right fielder Jayson Werth, after drawing two walks and seeing a remarkable 27 pitches in four plate appearances in Game 1, could be poised for a particularly big game. Werth has worn out Hudson during his career, batting .386/.449/.750 (1.199 OPS) with four doubles, four homers and 12 runs batted in against the righty.

The Best of the Rest

The San Francisco bullpen was tested in Game 1, and came through with the win despite mixed results. Lefties Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affeldt each fell behind in the count in their one-batter assignments, with Lopez eventually walking Adam LaRoche and Affeldt recovering from down 3-0 to retire Span. Flame-throwing righty Hunter Strickland recorded the biggest out of the game with a bases-loaded strikeout of Desmond in the sixth, but served up the long balls to Harper and Cabrera the following inning. Sergio Romo worked around a pair of hits in the eighth, while closer Santiago Casilla retired the side in order in the ninth. The Giants’ bench, without Angel Pagan and Michael Morse for the series, went 0-for-2.

Left-handed batter Nate Schierholtz passed his first October test with flying colors, as he led off the bottom of the sixth inning with a double to right field in a pinch-hitting spot. Later, Ryan Zimmerman and Danny Espinosa were unable to replicate that success, but still provide Williams with quality depth at the plate, on the bases and in the field. Southpaws Jerry Blevins and Matt Thornton were excellent in their innings out of the bullpen, and while Craig Stammen allowed a run on a tough-luck triple and a run-scoring single off his glove, he should continue to be a solid option out of the bullpen. Tyler Clippard fired a nine-pitch top of the ninth in his inning of work, while closer Drew Storen still awaits his first appearance of the series.

What to watch for: NL Wild Card Game

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by Mike Feigen

1000x790_bumgarner_volquez_woyetmcb_wki2e2c9The Scene

Pittsburgh’s PNC Park will be the first ballpark to host two one-game Wild Card contests, after the Pirates cruised past the Cincinnati Reds a season ago, 6-2. Despite its cozy confines, Pirates fans turned up the volume a season ago and leaned on their proximity to the field of play, particularly in left field. Pittsburgh fans mercilessly taunted Reds hurler Johnny Cueto, who served up four runs on eight hits — including a pair of homers — in just 3.1 innings of work.

The Stakes

The winner will travel to Washington to face the Nationals this Friday, opening the best-of-five National League Division Series in the Nation’s Capital. Should the Pirates win, Game 1 will begin at 12:07 p.m. ET, but should the Giants prevail, first pitch will be at 3:07 p.m. local time at Nationals Park.

San Francisco Lineup

CF Gregor Blanco

2B Joe Panik

C Buster Posey

3B Pablo Sandoval

RF Hunter Pence

1B Brandon Belt

SS Brandon Crawford

LF Travis Ishikawa

LHP Madison Bumgarner

 

Pittsburgh Lineup

3B Josh Harrison

SS Jordy Mercer

CF Andrew McCutchen

C Russell Martin

LF Starling Marte

2B Neil Walker

1B Gaby Sanchez

RF Travis Snider

RHP Edinson Volquez

 

The Starters

San Francisco will turn to its ace, 25-year-old southpaw Madison Bumgarner, in this do-or-die contest. Bumgarner (18-10, 2.98) is no stranger to postseason baseball, with dominant performances in the Giants’ 2010 and 2012 World Series victories. He’s had mixed results against the Pirates, however, including a loss on July 28 of this year in which he was touched up for five runs in the first 1.1 innings of the game. Bumgarner is dominant against left-handed hitters, allowing a .539 OPS and just five walks all season, but is mortal against righties, allowing a .684 OPS — including 20 home runs.

