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.

Signature Moments: Last Man Standing —

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During the marathon of a 162-game baseball season, there are thrilling moments that highlight the successes of every club, from the front runner to the cellar dweller. The 2014 Washington Nationals are no exception, as they have sparked excitement throughout The District while returning to postseason play for the second time in three years.

Prior to Jordan Zimmermann’s no-hitter on the final day of the regular season, perhaps no single-game “Signature Moment” was more prominent than Adam LaRoche’s effort in an extra-inning win over the Los Angeles Dodgers on Sept. 3.

Trailing 2-0 in the top of the ninth inning and with LaRoche expecting to miss the game while resting a sore back, the first baseman was called upon to pinch-hit. All he did was belt a game-tying, two-run homer. Two innings later, he gave the Nationals a lead with a two-run single, and later beat out a fielder’s choice grounder to give the Nationals the lead yet again. Second baseman Asdrubal Cabrera punctuated the victory with a long blast of his own, and Washington skipped out of LA with an 8-5 win — along with the season tie-breaker over the Dodgers in the quest for home-field advantage in the NL playoffs.

LAST MAN STANDING | 9.3

 

Adam LaRoche tied a Major League record with five RBI in a game in which he entered in the ninth inning or later.

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

Signature Moments: Rally Pigeon — August 24

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During the marathon of a 162-game baseball season, there are thrilling moments that highlight the successes of every club, from the front runner to the cellar dweller. The 2014 Washington Nationals are no exception, as they have sparked excitement throughout The District while returning to postseason play for the second time in three years.

After trailing 5-0 in their contest of the San Francisco Giants, the Nationals’ bats came alive in a huge, 14-6 victory. Ten consecutive batters reached safely in a six-run sixth inning, turning a 6-2 deficit into an 8-6 lead, all while a friendly pigeon viewed the action from a patch of grass in shallow left-center field. The comeback, which helped the Nationals go 9-1 in a 10-game, late-August homestand, earned a spot in our top “Signature Moments” of the 2014 regular season.

RALLY PIGEON | 8.24

 

Down 5-0 to the San Francisco Giants, the Nationals rallied for a huge win — with the help of a feathery friend.

Jordan Zimmermann named NL Player of the Week

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by Amanda Comak

Washington NationalsOne day after throwing the first no-hitter in Washington Nationals history, right-hander Jordan Zimmermann was named the National League Player of the Week. Major League Baseball made the announcement this afternoon on MLB Network.

Zimmermann allowed one walk and struck out 10 Miami Marlins in a masterful performance to close the regular season with the first no-hitter thrown by a D.C. pitcher since Bobby Burke on Aug. 8, 1931.

In earning his second NL Player of the Week honors, Zimmermann allowed only five balls to leave the infield all afternoon and threw only 25 total balls to Marlins batters. He faced 28 batters, threw 23 first-pitch strikes and needed only 104 pitches to complete the historic achievement.

In the eighth complete game and fourth shutout of his career, Zimmermann almost certainly turned in the best pitching performance in Nationals history.

According to the Bill James Game Score, one metric for measuring dominant pitching performances, Zimmermann’s outing ranked as the best in Nationals (2005-present) history with a score of 96 – besting the 95 score earned in his shutout over the San Diego Padres earlier this season.

092814_wsh_no_no_twitter2

 

This is the fourth NL Player of the Week honor earned by a Nationals player this season – including Zimmermann for the first week of June.  First baseman Adam LaRoche and OF Jayson Werth also took home the award this season.

Prior to 2014, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman (periods ending July 22, 2012; June 13, 2010; August 21, 2011; August 5, 2007), right-hander Stephen Strasburg (June 13, 2010), outfielder Josh Willingham (Aug. 2, 2009), shortstop Cristian Guzman (Aug. 31, 2008), utility man Willie Harris (July 20, 2007) and first baseman Nick Johnson (June 6, 2005) earned NL Player of the Week hardware.

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.

Signature Moments: NAT10NALS — August 12-21

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During the marathon of a 162-game baseball season, there are thrilling moments that highlight the successes of every club, from the front runner to the cellar dweller. The 2014 Washington Nationals are no exception, as they have sparked excitement throughout The District while returning to postseason play for the second time in three years.

Beginning with a three-game sweep of the Mets in New York and concluding with seven straight home wins over the Pittsburgh Pirates and Arizona Diamondbacks, the Nationals went on a 10-game winning streak for the ages. The streak included a remarkable seven one-run victories, including five walk-offs in a six-day span. Collectively, the 10 victories easily made our list for the top “Signature Moments” of 2014.

NAT10NALS | 8.12–8.21

 

With victories in 10 straight games, including five walk-offs in six days, the Nationals took complete control of the National League East.

Signature Moments: Bryce’s Blast — August 7

Twitter: @Nationals | Facebook: Nationals | Instagram: @Nationals

During the marathon of a 162-game baseball season, there are thrilling moments that highlight the successes of every club, from the front runner to the cellar dweller. The 2014 Washington Nationals are no exception, as they have sparked excitement throughout The District while returning to postseason play for the second time in three years.

Bryce Harper’s 2014 season was an up-and-down affair, as the third-year outfielder suffered a thumb injury in late April and missed two months of action. When he returned to the lineup, his teammates caught fire, but Harper was still searching for his swing entering the final game of a three-game series against the New York Mets. In the bottom of the 13th inning of that Aug. 7 contest, Harper crushed a fastball into the left-field seats, breaking his slump and jumpstarting his production at the plate, while certainly providing one of the “Signature Moments” of the 2014 campaign.

BRYCE’S BLAST | 8.7

 

Bryce Harper’s walk-off home run sparked a big stretch run from the Nationals’ left fielder.

Signature Moments: Summer of Span — June 28 – August 10

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During the marathon of a 162-game baseball season, there are thrilling moments that highlight the successes of every club, from the front runner to the cellar dweller. The 2014 Washington Nationals are no exception, as they have sparked excitement throughout The District while returning to postseason play for the second time in three years.

Denard Span’s 36-game on-base streak, coinciding with some of the Nationals’ best baseball of the year, stands out as one of those nine “Signature Moments” from the regular season.

Span hit .396 (57-for-144) with a .463 on-base percentage, 25 runs scored and 10 stolen bases during the streak, which included 17 multi-hit games. The streak elevated his batting average from .264 to .306 over the 36 games, the top mark on the team, and he continued his stellar play even when the exceptional streak came to an end.

 SUMMER OF SPAN | 6.28–8.10

 

Denard Span’s 36-game on-base streak helped take the Nationals’ offense to new heights.

Signature Moments: Command Performance — June 21

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During the marathon of a 162-game baseball season, there are thrilling moments that highlight the successes of every club, from the front runner to the cellar dweller. The 2014 Washington Nationals are no exception, as they have sparked excitement throughout The District while returning to postseason play for the second time in three years.

Inside the Nationals’ clubhouse, multiple members of the team cited June 21 as one of the days the Nationals likely began to turn the tide in the National League East race.

At 37-35, in second place in the division — and with losses in six out of their seven games against the Atlanta Braves — the Nats turned to the newest member of their rotation: Doug Fister. In front of more than 40,000 fans and a FOX national TV audience, the 6-foot-8 righty shut down Atlanta, sparking Washington to a record of 56-30 from that point on. The commanding win easily earned Fister one of our nine “Signature Moments” of the 2014 campaign.

COMMAND PERFORMANCE | 6.21

 

With the Nationals in need of a commanding performance, Doug Fister stymied the Atlanta Braves in a dominant shutout win on national television.

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