Cards steal one from Nats

Cards steal one from Nats

For five months, the Nationals have known they could lose a game because of their inability to stop opponents from stealing bases off them. When it finally came to fruition Saturday evening, there was nothing they could do but acknowledge once again this is a problem area and that they'll continue to try to address it.

That didn't make this 10-9 loss to the Cardinals sting any less. In what proved to be among their most frustrating losses of the season, the Nationals wasted an early offensive outburst, saw their presumed playoff ace get smoked for a career-high eight runs, rally to take the lead on some heads-up baserunning and then watch as the back end of their bullpen gave up the tying and winning runs before an exasperated crowd of 34,004.

There were no shortage of significant developments that took place over the course of 3 hours and 29 minutes on a muggy, 91-degree late-afternoon in the District, but the defining moment surely came when Drew Storen let Allen Craig steal second base without drawing a throw in the top of the ninth of a tie game. Moments later, Craig came around to score on David Freese's single to left, the final blow of a wild ballgame.

"I'm just concentrating on trying to get a groundball there," Storen said. "And he just took the base."

Storen is hardly the only member of the Nationals' staff to be victimized by the stolen base this season. They've now given up 97 free bases on 113 attempts -- an 85.8 percent success rate that ranks only behind the Pirates for worst in the majors -- and almost all of it is directly attributable to pitchers' inability to hold runners on.

Storen's delivery to the plate may be the slowest on the entire staff. He was timed at a whopping 2.0 seconds by the Nationals' coaching staff on Saturday, nearly three-quarters of a second slower than the MLB average.

"With that move, anybody can steal," manager Davey Johnson grumbled.

And by "anybody," Johnson certainly was describing Craig, a slow-footed outfielder who in his career has had 271 opportunities to steal either second or third base and has attempted to do it only eight times.

"It's something I need to work on," Storen said, "and just something I guess I need to make an adjustment for next time."

The crucial stolen base (and subsequent RBI single) capped a wild ballgame that featured plenty of shaky pitching by the Nationals. It began with Jordan Zimmermann's worst start of the year, a laborious outing in which the right-hander allowed eight runs in only 3 23 innings.

Making that even worse, Zimmermann was handed a 4-0 lead after the first inning, then a 6-2 lead after the second. He gave all the runs back and then some, serving up home runs to Freese and Matt Holliday and later a three-run double to Matt Carpenter.

Thus continued Zimmermann's late-summer, downward slide. After posting a league-best 2.28 ERA over his first 21 starts, he's seen that number skyrocket to 6.16 over his last six games.

"I'm trying to do the same things I've been doing all year," he said. "When it was going good, I felt like I could go out there and throw anything and it would be a strike or a groundball. ... They're just putting the ball in play and hitting the ball harder right now."

Zimmermann, who was held back a couple of days with right shoulder inflammation last month, insisted his arm feels fine. He's now thrown 164 23 innings, most of his career, but he's not concerned about fatigue down the stretch.

"I feel great," he said. "I feel strong. The velocity's there, and the pitches have got pretty good break. I'm just leaving them over the middle right now."

Despite their starter's struggles, the Nationals still put themselves in position to win this game thanks to a sixth-inning rally that saw the tying and go-ahead runs score on Ryan Zimmerman's two-out single to right. Jayson Werth scored easily from second base, but the real highlight was Zimmerman intentionally getting himself into a rundown between first and second, buying time for Bryce Harper to sprint home with the go-ahead run.

Harper, a former catcher in high school and junior college, said his experience at the position allowed him to better read the play, sensing St. Louis' Yadier Molina would leave the plate uncovered while throwing to get Zimmerman in the rundown.

"He's pretty aggressive with his arm," Harper said of Molina. "I would've done the exact same thing if I was catching. So I was just thinking to myself: 'What would I do?' and he did the exact same thing."

That heads-up move put the Nationals ahead 9-8, but it only made the ensuing bullpen collapse all the tougher to swallow.

Thanks to the Braves' loss against Philadelphia, their lead in the NL East remains 6 12 games and their magic number dropped to 24, which was some consolation at day's end.

"The important thing is we just took a game off the calendar," said right fielder Jayson Werth, who departed in the ninth inning with leg cramping but expects to play Sunday. "Atlanta lost, so nothing changes."

Ross strong in return as Nats roll past Cardinals in St. Louis

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Ross strong in return as Nats roll past Cardinals in St. Louis

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 6-1 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on Saturday afternoon at Busch Stadium: 

How it happened: Sometimes baseball can be so unpredictable that it almost doesn't even make sense. Trends can reverse in an instant and make all those who cast predictions look like fools. Baseball laughs at your 'educated' guess.

Take this weekend and the Nationals for instance. Somehow, after getting swept at home by the worst team in baseball in 2015, they now find themselves one game away from sweeping a team that led the majors with 100 wins a year ago. The Nats looked like no match for the Phillies in D.C., but now they're dominating the juggernaut Cardinals in St. Louis. Okay, sure. That makes sense.

Amazingly, that's where the Nats find themselves after Saturday's 6-1 win. Joe Ross closed his excellent April with six strong innings, Jayson Werth smacked a three-run homer in the top of the first and the Nats rolled past the Cardinals in St. Louis for the second straight day. They have won their first series at Busch Stadium since 2007. 

What it means: The Nats are off to a terrific start on their toughest road trip of the season. With two wins against the Cardinals, they have a chance to sweep before heading to Kansas City to face the defending champion Royals. These have been two very impressive wins and the Nats are proving well so far that their hot start against bad teams this season was not a mirage.

