Over the course of a 162-game season, you have to find any number of different ways to win games to have a successful year. While the Nationals never really came up with the big hit they were looking for on Saturday, they nonetheless discovered a new and creative way to snag a crucial 5-4 road victory over the Pirates, setting them up for a possible series win to close the road trip.
After not hitting a sacrifice fly since April 17 – a span of 16 games – Washington hit three on Saturday, accounting for 60 percent of its scoring. The third and final one proved to be the difference, and was set up by perhaps the unlikeliest turn of events possible, a double-steal from Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche. Not only was it the first stolen base for either player this season, but it was the first time Zimmerman had ever stolen third in his career. Both got such a good jump off Pirates reliever Tony Watson that catcher Russell Martin could not even get a throw off.
“I would have thought those were the last two guys that were going to steal,” said Tyler Moore, who apparently wasn’t alone in that assessment, and who delivered the third and final sacrifice fly moments later to plate Zimmerman with winning run. “But they got it done. That was huge. Trent (Jewett) had the guts to send them, and it ended up winning us the ballgame.”
Sometimes that’s exactly what a team needs to get going. Other than Wilson Ramos’s big two-run single that tied the game in the sixth, the Nationals did not have a hit in their other 10 at-bats with runners in scoring position. But they drew six walks and were thrice hit by pitches to go along with their six base hits, putting constant pressure on the Pittsburgh pitching staff. They had a runner in scoring position in every inning after the first, and middle-of-the-order stalwarts Zimmerman and LaRoche each reached base four times. There were signs of better at-bats, the kind of patient, grind-it-out style that the team showed in its victories early in the season.
So to what should one attribute the change in approach? For one, Davey Johnson held a team meeting, something he does not do often, before the game. Ironically, he did the exact same thing during a lull in the 2012 season, before the 31st game (also started by Stephen Strasburg), against the Pirates in Pittsburgh. Not so ironically, the result was the same. The 2012 edition went on to win its next three games and 11 of 17 to follow.
“That’s how you win Manager of the Year right there,” joked Ian Desmond as the media entered the clubhouse after the game, referring to the honor bestowed upon Johnson last year.
Just how much correlation exists in the cause and effect between the meeting and the team’s performance is open to debate. But it’s hard to argue with the results.
5.4.13 – Nationals 5, Pirates 4
Stat of the Game: Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman each reached base safely four times and each earned their first steal of the season, on a double-steal in the ninth.
Under-the-Radar Performance: Roger Bernadina made a huge defensive play, gunning down Russell Martin trying to stretch a leadoff single into a double leading off the bottom of the ninth.
It Was Over When: Rafael Soriano whiffed Jordy Mercer to shut the door on his seventh consecutive save opportunity, his 10th in 11 tries overall this season.
Washington Nationals (15-15) vs. Pittsburgh Pirates (17-12)
RHP Stephen Strasburg (1-4, 3.13) vs. LHP Jeff Locke (3-1, 2.83)
The Nationals look to get back to their winning ways with Stephen Strasburg on the hill following last night’s series-opening defeat. Washington has not been more than a game above or below .500 since being 13-11 exactly one week ago.
1. Espinosa 2B
2. Desmond SS
3. Harper LF
4. Zimmerman 3B
5. LaRoche 1B
6. Moore RF
7. Ramos C
8. Bernadina CF
9. Strasburg RHP
Ian Desmond (17), Danny Espinosa (9) and Steve Lombardozzi (2) have combined on 28 extra-base hits, tops among MLB middle-infield units. Philadelphia and Colorado are tied for second with 23 apiece.
While the Nationals welcomed Ryan Zimmerman (DL, hamstring) back into the lineup on Friday, it is worth noting that Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche, Bryce Harper, Danny Espinosa, Denard Span and Wilson Ramos have all missed time this season while dealing with injury or illness. Davey Johnson was last able to pen a lineup that included his standard starting eight (LaRoche 1B, Espinosa 2B, Desmond SS, Zimmerman 3B, Harper LF, Span CF, Werth RF, Ramos/Suzuki C) on Sunday, April 14. Washington’s record this season with Johnson’s standard starting eight is 6-4.
STRENGTH OF SCHEDULE
Using their opponent’s record on the date of the game, the Nationals have played a team sporting a .500-or-better record in 25 of 30 games this season. The five exceptions all came against the Marlins, not including the Fish’s 0-0 record on Opening Day.
5.3.13 – Pirates 3, Nationals 1
Stat of the Game: Adam LaRoche reached base safely three times, via two opposite-field singles and a walk.
Under-the-Radar Performance: Denard Span made a pair of rangy defensive plays in center field, despite having fouled a ball of his foot in the first inning.
It Was Over When: The Nationals could not convert with runners at the corners, down by two in the eighth inning.
