Archives for posts with tag: Nats

Rain interrupted the Nationals inter-league series with the Orioles last week…while their bullpen is weighing down their 2017 hopes.  The relief corps less than one-quarter into the season has already blown 8 save opportunities (they had 14 blown saves in all of 2016) and owns the fourth worst ERA in the majors.  Initial closer Blake Treinen has watched his ERA balloon to 8.10…and he’s not the most flammable arm coming out in the late innings (Joe Blanton’s holding strong at 9.49).  Look no further than last years San Francisco Giants:  they owned the best record at midseason before 30 blown saves turned them into a wildcard club…and the pen came back one more time to bite them in a Game 4 loss to the Chicago Cubs.  It’s only May…but a leaky pen usually gets worse before it gets better.  Buckle up…it could wind up being a very bumpy summer.

Dissecting the Division– after taking two of three from Philadelphia, the Nats are seven and a half games ahead of the pack in the NL East.  They’re the only team over .500 in the quintet…and the only team with even a .500 win over the last ten games is the oft-injured New York Mets.  Will a race that never starts be a help or a hindrance for a team focused on producing in October?

Oh My Goodness- after coming to Nats Park and chanting “OH” during the anthem, Orioles fans find themselves saddled with a four game losing streak and a much tighter AL East.  They’re a half game behind the Yankees (who own the best run differential in the bigs) and three and a half games ahead of Boston in the East.  All this, while ranking 17th in MLB in scoring and 25th in opponent’s batting average.

Last Week’s Heroes- Bryce Harper hit .417 with 3 homers and 7 RBI while inking a 21+ million dollar contract for next season.  Did we mention he delivered a walk-off homer in Saturday’s win?  Michael A. Taylor homered twice, with both blasts coming in huge spots of wins over the Orioles and Phillies.  Matt Albers tossed three scoreless innings over four appearances, notching a win in relief as well.

Last Week’s Humbled- Ryan Zimmerman hit .136 from the cleanup spot while Daniel Murphy and Trea Turner also batted under .200 for the week.  Shawn Kelley’s 20.25 ERA over two appearances let Enny Romero’s 7.71 fly under the radar.

Game to Watch- Saturday in Atlanta Max Scherzer meets Bartolo Colon in a duel for the ages.  Meaning that the Braves pitcher is 43 years old and has enjoyed a career that actually lasted longer than the life of the Braves’ former home Turner Field (1997-2016).  After two starts where Scherzer was let down by either his offense or his bullpen, Max may be looking to leave no stone unturned in pursuit of win #5.  Colon is 1-4 with an ERA of 7.22…and may be one or two starts away from Jeremy Guthrie territory.

Game to Miss- Wednesday in Pittsburgh the Nats will trot out “TBD”, meaning they’ll be calling up somebody from the minors or having Jacob Turner on the mound against hard-luck Pirates pitcher Gerrit Cole.  Either way, I’m watching “The Americans” from the previous night because I can’t justify preempting a Stephen Strasburg start.

Thanks, Major League Baseball.  You’ve scheduled the annual interleague showdown between the Nationals and Orioles for early May.  A week where the Capitals are playing Pittsburgh in the NHL Playoffs and the very same week where the Wizards have all the momentum in their second round series with Boston.  Don’t they know the history of the teams inside the beltway?  If MLB had only scheduled this for next week…aka during the Eastern Conference Finals (neither the Wiz nor the Caps have reached that round this century).  Instead, we get one of the most-anticipated series of the regular season being played at the same time as a Game 5 (Wiz-Celtics Wednesday) and 6 (Capitals-Penguins Monday).  Who’s ready for baseball?

Dissecting the Division- at 21-10 the Nats are six and a half games ahead of the pack…with the other four teams in the NL East all under .500.  Only Philadelphia owns a positive run differential (+2), but the Phillies are the only team in the division with fewer wins at home than on the road (Nationals are a big-league best 12-4 on the road).

Breaking Down the Beltways- the Nats and O’s boast two of the top three records in the big leagues (thanks Yankees for taking the top spot):  while the Nationals rank 1st in MLB in hitting, runs scored and quality starts the Orioles have been doing the little things right.  Despite allowing the 8th highest batting average the Birds’ pitchers have the 12th best ERA. Despite ranking 19th in runs scored, Manager Buck Showalter’s team is 12-3 in games decided by fewer than three runs.  Both teams are on a course to reach the postseason…because of and in spite of themselves at the same time.

