Nationals Manager Matt Williams named 2014 BBWAA NL Manager of the Year

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by Amanda Comak

After leading the Washington Nationals to their second National League East title in the last three years, Nationals manager Matt Williams was named the 2014 National League Manager of the Year Tuesday night by the Baseball Writers Association of America.

Williams received a total 109 points, including 18 first-place votes. Pittsburgh Pirates manager Clint Hurdle finished second in the voting, and San Francisco Giants Manager Bruce Bochy was third.

Williams, who joins Davey Johnson to become the second manager in Nationals history to earn this honor, had an exceptionally successful rookie season in the dugout as he led the Nationals to an NL-best 96 victories and the division title.

“On behalf of the Lerner Family and the entire Washington Nationals organization, I want to offer heartfelt congratulations to Matt on this well-deserved award,” said Nationals President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo. “His first year in the dugout was excellent, and it was a pleasure to watch him grow throughout. He is a respected leader, and the steady hand that navigated our team through many challenges this season.

“What we accomplished this season would not have been possible without the right man at the helm. That was Matt this season, and we’re all looking forward to 2015.”

National League Division Series Game OneSince the inception of the award in 1983, Williams is just the fourth first-year manager ever to win it. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, he joins Hal Lanier (Houston Astros, 1986), Dusty Baker (San Francisco Giants, 1993), and Joe Girardi (Florida Marlins, 2006).

“I am incredibly honored and humbled by this award,” Williams said. “This was a very special year for us, and I am proud of what we accomplished in my first season at the helm. For me, as a newcomer to the managerial fraternity, it is a privilege just to be considered amongst the best in our game. Clint and Bruce are certainly that.

“While this is an incredible acknowledgement by the writers, I know we have bigger goals to accomplish in Washington and I look forward to the challenge that the 2015 season will bring.”

The Nationals, though besieged by injuries, won their division by the largest margin (17.0 games) of any in the Major Leagues under Williams’ watch. Over the course of the season, the Nationals saw 948 total games missed due to stints on the Disabled List, with Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Wilson Ramos, Doug Fister, Gio Gonzalez, Adam LaRoche and Denard Span – all key players — accounting for 284 of those games.

While the Nationals withstood that barrage, Williams’ guided them toward steady improvement as the season progressed.

After playing to a .500 record (27-27) through the season’s first two months, the Nationals were at least four games over the .500 mark in each remaining month of the season, finishing 69-39 from June through September. That stretch included a 19-10 month of August that featured a 10-game winning streak from Aug. 12-21, the longest winning streak in the National League this season.

On Sept. 16, the Nationals clinched their second National League East Division title, and they finished the regular season with a 96-66 record.

Williams, 48, was named the fifth field manager in Nationals history on Oct. 31, 2013. The five-time All-Star third baseman was also voted by his managerial peers as the 2014 Sporting News Manager of the Year.

Get to know the Nationals in the AFL: Derek Self

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by Kyle Brostowitz

The Arizona Fall League is known as the “finishing school” for the game’s top prospects. Over the course of the season, we will give readers a chance to get to know the players representing the Nationals as members of the Mesa Solar Sox.

We’ve already caught up with infielder Tony Renda, left-hander Matt Grace, and catcher Spencer Kieboom.

Self_DerekNext up: right-hander Derek Self.

A ninth-round pick in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft out of the University of Louisville, Self reached Double-A for the first time in his young professional career this past season. He went 5-4 with four saves and a 2.70 ERA (20 ER/66.2 IP) in 42 appearances between Single-A Potomac and Harrisburg. He struck out a career-high 61 batters and walked just 18 along the way.

His strong regular-season performance has carried over to the Arizona Fall League, where he has allowed just two earned runs in 14.0 IP (1.29 ERA) in eight appearances out of Mesa’s bullpen.

We recently caught up with the Cave City, KY native to talk about his 2014 season and his experience in the Arizona Fall League.

Can you describe your experience so far in Arizona?

It’s been great out here. A really cool experience. I’d been out here one time for college regionals, but to live out here for a month-and-a-half and get to play baseball every day is truly amazing.

How does it feel to put on the Nationals uniform every night?

It’s an honor and privilege to wear that ‘W’ on my chest. Knowing every day I walk into the clubhouse I get to represent the Nationals and I intend to do that the best I can. But my goal is to soon put on that Nationals uniform every day in D.C.