Washington Nationals (15-14) vs. Pittsburgh Pirates (16-12)
LHP Ross Detwiler (1-2, 2.03) vs. RHP A.J. Burnett (2-2, 2.83)
Dan Haren turned in his best start yet as a National as Washington earned a split of the four-game set in Atlanta with a 3-1 victory Thursday night. Nationals pitching has allowed just one run in the last 21 innings heading into tonight’s series opener in Pittsburgh, which will pit two of the top 20 ERAs in the league against one another with Ross Detwiler (ninth) and A.J. Burnett (20th) matching up.
1. Span CF
2. Desmond SS
3. Harper LF
4. Zimmerman 3B
5. LaRoche 1B
6. Moore RF
7. Espinosa 2B
8. Suzuki C
9. Detwiler LHP
In Thursday’s win at Turner Field, Denard Span sparked the Nationals offense with three hits (two doubles, two RBI, a walk and a run scored). In so doing, he reached base four or more times for the 34th time in his career. Span’s teams are now 24-10 (.706) when he reaches base four or more times in a single game (1-0 with Washington, 23-10 with the Twins).
Nearly 30 games into the season, Ian Desmond has more extra-base hits (17) than singles (16). Desmond is one of only nine big leaguers with at least 100 plate appearances on the season to be able to stake this claim, joining Mike Napoli, Chris Davis, Justin Upton, Anthony Rizzo, Coco Crisp, J.P Arencibia, Adam Dunn and Chris Young.
NEW FRONTIERS AHEAD
The Nationals are 8-8 this season against NL East rivals after posting MLB’s top intra-division winning percentage last season (48-33, .593). Starting with tonight’s lid-lifter at PNC Park, the Nationals will play 18 straight games outside the division.
As Greg Maddux so astutely pointed out to Tom Glavine in the hilarious Nike ad from the late ’90s, chicks dig the long ball. In fact, so does every baseball fan and writer, as home runs are, incidentally, the loudest happening on a baseball field. Perhaps it’s no surprise then, that Justin Upton and the hard-swinging Atlanta Braves garnered many of the season’s early headlines.
While the Nationals have plenty of potential for pop in their own lineup, there is no denying that the pitching will lead them as far as they go this season. So it was only fitting that, after an 8-1 loss which left their final April record at just 13-14, Washington quietly rebounded with a pair of dominant pitching performances to earn a four-game split of a tough road series in Atlanta.
Following Jordan Zimmermann’s beauty on Wednesday, veteran Dan Haren shredded his way through the Braves lineup with stunning efficiency on Thursday, allowing just a solo home run over eight innings.
At one point, Nationals pitchers had retired 28 straight Atlanta hitters, one better than the equivalent of a perfect game over the two-day stretch. They ran up an 18-inning scoreless streak as well, and have allowed just one run over their last 21 frames entering this weekend’s series in Pittsburgh.
It was, perhaps, a bit ironic that on the day that Upton was honored with the National League Player of the Month – and Evan Gattis the NL Rookie of the Month – it was the rival Nationals bullying their way to another big road win, sucking the air out of the Turner Field crowd.
Even more so, the Nationals were able to jump on nemesis Kris Medlen early for the only three runs they would need. They didn’t do it by leaving the ballpark, but rather thanks to a pair of doubles by the pesky, opportunistic Denard Span, who scored the game’s first run, then scooted a ball down the third base line to plate the rest of the Washington scoring an inning later.
And so, quietly, the Nationals have put a lackluster April behind them, and are just 2.5 games back of first place in the first week of May. With the ever-improving Ross Detwiler set to take the hill Friday night, Washington looks to carry that momentum, led by their pitching, into the Steel City.
5.2.13 – Nationals 3, Braves 1
Stat of the Game: Dan Haren needed just 90 pitches to complete a season-high eight innings of work in earning his second consecutive victory.
Under-the-Radar Performance: Denard Span factored in all three Washington scores, finishing 3-for-4 with a walk, two doubles, a run scored and two RBI.
It Was Over When: Rafael Soriano popped out Dan Uggla as the tying run in the bottom of the ninth to earn the series split.
Washington Nationals (14-14) vs. Atlanta Braves (17-10)
RHP Dan Haren (2-3, 6.29) vs. RHP Kris Medlen (1-3, 3.26)
The Nationals rode another shutdown performance from Jordan Zimmermann to a 2-0 victory last night, setting up a shot at a split of the four-game set against Atlanta tonight. Dan Haren is coming off his best start and second win of the season, while Kris Medlen is coming off his worst, in which he allowed five runs on 10 hits and two walks in 5.1 innings of work.