Last Week’s Heroes- Ryan Zimmerman stays hot by hitting .500 with 2 homers and 5 RBI.  In other words, he’s two homers and 12 RBI shy of last year’s totals. Anthony Rendon began may by hitting .333 with 2 HR and 8 RBI.  Max Scherzer struck out 11 over 7 innings against Arizona while Jacob Turner tossed six scoreless innings over two bullpen outings.

Last Week’s Humbled- Trea Turner hit .154 with nine strikeouts over 26 at bats…the shortstop gets Monday off to recharge.  Michael A. Taylor struck out 10 times in 22 at bats.  Former closer Blake Treinen took the loss in Sunday’s extra-inning gmae and allowed 4 runs over 3.2 innings.  Joe Blanton’s yet to wake up from a nightmare season;  after allowing 2 runs in one inning of work last week his ERA for the season balloons to 10.64.

Game to Watch- all four games with the Orioles are must-watch; the most must-watch being Tuesday’s tilt at Camden Yards with Scherzer on the hill.  Max makes one more start this week…and that’s the one I have my eye on. Sunday they host Philadelphia as Scherzer squares off with Jeremy Hellickson. Sorry, mom.

Game to Miss- Friday the Nats host Philadelphia with Tanner Roark on the hill.  While that’s nice, there’s definitely a Game 6 at Verizon Center.  One that could send the Wiz to the conference finals for the first time since 1979.  Sorry, Tanner.

 

Well…that was one interesting month of baseball.  Make that one ridiculous week.  Or perhaps just one scintillating Sunday?  What is going on?  One can write off the Colorado air for the 15 and 16-run explosions…but 23?  And all in the same week? One month into the season the Nats boast the best bats in the bigs…and are threatening to run away with the NL East.  Which is great, because we all know how Washington teams fare when they coast their way down the stretch.

Plan B in CF- the loss of Adam Eaton to a torn ACL for the season means Michael A. Taylor takes over in centerfield and Jayson Werth likely returns to the #2 spot in the batting order.  The Nats offense really took off in 2016 when Turner and Werth settled into the one and two spots…and there’s no reason to think it won’t be a solid engine again.  But what a shame for the Nationals to lose their sparkplug in Eaton.  The 28-year old ranked second on the team in walks, runs scored and steals while boasting the third-best on-base-percentage.  His clubhouse energy was contagious…and now the Nats will have to play the final 137 games of the 2017 regular season without last winter’s major acquisition.

Early Returns from the East- after one month the Nats lead the NL East by five games…and the other four teams are all under .500.  Philadelphia’s the only other team with a winning record against the East…and they’ve just lost three in a row.  The Phillies may have Cesar Hernandez (.323 with 20 runs scored) and Jeremy Hellickson (4-0 with an ERA of 1.80), but their lineup walks the 7th fewest times and the team’s ERA ranks 21st in the majors.  Add in four games with the defending World Series Champion Chicago Cubs, they might not be in the best shape to face the Nats this weekend.

Last Week’s Heroes- Ryan Zimmerman hit .500, scoring 11 runs while notching 5 homers and 13 RBI.  Zim finished April with 11 home runs and 29 RBI…after a nightmare 2016 where he was held to 15 blasts and 46 runs batted in.  Trea Turner and Matt Wieters both hit over .400;  getting production from less-offensive positions like shortstop (Turner scored 13 runs while driving in 11) and catcher (Wieters belted 3 homers) are the little things that lift an offense.  Reliever Matt Albers went 1-0 while pitching 5.1 scoreless innings over 4 games…allowing 1 just one hit.

Last Week’s Humbled- in a week where EVERYBODY HIT, Jose Lobaton batted just .091 with 3 strikeouts. Joe Blanton’s April wraps up with three appearances and 6 earned runs over 2 innings.  Joe Ross posted an ERA of 10:38 over 2 starts.

Game to Watch- Wednesday Gio Gonzalez tries to top what’s been a stellar April (3-0, 1.62 ERA) by facing a team that he hasn’t beaten since 2011. In 2016, Gio had an April ERA of 1.42 before posting a May ERA of 5.23.  Arizona counters with former Nats draft pick Robbie Ray.

Game to Miss- Saturday the Kentucky Derby takes front and center.  Sadly, the Nats play Philadelphia at 7:05…with Joe Ross pitching against Aaron Nola (who may be scratched as he’s dealing with back issues and has missed two turns in the rotation).  Even if the Capitals get swept by Pittsburgh (they’d host a Game Five that would be played Saturday), if you’re going to skip a game against the Phillies…

 

Break up the Nationals!  Seven straight wins and a 6-0 start to their road trip give Dusty Baker’s team the best record in the big leagues.  And this is happening in the middle of a bullpen shuffle and a three-city, ten game journey.  While 18 games represents just one-ninth of the schedule, sweeping the Mets at Citi Field is a nice early statement.

