MLB Network features Nationals on 30 clubs in 30 days

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by Amanda Comak

VIERA, Fla. — The MLB Network crew swung by Space Coast Stadium on Wednesday afternoon, bringing along Ron Darling to help highlight the Washington Nationals in their “30 clubs in 30 days” feature.

Here are the highlights from the Network’s visit to Viera:

Matt Williams and Ron Darling talk about Williams’ first camp as the team’s manager:

Nate McLouth talks with Ron Darling about the art of stealing a base:

Gio Gonzalez talks about finishing 2013 strong and his expectations for this season:

Ryan Zimmerman talks clutch hits and getting set to begin his 10th season in the Major Leagues:

Bryce Harper catches up with Ron Darling:

Daily Wrap: Strasburg named Opening Day starter, Detwiler talks bullpen, & more

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by Amanda Comak

VIERA, Fla. — The Washington Nationals fell to the Houston Astros, 2-0, on Wednesday night, despite a strong five-inning performance from Taylor Jordan and solid relief work from Ross Detwiler, Rafael Soriano and Tyler Clippard.

To the Daily Wrap…

News of the Day: Stephen Strasburg will be the Nationals’ Opening Day starter.

Stephen Strasburg was named the Nationals' Opening Day starter for the third straight year.

Stephen Strasburg was named the Nationals’ Opening Day starter for the third straight year.

Washington Nationals Manager Matt Williams announced Wednesday night that, for the third consecutive year, Stephen Strasburg will be the team’s Opening Day starter.

“He’s earned it,” Williams said after the team’s 2-0 loss to the Houston Astros. “He’ll toe that slab for us on Opening Day.”

This spring, Strasburg has allowed just one earned run in three starts while working on holding runners and incorporating a new pitch. He’ll make his fourth start of Spring Training on Thursday against the Detroit Tigers, and that start will line him up to be on turn for the Nationals’ March 31 opener at Citi Field against the New York Mets.

And while Strasburg was perhaps the expected choice, the uber-talented right-hander having done it the previous two years, Williams acknowledged that some of the other Nationals starters gave him pause before making the final decision. Jordan Zimmermann, a 19-game winner and an All-Star a season ago, was chief among them.

“We have a number of guys who could fill that position,” Williams said of the Opening Day honor. “But we spoke to Jordan and he’s good with pitching wherever and whenever. Opening Day is important, but the rest of the games are important, too.”

Quote of the Day: Ross Detwiler on taking a team-first attitude on his move to the bullpen.

Detwiler pitched a scoreless inning in relief on Wednesday night, the first step in his transition into the Nationals’ bullpen. Earlier in the day, the left-hander discussed the team’s decision with reporters, taking a team-first attitude to the move.

“I still view myself as a starter,” Detwiler said. “But I’m not going to go out there and hope somebody does bad or somebody gets hurt. We’re in it to win. And I think it’s going to hurt worse if we don’t win the whole thing this year.”

Video highlights:

Taylor Jordan strikes out five in five innings.

Ross Detwiler fans Jason Castro in the sixth.

Danny Espinosa makes a diving stop and shows off his throwing arm.

Notables:

Williams said Wednesday that right-hander Doug Fister, who pitched in a Minor League game on Monday, will return to the Major League rotation on Saturday against the Miami Marlins… Williams also said he expects the top of the Nationals’ rotation to feature Gio Gonzalez behind Strasburg and Zimmermann behind Gonzalez.

Daily Wrap: Detwiler to bullpen, Fister throws in Minor League game, & more

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by Amanda Comak

VIERA, Fla. — The Washington Nationals were rained out on Monday afternoon in Lakeland, Fla., washing away their game against the Detroit Tigers and giving them a little extra time as they head into the lone off day of Spring Training.

But despite the lack of a game there was still plenty of news to go around.

News of the Day: Ross Detwiler will open the 2014 season in the Nationals’ bullpen.