Ross strong in return: Ross returned from an injury - albeit a minor one - and it was not an easy situation for the right-hander to transition back, on the road at the Cardinals who boast one of baseball's best lineups. The right-hander, though, showed no rust at all from skipping his last start. Ross threw six innings of one-run ball on six hits and two walks. The one run - on a sac fly in the fifth - was the first charged to Ross since the first inning of his season debut. He had a 20 1/3 scoreless innings streak snapped, which is the second-longest in the NL so far this season only to Jake Arrieta's 23-inning streak. Ross now has a 0.79 ERA through four outings.

Werth comes through again: Werth added two hits (and 4 RBI) on Saturday including his big swing in the first inning to give the Nats a nice early lead. His three-run homer was his fourth of the season through 21 games. That's a 31-homer pace over a full 162. Power numbers were a concern for Werth after his shoulder surgery last offseason, but he now has 13 homers in his last 55 games dating back to last August. That's a 38-homer pace over a full season. He needs to get on base more, but lately he's been a significant home run threat.

Harper in a mini-slump: It's not often you see Bryce Harper struggle for several games in a row, but that has been the case over his last four outings. Harper had one walk and a run, but went hitless again on Saturday. He is now 0-for his last 11 at-bats and has one hit in his last four games. Harper's batting average dipped to .289 after Saturday's game, but he still holds a 1.128 OPS, which shows how good he has been overall this season.

Murphy keeps hitting: Daniel Murphy added two singles for his MLB-best 11th multi-hit game in 22 outings this season. His first single drove in the Nats' first run of the afternoon ahead of Werth's homer. Murphy is now batting .370 with a 1.013 OPS.

Up next: The Nationals have a chance to sweep the Cardinals on Sunday afternoon with another 2:15 p.m. first pitch. Max Scherzer (2-1, 4.35) will try to rebound after an uneven start to the season, while 24-year-old budding star Carlos Martinez (4-0, 1.93) will pitch for St. Louis.

Can the Marlins compete in the NL East without Dee Gordon?

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Can the Marlins compete in the NL East without Dee Gordon?

Through the first month of the 2016 season, the NL East looks like it could be deeper than it was a year ago. That is, of course, excluding the Atlanta Braves, who are currently MLB's worst team with a .217 win percentage after 23 games.

The Nationals and Mets look very good. The Phillies are 13-10 and winners of three straight. Whether they can keep that up, though, is doubtful.

On paper, the Marlins have the third-best roster in the division and in terms of starpower can measure up to just about any team in baseball. With Giancarlo Stanton and Jose Fernandez, in particular, they have two superstars in their prime.

Depth was the biggest concern for Miami heading into this season and now it's about to be seriously tested. All-Star second baseman Dee Gordon, who won the NL batting title in 2015, has been suspended for 80 games for performance enhancing drugs. His loss is a big one.

The Marlins' lineup is impressive, but it looks a lot better with Gordon at the top setting the table for Stanton, Christian Yelich and Justin Bour. Few players in baseball can provide the threat Gordon can not only as a leadoff hitter, but as a baserunner as well. Gordon led the league each of the last two years in steals, with 58 last year and 64 the season before that.

It's only logical to think Gordon's loss will have a profound effect on the Marlins, that his absence alone could pave the way for the Phillies to be the third-best team in the NL East. But, interestingly enough, the Marlins are red-hot right now. They've won six straight and just swept the Dodgers in L.A. The Dodgers had one of baseball's best records prior to the series and won the NL West last year.

Miami may appear okay right now, but they will have to stay afloat for three full months without Gordon. He can't return until late July and by then it could be too late. 

At 11-11, the Marlins have an average record and rank as a pedestrian team in many categories. They aren't scoring a ton of runs and no part of their pitching staff has stood out as above average. Their starting rotation, in particular, does not appear to be a strength, especially if Fernandez pitches the way he has to begin this season. Wei-Yin Chen hasn't been very good, either.

If the Marlins have been a middle of the road team overall with Gordon, it's hard to see them proving to be anything more than that without him. Miami had the best chance of making the NL East a three-team race this season and Gordon's suspension may have sealed their fate. Now the division now looks even more like a direct battle between the Nationals and Mets, unless the Phillies have something to say about it.

Ross returns to mound as Nats continue series at Cardinals

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Ross returns to mound as Nats continue series at Cardinals

Nats (15-7) vs. Cardinals (12-11) at Busch Stadium

Joe Ross returns to the mound for the Nationals today after leaving his last start and getting his turn in the rotation skipped due to a blister on his right hand. The Nats and Ross called the move precautionary, but it will still be interesting to see how he returns to action.

Ross will be facing a Cardinals lineup that looks much different today. He won't see Jedd Gyorko, Randall Grichuk or Stephen Piscotty, who all played on Friday night. The Nationals have their expected lineup set to play with Cardinals lefty Jaime Garcia on the mound.

First pitch: 2:15 p.m.
TV: MASN
Radio: 106.7 The Fan
Starting pitchers: Nats - Joe Ross vs. Cardinals - Jamie Garcia

NATS

CF Michael Taylor
3B Anthony Rendon
RF Bryce Harper
1B Ryan Zimmerman
2B Daniel Murphy
LF Jayson Werth
SS Danny Espinosa
C Jose Lobaton
RHP Joe Ross

CARDINALS

CF Jeremy Hazelbaker
3B Matt Carpenter
LF Matt Holliday
1B Matt Adams
C Yadier Molina
RF Brandon Moss
SS Ruben Tejada
2B Kolten Wong
LHP Jaime Garcia

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