Results tagged ‘ Jesus Flores ’

2012 Player Review: Jesus Flores

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The Washington Nationals enjoyed unprecedented success in 2012, recording the best record in Major League Baseball. The team relied on the contributions of many different players, whom we will catalogue throughout the offseason as we look ahead to the 2013 campaign. After a short hiatus, we are back at it with one of the Washington backstops, catcher Jesus Flores.

With the myriad of injuries beset upon the Nationals catching crew in 2012, there was one constant behind the plate, one man who was there, day in, day out, working with the pitching staff. Jesus Flores had nearly as many at-bats (277) as the fellow quintet of backstops he shared time with combined (303), appearing in over half of Washington’s games this year. Defensively, he caught nearly 47 percent of all innings thrown in 2012 by Nationals pitchers.

Flores hit three of his six 2012 home runs vs. Atlanta, each in a key victory.

Flores was thrust into the starting role after Wilson Ramos tore his ACL on a rainy Saturday night, May 12 in Cincinnati. When Chase Headley ran over Sandy Leon – the latter only a couple innings into his Major League debut – just 72 hours later, even more pressure landed on Flores to handle the league’s best pitching staff. He responded both defensively and offensively with his best stretch of the season, batting .320/.352/.500 through June 3, his first 15 games following Ramos’ injury.

Flores’ offensive contributions this season were sometimes obscured, though. His first home run of the year was overshadowed almost immediately, as it was followed by Stephen Strasburg’s first roundtripper of his Major League career, when the duo went back-to-back off Orioles starter Wie-Yen Chen on May 20 at Nationals Park. Flores’ next three longballs all came against Atlanta, each in crucial wins. He opened the scoring off Brandon Beachy with a solo shot in the fifth inning of a 2-0 victory on June 2, then went deep against Randall Delgado on June 29 to help Washington to a 5-4 triumph. Finally, his three-run blast off Paul Maholm on August 21 provided the difference in a 4-1 Nationals victory.

Meanwhile, the backstop continued to improve defensively. After never posting a range factor above 7.00, Flores notched a 9.16 mark over 80 games in 2012, while logging a career-high 687.2 innings behind the plate. He held down the fort throughout the spring and early summer until the arrival of Kurt Suzuki in early August, at which point he returned to his backup role for the stretch run.

With Ramos set to return sometime next spring, the Nationals will have some decisions to make about the future of their deep and experienced catching corps. Flores is entering the final of his four arbitration years (he was a Super Two, starting back in 2010), and is set to become a free agent after the 2013 season.

- SEE ALL OUR 2012 PLAYER REVIEWS -

Power Hour

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Did you remember that the Nationals hit three home runs in one inning Wednesday night? With everything else that happened in the game, a dramatic feat became a footnote to the larger overall story. Nevertheless, the “Nat Trick” was an impressive occurrence that signified the team’s offensive breakout, which has seen the bats score 61 runs in their last eight games (7.6 runs per game) after scoring just six times total in a five-game losing stretch before that. Even more impressive than the raw numbers, though, is the fact that everyone is contributing.

Adam LaRoche has homered four times in the first three games of the series.

On Tuesday, Davey Johnson gave Bryce Harper the night off, allowing him to miss a lefty starter and affording Tyler Moore a chance for some at-bats. Moore responded with a towering home run to left, one of the team’s six on the night. On Wednesday, Johnson sat Jayson Werth, a night after his four-hit game. That gave Roger Bernadina a chance to start, and he rewarded his skipper with a home run of his own. Oh, and Harper? He returned to the lineup to swat a pair of longballs, his second two-homer game in a week.

In the past two games – in which the Nationals have only batted a total of 16 innings, due to their cancellation of the bottom of the ninth each night – eight different players have combined to club 12 home runs. Adam LaRoche has led the way with three clouts, while Harper and Desmond have both pitched in a pair and Bernadina, Danny Espinosa, Jesus Flores, Moore and Ryan Zimmerman have one each. Collectively, they are just the third team in the last 95 years to post consecutive six-homer games, joining the ’96 Dodgers and the ’03 Angels.

