LaRoche, Morse power Nats to win

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LaRoche, Morse power Nats to win

You wouldn't know based on the 0-for-13 he carried with him to the plate Wednesday night for his first at-bat, but Adam LaRoche believes the mere presence of Michael Morse behind him in the Nationals' lineup is going to pay significant dividends over the long haul.

"It's tough to say when you're struggling," LaRoche said. "Obviously the last few games have been a little difficult. But I do know having big guys behind you, I've been in that situation a lot, and it helps. It's nice."

Did the sight of Morse standing in the on-deck circle in the bottom of the first inning cause Mets rookie Jeremy Hefner to hang a first-pitch curveball to LaRoche, a pitch the veteran pounced on and sent flying over the right-field fence for the three-run homer that set the Nationals on their way to a 5-3 victory?

The world may never know. But if LaRoche believes it made a difference, does it really matter if it's true or not?

"With him being back, it totally changes that pitchers' meeting to start a series," he said. "Now you've got one more big bat they've got to spend some time talking about, and figure out a way to get him out. And it helps other guys around him. The fact that I'm hitting in front of him now, I'm probably going to see some better pitches, because they know what's coming up."

LaRoche hadn't exactly been inspiring fear in opposing pitchers over the last three weeks after a brilliant start to the season. Owner of a .336 batting average and 1.024 OPS on May 17, he had seen those number plummet to .267 and .849 during a 6-for-55 skid.

With one mighty swing early in Wednesday's game, though, the 32-year-old might well have put that slump to bed for good. He certainly didn't let up as the evening progressed, singling up the middle in the fifth and then delivering a sacrifice fly in the seventh for his fourth RBI of the game.

Throw in Morse's two hits and first RBI of the season, and the heart of the Nationals' lineup wound up with one of its most productive performances of the year.

"Oh! I mean, it's a whole new ballgame," manager Davey Johnson said, barely able to restrain himself. "Michael Morse is warming up, and there's not going to be much let-up in that middle of the lineup. The first two guys are going to get on, and then the thunder's coming. I've been waiting on it."

The entire Nationals organization had been waiting three months to get Morse back in the lineup. Sidelined since spring training with a torn lat muscle, the man who led last season's roster in nearly every offensive category looked a bit overanxious during his first two games off the disabled list over the weekend.

But after an 0-for-9 delayed start to his 2012, Morse is beginning to discover his groove. He's now got four hits over his last seven at-bats, with a pair of walks thrown in for good measure.

Even more encouraging: All four of Morse's hits have been to the opposite field.

"I liked his patience tonight," Johnson said. "That shows me he's zeroing in."

The thunder from the middle of the Nationals' lineup put the home club ahead early in this game, and the quality pitching of Edwin Jackson, Sean Burnett and Tyler Clippard ensured a second straight victory over a Mets team that came to town on its own hot streak.

Jackson had dominant stuff, allowing only two singles and a double over seven innings. He did inflict a few wounds on himself via four walks and a costly error on a pickoff attempt. But ultimately he surrendered only two earned runs for his seventh quality start in 10 tries, and he was rewarded for his efforts for a change, earning only his second win despite 3.11 ERA over 11 starts.

The unusual stat line -- not to mention the presence of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann ahead of him in the lineup -- leaves Jackson outside the spotlight at times. His teammates, though, understand what he's meant to the club this season.

"He's like the silent assassin, you could say, of the pitching staff," Morse said. "Edwin always comes out and puts up solid starts. Sometimes it's good to be behind guys like that."

It also helps when your bullpen can close out games in relatively easy fashion as the Nationals did Wednesday. Burnett retired the side in the eighth. Clippard then overcame a leadoff walk to pitch a scoreless ninth and earn his fifth save in as many tries since becoming his team's pseudo-closer.

Actually, Clippard appears to be the Nationals' actual closer for now, used in every save opportunity over the last two weeks and even used on Wednesday against a Mets lineup that had five consecutive left-handed hitters due up in the ninth.

"I've changed enough roles in the bullpen," Johnson said, all but declaring Clippard his ninth-inning guy until Drew Storen returns from elbow surgery around the All-Star break. "From long guys setting up, set-up guys closing, I don't like to keep reverting back and have them guessing out there what their role is going to be."

Nationals keep rolling against Royals, win fourth straight

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Nationals keep rolling against Royals, win fourth straight

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 2-0 win over the Kansas City Royals on Monday night at Kauffman Stadium: 

How it happened: After getting swept by the Phillies to close their most recent homestand, Nationals manager Dusty Baker called this Midwest road trip a good barometer for where they stand in the early part of this season. He, and many of his players, saw this road swing as a test, knowing they had yet to face one of baseball's best teams.

Four days later and the bar may need to be raised a little higher for these Nationals, as after sweeping the Cardinals in St. Louis, they opened their series at the defending champion Kansas City Royals with a convincing 2-0 victory on Monday night. Their brand of score early and let their pitching staff take it from there worked wonders once again.

Gio Gonzalez continued his career-best start to a season with six scoreless frames, Ryan Zimmerman and Daniel Murphy notched first-inning RBI and the Nats' bullpen held on to push the Nats to club record 18-7 on the season through 25 games.