What have you/are you going to use the AFL to work on? What are your goals?

I’m just learning how to pitch better in certain counts to better hitters. I’m really working on my new changeup and throwing it not only to lefties but right-handers as well. 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.

How have you been adjusting to the “pace of play” rules that are being implemented in the AFL?

It really hasn’t affected me. I know with the time situation of delivering the pitch, but I’ve always worked pretty fast.

What has it been like, getting to know your Mesa teammates/the other top prospects in the game?

It’s been great. It’s always nice to travel around and be on different teams. You get to know all these new players and you spend so much time with them that you become friends. I’ve made a lot of new friends out here and met a lot of great guys.

What have you done on your off days? Tony Renda said that he dominated you in a round of golf. Would you like to refute those claims?

Honestly, I have relaxed for the most part. My roommates and I will chill by the pool, get a little sun — because I know I’m not getting that when I go back to Kentucky. We hiked Camelback Mountain, which was a great experience.

And yes, I’ve played some golf and with Tony. He didn’t dominate me — he got me by one stroke. I think he may have kicked a ball out of woods and had a little help once or twice.

Did you cross paths with Neil Holland at all at the University of Louisville? If so, how has it been going on this journey with him?

Yes, I actually did. I got to play with him for two years — my freshman and sophomore seasons. It’s been great to share this season with him again, and also out in the Fall League. If you asked me in college if we both would be playing with the Nationals organization, let alone be in the Fall League at the same time, I wouldn’t think there would be a shot. So to be able to do this with him, it’s pretty cool.

There are two coaches on the Mesa staff with significant Big League experience (Ron Villone and Matt Wise). What, if anything, have you learned from working with them for a few weeks?

It’s an honor to be coached and have these two guys around you every day. They both have given me more knowledge about pitching, and suggestions to help me succeed in the big leagues. But just talking to them both, I’ve learned a lot more about the game and I’m appreciative to have them along my journey.

This was one of your better professional seasons. What were some of your keys to success this season?

Thanks. I feel like I had a pretty good season as well. I felt like I should’ve done a little bit better in Harrisburg, but it was a learning experience, also. I feel like when I was having success, I was doing a really good job of locating with the fastball and really mixing up my pitches. Not trying to strikeout everyone, just trying to get weak contact. That was huge for me. I also had more confidence in myself than I’ve ever had. That truly makes you a better pitcher, and it’s a big difference when it comes down to who wins the battle with the hitter.

The AFL is generally known as a “hitter’s league.” Have you seen that, and has your approach changed based on the quality of hitters this league produces?

I wouldn’t call it a hitters league, because I’ve seen a lot of good pitching also. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of good hitters here. But my approach really hasn’t changed that much. I go out there and pitch like I always do and not try to do too much.

Is there an added level of comfort for you, and the other pitchers, having Spencer Kieboom and Pedro Severino behind the plate, fellow Nats catchers?

Yes a lot. They know you better than any other catcher, so they know how you like to pitch. I’ve spent a good amount of time with both Spencer and Pedro, and it just makes things better when you’re out there with your fellow Nats catcher.

Jerry Blevins heads to Japan for MLB All-Star Series

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by Amanda Comak

Jerry Blevins had been to Japan before. Back in 2012, when he was a member of the Oakland Athletics, the lefty traveled to the country as part of their season-opening series vs. the Seattle Mariners. He’d seen some of the iconic sights and had some unique experiences – like putting on a clinic for soldiers’ children at an army base and getting a chance to fly around that base in a helicopter.

He soaked in as much as he could in the week or so that the A’s were there.

And when the Major League Baseball Players Association put out an inquiry during the 2014 season for players interested in participating in the 2014 Japan All-Star Series, Blevins didn’t hesitate to throw his name into the ring.

Then he waited, and hoped.

“I put my name in a long time ago,” Blevins said last week as he packed for the trip that would take him to Los Angeles for two days, and then to Japan through Nov. 20. “As you can tell from the talent on the roster, there are a lot of guys who wanted to do this. I’m just so honored my name was picked.”

Team Photo  Ben Platt/MLB.comThe Nationals’ versatile lefty spoke excitedly of what was ahead of him: a chance to play with former teammates again and an opportunity to meet new ones, to soak in another international experience and sightsee while representing MLB, and to go through it all with his fiancée, Whitney.

