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A long day for Nats ends in a wash

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A long day for Nats ends in a wash

At the end of a 6 12-hour day at the ballpark -- a day that began with news of a trade, then saw a familiar face return from the minor leagues to win another game, then concluded with a frustrating loss to a dominant opposing pitcher -- how exactly did the Nationals feel about things?

"It's a wash," Adam LaRoche said. "It's where you move in the standings. You win one, you lose one. It could've been better, but we're all still alive after that, so we'll get them tomorrow."

That probably best summed a long afternoon and evening on South Capitol Street that saw the Nationals split a doubleheader with the Marlins, winning the opener 7-4 behind John Lannan's strong start but then losing the nightcap 5-2 when Gio Gonzalez was out-dueled by Josh Johnson.

And the 50-50 result might have been less-significant than the announcement earlier in the day the Nationals had acquired Kurt Suzuki from the Athletics, who is expected to be in the lineup Saturday night and assume No. 1 catching duties for the remainder of the season.

"He's definitely going to bring some attitude back there, in a good way," said Gonzalez, Suzuki's batterymate in Oakland from 2008-11. "He's going to keep your pitcher on their toes, constantly get 'em and go. He was taught by the best, and you're going to see, he's going to bring some positive stuff over here."

A Nationals club that has managed to overcome injuries to nearly every position on the diamond this season has not been able to thrive behind the plate since Wilson Ramos tore the ACL in his right knee in mid-May. Replacement starter Jesus Flores and his assortment of rookie backups did their best to hold down the fort, but after an 0-for-7 showing on Friday, Nationals catchers are collectively hitting .232 with a .287 on-base percentage while throwing out only 17 percent of basestealers.

Enter Suzuki, who hit only .218 in 75 games with the A's but owns a career .254 batting average and this season has thrown out 38 percent of basestealers.

"This was a deal to improve the ballclub and improve it not only for this year but for the future," general manager Mike Rizzo said. "When you get a chance to get a defensive stalwart like Suzuki and an energy guy and a makeup guy and a character guy like him, you make the deal."

Suzuki's arrival will likely push Sandy Leon back to Class AAA and push Flores back to a reserve role. Asked at the end of the night for his reaction to the trade, Flores said he hadn't yet been told by the club, even though the crowd of 32,334 was informed on the scoreboard during the doubleheader.

"I'm just in shock," Flores said. "I didn't know we had a new catcher."

Whether Suzuki (who is already signed through 2013) would have made a difference in the outcome of either games of the doublheader is debatable. He certainly would have been catching a pair of starting pitchers in top form.

Summoned from Syracuse for another fill-in start 13 days after his initial return to the Washington rotation, Lannan turned in another fine performance. The left-hander retired 13-of-14 batters at one point and carried a 3-hitter into the seventh inning before fading in the 93-degree heat.

Lannan still earned his second victory in as many starts thanks in part to a Nationals lineup that pounded out seven early runs against Miami starter Brad Hand. He then made plans to return to Syracuse for another four weeks before he's expected to be summoned again by the big-league club to take Stephen Strasburg's rotation slot down the stretch.

"He's been a big boost," manager Davey Johnson said. "He's had a rough year having to go down there, but he'll be back up here soon."

Lannan, who struggled in his one Class AAA start between big-league outings, understands what's now expected of him.

"I wish I could stay up here, but I know the deal," said the man who has started more games than any other pitcher in Nationals history. "I've got to go back down there and keep on working."

Gonzalez was even more dominant during the nightcap, striking out 10 without issuing a walk and completing eight innings for the first time this year. But the left-hander was done in by a three-run sixth that saw the Marlins produce five singles, four in a row with two outs.

"You've got to look at the cup half-full," he said. "The way I look at it as eight innings, couple of strikeouts, kept the team in the game as far as I could."

Gonzalez's best wasn't enough to topple Johnson, who carried a 3-hitter in the ninth and came within one out of a complete game.

Steve Cishek wound up recording the final out, getting Danny Espinosa to strike out for the fourth time on a long day and night of baseball that saw the Nationals stay in place at 20 games over .500 yet lose a 12-game off their lead in the NL East after the Braves beat the Astros. (They're now up 2 games over Atlanta.)

So, how again did the Nats feel about the day as a whole?

"First part was pretty good," LaRoche said. "Second part, no good."

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Nats' bullpen, defense continue to cause problems, lead to losses

Nats' bullpen, defense continue to cause problems, lead to losses

Starter A.J. Cole made it 5 2/3 innings on Saturday afternoon, which is pretty good considering that's how much Max Scherzer and Stephen Strasburg combined to pitch against the Rockies less than two weeks ago. Gio Gonzalez also only made it three innings in that series due to a rain delay.

And in the time since, the Nats' bullpen has been battered around by all sorts of elements including injuries and short outings from starters. The Nationals' next off-day on Thursday, Sept. 1 can't come soon enough to put them out of their current 20 games in 20 days misery.

Cole's outing, by all accounts, could have been a lot worse. But unfortunately for the Nationals, Saturday's game went to extra innings, forcing manager Dusty Baker to do some things he wouldn't normally prefer to do. Like, use the newly acquired Marc Rzepczynski for 2 1/3 innings. Or, to go to Mark Melancon for the third straight game. Or, to leave Yusmeiro Petit on the mound in the 11th even when it was clear he just didn't have it.

