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!

Nationals Named in Top 5 Under 25

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by Amanda Comak

Spring Training is the season of prospect lists. Industry insider Baseball America comes out with theirs, ESPN.com with their own, Baseball Prospectus chimes in, and MLB.com posts their updated rankings of the best up-and-coming talent in baseball in their Top 100 prospects, as well as organizational rankings.

farm graphicAs has been the case for the previous several years, the Washington Nationals are often viewed very favorably in those rankings as they continue, under President of Baseball Operations and General Manager Mike Rizzo, to stockpile top young talent through the First-Year Player Draft and various trades.

But those lists usually focus on the still-developing talent in the Minor Leagues.

This week, Baseball Prospectus released its list of “25-and-under talent rankings,” a compilation of each organization’s best talent born after March, 1988 and a fascinating look at an organization’s youth and depth — even when that talent has already reached the Major Leagues.

“It’s hard enough to analyze immature and still-developing talents in their own context, but it’s even more demanding to compare those future Major Leaguers with the models they are aiming to become,” wrote Jason Parks in his introduction to the rankings. “It’s a thankless task that can get lost in the shuffle of the team prospect fury, but the compiled Under-25 lists are excellent snapshots of organizational health, at least as far as young, promising talent is concerned.”

The Nationals were ranked No. 2 in all of Major League Baseball.

From the article:

1. Stephen Strasburg (25)
2. Bryce Harper (21)
3. Lucas Giolito (19)
4. Anthony Rendon (23)
5. A.J. Cole (22)
6. Brian Goodwin (23)
7. Taylor Jordan (25)
8. Michael Taylor (22)
9. Jake Johansen (23)
10. Jefry Rodriguez (20)

Made MLB Debut? 4
Farm System Ranking: 18
Top 10 Prospects: RHP Lucas GiolitoRHP A.J. Cole, CF Brian Goodwin, CF Michael Taylor, RHP Jake Johansen, RHP Jefry Rodriguez, 1B Matt Skole, C Pedro Severino, RF Drew Vettleson, 3B Drew Ward
Prospects on the BP 101: 3
Top Prospect: Lucas Giolito
Summary: While the Nationals’ U25 list isn’t as deep as the Cardinals’, it offers an intriguing package of star power. Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper might be the best tandem in baseball for the next 10 years, and each offers an elite ceiling. Lucas Giolito is far from reaching his massive promise, but the trio of potential 8-grade ceilings at the top of Washington’s list is unmatched in baseball. For good measure, Washington has a potential all-star in Anthony Rendon and some solid role-5 guys at the back of its top 10. –Jordan Gorosh

Nationals third baseman Ryan Zimmerman, still just 29 despite the fact that he is about to appear in his 10th Major League season, often jokes that people think he’s old because he’s been around for so long. But in reality, 24 members of the Nationals’ projected 40-man roster will be under the age of 30 on Opening Day, 2014.

The rest of the rankings are fascinating in their own right, with the St. Louis Cardinals coming in just above the Nationals at No. 1 and the Atlanta Braves at No. 3, followed by the Pittsburgh Pirates and Miami Marlins. The bottom five (No.’s 26-30), according to these rankings: Los Angeles Angels, Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees, Philadelphia Phillies and Milwaukee Brewers.

To read the full article, click here.

Tyler Clippard wins Nationals Fan Choice Bobblehead Vote

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by Amanda Comak

The votes are in.

After almost five full days of voting — via Twitter, Facebook and text — we have a winner for the seventh and final bobblehead giveaway of the season.

Right-handed reliever Tyler Clippard will be immortalized in bobblehead form and will be honored with a bobblehead night on Sept. 27 when the Nationals play the Miami Marlins at Nationals Park. The first 25,000 fans will receive Clippard’s bobblehead, so make sure you’re in attendance to nab one: www.nationals.com/tickets

Thanks to all the fans who participated — with special kudos going to David Salzberg and Jeanne Henderson, who were two of our contest winners. We counted up every single vote and you propelled Clippard over first baseman Adam LaRoche and manager Matt Williams with 65 percent of the votes.