“For the most part, I’m just excited to be in Japan and experience that culture from a different standpoint,” Blevins said. “(Whitney) has never been, and we’re really excited to go. I’ve been almost more excited for her to go over there, and have her share that experience with me, than I am for myself, really.”

The Japan All-Star Series will begin Wednesday and run through Nov. 18, but the MLB All-Stars will play an exhibition game on Tuesday (4 a.m. ET), and on Nov. 20. MLBNetwork will broadcast all seven games.

Here’s a breakdown of the schedule:

  • Tuesday:Exhibition game vs. Hanshin Tigers/Yomiuri Giants at Koshien Stadium, Osaka (6 p.m. JT/4 a.m. ET)
    • Wednesday: Game No. 1 at Kyocera Dome, Osaka (6 p.m. JT/4 a.m. ET)
    • Thursday: Travel day
    • Friday, Nov. 14: Game No. 2 at Tokyo Dome, Tokyo (6 p.m. JT/4 a.m. ET)
    • Saturday, Nov. 15: Game No. 3 at Tokyo Dome, Tokyo (6 p.m. JT/4 a.m. ET)
    • Sunday, Nov. 16: Game No. 4 at Tokyo Dome, Tokyo (6 p.m. JT/4 a.m. ET)
    • Monday, Nov. 17: Travel day
    • Tuesday, Nov. 18: Game No. 5 at Sapporo Dome, Sapporo (7 p.m. JT/5 a.m. ET)
    • Wednesday, Nov. 19: Travel day
    • Thursday, Nov. 20: Exhibition game vs. Samurai Japan, Okinawa Cellular Stadium, Okinawa (6 p.m. JT/4 a.m. ET)

Before Blevins left for Japan, we caught up with him about a host of topics. Here’s some of what the affable lefty had to say:

What do you know about the Japanese style of baseball?

They’re very business-like, in a good sense of the phrase. They go about batting practice and make sure they’re trying to get better with every swing. They take the game very seriously, but they also have fun playing it and they play it in a positive manner. You can see that with a lot of the Japanese players who come over.

Their hitters put the ball in play. They put pressure on the defense. They’re not always trying to swing for power. There’s a lot of finesse in their game. Facing Ichiro Suzuki, like I have a lot in my career, that guy can put the ball in play from any different angle. He basically could, where I could throw a ball and hit a spot in the outfield right behind shortstop, he could do that with a bat. It’s just something that they take pride in, being able to have that kind of control.

Do you know any Japanese?

No, not really. I know ‘Hello’ and ‘Goodbye.’ In 2011, Hideki Matsui was on my team and whenever we were on the road our lockers would be really close.  His translator, Roger, had the locker right next to mine so I talked to him all the time.

I consider myself a fairly intelligent person who learns well – but the Japanese language did not come easily to me. I got frustrated and gave up early, even with him trying to help me out. It’s very complex. There’s a lot of pitch and tone and inflection. If there was an alphabet for me to learn off of, that would be easier but they don’t have that.

What has the process been like to get ready to pitch in a competitive situation in November? Did you have to look at your shut down period after the season differently? What have you been doing to prepare your body for that and are you concerned it will affect your offseason routine?

I’m not worried at all that it’s going to affect my preparation for next season, but I did have to make some adjustments because after our season ended — prematurely, in my eyes — there was a gap between when I knew I was going to be on this team or whether I was still in limbo because they were finalizing the roster. So I had to keep throwing just in case. Nothing super intense, but if I had to ramp it up, I could.

When they decided I was going to be on the team I talked to the pitching coach about what my role was going to be and what I need to be prepared for. So, because I had planned on pitching through October with the Nationals, that was easy for me. My body was in shape to do that and my arm is pretty resilient just throwing year round. Being from a cold-weather place, I throw more in the offseason than most guys do anyway, I’ve come to find out. So, this will not affect me for next year in my preparation, but I did have to adjust and be ready for this.

Is there anyone going who you’re excited to play with again or get to play with?

I played with Evan Longoria with Team USA after the season in 2007, we went to Taiwan. I’m excited to be his teammate again. There’s just a full roster of guys who I’ve admired in baseball who I get to play with. It should be fun.

Are you bringing the amazing CATS sweater (purchased at the Mall of America) to Japan with you?

I will not be bringing it to Japan… It’s a purchase that I’m proud of and I break it out probably once a year. The back of it has little paw prints so it’s pretty nice. I don’t know if you can tell, there are yarn balls the little cats are playing it. The string that connects that is an actual string.