Not to be outdone, Gio Gonzalez returned to the mound for the first time since his first career shutout last Friday, and was even more dominant. The lefty carried a no-hitter with no walks – the only baserunner to reach early came on an error in the third inning – all the way into the sixth. In the end, he allowed just three hits over seven scoreless frames, fanning nine Cubs without issuing a walk. He stretched his scoreless streak to 16 innings, striking out 17 and allowing just 11 runners to reach base over that span.

While Gio tries to track down 20 wins, Jordan Zimmermann looks for his 10th Thursday night, which would be the first double-digit win total of his career. Saturday, it will be Ross Detwiler’s turn to do the same, and on Sunday, Edwin Jackson will look for his fourth consecutive season of 10 or more wins. Should each accomplish the feat this weekend, or at some other time over the season’s final four weeks, it will give each of the Nats five primary starters a double-digit total for the season.

Gio Gonzalez and the Nats staff are closing in on some milestone numbers.

This is all the more impressive when you consider the fact that last year, on a team that finished a respectable 80-81, John Lannan (who was recently called up for reinforcement down the stretch) was the only pitcher to reach that mark, winning exactly 10 games. For some perspective, not even the 102-win Phillies of 2011 managed to have five starters with 10 or more wins. In fact, the only four teams that turned the trick last year were Milwaukee, Tampa Bay, Texas and St. Louis – all four playoff teams, the final two of which battled it out for the World Series.

Really, that has been the narrative of the 2012 Nationals all season long, that the club’s depth, both on offense and on the pitching staff, is so solid. The storyline was somewhat obscured by the rash of injuries suffered by position players early on. But Cubs manager Dale Sveum commented after Thursday night’s contest that Washington is “by far the best team we’ve played all year.” At this point, the Nats are the best team that they have been all year as well, playing their most dominating baseball of the season down the stretch, when it matters most.

Enjoy the full dirty dozen of homers from the past two nights in the video below before the Nationals look for their fifth straight Curly W and a sweep of the Cubs later tonight.

Battery Power

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On a night in which the thermometer read 77 degrees at a 7:07 p.m. first pitch with number 37 on the mound for the Nationals, perhaps it seemed inevitable that Washington was on its way to its 77th victory, opening up a season-high seven-game lead over the division-rival Braves. Stephen Strasburg reduced a potent Braves lineup to a collection of swinging and looking strikes, including a breaking ball so sharp it sent Martin Prado, a good breaking-ball hitter, lurching backwards as it spun back across the plate.

Ian Desmond has already set a franchise record with 19 home runs.

But Tuesday night’s affair was about more than just Strasburg. Just as he had done the night before, Ian Desmond blasted a home run over the visitor’s bullpen in left field, to nearly the exact same spot. Later, Jesus Flores – who replaced Kurt Suzuki as the starter specifically due to his history of success against Braves starter Paul Maholm – drove a game-defining, three-run shot into the planters just over the left field wall. It was Flores’ first home run since June 29 at Turner Field in Atlanta in a game the Nats would win 5-4, and his first at Nationals Park since June 2, when he broke a scoreless tie with a blast off Brandon Beachy and, yes, the Braves. The catcher has hit just four home runs this season, but the last three have all come against Washington’s closest division rival and have all been a crucial factor in the outcome.

Amazingly, with Desmond and Flores both going deep in their victory Tuesday night, the Nationals have now won 20 straight games in which they have homered. That little nugget reminded us of a conversation we had with MLB Network’s Peter Gammons back in Spring Training. When we spoke with Gammons in the press box in Viera, we asked him of what team in recent memory these 2012 Nats reminded him. We expected an answer like the 2008 Rays or the 2010 Giants, clubs led by dominant starting pitching that could grind out a tight game every night. His answer surprised us.

Gammons and Strasburg chat before a Spring Training game in Viera this March.

“I would say Texas,” he said. Those Texas Rangers? The ones who could sneak up and lay a six-run inning on you at any time? The ones who had been to the past two World Series?

