9.28.13: Nationals 2, Diamondbacks 0
Stat of the Game: Dan Haren was in command in his final start of the season, scattering four hits over seven scoreless frames.
Under-the-Radar Performance: Another former D-Back, Chad Tracy, went 2-for-3 with a walk and a solo shot, his first homer since June 17.
It Was Over When: Rafael Soriano got the final three outs to record his 43rd save, second-most in the National League.
Jordan Zimmermann was dominant against the defending American League Champion Detroit Tigers on Monday, setting down the final 18 batters he faced after allowing a leadoff single to begin the game. And as impressive as he was in dismantling one of the best offenses in baseball, he accomplished a feat even more rare off the field just last week.
As they have done each of the last three years, a collection of Nationals players, coaches and staff joined together for a par three scramble challenge on the Doral course near Space Coast Stadium last Monday night. With the off day on Tuesday, the tradition allowed for the group to come together off the field and bond over some friendly competition.
If you didn’t already know, the Nationals feature a number of very good golfers, mostly members of the pitching staff, particularly the bullpen. Each group of four on the course had a designated A, B, C and D player, based on respective skill. Zimmermann, whose golf score hovers around his fastball – somewhere in the mid-90s, according to the pitcher – was the “C” player on Tyler Clippard’s squad, which began the day on the third hole, just over 100 yards long. And while Clippard may have been the designated “A” player, it didn’t take long for Zimmermann to establish himself as the ringer of the team.
“First swing of the day,” explained Zimmermann. “I pulled my pitching wedge, spun it back, and it went in.”
A hole-in-one on his very first swing, and style points to boot with the backspin.
Along with Clippard, Zimmermann’s team included Syracuse Chiefs hitting coach and “B” player Troy Gingrich, as well as Nationals strength and conditioning coach John Philbin, holding down the “D” player spot. Together, they combined to go 11 under par over 18 holes, forcing a playoff.
On the first playoff hole, Zimmermann again stepped up to finish what he had so masterfully started.
“He buried a 20-footer to win,” said Clippard, whose team knocked off the foursome of Drew Storen, Rick Eckstein, Harrisburg Senators pitching coach Paul Menhart and Kurt Suzuki.
It was both Clippard and Zimmermann’s first win in the tournament’s three-year history, but Philbin’s second consecutive win. Simply known as “Coach” to most in the clubhouse, they gave him a hard time for backing into his success again.
“Somehow Coach always finds his way onto the winning team,” said Zimmermann, who certainly earned the right to make the joke.
The par three scramble challenge will no doubt remain an annual tradition, as it is one of the only times all year the entire team is able to convene outside of the ballpark, just relax, and enjoy each other’s company.
“I wish we could do it once a week,” said Clippard of the event.
Of course, winning probably helps.
It is said that 90 percent of baseball is pitching. Abiding by that adage, Team USA stands just one win from the championship round of the World Baseball Classic thanks in large part to a pair of stellar performances, both by members of the Washington Nationals starting rotation.
After Ross Detwiler kept the Americans’ hopes alive by closing out Italy over four scoreless frames on Saturday night, it was Gio Gonzalez’s turn in his hometown of Miami on Tuesday. Pitching in front of a raucous crowd of 32,872, he pumped fastballs, spun curveballs and pulled the string on his ever-improving changeup to befuddle a Puerto Rican squad full of Major Leaguers. By the time Gonzalez was done, just three opposing batters had reached safely in five shutout frames, with five strikeouts to boot. Team USA went on to win by a 7-1 final, with Gonzalez the victor.
Think about it this way: if Detwiler and Gonzalez had pitched their nine combined innings in the same game, they would have collaborated on a four-hit shutout of the international field with a single walk and eight strikeouts.
“This was a blessing to be alongside some of the greatest,” said Gonzalez of his first opportunity to represent Team USA. “To say that I pitched in front of my home crowd and to win, it’s truly a dream.”