What it means: The 'they haven't beaten anyone' knock on the 2016 Nats can officially be put to rest. The Nationals are now 4-0 on this road trip, having first swept a 100-win team from a year ago in the Cardinals, to now opening this series against the reigning champs with a win. 

Gio keeps on rolling: Gonzalez battled a high pitch count early, but recovered to give the Nats six scoreless innings on four hits and two walks. Gio now has a 1.15 ERA through five starts this season, going at least six innings in each of those outings. The Nats rotation as a whole has held a 0.92 mark with 34 strikeouts and 10 walks in their last six starts as a group. 

Zim comes up big: Zimmerman has been in quite the skid lately, finishing the month of April hitting .219/.301/.301 with just one hit in his last four games (13 ABs). Zimmerman had been showing positive signs, including the highest average exit velocity on the Nats through the weekend. And on Monday, he came through with a big hit in the first inning, an RBI double to right field to give the Nats an early lead. It was Zim's first RBI since April 26. The Nats have now scored 32 of their 101 total runs this season in the first inning. Zimmerman also smacked a ground-rule double in the ninth inning for just his fourth multi-hit game in 20 games this season.

Harper finally gets a hit: Harper's slump recent slump continued through his first two plate appearances on Monday, as Harper struck out and flew out to make it 16 at-bats without a hit dating back to last Thursday. Harper would finally get one, though, on a bloop single to left field to lead off the top of the sixth inning. Harper broke his slump, but he was quickly thrown out trying to steal second by Royals catcher Lorenzo Cain. He also now has only two hits in his last six games.

Murphy gets No. 1000: Murphy had another solid day at the plate on Monday with three hits and an RBI on a groundout in the first inning. His second hit was No. 1000 for his career. It was a double to center field in the sixth inning and it gave Murphy his 12th multi-hit game in 24 total appearances this season. Only three times this year has he been held hitless. Murphy, by the way, is the 10th player ever to record their 1000th career hit in a Nats uniform. Denard Span was the last in September of 2014.

Up next: The Nats continue their series at the Royals with another 8:15 p.m. start on Tuesday night. Tanner Roark (2-2, 2.03) and former Nats minor leaguer Chris Young (1-4, 6.12) are the starters.

Nats begin series at World Series-champion Kansas City Royals

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Nats begin series at World Series-champion Kansas City Royals

Nats (17-7) vs. Royals (13-11) at Kauffman Stadium

The Nationals rolled through St. Louis this weekend to secure their first sweep of the Cardinals since 2007. It was an impressive series against a team that led baseball with 100 wins last year. And now, on Monday night, they will face another of MLB's most talented clubs.

The Nats begin a three-game set with the defending champion Kansas City Royals with an 8:15 p.m. first pitch. Gio Gonzalez (1-1, 1.42) and right-hander Edinson Volquez (3-1, 3.34) are the scheduled starters.

Gio is pitching his fifth game of the 2016 season and is off to the best start of his career. The Nats' southpaw is holding opponents to a .196 average and .489 OPS. The Royals, though, will be his biggest challenge to date.

Gonzalez will pitch to Jose Lobaton per usual, though Wilson Ramos is back from the bereavement list. The rest of the Nats' lineup is as expected with Stephen Drew in there as the designated hitter.

First pitch: 8:15 p.m.
TV: MASN
Radio: 106.7 The Fan
Starting pitchers: Nats - Gio Gonzalez vs. Royals - Edinson Volquez

NATS

CF Michael Taylor
3B Anthony Rendon
RF Bryce Harper
1B Ryan Zimmerman
2B Daniel Murphy
LF Jayson Werth
DH Stephen Drew
C Jose Lobaton
SS Danny Espinosa
(LHP Gio Gonzalez)

ROYALS

SS Alcides Escobar
CF Lorenzo Cain
1B Eric Hosmer
DH Kendrys Morales
LF Alex Gordon
C Salvador Perez
2B Omar Infante
3B Christian Colon
RF Paulo Orlando
(RHP Edinson Volquez)

Follow along with GameView here.

Baker had his team rub a former player's ears for good luck vs. Cards

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Baker had his team rub a former player's ears for good luck vs. Cards

You're going to lobe this story. Wait, sorry, you're going to love this story.

Before the Nationals' weekend series against the Cardinals that started on Friday, a former player and current pal of Dusty Baker named Kirk Rueter stopped by to say hello. It was there when things took a turn for the weird, according to USA TODAY Sports' Bob Nightengale.

As a pitcher under Baker with the Giants, Rueter apparently developed a reputation for having incredibly good fortune. With that in mind,  Baker — whose team had just been swept at home by the Phillies — wanted to take advantage of his penchant for luck.

So he had his buddy walk through Washington's clubhouse and told his roster to rub his ears.

Yes, this is a thing that happened.

The bizarre superstition, of course, seemed to work, considering the Nats took all three games from St. Louis, an organization that has given them fits before. Next up is a four-game tilt in Kansas City. Rueter better bring his ears. 

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