“Their pitching is very, very good,” he continued. “It’s young and it’s inexperienced. But they’ve got a lot of guys who can hit the ball eight miles, just like the Nationals do.”

Now, here in late August, with the Nationals lineup at last as healthy as it has been all year long, we finally understand. Washington now leads the National League in home run differential, having blasted 135 while surrendering just 95 (+39). That differential is 10 better than the St. Louis Cardinals, who own the league’s best overall offense. Considering the Nationals rash of injuries and games missed by middle-of-the-lineup bats this year, it’s an even more impressive statistic.

With those power bats back in the lineup, Gammons’ analysis makes a lot more sense. Of course, we’ll still take some credit for our own comparisons. After all, the last team to win 20 straight games in which they homered? The 2008 Tampa Bay Rays.

From the Desk of Mark Lerner: Envious No More

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Just about every night, I remind myself, be careful what you wish for.

For years now, we watched with silent envy as teams played meaningful games late into the season. We were thrilled to play a role — any role — in the season’s outcomes, to affect the standings from the outside.

Some call it playing the “spoiler.” Whatever they called us, it fit at the time.

But when everyone went home at night, all we could do was picture and dream what a pennant race was like from the inside.

Well no longer. Friends, we are in the midst of a real pennant race. And, bonus, this one appears to have started a bit earlier than most.

Honestly, my early impression is that it is equal parts pleasure and agony.

As if the late innings of a tight game are not grueling enough, let me tell you that I literally cringe every night about 7:10 p.m. upon checking the out-of-town scoreboard for the first time. Not much changes either during my 62 subsequent glances, as I wait for the scores to flip or turn over at inning’s end.

The man known as “Kurt Klutch” has already made his presence felt with the Nationals.

Honestly, this is so fun and much more invigorating than I imagined during all those blank nights. This is daily drama that only our sport can provide.

The ups and downs … they are amazingly addictive, but as we all know, the nightly outcomes cannot always work in our favor.

And it is in those moments that I remind myself … be careful what you wish for.

*It has been a busy week with the additions of Kurt Suzuki and Cesar Izturis. Suzuki has made an immediate impression in the clubhouse — he is so upbeat and personable, it is as if he’s been with us for 3-4 years, not 3-4 days. I know he’s still feeling his way, trying to learn about our pitchers and their various strengths. But our fans should feel comfortable with not only his talents behind the plate, but also in a one-on-one setting.

*A little bit was made about the Suzuki acquisition being some sort of commentary on the play of Jesus Flores, especially since Wilson Ramos went down in early May. I can assure everyone that Mike Rizzo does not feel this way. This was an opportunity to acquire another front-line catcher. Mike was understandably nervous about the worst case scenario: losing Flores to injury. This trade makes us better and deeper. And as we’ve seen all season long, our depth is a big part of what has set us apart.

Danny Espinosa has played the hero role lately, with the Nationals rookies in support.

*I know I wrote about the agony that comes with a pennant race, but one recent high point was Saturday night’s big comeback win over the Marlins. That was as loud as I have heard our ballpark. The only other moment that could potentially stack up was Ryan Zimmerman’s game-ending homer to open up Nationals Park on March 30, 2008. As up-to-the-task as Danny Espinosa was in Saturday night’s critical at-bat, I genuinely believe that the fans primarily fueled that six-run eighth inning. We’ll need much more of this in the next 2 months.

*I do not think it is any exaggeration to think that Adam LaRoche should be a part of any NL MVP discussion. At the very least, he is the NL Comeback Player of the Year. He carried us in April and has never let up. He leads all big league first basemen in home runs with 23. Yep, that’s one more than even Albert Pujols (22).

*I’d also like to welcome Jayson Werth back to the active roster. And he is not just back and working himself into shape. Rather, he is helping us win games. Wrist injuries are probably the most disruptive ailments that can plague hitters, and for him to come back and to have already raised his batting average above the .300 mark? It is a remarkable testament to his will and determination. His body’s ability to heal quickly is something to behold.