Ross Detwiler

Ross Detwiler

Nationals Manager Matt Williams said on Monday that left-hander Ross Detwiler will open the 2014 season as an integral member of the team’s bullpen. The decision, Williams said, was one based on what the Nationals felt was ultimately the best fit for the team this season, and Williams emphasized that Detwiler’s talents will give them a unique relief weapon.

“We feel like it’s a good move for our team,” Williams said. “He provides something special out of the bullpen for us. We talked to him. I don’t know if anybody would ever be really happy with something like that, but we don’t feel it’s a demotion of any sort. We just feel like we’re a better team with him coming out of our bullpen.

“He offers something that’s special — power lefty, mid-90s (mph) lefty. It doesn’t mean he won’t start at some point in the future, but we’ve asked him to get ready for the start of the season in the bullpen.”

The Nationals have been high on Detwiler’s talent since they selected him in the first round of the 2007 First-Year Player Draft, and his maturation as a starting pitcher was evident in his outstanding performance in Game 4 of the 2012 National League Division Series, as well as his outings early in 2013. But a back injury stole much of last season from Detwiler, and now the Nationals would like to utilize his talents in a way that will make him even more valuable.

In his career, Detwiler has excelled in relief, allowing just four earned runs in 32.1 innings and holding hitters to a .173 batting average against. His heavy sinker, complemented by his hard fastball, coming from a left-hander is exceptionally rare in the Major Leagues. The Nationals simply want to utilize that weapon when it is most favorable.

“He provides something special for us,” Williams said of Detwiler, noting his role in the bullpen will be “fluid.” “I just think it’s a luxury for our team to have a guy in the bullpen who can do (the) types of things (he can).

“I told him, this is something we feel is going to make our team better. We’re here to win games, and here to compete to play meaningful games in September and October, and he’s going to be a big part of that out of our bullpen. For me it’s not a tough decision — it’s a prudent one… There’s a lot of thought and a lot of talk among our staff and our organization in making that move. If I know Ross, he will take that bull by its horns and he will go with it and be really good.”

Williams listed Taylor Jordan, Tanner Roark and Chris Young as remaining competitors for the team’s No. 5 starter job.

Quote of the Day: Doug Fister after pitching two innings in a Minor League game

Fister, who had been previously sidelined with some elbow inflammation, faced hitters on Monday for the first time since March 2. He threw 30 pitches in a Minor League intrasquad game, with Wilson Ramos catching him, and came out feeling positive about his progress. 

“I’m still working out some kinks,” Fister said. “But it’s a lot better… It’s not as sharp as I want it to be, but for being, technically, my first outing in a while, I was fairly pleased with what I had going.”

Notables:

The Nationals will have their only off day of the spring on Tuesday, with players and staff given a day to recoup after several weeks of workouts and games in preparation for the long season… The Nationals will return to action on Wednesday night at home in Viera, Fla., against the Houston Astros. The game will be broadcast on MASN… MLB Network and MLB Network Radio will be on-site at Nationals camp this week, so be on the lookout for some interesting content in the coming days from those two outlets.

Daily Wrap: Souza Jr. has a big day, Zimmerman plays first base, & more

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by Amanda Comak

VIERA, Fla. —  For the next two weeks, as the Washington Nationals‘ 25-man roster comes into focus and Opening Day nears, we’ll post a “Daily Wrap” featuring a Player of the Day, Quote of the Day and any other notables to pass along.

So without further ado, here’s our first edition:

Player of the Day: Steven Souza Jr. 

Steven Souza Jr.

Steven Souza Jr.

The Nationals were a split squad today with half the team heading to Kissimmee, Fla., to play the Houston Astros, and the other half sticking around Viera, Fla., to face the Detroit Tigers. While the home game was the one that most were tuned to, as it aired on MASN, our Player of the Day for March 16 comes from the game in Kissimmee: Steven Souza Jr. 