Was it cool for you to find yourself listed on Sports Illustrated’s Twitter 100?

Yeah, so cool! Completely shocked by that because I do tweet, but I don’t tweet a ton. But I admire the Twitter world,and to be mentioned by Sports Illustrated was very cool. I think there were only three ballplayers on there, so I’m pretty honored to be a part of that.

A little pressure going forward. But, no, that’s what I love about Twitter. There’s no pressure to perform. It’s just your personality. If people don’t like it they can unfollow me. That’s what’s great. That’s what I love about it. I’m glad the people over at SI understood my sense of humor and get what I do with it.

Blevins will be sharing glimpses of his trip on that very Twitter account so be sure to give it a follow. You won’t want to miss out. Here’s a sampling of @JerryBlevins_13‘s previous tweets:

Nationals 10th Anniversary Season celebrates longest-tenured fans

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When the Washington Nationals and New York Mets open the 2015 campaign on April 6 at Nationals Park, the occasion will mark the 10th anniversary of Major League Baseball’s return to the nation’s capital.

2005 Livan HernandezThroughout the season, the Nationals will commemorate the top moments of the past 10 years — from Livan Hernandez’s historic first pitch in 2005, to the final out recorded in Jordan Zimmermann’s season-ending no-hitter in 2014.

As part of that greater celebration, the Nationals are also honoring their longest-tenured fans — those who have remained loyal to the team from the very beginning. Those fans have cheered along with the entire career of Ryan Zimmerman, witnessed the opening of a state-of-the-art new ballpark, supported the team through a rebuilding process, experienced the thrill of Stephen Strasburg’s debut and danced in the aisles after Jayson Werth’s walk-off home run in the 2012 NLDS.

Exclusive to 10-year Season Plan Holders, the Nationals are rolling out 10 Moments of Thanks, a series of 10 giveaways and experiences for those who have been with the club since Day One. These Moments include:

  • A chance to register for the opportunity to purchase tickets to the 2015 Bridgestone Winter Classic
  • An exclusive parade on the warning track prior to a game during the 2015 season
  • A special 10 Year Season Plan Holder logo pin
  • In-park signage featuring the names of all continuous 10 Year Season Plan Holders
  • Authenticated dirt from the field used on Opening Day 2015
  • A chance to win one-of-a-kind pregame on-field experiences
  • An exclusive opportunity to run the bases after a game during the 2015 season
  • A commemorative Opening Day 2005 printed game ticket
  • Access to special eCash campaigns featuring exclusive in-game concession and merchandise discounts and offers
  • A pregame VIP batting practice viewing from dugout box seats with front office executives and team officials

In addition, the Nationals will provide all fans with a multitude of memorable giveaways, theme nights and unique experiences throughout the home schedule, as the team defends its 2014 National League East Division Championship.

For more information on the 10 Moments of Thanks program, visit nationals.com/10moments.

Get to know the Nationals in the AFL: Spencer Kieboom

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by Kyle Brostowitz

The Arizona Fall League is known as the “finishing school” for the game’s top prospects. Over the course of the season, we’ll give readers a chance to get to know the players representing the Nationals as members of the Mesa Solar Sox.

So far, we’ve caught up with infielder Tony Renda and left-hander Matt Grace. Next up: catcher Spencer Kieboom, who we recently had a chance to chat with about the 2014 season, as well as his experience in the Arizona Fall League.

Kieboom_SpencerKieboom, a fifth-round selection in the 2012 MLB First-Year Player Draft out of Clemson University, missed the 2013 season after undergoing “Tommy John” ligament replacement surgery to repair the ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow. He returned in 2014 to hit .309 with 28 doubles, four triples, nine home runs, 61 RBI and 50 runs scored in 87 games for the Hagerstown Suns, en route to being named a 2014 South Atlantic League mid-season All-Star.

In addition to his contributions at the plate, the 23-year-old Kieboom was tasked with handling arguably one of the top pitching staffs in the South Atlantic League. It was a staff that boasted top prospects RHP Lucas Giolito (8th in MLB /1st in org), RHP Austin Voth (9th in org), RHP Nick Pivetta (18th in org) and RHP Reynaldo Lopez (20th in org). (Rankings per MLB.com)

That strong staff helped lead the Suns to an 87-53 record, a second-half South Atlantic League Northern Division championship and a runner-up finish in the South Atlantic League Championship Series.