Bryce Harper continues to dazzle with the bat and the glove.

*I’d be remiss if I did not mention the many contributions of our rookies: Bryce Harper, Steve Lombardozzi and Tyler Moore. Go back to Saturday. Bryce, Steve and Tyler accounted for half of the runs in the aforementioned six-run eighth inning. Some say the best thing about rookies is that they become second-year players. Well, in my mind, the best thing about these rookies is that they are not going anywhere any time soon.

I hope to see everyone during our next homestand. Remember, the next homestand includes a big 3-game series against the Braves. I’ve had friends tell me that this might be the biggest baseball series in D.C. since the 1933 Fall Classic. This is what it’s all about.

A “Never Say Die” Weekend

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The Washington Nationals have made a name for themselves in the 2012 season by winning two different types of games. The first and more common type involves a healthy serving of solid starting pitching, a clutch piece of offense or two to snare the lead, and a lockdown performance by an ensemble bullpen. It is the kind of affair that the Nationals have found themselves involved in ever since their 2-1, Opening Day victory at Wrigley Field. But then there is that other kind of game, the nail-biting, nerve-fraying, mind-boggling variety that has made this season truly memorable.

This weekend’s matchups in Milwaukee provided one game from each mold. After splitting the first two of the four-game set with the Brewers, the Nationals sent hometown hero Jordan Zimmermann, originally from nearby Auburndale, Wisconsin, to make his first-ever start against the team he grew up supporting. The emerging ace delivered a sterling performance, allowing a single run on five hits, fanning six Milwaukee batters over six strong innings to extend his streak of throwing at least that many frames to 21 consecutive starts. In so doing, he lowered his ERA to the third-best mark in the National League at 2.28 and matched his career high with his eighth victory. He also improved to 4-0 with a 0.97 ERA in the month of July, during which he allowed just four earned runs and four walks while fanning 31 in 37.0 innings pitched.

Jordan Zimmermann finished off a spectacular month of July in his home state.

Meanwhile, the Nationals rookies came through with huge contributions again, as Corey Brown opened the scoring with a solo shot and Tyler Moore added a two-run bomb to provide more than enough cushion in a 4-1 final. In all, it was a solid, shutdown performance that both the team and the coaching staff could be proud of.

Then, there was Sunday’s game.

In a battle of 2004 first-round picks, it was the less-heralded Mark Rogers who seemed poised to best All-Star Gio Gonzalez, as Milwaukee had forged a 3-1 lead through five fairly normal innings. Right about then, all convention went out the window. The Nationals led off the sixth with back-to-back doubles from Ryan Zimmerman and Moore, cutting the lead to one and putting the tying run in scoring position with nobody out. But they failed to plate that tying run, and Milwaukee responded by scoring twice in the bottom of the frame to push the lead to 5-2.

In the seventh, Washington looked poised to strike again, using singles from Brown and Steve Lombardozzi followed by a walk from Bryce Harper (all rookies!) to load the bases for Zimmerman, again with none out. But Cody Ransom turned a slick 5-3 double-play, limiting the Nats to just a single run once more. And again, the Brewers came right back for two more runs in the bottom of the frame, sitting pretty with a 7-3 advantage though seven frames.

This is, as they say, about the time when things got really interesting. With one out and a runner on first, Roger Bernadina flipped an opposite field home run into the bullpen in left-center field to cut the margin in half. Jesus Flores followed with a single, Brown with a double, and Lombardozzi with an RBI-groundout to cut the margin to one and put the tying run at third with two outs. One wild pitch later, and it was suddenly tied at 7-7. But the Brewers were not about to go quietly. With one out in the bottom of the eighth, Norichika Aoki and Carlos Gomez blasted back-to-back shots, reclaiming a two-run lead.