Souza Jr. has been making a strong impression on the Nationals’ during his first Major League camp. While they certainly thought well of him prior to this — the Nationals added the 24-year-old to their 40-man roster this offseason — his performance this spring has, if anything, validated their evaluations. In 17 Spring Training games, Souza has hit .355 with a .429 on-base percentage and .806 slugging percentage.

On Sunday, he went 3-for-3, homered twice, walked once and capped his day with a triple off good friend and former teammate, Brad Peacock.

Quote of the Day: Ryan Zimmerman

Zimmerman moved from third base to first base at the start of the sixth inning in the Nationals’ game against the Tigers, marking the first time the Nationals’ third baseman has ever played first in his Major League career.

“When it comes down to it, you just catch the ball,” Zimmerman said. “You do the same thing you do (at third base) but you have a few different responsibilities. Those I’ll have to learn, but other than that it’s about the same.

“Being a third baseman, shortstop, growing up, I appreciate a good first baseman, so it makes me want to be that much better over there. I know, as a position player, if you can save an error or make them feel confident that if they just get it close over there they’re going to be good, it does a lot for the fielder. That’s the goal: to try to make those guys think that way of me when I’m over there, so they have enough confidence to just let it go and know if they get it close, I got it.”

Video highlights:

Jordan Zimmermann tosses four innings in pitchers duel with Justin Verlander.

Jeff Kobernus scores on a wild pitch.

Notables:

Manager Matt Williams said right-hander Doug Fister, who has been working back from some slight elbow inflammation, is scheduled to pitch in a Minor League game on Monday and Wilson Ramos will likely catch him… Sunday was the Nationals’ final split-squad day of Spring Training… The Nationals and Tigers will be well acquainted by Tuesday as the Nationals will travel to Lakeland, Fla., on Monday for the second time in four days and will play their third game against Detroit in that span.

March To Baseball Week 2 Winners

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11Another week of March is in the books, and that means two things for Nationals fans: We are one week closer to Opening Day, and we’ve got our second batch of March To Baseball winners!

Thanks to all who have already joined the fun this month as we count down the final days until the 2014 season by giving away a prize a day to all Full, Half and Partial Season Plan Holders who renew or purchase new 2014 Season Plans this month. If you’ve already renewed, you’re already entered and the prizes continue to get better from here!

Congratulations to our latest winners!

March 7: Two tickets to Jason Aldean’s July 25 show at Nationals Park, along with parking – Lee B. from Falls Church

March 8: $500 Bonus eCash – George M. from McLean

March 9: A visit from Screech during an in-game inning break – Mark B. from Arlington

March 10: Two Club 3 tickets and parking – George J. from McLean

March 11: Take part in on-field batting practice – Bill O. from Washington, D.C.

March 12: Have your child announce the batting order during a game – Thomas H. from Washington, D.C.

March 13: A Ryan Zimmerman autographed bat – Johnny R. from Washington, D.C.

Nationals play first game under new instant replay rules

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by Amanda Comak

KISSIMMEE, Fla. – The Washington Nationals will play their first game with the availability of instant replay Wednesday, joining a number of teams that have already gotten their first crack at the new system. While the squad will be split, with one group headed to Orlando to face the Atlanta Braves, the entire Major League coaching staff will be at Osceola County Stadium for the team’s first game under the new rules.

The Nationals will play five games with the use of instant replay this spring, giving the players and the coaching staff a chance to get accustomed to a system that will be in place for all 162 regular season games.

Nationals Manager Matt Williams could get his first chance to challenge a call on Wednesday.

Nationals Manager Matt Williams could get his first chance to challenge a call on Wednesday.

“It’s good practice for us — for everybody,” said manager Matt Williams. “If there’s a questionable call we are going to challenge that call during the course of our spring games, so we get a sense of what it is and how we go about doing it. There’s also the opportunity to talk to (the umpires) and not have to use a challenge. The umpires have told us they’re willing to do that because they want to get it right as well. (But) we’re here (in Spring Training). We might as well do it and get accustomed to it while we’re here.”