For Petit, in particular, Baker felt like he had no other choice, even after the right-hander served up a two-run homer to Charlie Blackmon.

"We felt badly for Yusmeiro because we had to leave him in there, he was our last pitcher we didn't have [Koda] Glover and we were trying to stay away from [Mark] Melancon because that was his third day in a row and we didn't have [Shawn] Kelley. We were down to our last player, we had no more players on the bench and that was our last player, I don't know who was going to pitch if he didn't get out of that inning. He took one for the team so to speak," Baker said.

Petit's inning got off on a sour note with an error by Anthony Rendon at third base. It was one of two errors committed by the Nationals on Saturday. One was by Rzepczynski in the seventh and that one helped lead to a run. Rzepczynski also messed up fielding a bunt in the ninth. Cole also allowed a run on a wild pitch during an intentional walk.

It was a rough day for the Nats, who were plagued by uncharacteristic mistakes. That has been a theme lately and the Nationals hope it ends soon.

“We address it daily, but you cant harp on it. Like I said the other day these things go in streaks," Baker said. "Tony is sure handed over there. We haven’t seen Rzepczynski. He just threw that ball over the head. They bunted on us twice a couple of times and got hits on us. We just have to continue to work.”

The Nats have now made 14 errors in their last nine games. It's been bizarre to watch and it has some at a loss for words.

“Can’t call it. I don’t know. One of those things," left fielder Jayson Werth said.

[RELATED: Harper explains ejection vs. Rockies: 'It's not a strike']

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Before ejection, Bryce Harper continued recent hot streak vs. Rockies

Before ejection, Bryce Harper continued recent hot streak vs. Rockies

Before Bryce Harper earned his eight career ejection following a strikeout in the 10th inning, the Nats right fielder actually had a pretty good game at the plate. He landed an RBI double, walked and scored a run. He has now reached base in all 14 games since he returned from nursing a stiff neck.

The double was a familiar sight for Harper. He dropped it into the left field corner at Nationals Park, just as he did his triple the night before and just as he did his double the night before that. Three straight games with extra-base hits to the opposite field. That's not bad.

That, in fact, is something manager Dusty Baker has been waiting to see for quite some time.

“That’s a good sign, that’s an excellent sign," Baker said. "When he’s hitting that ball to left field and not pulling everything or rolling over means staying on the ball and he’s staying through the zone. That’s a very good sign. He’s been heating up. We know the best is yet to come.”

In the 14 games since he returned, Harper is 21-for-54 (.389) with six doubles, 16 RBI and 11 runs. This is the best Harper has played in months and he's showing no signs of slowing down.

"I feel good. I think the balls are falling where they should," the Nats right fielder said. "It's nice to go into a game and score some runs and have some fun."

In these 14 games, Harper has raised his season average from .233 all the way to .254. It's almost certainly too late for him to repeat as NL MVP, but he's heating up at a good time with September right around the corner and the playoffs, if the Nats keep their current pace, right after that.

[RELATED: Harper explains ejection vs. Rockies: 'It's not a strike']

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Bryce Harper explains 10th inning ejection vs. Rockies: 'It's not a strike'

Bryce Harper explains 10th inning ejection vs. Rockies: 'It's not a strike'

Bryce Harper is not one to back down when it comes to arguments with umpires, even after he's been ejected from a game and has time to cool down and collect his thoughts.

So, it should probably come as no surprise that on Saturday after he was tossed in the 10th inning of the Nats' loss to the Colorado Rockies, Harper referred to home plate umpire Mark Winters' called strike three as a "mistake." 

Here is Harper, in detail, on the call that led to him throwing his helmet to the ground and confronting Winters, who immediately sent him to the showers:

"You're in a game like that, 4-4 in the 10th, you get to a 2-2 count. He throws a pitch off the plate which they said was a strike, which was a ball. I was reading it all the way in. If you look at the tape, I was looking down at the ball the whole way into the glove and it was just, you know, it was off the plate. I could possibly see one more pitch and maybe hit a homer or a double or walk. I could even strike out. But I just wanted to see that last pitch and I never got there. It just shouldn't happen. Just bad [call] there. It's not a strike," he said.

"You don't want an umpire to make a mistake in that big of a situation. That's just not good. I wanted to see that last pitch. We could have possibly not played the 11th or the 12th or whatever. I mean, getting on base with [Anthony] Rendon behind me would have been huge as well, possibly could have stolen second, a ball hit to the ride side and you never know."

On if Harper regretted his actions, he did concede it was not a good time to be tossed, given the game was tied and the Nats had a chance to beat the Rockies.

"I know we had a short bench. I think going into it you don't ever want to get ejected," he said.

Manager Dusty Baker didn't offer a harsh assessment to Harper's ejection. He basically described it as just part of the game.

"Everybody blows up from time to time," he said. "These things happen. Especially it happens this time of year tempers are short. It’s hot, played a lot of games, been around the same people for a long period of time. This is the time of year when tempers do flare up.”

Outfielder Jayson Werth was brief in his comments on Harper. But did note how this isn't the first time for the reigning MVP. Harper has now been ejected from eight games in his career.

"I’ve been kicked out of one game my whole career. Bryce, on the other hand, has been kicked out of multiple," he said.

[RELATED: Harper ejected after arguing balls and strikes]

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