Edinson Volquez (13-7, 3.04) will take the hill for the Pirates. A 31-year-old journeyman who has pitched for the Reds, Padres, Dodgers and Pirates since 2011, Volquez is the Pirates’ No. 3 starter behind left-hander Francisco Liriano and righty Gerrit Cole. However, in their attempt to claim the NL Central crown, manager Clint Hurdle elected to throw his aces over the weekend, putting his faith in Volquez. The right-hander posted a career-low strikeout rate, walked more than three batters per nine innings, and relied on a .263 batting average on balls in play, so he’ll have to maintain his good luck to prevail Wednesday night.

The Offenses

At the plate, the Pirates likely have the better offense at this point in the season. Defending 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen leads a talented group that includes breakout performer Josh Harrison, power-speed threat Starling Marte and team leader Russell Martin. And while Martin’s two-homer performance in last year’s Wild Card stole the show last year, McCutchen remains the club’s biggest star. The center fielder hit .314/.410/.542 with 38 doubles, six triples, 25 home runs and 18 stolen bases in 2014, with his .410 on-base percentage leading all of Major League Baseball.

The Giants will attempt to match the Pittsburgh firepower with a former MVP of its own, as Buster Posey leads an attack that has been slowed by injuries in the second half of the season. Posey, the 2012 NL MVP Award winner, batted .311/.364/.490 this season, while All-Star outfielder Hunter Pence boasted a .777 OPS and 106 runs scored in 2014. San Francisco will miss the services of leadoff man and center fielder Angel Pagan, who recently underwent surgery to repair a herniated disk in his back, as well as former National Michael Morse, who will also miss the Wild Card Game due to injury.

The Best of the Rest

Because of the injuries to Morse and Pagan, the Giants will enter Wednesday night’s contest with plenty of question marks. Joaquin Arias, Gary Brown, Matt Duffy, Adam Duvall, Juan Perez, Guillermo Quiroz and Adam Susac comprise a bench that isn’t likely to strike fear into opposing pitchers, but could find themselves in key situations depending on how manager Bruce Bochy handles his substitutions. In the Pirates’ dugout, infielder Clint Barmes, first baseman Ike Davis and outfielders Gregory Polanco and Jose Tabata have more pedigree than the San Francisco reserves, but Davis and Polanco are liabilities against left-handers and may not see the batter’s box unless Bumgarner is out of the game.

Should the game rest on the success of the bullpens, both teams ranked in the top 10 in the league in bullpen ERA and each can match up with talented lefties and righties. The Giants feature veteran southpaws Jeremy Affeldt and Javier Lopez, along with righties Sergio Romo and Santiago Casilla. The Pirates are led by closer Mark Melancon (33 saves, 1.90 ERA) and lefty set-up man Tony Watson (10 wins, 34 holds, 1.63 ERA), two of the best in the business.

The Edge

If last night’s American League Wild Card Game (won 9-8 by Kansas City in 12 innings) is any indication, anything is possible. San Francisco will rely on Bumgarner to carry them through, while Pittsburgh will look to run up the score against a team that may not be able to match them blow for blow. Playing at home is always nice to have in a winner-take-all contest, and by virtue of their 4-2 head-to-head record against the Giants this season, the Pirates won the right to host Wednesday night’s game — and therefore hold the very slightest of advantages.

Inside the Numbers: Starting Rotation

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by Mike Feigen

startersnldsWhen the Nationals take the field for Game 1 of the National League Division Series this Friday, whichever pitcher Matt Williams entrusts with the starting assignment will give the team a tremendous chance to win.

That’s what the eye test tells us.

Fans of the Nationals saw Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, Doug Fister, Tanner Roark and Gio Gonzalez win game after game — or at least help the club earn win after win — throughout the regular season. Those core members of the starting five owned a collective record of 69-42 (.622) and the Nationals went 94-55 (.631) when one of them received the ball.

However, wins and losses really don’t tell a precise story of how well a pitcher performed. Too many external factors come into play in each win and loss, such as run support, batted ball luck and bullpen performance.

Instead, we look at the types of things a pitcher can control, such as walks and strikeouts. In the case of the 2014 Nationals, no pitching staff did it better — in the history of baseball.