Here’s what Kieboom had to say:

Can you describe your experience so far in Arizona?

On and off the field it has been great. I live with Tony Renda and Derek Self. Both are great guys in the organization. The experience at the field is awesome — being around guys, listening to what they do, and comparing different approaches etc.

How does it feel to put on the Nationals uniform every night?

It feels great to put on the uniform every night. Especially when I first arrived, seeing my name on the back of the jersey, that was special.

What have you/are you going to use the AFL to work on? What are your goals?

I am using the AFL to get more at-bats and have the opportunity to face some of the best pitching. My goals from this experience have been to take something away from this that I can use to further my career. 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.

How have you been adjusting to the “pace of play” rules that are being implemented in the AFL?

I’ve adjusted fine. Some of the rules, I’ve caught myself and had to move a little quicker or make sure I didn’t go out for a mound visit.

What has it been like, getting to know your Mesa teammates/the other top prospects in the game?

These guys are a great group. I like having fun at the park and they all do as well, so when I get to the field it’s an instant pick-me-up, regardless of how my day has been going.

What have you done on your off days?

I went and hiked Camel Back Mountain one day. Other days have been very laid back — chill at the pool, grill, or just watch some football

You missed all of 2013 recovering from Tommy John Surgery. That surgery isn’t as common for position players as it is position players. How was the rehab process for you? How did it feel to get back out and play a full season in 2014?

The physical part of the rehab was not difficult; the hard part was the mental aspect. Showing up every day and digging deep to get the things done that I needed to get done. It’s a long process, and to stay focused was my biggest challenge.

Kieboom_Spencer_actionThe Suns’ starting pitching staff had a lot of success this season and you were behind the plate for the majority of their starts. What did you see on your end as a reason for their collective success?

All of those guys can just flat out pitch. They’re all students of the game and want to perfect their craft. Those guys not only work hard on the field but also off it, to prepare for their starts. Their success was no surprise to me because they would be ready when the ball was given to them every time.

You lived with Lucas Giolito this season in Hagerstown. What is he like off the field? 

Gio is one of the most genuine people I’ve ever met. I have a friendship with him that will last a lifetime. A lot of people don’t know, but Lucas and I roomed together in Florida when we were both rehabbing, too. Him being my roommate when I was going through that time and having someone to help me through the process (since he’d just gone through it) is something I’ll always appreciate.

As a hitter, you’re having success facing some of the top pitching prospects in baseball during the AFL. What has that adjustment been like, going from the South Atlantic League to the Arizona Fall League?

The one thing I try and do is simplify my thoughts. When I go to the plate, I look at it like he’s just another pitcher on the mound and not let myself make the moment bigger than it should be every at-bat, regardless of who is pitching.

You have a familiar face on this team in Patrick Anderson, your manager in Hagerstown. How is it going through this experience with him?

Patrick and I have a special relationship, I feel, from this past season. He’s someone I will talk to for the rest of my life for on- and off-field issues.

The Nationals Major League bullpen coach is fellow Clemson Tiger catcher, Matt LeCroy. Have you met Matt, and has he told you anything?

I’ve met Matt and I enjoy being around him every time I get the chance. He hasn’t told me anything in particular, except a ‘GO TIGERS!’ here and there. I have a lot of respect for him and his career as a professional.

Ian Desmond & Anthony Rendon earn NL Silver Slugger honors

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by Amanda Comak

Silver Slugger LogoAn historic season for Washington Nationals shortstop Ian Desmond and a breakout one for infielder Anthony Rendon was validated with notable hardware on Thursday night.

Desmond and Rendon were honored as Louisville Slugger Silver Slugger Award winners, voted as the best-hitting shortstop and third baseman, respectively, in the National League.

“Our entire organization is exceptionally proud of Ian and Anthony,” said Nationals President of Baseball Operations and GM Mike Rizzo. “These awards confirm what we already knew: that they are two of the best offensive infielders in the game, and we consider them equally talented defensively. After the seasons each of these homegrown players put together, we’re honored that they did it with our uniform on their backs.”

This is the third such honor for Desmond, who notched his third consecutive 20-home run, 20-stolen base campaign this past season, and the first for Rendon, who established himself as one of the best young talents in the game during his sophomore season in the big leagues.

This is just the second time in the Nationals’ short history that they’ve had multiple players earn the National League’s top offensive award in the same season (also 2012).