Clippard’s response to winning was pretty simple: “It’s happening!”

Without further ado, a thank you from the bobblehead winner himself:

Highlights from the Nationals Spring Training home opener

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by Amanda Comak

VIERA, Fla — The Washington Nationals topped the Atlanta Braves 16-15 in a wild Spring Training home opener — a game that featured 37 combined hits, six combined errors and 31 total runs.

You can catch up on all the game action here.

It was a beautiful day to open Space Coast Stadium for the Grapefruit League slate, and it started on a high note as the Nationals welcomed Sergeant First Class Melvin Morris to the field to throw out the first pitch.

On March 18, President Barack Obama will present Sgt. Morris with the U.S. military’s highest honor: the Medal of Honor. In 1961 Sergeant Morris was one of the first members of the Army’s elite corp, The Green Beret, and he volunteered twice for deployments during the Vietnam War.  While commanding a strike force on a mission near Chi Lang in South Vietnam, his special forces group came under attack and a fellow commander was killed.  Despite enemy fire, which struck Sgt. Morris three times, he returned to recover the body of his fallen comrade and to retrieve a strategic map which, in enemy hands, would have endangered the lives of his men.

During a recent Army review it was found that many war heroes had been passed over for the Medal of Honor at the time of their bravery because of long-held prejudices. Sgt. Morris is among 24 Army veterans for whom this injustice will soon be corrected. President Obama called Sgt. Morris personally to give him the good news.

The Nationals were honored to welcome Sgt. Morris, a Brevard County resident, and his family, including his grandson Javone, to throw out the first pitch.

“It’s a pretty special day here,” said Nationals Manager Matt Williams. “Local guy to the area. It was nice that the organization honored him and we were happy to be out there for it. You don’t get the chance to shake the hand of a Medal of Honor recipient every day. Pretty special day.”

Here are a few photos from the day:

Need help deciding who to vote for in the Fan Choice Bobblehead contest?

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by Amanda Comak

VIERA, Fla. — On Monday, the Washington Nationals announced three finalists for their Fan Choice Bobblehead contest: right-hander Tyler Clippard, first baseman Adam LaRoche and manager Matt Williams. The winner will receive the honor of a bobblehead night on Sept. 27 when the Nationals play the Miami Marlins, and the first 25,000 fans will receive the winning bobblehead.

And you, the fans, have a chance to impact who that winner will be. Unlimited voting runs through Friday, Feb. 28, and the winning bobblehead will be announced on Monday, March 3. All of the information on voting, along with some of the fantastic prizes you’ll be entered to win just for casting your vote, can be found here: nationals.com/bobblevote.

But just in case you were having a little trouble deciding which of the worthy candidates to vote for, we’ve got a few videos to help make the candidates’ cases. Check ‘em out!

#ClippardBobble

#LaRocheBobble

#WilliamsBobble

Everyone who votes will be entered to win prize packages featuring the winning bobblehead, game tickets or an on-field batting practice viewing experience. You have three different ways to cast your vote for pitcher Tyler Clippard, first baseman Adam LaRoche or manager Matt Williams.

When Pitchers Hit

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by Amanda Comak

VIERA, Fla. — There was a new notation on the Washington Nationals’ daily schedule Monday morning. The spot that had been filled the past few days by the rundown for live batting practice sessions was replaced.”Pitchers Hitting Game,” it read.

Some Nationals pitchers prepare for a new hitting game during Monday's workout.

Some Nationals pitchers prepare for a new hitting game during Monday’s workout.

Around 11:15 a.m., the pitchers departed from the Minor League fields and moved the rest of their workout back toward Space Coast Stadium. One group, Team Zimmermann and Team Strasburg, made their way onto the auxiliary field just outside the stadium. Another, Team Young and Team Fister, took their places on the field inside the stadium.

