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Nats in April: Encouragingdiscouraging

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Nats in April: Encouragingdiscouraging

After a rough trip out west that ended with four consecutive losses to the Padres and Dodgers, the Nationals are enjoying a much-needed day of rest. So let's use this off-day, as well as the fact it's the final day of the month, to take a look at both the encouraging and discouraging developments of the season to date...

ENCOURAGING: The Nationals rotation has been, plain and simple, awesome. We're running out of superlatives to describe this group of starters, so let's just run through the stats. The rotation's collective ERA now stands at 1.78 (the Cardinals rank second in the majors at 2.57). Opponents are hitting .186 against Nationals starters. They rank second in the league with 129 strikeouts while issuing the second-fewest walks in the league (32). In 16 of 22 games to date, Nationals starters have surrendered zero or one earned run.

DISCOURAGING: Despite all those sparkling numbers, the Nationals' rotation has a collective record of 8-4. That's what happens when you've got a weak lineup and a bullpen that has blown four saves.

ENCOURAGING: Adam LaRoche just completed the best April of his career. The notorious slow starter has been the Nationals' most-productive and most-consistent player so far and enters May with a .329 average, a .415 on-base percentage, a .549 slugging percentage and a .964 OPS that ranks sixth among all qualifying hitters in the National League. Oh, and for those wondering, Prince Fielder's OPS right now is a pedestrian .832.

DISCOURAGING: With Michael Morse out since Opening Day with a strained lat muscle, the Nationals have received virtually zero production out of left field. Their combined stats from that position: a .111 average, .215 on-base percentage and .148 slugging percentage. Bryce Harper may struggle at times in his first taste of the big leagues, but he can't put up worse numbers than that, right?

ENCOURAGING: Remember when the Nationals were far and away the majors' worst-fielding club? Not anymore. They've committed only 11 errors in 22 games, tied with the Phillies and Cardinals for the fewest in the NL. If they handed out Gold Glove awards today, no fewer than five Nats would get serious consideration: LaRoche, Ryan Zimmerman, Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Rick Ankiel.

DISCOURAGING: The defensive play has not been as crisp behind the plate, where Wilson Ramos has struggled. Ramos has had a difficult time holding onto throws from the outfield, he's had trouble preventing wild pitches from reaching the backstop and he's only thrown out 1 of 13 base stealers. That's in stark contrast to a year ago, when he gunned down an impressive 32 percent of runners.

ENCOURAGING: They don't get a lot of attention, but relievers Craig Stammen and Sean Burnett have been outstanding so far this season. Stammen has really taken to his first prolonged stint in the bullpen and boasts an 0.84 ERA, plus 12 strikeouts in 10 23 innings. Burnett, meanwhile, has picked up where he left off at the end of 2011. He's yet to allow a run and has put up a stellar 10-to-2 strikeout-to-walk ratio. The lefty has also stranded five of six inherited runners.

DISCOURAGING: As good as the pitching staff has been overall, the Nationals face a potentially tenuous situation in the ninth inning moving forward. Drew Storen had a bone chip removed from his right elbow and won't be ready to return until midsummer. Brad Lidge blew two of four save opportunities and now is on the DL with an abdominal strain. And Henry Rodriguez, who was brilliant for much of April, suffered a meltdown of epic proportions Saturday night in Los Angeles. The Nationals desperately need H-Rod to get back on track, because they're running out of viable options to pitch the ninth inning.

ENCOURAGING: The Nationals end April with a 14-8 record and share first place in the NL East with the Braves. Their .636 winning percentage represented their second-best month of baseball since arriving in Washington, bested only by the 20-6 (.769 winning percentage) mark the Nats produced in June 2005.

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Nats ride Gonzalez, bats to 8-5 victory over the Rockies

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USA TODAY Sports

Nats ride Gonzalez, bats to 8-5 victory over the Rockies

Postgame analysis of the Nats' 8-5 win over the Colorado Rockies on Friday night at Nationals Park.

How it happened: The Nationals have quickly gotten the sour taste of their recent four-game skid out of their mouths.

Thanks to a resurgent offense and a quality start by Gio Gonzalez, Washington got back on track with Friday’s 8-2 win over the Rockies, the Nats’ second win in as many days.

True to form, the power-laden lineup didn’t take long to strike. Jayson Werth launched a solo home run, his second in as many days and his 18th of the season, to put Washington up 1-0 in the first inning, and scored again in the third on an RBI groundout by Daniel Murphy.

With the game tied 2-2 in the fourth inning, the Nats wouldn’t create breathing room until the middle innings. The Nats took a lead they wouldn’t surrender when they scored two runs on a Jose Lobaton fielder’s choice in the fourth inning, followed by a Murphy solo home run in the fifth to make it 4-2.

From there, the game was blown open in the seventh inning thanks to a four-spot that was highlighted by an RBI double by Werth and a two-run triple by Bryce Harper that nearly left the ballpark.

The Rockies closed the gap to 8-5 on a Nick Hundley three-run home run in the ninth off Shawn Kelley, so Dusty Baker turned to Mark Melancon to notch the final out and secure the victory.  

What it means: The Nats have won back to back games and have raised their record to 75-53. Pending the result of the Miami Marlins game, Washington could be up nine games in the NL East by the end of the night.