This season, Washington pitchers struck out 1,288 opposing batters and walked 352. That’s a ratio of 3.66-to-1, a better rate than any of the other 2,391 teams to play a full season of baseball since 1901.

In fact, only 60 other teams in history had even managed a 2.66-to-1 ratio, underscoring just how well the Nationals struck batters out and limited free passes.

But the 3.66-to-1 figure only scratches the surface.

When considering only starting pitchers, the Nationals’ figure leaps to an astounding 4.05-to-1. And when excluding the 13 spot starts posted throughout the year by Blake Treinen, Taylor Jordan and Taylor Hill — leaving just the core five of Zimmermann, Strasburg, Fister, Roark and Gonzalez — the limits of the statistical stratosphere are tested.

The final ratio? An incredible 4.30-to-1.

So, when the going gets tough and runners are on base in the postseason, Williams, pitching coach Steve McCatty and the rest of the Nationals have the numbers on their side to back up what we’ve seen in the regular season. Notching a timely strikeout instead of issuing an inopportune walk can make or break a team in October — and one team is better equipped to do it than any other.

 Name K BB K:BB ratio
Zimmermann 182 29 6.28
Strasburg 242 43 5.63
Fister 98 24 4.08
Roark 138 39 3.54
Gonzalez 162 56 2.89
TOTAL 822 191 4.30

A day of celebration

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by Mike Feigen

For 20 teams throughout the major leagues, the day after the conclusion of the regular season is often a time for reflection, a chance to digest a year of ups and downs, of wins and losses, of hopes dashed and chances blown. For 10 others, it is an opportunity to look forward to the postseason, to dream of a magical championship run yet to be scripted.

The Washington Nationals are one of those fortunate 10 — but the looking forward part can wait, at least for one day.

Sunday, Sept. 28, 2014, a picturesque afternoon in the nation’s capital, brought a sense of history to a town built upon extraordinary achievements. Jordan Zimmermann, the stoic leader of a dominant pitching staff, entered Game No. 162 of the regular season looking to log a few innings of work as a tune-up for the playoffs.

Instead, he threw the first no-hitter in Nationals history.

the Washington Nationals playt the Miami MarlinsZimmermann, 28 years old with the number 27 on his back, turned in a performance worthy of the history books. The right-hander struck out 10 Miami Marlins, walked just one and needed just 104 pitches to complete his effort. He became the third D.C.-based hurler to record a no-hitter, following in the footsteps of Hall of Famer Walter Johnson (July 1, 1920) and the less-heralded Bobby Burke (Aug. 8, 1931).

He also needed help from his defense.

Rookie outfielder Steven Souza Jr., inserted by manager Matt Williams into left field in the top of the ninth inning with the Nationals still clinging to a 1-0 lead, made one of the finest game-ending catches in Nationals history. The 6-foot-4, 224-pound thoroughbred reacted quickly as Marlins leadoff hitter Christian Yelich drove a 2-1 fastball deep toward the gap in left-center, turning and galloping back and to his left as the ball hurtled through the air. Gaining ground on the deep liner, Souza Jr. left his feet, glove on his left hand outstretched, his open right hand ready to protect the ball, his body nearly horizontal to the ground.

The crowd of 35,085, standing and roaring throughout the final inning, briefly fell silent. Zimmermann, whose head dropped upon contact, turned to watch the final few feet of the flight of the ball — and the final few feet of Souza Jr.’s leap.

Then, bedlam.

Zimmermann raised both arms high, Souza Jr. raised his glove in the air, ball secure in its webbing, as teammates rushed toward the center of the diamond. For a surreal 30 seconds, Nationals Park became a deafeningly loud sea of high-fives, with families sharing memories and strangers hugging red-clad strangers, beneath the canopy of a perfect, blue, late-September sky.

It was an immaculate ending. It could be a beautiful beginning. October awaits.

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