1. Span CF
2. Lombardozzi 2B
3. Harper LF
4. Werth RF
5. Desmond SS
6. LaRoche 1B
7. Rendon 3B
8. Ramos C
9. Haren RHP
DESMOND CLEANS UP WHILE BATTING CLEANUP
With his two-run shot in the fourth inning, Ian Desmond became the first player in Nationals (2005-present) history to homer in his first career start as a cleanup hitter. Going back further, Desmond is the first franchise player to homer in his first start in the cleanup spot since the Expos Greg Colbrunn, May 26, 1993 vs. St. Louis.
Jordan Zimmermann tossed 8.0 dominant, scoreless innings, surrendering just two hits. He walked none, struck out a season-high eight and ran his personal string of consecutive scoreless innings to 18.0 straight in the process. He has allowed just five baserunners (three hits, two walks) over that stretch.
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, last night’s tilt was the first nine-inning big league contest since 1997 (Toronto at Milwaukee, Game One of July 28 twin bill) in which neither team had a batter reach base (via hit, walk, HBP or error) from the fifth inning to the end of the game.
A quick look at Jordan Zimmermann’s 2013 season so far shows that he has been, unequivocally, one of the 10 best pitchers in baseball. His 1.64 ERA (sixth), five wins (tied-second), .168 batting average against (fourth) and 0.75 WHIP (second) all rank among the top marks in the Major Leagues. Somehow, even considering all of that, he may still be underrated.
Dating back to his final inning of work on April 21 in New York, the Wisconsin native has shut out opponents over his last 18 frames. In his last two starts, against the dangerous lineups of the Reds and Braves, he has allowed just three hits and a walk in 17 innings of work.
The reason for Zimmermann’s success is no secret. He comes right after hitters with all four of his featured pitches – his fastball, slider, curveball and changeup – and attacks the strike zone. In fact, he has thrown at least 60 strikes in all but one of his starts. The lone exception? His first career shutout, a one-hitter in which he needed only 91 pitches (59 of them strikes) to silence the Reds bats.
“I’m just getting ahead of guys, throwing strikes, making them hit my pitch,” Zimmermann said after his latest gem in Atlanta. “Last year, I’d fall behind and have to battle to get back to even and ahead in the count…this year, so far, I’ve stayed in attack mode and gone right after hitters.”
Zimmermann’s ability to control the strike zone is reflected in his ever-improving strikeout-to-walk rate, which sits at 3.83 so far this season, up from 3.56 last season. His career mark of 3.53 would rank right alongside Zack Greinke in the top 20 all-time among pitchers with 1,000 or more innings thrown. While Zimmermann has only tossed just over half that total (523.1 after Wednesday’s shutout of the Braves), the 26-year-old shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon.
Last season, Zimmermann was a model of consistency, throwing at least six innings in each of his first 21 starts. But he never made it past the seventh in any of those outings, throwing exactly six frames 12 times. Through six starts this season, the righty has finished eight or more innings three times already, including a pair of complete games.
“I think that’s just experience,” said Davey Johnson of Zimmermann’s improvement in efficiency. “He’s getting more comfortable with the league, the ballparks, the umpires, the mounds, the hitters and how they approach him.”
And while Zimmermann remains as calm and collected as ever on the mound, the competitive engine within him – the one fans got a glimpse of in the seventh inning of Game 4 of the NLDS last year – churns as strong as ever.
“He’s got that calm demeanor,” explained Johnson. “But there’s a big fire going on inside him.”
While Jordan Zimmermann, Ian Desmond and the Nationals were busy shutting down the Atlanta Braves Tuesday night, one of their fellow teammates took a big step forward as well.
Batting third and wearing No. 33 for the High-A Potomac Nationals, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman saw an assortment of fastballs, sliders and change-ups from Carolina Mudcats starter Joseph Colon in three at bats.
Zimmerman told the media contingent in the Potomac clubhouse that it was good to face live pitching again and that, “everything went great. (It was) good to get back out there. Everything felt fine.”
Playing in front of a supportive crowd of 3,032, Zimmerman grounded out to short in his first at-bat, testing the tight hamstring that landed him on the 15-day disabled list by running hard through the bag. He flied out to deep right-center in the fourth inning, then reached safely on a Carolina Mudcats fielding error in the sixth.
Defensively, the former Gold Glove Award winner made three successful fielding plays in six innings, including an excellent play on a sacrifice bunt attempt. He charged hard to catch the ball in the air and whipped a sidearm throw to first to nearly double off the base runner.
“My arm feels great and my hammy (hamstring) feels great,” Zimmerman said. “Now it’s just time to get back up there and get going.”
Zimmerman said he would work out on Thursday, likely at Nationals Park, before flying to Pittsburgh to join his teammates as they take on the Pirates over the weekend. Despite being held out for the required 15 days, he told reporters he started working out after just five days of rest and never had any residual hamstring issues.