Starting with the Closer/Closers- looks like the Blake Treinen era was brief:  last week Manager Dusty Baker announced that Koda Glover and Shawn Kelley would share the ninth-inning role.  While the duo answered the challenge over the weekend at the Mets, it’s a long way from late July and the trading deadline.  One thinks that once again the Nats will be in the market for a closer.

Dissecting the Division- the sweep puts the Nats three games in front of the pack…with Miami (10-8, 3 games back) and Philadelphia (9-9, 4 off the pace) giving chase.  The Mets aren’t just 8-11 but are -3 in run differential and 4-8 at home.  Granted, it’s only April.

Meanwhile in the Other East- the Orioles took two of three from Boston (despite some shenanigans) to stay atop the AL Quintet…with Trey Mancini making his case to stay and play every day.  The 25-year old leads the team in homers and RBI….while playing perfect defense in the field.  Before we begin a season-long tango with the Orioles and Red Sox, we have to notice the New York Yankees.  Their +30 run differential just happens to be the best in the major leagues and maybe this team is closer than a year away.

Last Week’s Heroes- Bryce Harper hit .550 with 10 runs scored while notching 3 homers and 7 RBI en route to taking NL Player of the Week honors.  He’s off to a better start than he was last April when he was the player of the month (when do they visit the Cubs?).   Ryan Zimmerman hit .500 with 10 RBI.  Last year the veteran had just one month where he drove in more than 12.  Max Scherzer tallied 16 strikeouts while going 2-0 and posting a 1.80 ERA.  Koda Glover saved two games over the weekend.

Last Week’s Humbled- Michael A. Taylor’s opportunities are few and far between…but to go 1-for-10 with four strikeouts over five games is not going to inspire confidence in the Nats’ brain trust.  Adam Eaton hitting .208 with an on-base percentage of .321 isn’t an issue- it’s doing that from the leadoff spot.  And after dealing with the spotlight of being the team’s closer, Blake Treinen meets a different spotlight as the ex-closer.

Game to Watch- Same teams, different weekend.  After sweeping the Mets at Citi Field, the Nats try to push their NL East rivals further back in the standings.  Max Scherzer allowed a pair of home runs in his most recent start while Jacob deGrom struck out ten Nationals the day before.  They’ll meet up this Friday at Nationals Park.  Break out the Rick Astley fan safety video.

Game to Miss- With Scherzer pitching Friday and Stephen Strasburg (after paternity leave) slated to start Sunday, Joe Ross matches up with Zack Wheeler and his 5.40 ERA.  Meanwhile, a certain hockey team in the district will be hosting a certain nemesis that night.  While Game One is Thursday, I want to see Gio Gonzalez and his 1.35 ERA at Coors Field in the late-afternoon air.  Plus, the Caps are 8-1 in Game Ones against Pittsburgh while just 3-6 in Game Twos against the Penguins.  Rock the Red…

 

 

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM…from October when we were wondering how they could beat the Dodgers in the NLDS.

 

The longest season in professional sports wrapped up last weekend with the Nationals not quite done for 2016.  Instead of last year’s soggy plate of nachos rotting on the September plate, the Nats are headed to the playoffs for the third time in five years.

Five major turning points to the 2016 season:

1- Murph and the Magic Tones.  When the Nats brought in NLCS MVP Daniel Murphy as their main free agent find in the offseason, it had the underwhelming taste of an average cake with so-so frosting.  To get 15 homers and 80 RBI from the second baseman would be nice…but those were also numbers he’d yet to reach in his major league career.  When they started the season the second baseman was batting 5th between Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth (perhaps to keep the righty-lefty-righty thing going).  What followed was completely unforeseen as Murphy went on a tear that would have him flirt with .400 as late as Memorial Day…while driving in a ton of runs as the rest of the Nats lineup fell off a collective cliff.  He made his former team rue the day they let him go…hitting .413 with 9 HR and 21 RBI in 19 games against the Mets.  Murphy set career highs, hitting .347 with 25 HR and 104 RBI before being sidelined in September with a gluteal strain.  Just as his emergence helped lead to a playoff appearance, not being able to play and return to form against the Dodgers might lead to another early exit for the Nats.