On Wednesday, the Nationals planned to have Advance Scouting and Video Coordinators Erick Dalton and Chris Rosenbaum at their posts in front of the same feed that the MLB offices in New York will be getting. If a call arises that the team would like to replay, Dalton and Rosenbaum will communicate with bench coach Randy Knorr and they’ll go from there.

The instant replay system is still in its infancy, and everyone will have to go through a process of getting accustomed to the various procedures. One of the main ones for teams to consider is that if a manager uses his challenge in innings one through six, and he is wrong, he loses the ability to challenge again. But if he is correct, and the call gets overturned, he will keep his ability to challenge.

To read more about the new rules, click here.

How a team will use its challenges will be one of the more interesting items to watch in the early going, and Williams shed a little light on his thinking in that regard.

“I think if it means something to our team, we’re going to use it,” Williams said. “And if we’re confident that we’re right, we’re going to get another one. In any situation where something like that comes up, I would imagine I’d ask the umpires to take a look at it. If we have to get to a situation where we challenge, then we’ll challenge, but we’d have to be confident we’ll get it changed for our team. It’ll be fluid with every game because every game presents something different.

“If you’re sure the call should go your way, you might as well use it because you’re going to get another opportunity. The sticky one is the one that is questionable, where it’s not conclusive one way or another — and there are those calls, even with slow motion and all the technology. You want to be right. If you are right, you get another one. So we’ll see how that goes.”

A lot will go into each decision to decide to challenge a call, starting with the video coordinators, funneling through Knorr, and ultimately ending with Williams’ decision to use the word “challenge” in a conversation with the umpires. Game situations will be considered, along with the team’s confidence in the fact that an errant call was made. It adds a new layer to the game, without question, but the ultimate goal of everyone involved is the same: to get the calls right.

“It doesn’t hurt to go have a look,” Williams said. “This game is played with emotion, and it’s played with eyes, and the want to win. That being said, often times we get clouded, too, in our view of things, because we want our team to win. It’s going to allow us to have clarification and to be clear about what we’re seeing.

“We always think when your pitcher’s throwing it, it’s a strike, and when our batter’s taking it, it’s a ball. But this gives us clarification in (other) scenarios.”

The rain was falling steadily at Osceola County Stadium late Wednesday morning, so there was some question whether or not the Nationals would indeed get their first replay opportunity on this day. Whenever it comes, though, they’ll welcome it.

“I’m looking forward to it because it is what it is,” Williams said. “It’s part of our game right now and we have to do it so I’m excited about that… I’m looking forward to the opportunity for us to potentially get a call changed our way and win a game.”

From the Desk of Mark D. Lerner: Checking in from Spring Training

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Hello, everyone.

Let me start by stating that things could not be better here in Viera. The weather is wonderful, the workouts are crisp and the results have been encouraging. Yes, a team’s Grapefruit League winning percentage can, at times, be misleading, but winning games is always better than the alternative.

Ian Desmond is off to a strong start this spring.

Ian Desmond is off to a strong start this spring.

Seven wins, four losses and a tie. But what is most encouraging is how Manager Matt Williams has them playing the game. I love the aggressive base running. Taking an extra base. How fantastic was it to see Danny Espinosa score from second base on Saturday on a dribbler back to the pitcher? This brand of baseball really is infectious.

Fifteen home runs in 12 games. Only five allowed. That’s a good ratio.

Strong offensive starts from stalwarts like Ian Desmond (.286, 2 HR, 3 RBI), Adam LaRoche (2 HR, 4 RBI), Wilson Ramos (.474, HR, 10 RBI) and Ryan Zimmerman (.389, HR, 2 RBI) among others.

And many of our young players are making their marks. Zach Walters is hitting .615 with four extra-base hits and five RBI. He is as hot as anyone. Brian Goodwin and Michael A. Taylor have each made memorable catches in the outfield. Matt Skole hit .357 and four of his five hits went for extra bases before he was assigned to Minor League camp earlier this week so that he can get additional at-bats.