For the fourth straight inning, the Nationals were looking uphill at a discouraging scoreline. And for the fourth straight inning, they mustered a rally. Mark DeRosa drew a one-out walk, bringing Michael Morse (featured in this homestand’s Inside Pitch… Pick one up at the ballpark!) to the plate as the potential game-tying run. After Milwaukee reliever John Axford forged ahead in the count, 1-2, his catcher set up low and inside for a fastball, anything to keep Morse from getting his arms extended. Axford missed his spot, leaving his pitch up and over the middle of the plate. Morse did not miss, sending the ball on a line over the right field wall, and once again, the game was tied.

Michael Morse unleashed Beast Mode twice – in the ninth inning to tie the game, and in the 11th to win it.

Craig Stammen kept Milwaukee off the board in the bottom of the ninth to force extra innings, and neither team scored in the 10th inning. In the top of the 11th, Harper walked and Zimmerman singled, bringing Morse to bat with a chance to summon Beast Mode one more time. He delivered once again, pulling a double just inside the third-base bag to score both runners. Tyler Clippard would allow a solo shot to Corey Hart in the bottom of the frame, but shut the door in time to lock down the victory, with Morse himself gloving the final out on a foul pop in front of the Brewers dugout.

The games of this second variety, of the seemingly impossible string of back-and-forth momentum swings, of comebacks from the proverbial dead, seem to keep reaching more and more epic levels of absurdity at every pass. Sunday’s contest lacked only the walk-off hit, as it took place away from Nationals Park, but may have once again set the bar as the most dramatic of them all so far.

Perhaps most importantly, it capped a 6-1 road trip that kept the Nationals a full four games ahead of division rival Atlanta as the weekend came to a close. It also left them at 61-40, the first time the franchise has been this many games over .500 since its relocation to the Nation’s Capital. The Nats get a well-deserved off day on Monday, their only such breather in a 35-day stretch that sees them play 36 games, including seven more in a six-day stretch at home beginning on Tuesday. A word to the wise: take advantage of the day off yourself. You’re going to need every ounce of energy you’ve got left for the final 61 games of the regular season.

In the meantime, enjoy Morse’s theatrics one more time (as even Davey lets himself loose at the 1:04 mark) and both Bob Carpenter’s and Charlie Slowes’ calls of the action.

It’s The Little Things That Kill

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Sports are full of “firsts” and “lasts,” the types of facts and figures that allow us to place events in appropriate historical context. One of the most noted of these facts in baseball is that the Chicago Cubs have not won the World Series since 1908. What’s often forgotten is that the Cubs have also not won a pennant since 1945, a stretch of 67 years.

In that spirit, let’s go ahead and get the historical facts surrounding where the Washington Nationals stand today out of the way. The club will enter play this 27th of July, 2012 with a 59-39 record, matching the New York Yankees for the best record in the game. This marks the first time the Nationals have stood 20 games above the break-even point since their return to Washington in 2005. It is also the first time a Washington-based Major League Baseball team has been in such a position since the 1945 Senators finished their campaign at 87-67, the same year as that last Cubs pennant.

Steve Lombardozzi is now 4-for-5 with a double, triple and 8 RBI with the bases loaded in his young career.

In fact, at 59 wins the Nationals have already matched their season total from both 2008 and 2009, with 64 games still left to play.

And while all that is notable, games are still won day-to-day, moment-to-moment. It is the little things that continue to have a big impact for the Nationals. Take Thursday night’s game against the Brewers, for example. There was one very loud moment, which you probably remember, and a much quieter one that you may have missed, which turned the game.

The Nationals scored their first run on an Adam LaRoche solo shot, his third home run in as many games, coming on Yovani Gallardo’s first pitch of the second inning. That feat alone was impressive enough, but the fact that it came in lock step with MASN’s highlight package made it even more incredible. F.P. Santangelo had just finished detailing LaRoche’s previous blast as he stepped to the plate, describing the opposing pitcher’s location mistake as a “fastball right down the middle for a home run…” and crack. The ball sailed over the right-center field wall, LaRoche trotted around the bases, and Santangelo continued. “You are looking live, this is not the highlight package that we just showed.”