“I’m extremely humbled and blessed to have won this award for the third straight year,” Desmond said. “It’s a testament to my teammates, who surround me in the lineup, the trainers – Lee Kuntz, Steve Gober and John Hsu – for keeping me on the field, and obviously the coaching staff for bringing out the best in me every day.

“As much of an honor as this is, I still feel like there are a lot of things I can improve on, and will improve on. I’m going to continue to work hard so I can be better next year.”

Leading all NL shortstops with 154 games played, Desmond hit .255 with a .313 on-base percentage and a .430 slugging percentage in 2014. He also led all NL shortstops in home runs (24) and RBI (91), while finishing second in hits (151), runs (73), and placing among the top 10 in doubles (T-4th, 26), triples (10th, 3), and  walks (7th, 46).

As this is the third consecutive season in which Desmond has been named a Silver Slugger Award winner at shortstop — making him the first Nationals player ever to take home three such awards – he now finds himself in elite company. Since the inception of the award in 1980, Desmond is the first National League shortstop to win back-to-back-to-back honors since Hall of Fame shortstop Barry Larkin won five straight from 1988-1992.

Desmond also joins Edgar Renteria and Larkin as the only NL shortstops to win the award at least three times.

Adding 24 stolen bases to his 24 home runs this season, Desmond became just the fourth shortstop in Major League history to notch a 20/20 season at least three times in his career.

“It is that package,” manager Matt Williams said after Desmond hit the milestone. “It’s speed and power… He’s got the ability to do a lot of things. When he puts it together, it’s speed and power, and he’s shown that this year.”

Rendon, who established himself as one of the league’s best infielders in a breakout season, played both second and third base for the Nationals in 2014.

“While I don’t play this game for the individual accolades, I’m incredibly honored to receive this award and to be mentioned in the same breath as these great players — especially my teammate and friend, Ian Desmond,” Rendon said.

“I would like to thank all of the coaches, trainers and teammates who I’ve been with along the way. Without them, I wouldn’t be in a position to accept this.”

Rendon hit .287 with a .351 on-base percentage and a .473 slugging percentage. Leading the National League in runs scored with 111, Rendon clubbed 21 home runs as part of 66 extra-base hits, while walking 58 times and stealing 17 bases.

Exclusively as a third baseman, where he played 134 of his 153 games, Rendon hit .288 with a .353 on-base percentage and a .475 slugging percentage. Nineteen of his 21 home runs came while he was playing the hot corner, as did 53 of his 66 extra-base hits, 72 of his 83 RBI and 89 of his 111 runs scored.

“He’s a very, very impressive player,” Philadelphia Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels told The Washington Post late in the 2014 season. “I put him up with the [Troy] Tulowitzkis and the David Wrights when they first came up, those impact players you don’t normally see at such a young age. You know they’re only going to get better, and you’re like, ‘Great.’ He’s that type of guy — one of those superstars that’s going to be around forever.”

Rendon, who earned himself the nickname ‘Tony Two Bags’ because of his penchant for doubles, finished the year with 16 three-hit games – tied for the third-best mark in the NL with Atlanta Braves first baseman Freddie Freeman and San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey.

According to Fangraphs.com, Rendon’s 6.6 Wins Above Replacement for the 2014 season was tops among all NL infielders, and second only to Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen (6.8).

NATIONALS TO WIN LOUISVILLE SILVER SLUGGER AWARDS (2005-2014)

2006  OF Alfonso Soriano
2009  3B Ryan Zimmerman
2010  3B Ryan Zimmerman
2012  SS Ian Desmond, 1B Adam LaRoche, P Stephen Strasburg
2013  SS Ian Desmond
2014  SS Ian Desmond, 3B Anthony Rendon

Nationals announce exhibition game vs. NYY at Nationals Park

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The Washington Nationals’ 2015 Spring Training schedule will conclude on April 4 with an exhibition game vs. the New York Yankees at Nationals Park.

Just two days later, on April 6, the Nationals will begin the 2015 regular season by hosting the New York Mets at Nationals Park on Opening Day.

This will mark the Yankees’ fourth trip to Washington, D.C., including a previous exhibition contest in 2013, and regular-season visits in 2006 and 2012.

With the Nationals facing American League East teams this season in Interleague play, New York will return to D.C. for two regular-season contests on May 19 and 20. The Nationals will then travel to Yankee Stadium for two games on June 9 and 10.