  • I have not even mentioned the pitching. There truly are too many to name, but I’ll risk mentioning three standouts: Taylor Jordan (team-leading 11 strikeouts), Jerry Blevins (3.2 hitless innings) and A.J. Cole (6.2 scoreless innings).

    Taylor Jordan has performed exceptionally well in his first Major League camp.

    Taylor Jordan has performed exceptionally well in his first Major League camp.

  • Forgive me if I think it is 2005 all over again watching Jamey Carroll and Luis Ayala perform admirably as they battle for roster spots. Jamey’s approach at the plate (.333 OBP), base running and defensive versatility are all a real plus. Meanwhile, Luis can throw a strike whenever he needs to. He has that same veteran savvy gene our friend Livan Hernandez had during his playing days.
  • And Matt Williams? What’s not to like? Crisp, precise and purposeful baseball usually yields wins. I love what Matt brings to our dugout and clubhouse. I especially like how our team has taken to his aggressive nature.
  • I was pleased to see President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo sign Michael Gonzalez to a Minor League deal last weekend. Gonzalez was a big part of our bullpen’s success in 2012 and there are very few southpaw relievers who can match his experience in tight situations. Welcome back Michael!
  • I just counted. Only three of the club’s 18 errors have been committed by players who were “regulars” in Washington last season. And one of those miscues was charged to Mr. Perfect, Denard Span! Remember, Denard did not commit an error last season. As I have said before, he should have won a Gold Glove!
  • I’d like to thank all of our fans in Central Florida, but especially those from our local area on the Space Coast (Viera, Melbourne and Rockledge). The crowds for the Cardinals and Yankees games in the last week were the two largest we have ever enjoyed hosting.
  • As for our fans from back home, I’ve had quite a few friends remark upon arrival in Viera about the significant pockets of Nationals fans on their flights from DC to Orlando. It’s hard to ignore all the smiles and Curly W shirts, sweaters and hats. It is great to see so many of our fans catching on to just how special Spring Training is.

Until next time …

Mark

Highlights from the Nationals’ 11-1 win over the Cardinals

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by Amanda Comak

VIERA, Fla. — On a sun-splashed afternoon at Space Coast Stadium, Stephen Strasburg went three strong innings, the Washington Nationals rapped out 15 hits, and they topped the St. Louis Cardinals 11-1.

Strasburg was pleased with his work for the day, feeling strong when his requisite three innings were up and happy with the adjustments he made after being a bit too fine with his pitches in the first inning.

“Got some good work in,” Strasburg said. “I felt a little too good in the bullpen and tried to paint from the first pitch on instead of starting out with a little bit bigger zone, and then working off of the middle of the plate. Made a good adjustment and didn’t really see any problems.”

As a staff, Nationals pitchers allowed just three hits on the day. Eleven different position players picked up a hit, four of them (Anthony Rendon, Wilson Ramos, Danny Espinosa and Tyler Moore) had multi-hit days, and eight different players knocked in at least one run.

Catch up on some of the highlights right here:

Checking in with Bryce Harper and Wilson Ramos after two long home runs

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by Amanda Comak

VIERA, Fla. — Bryce Harper‘s swing smacked into the strong crosswind blowing across Space Coast Stadium Friday afternoon and pushed up against it. A ball that started out, in his estimation, about nine feet foul, suddenly cut back. And as well as he hit it, cutting back was all he needed it to do for it to become his first home run of the spring.

“I knew I got it fairly (well),” Harper said, commending the pitch from Houston Astros left-hander Brett Oberholtzer. “But I thought it was going to be nine feet foul.

“I thought it was a good pitch. I got the barrel up there and tried to do what I did. I think a lot of guys throw the two-seamer in and go soft away. Trying to cut that two-seamer in, I think I got a good piece of it. It was a good pitch, though, it really was. If I’m the catcher, I like where that’s (pitched).”