But it was when Roger Bernadina drew a two-out walk that the Nationals sprung at the opportunity to do some real damage. With the runner at first, the Milwaukee defense played batter Jesus Flores to pull the ball, moving the shortstop into the hole, and pulling the second baseman farther up the middle, assuming coverage of the base on a possible steal. Davey Johnson put on the hit-and-run, drawing the second baseman to the bag and opening up the right side of the infield for Flores, who swatted what would normally be a routine ground ball through the vacated infield dirt, Bernadina racing around to third on the single.

Following the play, Bob Carpenter and Santangelo remarked that Flores had already done his job in the inning. No matter the result, by reaching, Flores had gotten the pitcher to the plate, meaning that at the very least, leadoff man Steve Lombardozzi would lead off the third inning. But Gallardo was flustered by the turn of events, falling behind fellow pitcher Edwin Jackson at the plate 3-0 before walking him to load the bases. Lombardozzi then yanked a clutch, two-out triple inside of first base and down into the right-field corner, and the Brewers never responded.

Edwin Jackson continued to impress, both on the mound and on the basepaths.

Meanwhile, LaRoche’s bizarre kinship with his former teammate Jackson – with whom he also played in Arizona – continued, as he hit the seventh of his team-leading 19 home runs in a game that Jackson started. And Jackson continued the trend of superb starting pitching of late. In the last turn of the rotation, Nationals starters have allowed just three runs in 34.0 innings pitched, good for a 0.79 ERA.

For their troubles, the Brewers get lefty Ross Detwiler tonight, who is 1-0 with a 1.89 ERA this month. On Saturday, they will face Jordan Zimmermann, who will make his homecoming start in his native state of Wisconsin and currently sits at an otherworldly 3-0, 0.87 through his first four starts in July.

The Nationals, meanwhile, are looking at uncharted waters, a chance to not only push more than 20 games above .500 for the first time ever, but also to notch their seventh straight Curly W, which would mark the longest winning streak of the season. The Nationals have not won that many consecutive games since taking eight straight from June 10-18 of last year.

All of that talk can wait, though. For now the Nats will focus on getting one more baserunner on offense, one more out on defense, doing what they have done all year long. The best part? You can watch it all again tonight.

The Iron Man In The Mask

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There is a rather crass saying around the game of baseball, for those players sitting in the Minor Leagues, next in line behind big league starters: they’re just a slip in the shower away from the Show. The point is not to make light of injuries, but to emphasize just how fragile any player’s hold on his position really is.

Flores has been a rock behind the plate for the Nationals this year.

Three years ago, Jesus Flores learned just how tenuous his own claim to the Nationals starting catching job was. After respectable half-seasons worth of time in Washington in both 2007 and ’08, Flores had his breakout year in 2009, batting .311/.382/.522 with four homers and 15 RBI in 26 games before a torn labrum cost him the rest of his year. Following offseason surgery, the backstop missed the entire 2010 season, and found himself back at Triple-A Syracuse in 2011, watching veteran Pudge Rodriguez and rookie sensation Wilson Ramos split time in Washington. He made it back to the big leagues late in the season, but hit just .209/.253/.314 in 30 games, and seemed poised to be, at best, the backup for Ramos in 2012.

Of course, nobody could have predicted the injury woes that would befall the Nationals catchers this season. First, Ramos twisted his knee while trying to chase down a passed ball on Sunday, May 13 in Cincinnati, tearing his ACL and ending his season. The very next day, Sandy Leon – Ramos’ replacement – was barreled over at the plate by San Diego third baseman Chase Headley and suffered a high ankle sprain that sidelined him for weeks. With Jhonatan Solano, the only other prospective catcher in the minors, on the Disabled List himself, that led to the Nationals summoning Carlos Maldonado from Triple-A and thrusting Flores into the starting role that he had not filled in nearly three years.

Some fans may have forgotten that it was Flores who caught Edwin Jackson’s two-hitter in April.

While his numbers have not approached those he posted earlier in his career, Flores has been a sturdy presence at a crucial position that dearly needed one. He has handled the game’s best pitching staff, while blocking breaking pitches in the dirt and taking foul ball after foul ball off the mask, the pads, even his meat hand, seemingly every night.