Tickets for the April 4 exhibition game are included in all 2015 regular season full, half and partial season ticket packages. For more information, or to purchase a NATS PLUS membership, visit nationals.com/2015. Information on single-game tickets for this game will be disseminated at a later date.

Getting to know the Nationals in the AFL: Matt Grace

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by Kyle Brostowitz

The Arizona Fall League is known as the “finishing school” for the game’s top prospects. Over the course of the season, we will give readers a chance to get to know the players representing the Nationals as members of the Mesa Solar Sox.

Last week, we met infielder Tony Renda. Next up, meet left-hander Matt Grace, who is coming off his finest professional season.

Grace_MattGrace enjoyed a breakout year in 2014, going 5-1 with a 1.17 ERA in 50 appearances between Double-A Harrisburg and Triple-A Syracuse. He tallied 62 strikeouts while holding opposing hitters to a .211 average. He surrendered just one home run during the entire 2014 campaign. Featuring a heavy fastball, Grace produced a ground-ball rate of 69 percent this season. For context, the Major League average is usually around 44-45 percent.

Grace was selected in the eighth round of the 2010 First-Year Player Draft out of UCLA. He has appeared in five games for the Solar Sox out of the bullpen, a role he became very familiar with this season.

We recently caught up with the California-native and asked him about his experience:

How are things going for you in Arizona?

The experience in Arizona has been great so far. Playing in the Arizona Fall League has been a lot of fun. Away from the field, Mesa and the surrounding areas have a lot to offer, so it has been cool.

How does it feel to put on the Nationals uniform every night?

I feel very honored to have been selected to play here. Putting on the Nats uniform every day is very gratifying. It is a special set-up here in the Fall League. I think all the players representing the Nationals organization here have done a great job so far.

What have you, or are you planning to, use the AFL to work on? What are your goals?

I am working on throwing more offspeed pitches during my time here, especially my slider. 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.

How have you adjusted to the “pace of play” rules that are being implemented in the AFL?

We haven’t experienced the game play rules too much yet – they’re only implemented at the Salt River facility. But, I’m pretty quick in-between pitches and don’t take too much time warming up. For me it shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

What has it been like getting to know your Mesa teammates and other top prospects in the game?

It’s been great to get to know some of the other guys on the Mesa team. We have some highly rated prospects on our team and it’s cool to see some of young, talented players out there. Also, being in the bullpen has been a lot of fun. It is a great group of guys.

What have you done on your off days?

Having Sundays off during the fall league is perfect. I’ve golfed a good amount. The courses out here are amazing. Besides that, we’ve watched a lot of football, hoping my fantasy team gets a win!

You’re coming off your best minor league season, what do you think were a few keys to your success this past season?

I think the main reason for my success the past season was just remaining focused and trying to execute quality pitches as much as possible. I worked on a couple of things with both pitching coaches – Chris Michalak and Paul Menhart – and I was able to quicken up my time to the plate with runners on base, and started to work exclusively out of the stretch. Throughout the year I stayed aggressive and became a consistent strike thrower.

Has your mentality changed since shifting to the bullpen?

I think my mentality is better suited for the bullpen. I’m able to be aggressive and attack hitters. Also, I like the chance to play every day.

Grace_Matt_actionThere are two coaches on the Mesa staff with significant big league experience (Ron Villone and Matt Wise). What, if anything, have you learned working with them for a few weeks? Especially Villone, being left handed.

They’ve been really informative and helpful. Talking with Wise has been great. He’s helped me with my changeup a good deal, and Villone has also been helpful. Aside from his stories, I’ve learned a lot about how he approached the game and the little things he did to be successful in the big leagues for so long. I want to learn from those guys as much as possible.

You, Neil Holland and Derek Self have spent some time together in the bullpen over the years. Do you have any stories that you can share about those guys?

The three of us have a great relationship. I’ve gotten to know Derek better because of the Fall League. He’s great. Neil and I have been on the same team for parts of five seasons, so we do have some great stories. He really loves to dance. All the time. During games, in the bullpen, away from the field, too. He’s very talented, too.

The AFL is generally known as a “hitter’s league.” Have you seen that, and has your approach changed based on the quality of hitters this league produces?

Being out in Arizona, the ball tends to carry a little more. The hitters are the same though. Quality pitches will get outs the majority of the time. I just try to focus on that and nothing else. The talent level is very high, but my approach doesn’t change.