2- Roark’s Return to the Rotation.  Last season Tanner Roark was buried in a bullpen role, going 4-7 with an ERA of 4.38.  Jordan Zimmermann’s departure via free agency delivered an opportunity…and Roark bettered his numbers from 2014 (15-10, 138 strikeouts and an ERA of 2.84) by going 16-10 while striking out 172 and posting an ERA of 2.83.  His importance was underscored in a rotation where Stephen Stasburg and Joe Ross were on the shelf for most of the second half of the season…and Gio Gonzalez was consistently uneven throughout the year.  While Max Scherzer (league-best 20 wins and 284 strikeouts) will probably get the Cy Young Award, Roark deserves a Best Supporting Actor nomination.

3- Werth’s Worth More Hitting Second.  After hitting .211 in April while batting primarily 5th or 6th, it looked like the 37-year old was reaching the sad final chapters of his stay in DC.  At the same time, nothing was working in the Nats’ #2 spot of the order:  Anthony Rendon (.236) was not the answer and coupled with Ben Revere’s injury plus slow start the table-setters were not providing Bryce Harper & Daniel Murphy many RBI opportunities.  On Memorial Day, Werth was moved into the #2 spot and went 1 for 4 with a run scored and an RBI.  The veteran stayed and solidified a lineup trying to find itself…and while his .259 is only 8 points higher than everyone else hitting 2nd this year Werth’s run production dwarfs the everybody else hitting 2nd this year ((28 more RBI over 162 games played) .  The move also let Anthony Rendon bat deeper in the order and eventually find his groove (his 52 RBI since the All Star break ranks 5th in the National League).

4- Moving on to Melancon…and Releasing another Reliever.  After choking Bryce Harper in the Nats dugout last September, many thought that Jonathan Papelbon would be gone-and quickly.  To the surprise of many he remained on the roster and was the team’s closer for the first half of the season (not including his trip to the disabled list).  In late July, General Manager Mike Rizzo was looking for a closer.  He found one in Pittsburgh’s Mark Melancon…who quietly saved 17 of 18 opportunities while not attempting to strangle any of his teammates.  Melancon’s addition meant the Nationals no longer had to continue the awkward dance with Papelbon…and they released the potential ticking time bomb two weeks later.  As bad as last year’s deal for Papelbon blew up the bullpen, this year’s deadline deal rescued the relief corps.

5- Leading off at Last.  Ben Revere and Michael A. Taylor both failed to click as leadoff hitters during the first half of the season…and while manager Dusty Baker saw the bat of Trea Turner in AAA Syracuse lighting things up with speed to match, he had no place to play him.  Daniel Murphy was off to his incredible start and Danny Espinosa was exceeding expectations while providing solid defense at shortstop.  However, there was an offensive vacuum in centerfield with Revere and Taylor.  While still in the minors Turner began playing games in in the outfield…and Dusty Baker had his master chess move in place.  Turner turned both the leadoff spot and centerfield positions from liabilities into offensive spark plugs, leading the majors in triples and steals since the All Star Break. The rookie’s defense-learned on the fly-for the most part has been solid.

 

 

PORTIONS PREVIOUSLY APPEARING ON WTOP.COM–APRIL 2016

At first glance, the Nationals outfield in 2016 should be one of their strengths.  You’re led into that sense of security seeing Bryce Harper in right field everyday.  As long as he doesn’t injure a hamstring or get hit by lightning, the reigning National League MVP is the foundation this outfield and batting order will be built upon.  And even with a lightning strike, Harper would probably be able to still play 3 to 4 days a week.  After that?  A group of players that could potentially deliver or disappoint.  The difference betwwen delivery and disappointment could very well determine the Nats 2016 destiny.

To say left field was a disappointment last year would be an understatment:  the position ranked 24th in the Majors in OPS (on base percentage + slugging percentage) after being in the middle of the pack the previous season.  Even Danny Espinosa and Ryan Zimmerman had their turns.  Jayson Werth’s transition from across the outfield was much more difficult than originally anticipated–and can you blame him?  Werth played 80% of his games in the field during his career in right…and shoulder surgery prevented him from getting used to playing left field in spring training last March.  Werth’s production at the plate did not justify his fielding issues: Werth’s batting average, on base percentage and slugging were his lowest this decade.

At age 37, does Werth have what it takes to produce at the level major league teams need from that position?  He’s hit more than 20 homers just once since coming to DC as a free agent, and even hitting sixth he’ll be expected to produce something.  If he does, then we simply move along to more pressing matters.  If not, there’s a situation to deal with.