Perhaps the most impressive part of Gonzalez’s outing was his pinpoint control, which led to 48 strikes in his 69 total pitches. That’s a 70 percent strike rate, compared with the 62 percent he posted last year, lower than every other member of the Washington rotation (Cliff Lee led MLB at 70.5 percent). If nothing else, it’s an encouraging sign for Nationals fans looking to see what Gonzalez can do to build off his 21-win season a year ago.
“We were right on the same page, every pitch,” said Gonzalez of his interactions with his catcher, Joe Mauer, whom he said he shook off only once all game. “I felt confident enough to go out and pound the strike zone.”
Team USA will get Wednesday off – as Puerto Rico and Italy will battle to stay alive in the tournament – before taking on the Dominican Republic on Thursday. While that would be Detwiler’s throw day, he is unsure as of yet whether or not he will be called upon in that game. Gonzalez, meanwhile, would not start again until the championship round, should Team USA advance to San Francisco.
Every year, in every Major League camp, there is some youngster who shows up, opens eyes with his swing or his arm, and becomes the next most-talked about prospect, waiting to crack the big leagues. Yes, we’re early in spring. Yes the Nationals roster looks just about full, minus a pitcher or two in the bullpen. But this year’s player, clear to anyone who has been watching, is Anthony Rendon.
Last year, fans of Bryce Harper, who had been following him since his Sports Illustrated cover photo at age 16, trumpeted his case to make the Opening Day roster. And while Harper flashed signs of the player that would roar through September to capture NL Rookie of the Year honors, he was a raw ball of energy back in March.
Rendon is the anti-Harper. He is so relaxed, so smooth – and generously listed at just 6’0”, 195 pounds, so unimposing – that one might not even notice he was there, if not for the booming cracks of baseballs flying off his bat.
His swing is not violent like Harper’s. Instead, it starts with a big, smooth, looping hand load, a Ryan Zimmerman-esque leg kick, and a sudden flash of some of the fastest hands you’ve ever seen. One moment, he appears to be just watching a pitch into the mitt. The next, he has turned it around, sending it screaming to some distant corner of the field.
Danny Espinosa sat at third base with two out in the bottom of the second on Thursday night as the Nationals hosted the Mets in Viera. Rendon – batting eighth and playing third base – fell behind in the count, worked it back even, then swatted a double to the opposite-field gap in right-center, into the prevailing wind. In his second at-bat, with runners at the corners, he hit a sharp grounder deep in the hole at short, which only failed to go for another hit as Omar Quintanilla was able to go the short way to second for a force, with Ian Desmond scampering home from third base.
Two more at-bats, two more RBI. The 22-year-old with just 160 professional plate appearances has been the most productive player at the plate for Washington so far this spring, batting .417 (5-for-12) with two doubles, a home run and a team-high five RBI. One of the seven outs he’s made came on a home run robbed at the wall in Port St. Lucie a few days ago.
Then there’s the defense, the forgotten part of Rendon’s game. He didn’t have any chances Thursday night, but has already made a pair of notable plays this spring. On Tuesday in Lake Buena Vista, he snared a hot shot, raced to the bag at third for the force, and fired a seed across the diamond for a 5-3, inning-ending double play. The next day, he charged a Chone Figgins bunt up the line, barehanded the ball on a do-or-die play, then straightened up and threw a bullet to first to beat the speedy runner by a full step.
After making a short, wide-eyed stint in Major League Spring Training last year, the Rice University product looks noticeably more settled in all aspects of his game this year.
“I think I’m a lot more comfortable now, just knowing that I have one year under my belt,” said Rendon of camp this year, and added that he was thrilled to be getting a lot of opportunities early in spring. “I missed a large amount of games last year, so just any at-bats, any playing time I can get right now is really helpful.”
Baseball America ranks Rendon the 30th overall prospect in baseball, tops among Nationals farmhands. MLB.com has Rendon at 28th, while Baseball Prospectus has him 35th. After a week of games, one has to wonder how much his stock may have risen already. And while Thursday night was the first chance for many Nationals fans to see the young star play on television, it shouldn’t be long before they have that opportunity every night.