He didn’t have long to admire his handiwork, as Wilson Ramos stepped to the plate three batters later and smashed a ball so far in the other direction — this one with the wind at its back — that it cleared the tiki bar in left field.

“I hit that ball well,” Ramos said, a sly smile crossing his face.

Before Friday's game, Bryce Harper caught a first pitch from former NFL quarterback Doug Flutie.

Before Friday’s game, Bryce Harper caught a first pitch from former NFL quarterback Doug Flutie.

The two swings, which keyed an early 6-0 lead in the Nationals’ 8-5 victory over the Astros, continued the positive signs coming out of two of the Nationals’ heaviest hitters this spring, both of whom are coming off leg injuries from a year ago.

Ramos is now 7-for-13 this spring with two extra-base hits in five games, and Harper owns a .455 on-base percentage through four games.

For Harper, the absence of pain has made a huge difference — generally in how he’s been able to go about his preparation for the season, as well in more subtle ways, like hitting left-handed pitching.

“I’ve had zero pain on it,” Harper said of the left knee that hampered him in 2013. “I’ve been able to do everything that I wanted to do. It has felt really good. I’m excited about that. Having no pain is something I am very excited about.”

“Last year, my knee killed me,” Harper added, asked specifically about hitting left-handed pitching. “I couldn’t stay back on lefties and my knee killed me on that. It’s going to be a little different this year… My knee just gave out every single time, every pitch on the outside half (of the plate). I didn’t have the swing that I wanted to have. My knee killed me every time I swung.

“This year it’s a little bit different. I can stay back and not explode on my lower half and have to go. (Last year), If there was a curveball and I’m sitting back on it and I’m ready to go, I had to go. It was just that painful that I had to (swing). Today I check-swung on (a curveball) a little bit,  but I could finally do that. It wasn’t ‘ah’ where it really hurt. That felt great. Knowing I could do that is very nice.”

For Ramos, as he approaches the two-year anniversary of tearing the ACL in his right knee and pushes further past the left hamstring issues that sidelined him in 2013, health has allowed him to keep his focus on more of the nuances of his game.

“During winter ball I played as the designated hitter down in Venezuela and those at-bats helped me to concentrate a little more at the plate, be patient and concentrate on my strike zone,” Ramos said. “I want to take good at-bats, swing the bat just at strikes. Right now I’m working on that, my strike zone. That’s helped me to hit the ball well.”

He is not alone in that regard.

“I’m trying to be as patient as I can,” Harper said. “If they’re not going to come to me, if they’re going to throw around me and they’re going to throw (crappy pitches) up there, I’m not going to swing. I’m just going to try to take my walks this year, be a little bit smarter, get on base. If I have a .450 on-base percentage and I’m getting on-base, that’s all that matters.”

March to Baseball Week 1 Winners

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4The first week of the Washington Nationals’ March to Baseball is complete and that means we have our first batch of lucky winners.

Thanks to all who have already joined the fun this month as we count down the final days until the 2014 season by giving away a prize a day to all Full, Half and Partial Season Plan Holders who renew or purchase new 2014 Season Plans this month. If you’ve already renewed, you’re already entered and the prizes only get better from here!

Congratulations to our first six winners!Strasburg Auto Ball

March 1: Personalized Nationals jersey – Keith K. from Alexandria, Va.

March 2: PNC Diamond Club tickets & parking – Shannon H. from D.C.

March 3: A visit to the Nationals’ broadcast booth with Charlie Slowes & Dave Jageler – Kenneth S. from D.C.

March 4: Join the Nationals’ grounds crew for a day – John T. from Gaithersburg, Md.

March 5: Take the field before a game and be honored on NatsHD – Nathan R. From Alexandria, Va.

March 6: An official MLB baseball signed by Stephen Strasburg – David U. from D.C.

There are still plenty of fantastic prizes left up for grabs, so don’t miss out on your chance to join the March to Baseball!

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