He has had his moments with the bat, too, though they have largely gone unnoticed. His first home run of the year broke a 3-3 tie in the final home game of the Baltimore series, but was quickly upstaged by Stephen Strasburg’s first career blast, which followed as the back end of back-to-back shots. His next roundtripper snapped a scoreless tie against then-NL ERA leader Brandon Beachy and the Atlanta Braves, but again it was Strasburg’s seven innings of four-hit, shutout ball with nine strikeouts that would dominate headlines following the 2-0 Nats victory.

And while Solano has healed from his injury and has filled in nicely as the backup for the Nationals, batting .294/.333/.559 in limited time prior to the break, there is a good reason that Flores continues to be the Nationals iron man, starting the lion’s share of games behind the plate. After all, he leads all Major League catchers with at least 50 games played with a 3.12 catcher’s ERA entering play on July 17. With a team whose fortunes will be dictated by their pitching, that’s more than enough evidence for manager Davey Johnson to know that his staff – and their blazing fastballs – is in good hands.

Guest Post: Will Kubzansky

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Will Kubzansky is a sixth grader at The Edmund Burke School in Washington, D.C. He has been attending Nationals games since the team’s first season in the District back in 2005, and his work has been published in Sports Illustrated for Kids. Check out his blog here.

If you look in the Nats dugout every fifth day, you’ll notice something. Gio Gonzalez is smiling. And now I can truthfully say that it’s just like him to do that.

After writing an article for SI Kids about the Nationals and how this was going to be a big year for them, the team invited me to go on the field during batting practice on June 19.

When the field elevator went down, I still couldn’t believe it. Going through the umpire’s tunnel, I was so excited, my heart felt like it was going as fast as a Stephen Strasburg fastball.

Will Kubzansky with the Beast himself, Michael Morse.

Once we made it on to the field, the pitchers were taking batting practice. I think one thing you forget is that these guys are superstars in high school, so they can hit pretty well. Strasburg had at least four home runs, and all of them had power and control.

I called out to Gonzalez, and he told me he just couldn’t hit right now. I laughed, and told him that on the home opener he wasn’t having trouble. He said that he was fine then, but now he could barely slash it.

When Bryce Harper came out, he signed an autograph and said hi. He’s really nice and signed for a lot of people. What I find cool about that is with all the attention he gets, he still finds time for the fans.

I met both F.P. Santangelo and Johnny Holliday, who both advised me not to take their jobs. I told them I wasn’t planning on it.

All the pitchers seemed to be having a good time and laughing. This team was having a good time being in first place – it wasn’t all business – until game time.

Bryce Harper signs autographs during batting practice.

Jesus Flores also came over to sign some autographs, and so did Danny Espinosa. Both of them are really nice. As it turns out, my dad works two blocks away from where Espinosa lives, and they had a long chat about the neighborhood.

Mark DeRosa was really nice too, and told me that “These guys will come over if you just yell loud enough,” which made me laugh.

Steve Lombardozzi and Gonzalez promised they would come over, and when they did, I was really happy. These guys didn’t have to sign autographs, but they did, and I was glad they remembered the fans too.

What surprised me was that these guys were friends. It wasn’t like they had been all over the MLB, which some of them had – it looked like they had known each other since the first grade. Gio continued to ham it up once the Rays got on the field, pretending to bat with a glove. The Nats came back laughing and talking with each other.

These guys are normal people, they’re nice, and they enjoy what they’re doing – they’re just a whole lot better at baseball then the rest of us – and at the moment, the rest of the NL too. These guys have some serious Natitude!

What to Watch for: 6/16

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New York Yankees (38-25) vs. Washington Nationals (38-24)

LHP Andy Pettitte (3-2, 2.81) vs. RHP Jordan Zimmermann (3-5, 2.91)

After last night’s loss against the Yankees, the Nationals are hoping to even the series and end New York’s seven-game winning-streak. Despite Jordan Zimmermann‘s 2.91 ERA, he has just three wins on the season, as he will look for more run support to prevent the Yankees from taking the first two games of the series.

