More roster decisions looming for Nats

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More roster decisions looming for Nats

Yesterday's Drew Storen-for-Rick Ankiel swap left the Nationals with an unconventional roster: an eight-man bullpen and a four-man bench. And Mike Rizzo made it clear that odd alignment was created to keep as many relievers as possible in the mix for this weekend's four-gamethree-day showdown with the Braves.

But Rizzo also made it clear this arrangement won't last long. The Nationals don't need eight relievers long-term, and they do need a fifth player off the bench. So we should be expecting more roster moves from Rizzo in the near future as the club tries to put together various pieces of a complicated, 25-man puzzle.

"We're going to go with it until we have to make another roster move that's dictated by the health of somebody coming back," the GM said yesterday.

In that regard, there are two names of rehabbing players to keep in mind: Jayson Werth and Chad Tracy. Each is close to coming off the disabled list and rejoining the Nationals' active roster.

Werth's return is still a couple of weeks away; he's due to begin a rehab assignment with Class A Potomac tonight, his first game action since he broke his left wrist trying to make a diving catch on May 6.

"We're going to be cautious with him, because we're going to need him in the stretch drive," Rizzo said. "We're going to make sure he's healthy. We're going to give him ample plate appearances so he can see ample pitches and when he comes up here he can hit the ground running."

Tracy, out since late May with a sports hernia that required surgery, is closer to rejoining the active roster. The veteran corner infielder and pinch-hitter extraordinaire had to abort his first rehab assignment with Class A Potomac earlier this month but has been taking batting and fielding practice at Nationals Park the last few days and appears just about ready to return to one of the organization's affiliates to see more game action.

"His injury is a little trickier," Rizzo said. "Those sports hernias are ... it's not so much about swinging the bat. It's about exploding out of the box after you hit the ball. It's lateral movement and that type of thing. He's a veteran player that's had that injury before. He'll dictate when he's ready to go out for rehab."

Whether it's a week, two weeks or three weeks before Tracy andor Werth return, the Nationals will at some point have to clear roster space for each veteran. One will take the spot currently held by the extra reliever. The other will bump someone else off the Nats' bench, leading to a dilemma.

Who draws the short straw from the current group of reserves? Backup catcher Sandy Leon is safe, at least until Jhonatan Solano recovers from an oblique strain. Utilityman Steve Lombardozzi will remain because of his production and versatility. That leaves outfielder Roger Bernadina, left fielderfirst baseman Tyler Moore and utilityman Mark DeRosa, with room on the roster for only two.

DeRosa has easily been the least productive of the group, though he's well-respected as a clubhouse leader, and manager Davey Johnson has touted him all along as a key to this team's success. Bernadina is out of minor-league options and has played well over the last two weeks. Moore has also hit well as a rookie, though he does have options.

The bench decision may pale in comparison to the decision Rizzo and Johnson are going to have to make with their bullpen in a few days. Quite simply, there's no obvious candidate to lose his job at the moment.

The least effective reliever on the roster is Henry Rodriguez, but he has no options and club officials remain committed to the erratic right-hander over the long haul. Michael Gonzalez is a relatively recent addition to the group, but the veteran lefty has pitched well and likewise is out of options.

That leaves one of two right-handers with impeccable stats so far this season: Ryan Mattheus and Craig Stammen. Each boasted sub-2.00 ERAs (until Stammen served up a three-run homer to David Wright yesterday) and each has filled an important need: Mattheus as a setup man, Stammen as a right-handed long reliever.

"You've got a bullpen which is performing extremely well," Rizzo said. "The bullpen guys with options are too valuable to send out, and anybody you designate and send out is going to be taken by somebody else. So guys like Mike Gonzalez and Henry Rodriguez, they're too valuable for us in 2012, and Henry beyond 2012. We couldnt take the chance of them getting claimed by another club."

Ultimately, Rizzo will have no choice but to part ways with two players from his current roster. That parting, though, doesn't have to be permanent. Should he choose to send down those players who still have minor-league options, Rizzo could ensure all remain in the organization. And all could be brought back on Sept. 1 once rosters expand to 40.

These won't be easy decisions. But Rizzo has to decide what makes the most sense for his club. Now, in September and beyond.

Bryce Harper continues to struggle with few pitches to hit

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Bryce Harper continues to struggle with few pitches to hit

Most of the players had left the Nationals' clubhouse. After a straight forward game where Gio Gonzalez' off night was the central storyline, the media needed another angle, someone else to talk to.

Manager Dusty Baker had gone into detail about the recent struggles of Bryce Harper, so he would do. And sure enough, in walked Bryce after an extended wait.

Harper, though, had not changed out of his uniform after the game, not after over 30 minutes had passed. He had batting gloves on and a bat in his hand. He was dripping sweat. It appeared that Harper had gone straight to the batting cage after the 7-1 loss to get in extra work after his second hitless game in a row, one that dropped his season batting average to .252. 

Harper gave no comment when asked about it as he took off his gloves, but spoke extensively about his approach and where he can go from here.

"Sometimes you get beat and it happens," Harper said. "I mean, I'm not going to change my approach for anybody. I go up there with the same approach every single day. If I get a pitch to drive, then I'm going to try to drive it."

Bartolo Colon was Harper's main adversary on this particular night. The Mets starter rebounded from his awful outing against the Nats the week before to go seven innings of one-run ball in Monday's 7-1 Nats loss. Against Colon, Harper flew out to left, lined out to the shortstop in the third and grounded out to second base in the sixth. He later grounded out in the eighth against Mets reliever Jerry Blevins.

"I thought I got good pitches to hit. I felt great up there, to tell you guys the truth. I don't feel like there's a problem at all. I just need to stay through the baseball. That's pretty much it," Harper surmised.