The game, made-up in the mind of Rehab Pitching Coordinator Mark Grater, seemed simple. The teams were picked schoolyard style with Doug Fister and Chris Young named captains in one group, and Stephen Strasburg and Jordan Zimmermann captains in another. The object was to score more runs than your opponent in a nine-inning game. The focus was on bunting, moving runners, and doing the little things that pitchers need to do at the plate but in a competitive atmosphere.

“It breaks up some of the monotony,” said Fister, who has noted his excitement about being in the National League. “There are things that we have to focus on every day that are very important, and hitting and bunting and moving runners are (some) of them. For (Manager Matt Williams) to schedule things like that where we’re able to have fun with it, it’s going to stick in our brains.”

For the teams playing on the field inside Space Coast Stadium, Grater ran the show. As pitchers gathered their helmets and bats, he ran through the rules.

  • At the start of an inning, they needed to reach base with a hit — a line drive off the L-screen protecting Grater was a single, but one-hop off it was an out. Grater himself decided whether a ball was a hit or an error. Home runs did count, but they were not the goal of the exercise, so if a pitcher hit one, he’d have to run out beyond the fence and get the ball himself.
  • The pitchers weren’t running the bases, but if they “reached” based on their plate performance, the following “hitters” had to follow the proper directions. Number of outs, where the runners were, where the defenses were playing (as determined by the team captains) all played into what the hitter would have to do (bunt, hit a ground ball to the right side of the field, etc). If they couldn’t, they were out. Successful bunts were not outs (as most would be in real games), and those who were able to produce them were allowed to stay in the batters’ box. But if a hitter bunted twice in a row, they were out.
  • If one captain decided that, with a man on second and a line drive hit into the gap, he wanted to “send the runner home,” the outcome would be decided by Grater throwing at a pre-determined target. If he hit it, the runner was out. If he missed, the runner was safe.

There was, of course, one humorous twist. Grater, as the game’s overlord and head umpire, made the rulings — and the rulings were final. Only captains could voice dissent, and others who did were required to run a lap around the infield as penalty. Gio Gonzalez found himself running several laps.

Trash talk, of course, was plentiful. And the competitive juices flowed throughout, as did the watchful eyes.

When Taylor Jordan hit a home run in the late innings, (Telling Grater, “You’re pitching me inside! What do you expect?”) he marched himself only to the outfield fence, picked up a different ball and then returned. Pitching Coach Steve McCatty would have none of that, and sent the young right-hander back down the left field foul line to properly retrieve his home run ball.

Team Fister took a late lead, but Team Young won it in the ninth when, with the “bases loaded” Christian Garcia roped a home run over the left center field fence. As Gonzalez — hands raised in victory pose — sprinted around the bases in celebration and by choice, Grater noted that because Garcia wasn’t supposed to be hitting a home run, his run didn’t count but the first three “runners” who scored would. The final score was 8-6, Team Young.

On the other field, Team Zimmermann topped Team Strasburg.

“Oh yeah,” said one reliever on the Nationals’ 19-game winner’s team. “We dominated.”

And while the purpose of the game was to get pitchers to work on their situational hitting, it also allowed them to think along with a manager and how the game would be run in those various situations.

“You’ve got to put pressure on the defense,” said Fister, who was aggressive in “sending” his baserunners. “That translates into a game. I come from an area where, playing with (Torii Hunter) last year, that’s one thing that he stresses: take that extra base. Try and stretch that single into a double, that double into a triple. It’s amazing how many extra runs you pick up just because of one extra base with that mentality.”

The pitchers enjoyed the exercise so much, that they took an amendment to the rules to Williams.

“They made a new rule,” Williams said. “This was supposed to be, we break the groups up, they play against each other, we have two winners. Now they have a championship game they want to do. So we’ve got to fit that in there, into the (schedule).”

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