Is there an added level of comfort for you, and the other pitchers, having Spencer Kieboom and Pedro Severino, fellow Nationals, as your catchers in the AFL?

There is a little bit of a comfort level with Pedro and Spencer behind the plate. I didn’t throw to them during the season at all, but worked with them in Florida before coming out to the Fall league. Getting to know their style and becoming comfortable with that has been beneficial.

Nationals name Bob Miller Vice President & Assistant GM

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by Amanda Comak

The Washington Nationals welcomed Bob Miller to their front office staff today, naming him Vice President and Assistant General Manager.

Miller, who will assist in all facets of baseball operations, comes to the Nationals after nine seasons with the Cincinnati Reds, serving most recently as Vice President and Assistant General Manager to Reds’ President of Baseball Operations and GM Walt Jocketty.

In that role, Miller had a hand in all aspects of baseball operations, including arbitration cases, contract negotiations, rules, player evaluations, and departmental budgeting.

Joining the Nationals for his 33rd season in professional baseball, Miller reunites with Rizzo for the first time since the two worked together for seven years with the Arizona Diamondbacks. There they helped build the 2001 World Series championship team, and take Arizona’s Minor League system from No. 29 (as ranked by Baseball America) to No. 1 in five years.

Miller, who initially joined the Reds in Feb., 2006, as Director of Baseball Administration under then-GM Wayne Krivsky, quickly moved through the ranks in Cincinnati. He was promoted to Assistant General Manager in June of 2006 and in Dec., 2006, was named Vice President and Assistant GM.

During his time with the Reds, the team improved from a sub-.500 club to win two division championships and earn three playoff appearances. In 2012, the Reds were also named Baseball America’s Organization of the Year.

Prior to joining the Reds, Miller spent seven seasons with the Diamondbacks — first as Assistant Director of Scouting, then Director of Baseball Operations, and the final three as Assistant General Manager, where he oversaw the organization’s Minor League player development from 2004-05. In 2005, the Diamondbacks were named TOPPS’ Minor League Organization of the Year.

Miller joined the Diamondbacks with 16 years of Minor League experience on his resume, including 14 years at the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues, and stops as Vice President of Baseball Operations in the independent Texas-Louisiana League office, along with serving as executive GM of that league’s Amarillo Dillas club.

Miller, 50, graduated from the University of South Florida with a degree in finance.

Nationals exercise 2015 option on Denard Span’s contract

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by Amanda Comak

The Washington Nationals exercised their option on Denard Span’s contract on Thursday, securing the center fielder’s services for the 2015 season, which will be Span’s third in the District.

In exercising the option, the Nationals answered one of their first offseason questions, and ensured that the talented leadoff man will remain atop their lineup and patrolling center field for at least one more season.

“We knew when we acquired Denard from the Minnesota Twins two years ago what type of player we were getting,” said Nationals President of Baseball Operations & General Manager Mike Rizzo. “And he’s done nothing but bear that out the last two seasons.

“Denard was arguably our most consistent offensive player in 2014, keying so much of our offensive production, and his defense in center field is Gold Glove-caliber on a nightly basis. We’re excited to keep him in the fold for the 2015 season.”

Washington Nationals vs. the Miami Marlins baseballSpan is coming off perhaps his finest professional season, finishing the 2014 campaign batting .302 with a .355 on-base percentage, a .415 slugging percentage and a career-best 31 stolen bases. He set a Nationals (2005-present) record for hits in a season with 184, and reeled off a 36-game on-base streak from June 28 – Aug. 12 that jumpstarted both his season and the Nationals’ offense.

Over the course of the streak, Span hit .396 with a .463 on-base percentage, and a .458 slugging percentage. It seemed almost every time he made contact the ball found a hole and the 30-year-old found a way to get on base. His BABIP during the stretch: a ridiculous .442.

The Nationals went 21-15 in that stretch, catapulting themselves from a tie with the Atlanta Braves atop the National League East Division to a five-game lead over them by the time the streak ended.

“I couldn’t be more excited to return for another year in D.C,” Span said after he was informed his option was exercised.

For the second consecutive year, Span is a finalist for the Rawlings Gold Glove Award, the winners of which will be announced on Nov. 4.

Additionally, the Nationals declined to exercise their options on first baseman Adam LaRoche and right-hander Rafael Soriano. They will become free agents. Asdrubal Cabrera, Scott Hairston and Nate Schierholtz became free agents upon the conclusion of the 2014 World Series.

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