The viable option is on the roster and in the form of Michael A. Taylor.  He actually played more games (96 to 38) in center field than left last season…and this spring the 25-year old has been on fire.  Granted, it’s only March-but Taylor hit .455 with 4 HR and 15 RBI over 17 Grapefruit League games.  He’s a much better defensive option in left field…and you could actually make the case for Taylor starting in center over Ben Revere.  Can he limit his strikeouts (158 last year, 30.9% of plate appearances) this year?  Taylor already appears to be the smart choice for late-inning defensive substitutions.  If he continues his hot spring into April Taylor may force his way into more at-bats, and not just as a sporadic fill-in.

So…if Taylor remains on a tear, what do you do with Werth?  There’s the matter of the 21+ million dollars he’s making this year and next…and the fact that he is a clubhouse leader.  How can you justify cutting the second largest checks on the team for the next two seasons to a part-time player?  And how can you be a clubhouse leader when you’re only playing once or twice a week?  Do you have him learn first base one year after things went so well in the transition to left?

There’s also the matter of Ben Revere settling in at centerfield.  He’s hit leadoff all spring training…hitting .368 but with no walks (yes, it’s only March…but no walks in 14 games?)Revere’s previously led the National League in hits (184 in 2014) and even though this strikeout to walk ratio last year was less than ideal (32/64), Revere has the necessary motor (44 steals per 162 games played at an 80% success rate) managers like Dusty Baker prefer.  It’s also true looking at different defensive numbers (BIS defensive runs saved, total fielding runs above average) that Revere is better is left.  His best defensive numbers are actually in right…but I think the Nats are set there.  Unless lightning strikes…

There are four major steps to winning a World Series (actually a fifth if you take the wildcard route, but why bog ourselves down further?)…and winning the division is perhaps the most arduous.  I’m not saying that winning 3 of 5 or 4 of 7 games against a top-flight ballclub isn’t a challenge; nor is prevailing in a winner-take-all one game wildcard showdown (I thought we weren’t going there).  But to be the best team over 162 games with all its ebbs, flows, peaks, valleys, and sideways lurches takes a certain grit.  The 2012 and 2014 Nationals had that grit…and so does the current edition.  Bring on the playoffs…as they begin the mopping-up segment of the season.

Playoff Possibilities, Senior Circuit- the Nats will play the Los Angeles Dodgers in the Divisional Series as the Chicago Cubs already have home field locked up.  They lead LA by a game and a half for home field in that series.  The Cubs will play the wildcard winner…currently the New York Mets lead San Francisco by one game for home field for that game, while St Louis is one half game behind the Giants.  Should the three teams tie for the two playoff spots there would be a musical chair situation that would have either the Cardinals or Mets hosting the first game with the other team getting to choose to host the second game or be on the road for game one.  The two winners would then meet for the wildcard. I’m going to need a nap.

Playoff Possibilities, AL Version- the Orioles had a chance to catch Boston for the AL East lead this past week but instead were swept at home by the Red Sox (going 2-8 at home to Boston this year).  They were bedeviled once again by David Ortiz (.333, 8 HR & 19 RBI this year vs BAL) and Mookie Betts (.408, 9 HR & 21 RBI).  If somehow the O’s face the Sox in the playoffs…a little hint: DO NOT PITCH TO EITHER OF THESE MEN.  Roll the ball to the plate if you need to.  The Orioles currently own the second wildcard spot in the AL, one and a half games behind Toronto in the race for home field and one and a half games ahead of Detroit in the race for not going home for the winter.  AL West champ Texas awaits the winner–although Boston could easily slip past the Rangers in the race for home field (they’re tied at 92-64, with TEX holding the tiebreaker of best intra-division record) advantage.  Cleveland’s magic number to win the Central is one.

Last Week’s Heroes- Wilson Ramos hit .409 while Danny Espinosa led the team in runs scored (4), homers (2) and RBI (6).  Tanner Roark despite being tagged with a loss allowed just one run over seven innings in his lone start of the week.

Last Week’s Humbled- the injury bug has turned into a major virus.  Bryce Harper’s thumb, Daniel Murphy’s leg and Stephen Strasburg’s elbow remain under the microscope. While many were already writing off the Nats pitcher for the postseason, they can ill afford to lose either one of their most productive bats for any stretch of October.

Game to Watch- Tuesday Max Scherzer pitches against the organization that drafted him.  The Nats ace’s pursuit of 20 wins remains alive… with there always being the chance of something special each time it’s his turn in the rotation.

Game to Miss- Miami comes to DC for the final weekend of the season…and rookie AJ Cole starts the series opener.  Just as a team assured of a playoff berth sets up its rotation and lineup for the postseason, you should set your viewing habits in rhythm.