Gonzalez notches win No. 100: The lefty starter wasn’t dominant by any means, but he did what Baker wanted him to do: keep his pitch count down and avoid the big inning. Gonzalez allowed two earned runs on four hits over six innings and 85 pitches, and limited the damage every time the Rockies were threatening. He could have easily gone deeper in the game, but Baker opted to pinch hit for him when the Nats had two on and two out in the bottom of the sixth. Regardless, the performance was good enough to earn Gonzalez the 100th victory of his career. 

Murphy’s milestone: With his 25th home run of the season, a fifth-inning solo shot, Murphy notched his 500th career RBI. It’s a remarkable achievement considering that he currently has 98 RBI on the season, which means roughly a fifth of the runs he’s driven in have come in 2016.

Bryce back? Don’t look now, but Harper is looking very much like the reigning NL MVP these days. He added two more extra-base hits Friday night, including his first triple of the season, and is now hitting an even .400 since his return from a neck injury. His season average has suddenly risen to .254, and with the way he’s going, could get to .260 by the end of the weekend.

Up next: The middle game of this three-game set will take place Saturday afternoon at 1:05 p.m. as the Nats send A.J. Cole (0-1, 5.14 ERA) to oppose Jorge De La Rosa (8-7, 5.07 ERA).

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Frank Howard on Ring of Honor, Bryce Harper and a potential Nats World Series

Frank Howard on Ring of Honor, Bryce Harper and a potential Nats World Series

Friday night wasn't the first time the Nationals paid tribute to Senators slugger Frank Howard. After all, it’s his likeness that is featured in one of the few statues outside of Nats Park. 

But it wasn't until a recent change in the team’s Ring of Honor criteria — which now allows for any pre-Nats/Expos D.C. great to be inducted — that Howard became eligible for recognition by the franchise.  

 “It’s a real thrill for me, it really is,” said Howard, 80, before Friday’s game against the Colorado Rockies. “It’s nice when somebody says ‘Welcome to the Ring of Honor.’”

For many longtime D.C. sports fans, Howard is one of the few vestiges of the city’s last baseball team before a 34-year gap without the game. He had his best years as a member of the Senators from 1965 to 1971, hitting 237 home runs — the most any player representing D.C. has ever hit.

On Friday, Howard didn’t delve too much into his past, instead praising the current state of D.C.’s baseball team.

“They’re not a young organization anymore,” Howard said of the Nats. “They wanted to create their own image and they should. They’ve done a beautiful job, from top to bottom.”

Howard’s impact on the game went beyond the nation’s capital. Nats manager Dusty Baker said that when he was growing up, his brother would emulate Howard, who began his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers.

“As a kid, his name was big Frank Howard, or ‘Hondo.’,” Baker recalled. “We’re playing games in the back yard and my brother was Frank Howard, and I was Tommy Davis.”

Baker would get to meet and interact with Howard over the years, calling him “the most gentle giant of a man I know.” Howard returned the favor with a few compliments of his own.  

“Dusty Baker is a quality big league player, quality big league manager,” he said. "Knows the game from A to Z and back to Z to A. He’s been very successful.”

And of course, talking to any D.C. baseball great means getting their opinion on the reigning NL MVP, Bryce Harper.

“He haven’t even begun to scratch the surface,” Howard said of the 23-year-old right fielder. “His next 10 years should be dynamite years.”

As great as Howard was for the Senators, the teams he played for in D.C. were rarely considered World Series contenders. This Nats club, on the other hand, represents a perennial threat to win it all, something Howard hopes the team will make good on someday. 

“I think it’d be great for the area,” he said. “We’ve got great fans here, and to give them a world championship ball club would be a real thrill.”

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Gonzalez takes the mound as the Nats kick off weekend set vs. Rockies

Gonzalez takes the mound as the Nats kick off weekend set vs. Rockies

Nats (74-53) vs. Rockies (60-67) at Nationals Park

The Nationals will look to make it back-to-back wins Friday night as they host the Colorado Rockies for the first of a three-game weekend set. Washington will send Gio Gonzalez (8-9, 4.30 ERA) to the mound to oppose rookie right hander Jeff Hoffman (0-1, 13.50 ERA). 

The last time these two clubs met, the Nats dropped two of three in Colorado, as they were overwhelmed by the Rockies' power-laden lineup. Dusty Baker and company will hope to fare better this time around in the friendly confines of Nats Park.  

Speaking of Baker, his lineup will be without Wilson Ramos for the second straight day. The Nats' skipper explained before Friday's game that his catcher is fine, and that the move is to simply give him an additional day of rest. Jose Lobaton, who called Thursday night's shutout against the Orioles, will be back in there and batting eighth. Other than that, it's the typical lineup. 

First pitch: 7:05 p.m.
TV: MASN 2
Radio: 106.7 The Fan
Starting pitchers: Nats - Gio Gonzalez vs. Rockies - Jeff Hoffman

NATS

CF Trea Turner
LF Jayson Werth
2B Daniel Murphy
RF Bryce Harper
3B Anthony Rendon
1B Ryan Zimmerman
SS Danny Espinosa
C Jose Lobaton
LHP Gio Gonzalez

ROCKIES

CF Charlie Blackmon
1B Stephen Cardullo 
3B Nolan Arenado
RF Carlos Gonzalez
LF Ryan Raburn
C Nick Hundley
2B Daniel Descalso 
SS Cristhian Adames
RHP Jeff Hoffman