Harper is now 2-for-17 in his last four games and just 4-for-25 (.160) in his last eight. He's still getting about a walk per game, but few chances to swing at pitches in the strike zone.

Harper insists he's fine with how pitchers are treating him and prefers to focus on how he can adjust.

"I feel like I can walk 200 times this year if I wanted to, to tell you the truth," he said. "You have to understand that they're going to give me maybe one pitch a game or two pitches a game. If you don't do damage on it, then that's your fault. You try to go into every at-bat thinking they're going to throw a strike. If they don't, then try to take your walk and let the guys behind you do your job. I'm not doing the job of hitting that one pitch."

Harper currently leads the majors in walks and is on pace for 172 this season. Only Barry Bonds has eclipsed that mark in a single season before and he did it three times. Baker was Bonds' manager for two of those years and drew the comparison between Bonds and Harper again on Monday.

"You've got to remember. When I had Barry Bonds and walked 200 times, he was 32 years old. He was nine years older than Bryce. He learned to deal with it. How would Barry have dealt with it when he was 23 years old?"

"Barry had tremendous vision," Baker continued. "And Bryce has the same vision. Hank Aaron had the same vision. But let's not forget this guy is very young. He's a player that's still trying to master his skill."

Harper is being pitched differently than he was in 2015, but don't forget he was batting just .245 on May 6 before he took off and won the MVP with a .330 average. It won't be easy, but the 23-year-old has shown he can make adjustments to turn his season around.

NL East: Bartolo Colon explains why he chose not to swing the bat vs. Nats

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NL East: Bartolo Colon explains why he chose not to swing the bat vs. Nats

Ever since Bartolo Colon joined the Mets in 2014, watching him play has been as much about what he does at the plate as it has about what he does on the mound. Whether it's the bat flailing, his helmet flying off after swings-and-misses or the meme-worthy adventures on the base paths, games in which "Big Sexy" is in the lineup are rarely boring. 

Of course, the apex of The Bartolo Colon Experience came earlier this month in San Diego when the 43-year-old right hander hit his first-career home run, one that sent shockwaves throughout Baseball Twitter. But unfortunately, it appears those looking for an encore may have to wait awhile. 

During Monday's 7-1 win over the Nationals, Colon conspicuously opted not to swing at any of the 14 pitches he saw on the night, instead striking out looking three times. He told reporters afterward that the reason why was because his lower back has been bothering him ever since his infamous long ball. 

And via Marc Carig of Newsday, perhaps even the Nats knew Colon wouldn't swing: 

“Yes, I decided that because I just thought it wasn’t worth it to swing,” Colon said on the eve of his 43rd birthday after holding the Nationals to one run in seven innings. “I swing at the balls pretty hard and I thought, not worth making my back worse, so I told their catcher from the beginning, ‘Just throw it right down the middle, I’m not swinging.’ ”

Bummer. Even if Colon was joking about what he actually told Wilson Ramos, a night without him taking a hack at the plate feels like a letdown for baseball fans. 

"After that first at-bat and they threw me that changeup, I was like: ‘No, I promise you, throw it right down the middle,’” he told reporters through an interpreter. “‘I am not going to swing.’”

Luckily for the Mets, Colon gets paid to be more than just an entertaining watch at the plate. In a bounce-back effort following a few rough outings, he limited the Nats offense to one run over seven innings to raise his record on the season to 4-3. 

Nats credit adjustments made by Mets for Gio's rough outing

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Nats credit adjustments made by Mets for Gio's rough outing

Having seen Gio Gonzalez just five days before, the New York Mets came to Washington on Monday with an adjustment to their approach. Now knowing what to expect from the Nats' lefty and having their previous meeting fresh in their mind, the Mets were aggressive early in counts and used that method to hand Gonzalez his worst start not only of this season, but in years.

Gonzalez was fine until the third inning when all hell broke loose. He hit Curtis Granderson on the elbow with one out, then saw Juan Lagares single on the first pitch of his at-bat and David Wright homer in the first pitch of his. Wright's victim was an 82 mile per hour changeup and he got every piece he needed of it.

"This game is a game of adjustments, and they adjusted quite well to Gio today," manager Dusty Baker said.

Wright's homer was one of three Gonzalez allowed in Monday's 7-1 Nats loss, a setback that tied the season series at 2-2. Yoenis Cespedes and Neil Walker also launched back-to-back bombs in the fifth inning.

It was the first time since July of 2009 that Gonzalez allowed at least seven earned runs and three homers in a single game. He hadn't allowed three homers since July of 2011 and had surrendered just three total in his previous eight starts of 2016.

"I just left pitches up. That was it. Just one of those nights," the lefty said. "They saw a pitch up and they were making contact… they were hitters being aggressive first pitch, got hits, and then they started being patient."

Baker went back to the changes the Mets made from game to game in their second look at Gio and within Monday's loss itself.

"They smell blood in the water," he said. "The adjustments, they happen so fast, in baseball like, you go to the bathroom and come back and they got five runs. It turns into a feeding frenzy."

Much will be made about Gonzalez working with catcher Wilson Ramos for the first time this season. Though the difference in his career numbers with Ramos as opposed to Jose Lobaton are negligible, it was still the first time Gonzalez and Ramos have formed a battery this year. The Mets, some may argue, aren't an easy team to get experimental against.

"It was the first time. I’m not going to judge him off one game. He’s a great catcher. Like I said, it was just unfortunate," Gonzalez said.

Gio, who saw his season ERA go from 1.86 to 2.87 all in a five inning span on Monday, instead turned the blame towards himself.

"I was flat today. It was just one of those games. I take this one on me. He did everything right as part of calling the game. If I executed pitches I wanted and bring it down with more movement, different game," he said.