NATIONALS LINEUP:

1. Espinosa 2B

2. Harper CF

3. Zimmerman 3B

4. Morse RF

5. Desmond SS

6. Moore 1B

7. Nady LF

8. Flores C

9. Zimmermann RHP

STARTING NOTES

This afternoon, Zimmermann makes his first career start against the New York Yankees. His opposition in pinstripes, Andy Pettitte, looks for his first career win in Washington, D.C. Pettitte is 2-1 with a 2.63 ERA in three starts against the Nationals (2005-Present), with his two wins coming in Houston as a member of the Astros.

BREAKIN’ OUT

Mired in a 1-for-18 slump that plagued him during the recent road trip, Jesus Flores went 2-for-4 with a double in last night’s contest versus the Yankees. Flores has laced doubles in two of his last three games after enduring a stretch of 15 games without a two-bagger.

BIG EAST

The Nationals (15-9) are 24 games into a stretch in which they play 32 consecutive contests against clubs from either the NL East (14 total, 8-6) or AL East (18 total, 7-3 to date). Despite Friday’s loss, the Nationals have won six of their last seven and their four-game lead in the NL east is tied for the largest divisional lead in MLB.

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From the Desk of Mark Lerner: Road Tripping

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Hello Nationals fans. I am blogging today from north of the border, where your Nationals are about to wrap up the most successful road trip since arriving in D.C.

The trip began with a three-game sweep of the Red Sox. When Tyler Clippard posted his third save in as many games on Sunday, Washington became the first NL club to sweep a series at venerable Fenway Park since the Braves did so way back in 2002.

While the memories of the Beantown sweep will remain for a long time, my immediate thoughts reside with Jesus Flores, who has taken undue punishment behind the plate. Whether it be foul tips or the inevitable pitch cross-up, Flo’s arms, legs and hands sport bruises representing every color of the rainbow. Yet, he keeps on blocking balls and putting himself in harm’s way. Luckily, there are no mental dings for Flores, however, as his game-calling skills have helped unite a hot pitching staff.

Fenway was not immune to the ever-increasing number of Curly “W” hats, shirts and logos that we have seen on the road. I can also tell you that the players have noticed. I have never seen more Nationals gear for a road series. Yet another bit of evidence that our fans are realizing that this is shaping up as a special summer.

And what about our favorite 19 year-old, Bryce Harper? His play is nothing short of stellar. And, from my seat, it is contagious for teammates and fans alike. While his talents are obvious to all, his energy and undying passion for the game is what sets him apart. Oh, … and his prodigious power! That homer of his to center field on Tuesday night at Rogers Centre will not soon be forgotten.

I am looking forward to this weekend’s upcoming Yankees series at Nationals Park. The Bronx Bombers are playing very well the last three weeks and find themselves currently atop the AL East standings (they’ve also been very helpful in winning five straight from the Mets and Braves). It appears we will miss C.C. Sabathia’s turn in their rotation, but Phil Hughes, Andy Pettitte and Ivan Nova will undoubtedly provide a stiff weekend test.

I have to think tickets for this weekend are the hottest in D.C. this year.

I also urge all fans to plan your departures and arrivals to Nationals Park 45 minutes earlier than normal if you want to see all the action from first to last pitch. Sellout crowds, rush hour traffic (Friday), road construction and previously-scheduled Metro track maintenance will all be part of weekend equation.

While it is easy to focus on the big Yankees weekend, let’s remember that Tampa Bay is set to invade Nationals Park next week. The Rays’ ability to compete and often beat the Yanks and Red Sox in that division is equal parts commendable and inspirational.

Lastly, I am hopeful that our increased fan presence on the road can extend to our series at Camden Yards on the weekend of June 22-24. Let’s have some fun with this pennant race thing!

I hope to see you all at Nationals Park this next week … Don’t forget to Vote Nats!

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